Chapter 5: Sense Awareness in the Flow of Language and the Flow of Nature
Participating: R. B. Braithwaite, Margaret Masterman, Dorothy Emmet, Chris Clarke, Rupert Sheldrake, and Jonathan Westphal participating.
DE: In these discussions we have been seeing how the earlier Whitehead was struggling to get behind abstractions, and indeed behind ontologies, which are metaphysical abstractions, and speak as concretely as possible about our primitive experience, as given in bare sense-awareness. Of course with our propensity to interpret what is given us, we never get back just to bare sense-awareness, which could be something a unicellular organism might have. He thinks, in the nearest we can get to it, we experience nature as a flow, a "passage," and ourselves as part of this, not as thinking about it from outside. The passage of nature also contains properties which we notice in sense-awareness, and we then go on to form abstractions about these, which are perfectly legitimate for their purposes. But we need to come back from them to the underlying experience.
I tried in our second discussion to say that the passage of nature is more primitive than the ontology of events and objects into which Whitehead analyzed it. In particular, the notion of events extending over other events was an abstraction, especially when the properties of events were called "objects" thought of as quasi-Platonic ideas "ingressing" into events. When we come back to the primitive experience of the passage, we find repetitions and contrasts within it, and we fasten on these and interpret them I believe we should think of these properties as within the passage, not "ingressing" into it, so making it a rich process, and not simply a transition.
RB: This was part of the trouble about events. You can’t have transitions without having permanent objects. Transition is change in a permanent object from having one property to having another.
DE: Not necessarily permanent: continuant.
RB: Right, continuant.
MM: This continuance comes from reiteration.
DE: This is a particular kind of continuance, which is certainly there in Whitehead.
CC: What is worrying me is how one gets from bare sense-awareness to the idea of a process. How does one bring together these two? In Whitehead you have events, extended over others, and linked by reiterations.
MM: The reiteration doesn’t link events, it links patterns.
DE: I have been saying that events are abstractions, and what is concrete is the passage of nature. The grounds for thinking that this has rich properties are in what we get from direct sense-awareness. We ask, what does this give us before we start making abstractions?
MM: And then you are not obliged to make any one kind of abstraction or construction. Unless I am mistaken, all four of us want to make different abstractions, but we all come back to sense-awareness. Rupert goes back to bare sense-awareness because he needs it, if everything in nature presupposes his formative causation. Chris can say how his mathematical view of space and time comes back to bare sense-awareness. Jonty clearly comes back to it in his view of color. Language brings you up against bare sense-awareness in hearing. I am prepared to say more about this, because I think it does illustrate a Whiteheadian view, but it cuts out the Whitehead jargon. If you use this jargon everyone becomes totally confused, unless you give an enormously long lecture.
DE: I think this is where we should hear more about the language case. We didn’t do so before.
MM: Language is a flow of speech and it goes from the past to the future, and in written speech in Western languages it goes from the left hand top of the page: in Chinese, downwards from the top right hand corner. But there is a flow, just as there is in the passage of nature. In the passage of nature, as I understand it, you have rhythms, so to speak, pulsations. It doesn’t just flow on without distinction. And in language the limitations of the brain mean there is a segmentation of language, a necessary one, in spoken speech. The psychologist George Miller thought this was of the order of plus or minus seven words. Phoneticians call it a "breath group," though it is actually a hearing group, and this segments the flow. The Cambridge Language Research Unit has now got the same paragraph segmented in 25 different languages. The passage of nature, you could say, goes on in pulsations, and so does language. These segments build up into patterns. In the first instance they reiterate patterns where you don’t say exactly the same thing twice, but recapitulate it. In evolved speech these reiterations, so to speak, go underground, are superimposed on one another and get eliminated. But because of the limitations of our brain we have to keep re-capping. So the reiterative pattern of a language is matched in the reiterative character of the passage of nature. If I have understood Whitehead right, the passage of nature keeps on recapitulating, saying almost the same thing to you but never quite. So does spoken speech.
The next thing language has, on my view, is focus, structures where you have peaks of emphasis on what you think important. In Chinese the emphasis pattern determines the actual syntax. Again, Whitehead has focal points in his passage of nature. The passage of nature does not just roll on. In language these focal points are emphases which lead up to the mega-peaks which form a paragraph. After that, you can put in syntactic markers to heighten the effect.
DE: Could you say what a syntactic marker is?
MM: The best known example would be classifiers. We talk in English of a heap of sand or a sand heap, a pool or drop of water or grains of something. The classifier limits the meaning of the word it governs and makes it a kind of something. In Chinese there is an interesting classifier for a kind of activity which shows that it is a disastrous activity that happens suddenly.
The kinds of prefixes and inflections that the Aristotelian view of language presupposes aren’t necessarily required for languages at all. That view has the advantage that there are certain things you can easily say, for instance about present action, past action, continuous past action, but by doing this speech throws away its combinatorial potential for any segment or sub-segment to combine with any other. I’m not now going to argue with people who dispute this view of language. That is another ball game. What I am flying to say is that when I read Whitehead on the passage of nature, I saw that he had reiterating patterns, focuses, emphases, and I said, "This is my view of language." What I think he was saying may not be what he was saying in fact. But I had a moment of absolute illumination. "Good heavens! This is the philosophical background I have been looking for. It gets right behind the syntax-based, logic-based ways of looking at language." And of course there are languages which don’t have the subject-predicate form. The Chinese language is one in which shades of meaning can be expressed without these Western forms. I learnt Chinese, and I thought Whitehead had invited philosophers to learn Chinese as a non subject-predicate form of language. A woman philosopher, Hilda Oakeley, told me so.
DE: I don’t know any written passage where Whitehead talks about this, but Miss Oakeley was a philosophy colleague in the University of London in his time, and he may quite well have said it to her. There is a passage in the Aims of Education (1932, 104) where he says that the languages of heaven will be Chinese, Greek, French, German, Italian and English -- note, not Hebrew and Latin.
CC: Jonty, do Margaret’s thoughts about language extend beyond language to the sort of thing you want to talk about in color perception?
JW: Flow is important. I believe that perceptual constancy is at the heart of perception, and this is essentially what one might call a pattern in a flowing series, say of shapes.
CC: So there is reiteration?
JW: Well, you’re perceiving the same thing through changes in percepts.
DE: I take it that "reiteration" means there isn’t a "thing" just like that. A "thing" is thought of as a constant pattern through repetition rather than a substance or a material object in the old sense.
JW: Yes, that’s better. I think that’s right. Indeed, the pre-philosophical notion of a thing or substance, at any rate in perception, requires a basis in this sort of reiteration because it depends on constancy phenomena.
MM: We have got to separate repetition, in which something repeats exactly, from reiteration, in which the general shape repeats, and in language recapitulation, where there are synonyms. There are probably other variants of recurrent pattern in language. Where a bit is left out, second time round, you have ellipsis.
CC: You have ellipsis in perception, don’t you? Reconstructing objects for partially obscured objects. There is a signal that something is there, but the signal is different from that which is omitted.
JW: Seeing one thing emerge from behind another is an example of perceptual information where the narrow physical stimulus isn’t sufficient for perception, for example seeing someone come round a corner.
When I wrote my thesis on color some years ago I saw that purely logical requirements ruled out the identification of colors with the standard physical magnitudes; I also saw that the stimuli in the textbooks couldn’t be the right ones. Then reading Whitehead helped me to see what I wanted to say. The properties I needed were relational, and they consisted of a relation between the light, the visible scene and the observer. They were part of his environment, though not part of the world as it is described by physicalist philosophers. First we must find out what the sense organ is actually related to -- not wavelength, but changes in the light, not shape as such but constant ratio proportions, not mean molecular kinetic energy but heat loss and heat gain from the organism itself. We should study the environmental constants to which organisms are coordinated.
In this I see three points of contact with Whitehead. First, there is the role of Whitehead’ s "conformation" of present to past and anticipation of the future. Perception takes place over time. Second, his basic unit is, like mine, the organism in its environment adapting and adjusting and so fastening on constancies within ordered changes, not just in random flux. Finally the physicalist-type stimuli are rejected. They are, for perception, relatively unimportant physical happenings, which are abstracted from whole situations as given in perception, and then they are supposed to cause the perception. It seems to me that Whitehead was getting to the bottom of the wrong way of thinking which started in the perceptual sciences at the time of Newton. He’s a great catalyst. He makes one believe that there are real options besides the Newton model. I feel a certain amount of confidence that the scientific description of the functioning of the eye won’t remain as it is for long.
Another important thing that Whitehead was onto is that we do not in non-laboratory conditions start from a single factor, like an intensity meter, and react by signaling the presence of the factor by a sensation. From an evolutionary point of view it’s a good question why organisms have sensations at all. Why don’t they just react? For Whitehead seems to be saying something very modern indeed, that without exploration in the environment and movement through it there isn’t any perception. So the environment takes the place of the stimulus-plus-response. Actually it would be better to say that it’s the information which can be extracted from the environment which takes the place of the stimulus, for example, that one thing is moving behind another.
RS: Animals respond according to their overall pattern of activity to certain aspects of the environment and not to others. In another season they will respond to others. Leeches in a tropical forest sit on leaves and their front part waves about in the air like an antenna, extremely interested in infra-red radiation of heat. As soon as anything warm comes along, such as a botanist, they immediately drop off the leaves and start sucking blood. You can only distract them by applying some extremely noxious stimulus such as holding a flame to them. Then they let go. This is nothing like building up from sense-data. There is a whole pattern of response.
DE: Does your view of perception, Jonty, make it a particular case of this sort of response?
JW: Yes, absolutely. Perception is organic and environmental. Its function is to pick up what is needed in the environment. You get colors in the environment, but not in the world of physics. They exist in a complex harmony of organism, surroundings, illumination, and, above all, the activity of exploring the environment.
DE: Let’s sum up what each of you gets from Whitehead for your own concern In the case of Margaret and Jonty, reading something in Whitehead has clicked. They felt it chimed in with something they were saying. They indeed said it showed them how to develop what they wanted to say. Rupert doesn’t seem to have been sparked off by reading Whitehead, but other people have been trying to find links on his behalf.
RS: What I can say is that a holistic tradition has been a great influence on me and the kind of biology I have been doing. For instance in embryology this has in fact been an influence from Whitehead through Waddington. The main influence (e.g., on my notion of morphogenetic fields) was the idea that nature should be founded on the model of the organism and not on the model of the machine. It is this aspect of Whitehead that has influenced the sort of work I have done, not ideas about the passage of nature and space and time.
DE: I think this is important. Waddington said in various places how much he owed to Whitehead. So could you say that this has fed into what you are doing indirectly?
RS: Very much so.
DE: What does Chris get?
RB: I thought that Chris had an interesting way of producing a uniform one-dimensional time out of a statistical average. This is physics, not Whitehead, though Chris connected it with Whitehead’s wanting to construct the Special Theory of Relativity.
CC: I think I was motivated by two things. First, Whitehead’s construction of the Special Theory of Relativity from a rather distinctive use of the word "event," and secondly by his more general idea of events which related to each other without having a substratum which passed from one to the other. With regard to the first, what I want to understand in the context of what I have been talking about is the way in which one starts dividing up the contents of bare sense-awareness. To talk about it you have got to divide it up, and each of us does it in different ways. Whitehead says a consequence of dividing it up is that you have got a lot of chunks with an overlapping relation, whereas we have been looking more at the relation of similarity of pattern. Do you get "overlaps" in language and in perception? What holds the process together? Whitehead can only use "overlapping" when he has got an abstract notion of an event. So where is the flow?
MM: The passage of nature is a flow, and notoriously there is a flow in speech.
CC: I think the characteristics of flow in language are those Margaret has been drawing attention to -- this linking of parts and anticipation of the future with reiteration of the past. It is there, rather than changing properties in a substratum, which one wants to look at in saying a thing is flowing. The "parts" are more properly just points of focus in the flow.
MM: Part of what you mean by a ‘focus" is that you work up to climaxes. But the word "overlap" misleads, the word "property" misleads. These are part of metamodels of language, such as the Thesaurus model which has a mathematical structure, but this is different from bare language awareness, which is an adaptation to hearing in time.
RB: As to "the passage of time," I quoted Ronsard in a review of Eddington I wrote in 1933, "Las! le temps non, mais nous, nous en allons."
DE: That would be all right by Whitehead. The passage of nature isn’t the passage of time.
MM: Rupert, Jonty, Chris -- you are all wanting to start investigations from something more bare, more primitive, because of an intuition that what is given is not the abstractions philosophers have made of it? I have the highest opinion of the abstractions they have made of it. I was very impressed by the sense-datum theory; I still think it was very beautiful. When you abstract in different ways, new scientific possibilities emerge. But we need help from philosophers to get back to the bare givenness and then to be far more self-conscious about when we are abstracting and how we are abstracting. I thought, rightly or wrongly, that Whitehead had the intuition to go right back, even if he didn’t in the end use the bare sense-awareness he carried on about in the beginning.
DE: In these dialogues we have been extracting from the Whitehead of the early 1920’s a conception of the passage of nature as it comes to us in bare sense-awareness. We have looked at these middle period books in their own right to see whether some at any rate of the things he is saying are philosophically suggestive for people who are exploring certain ranges of facts, or looking at them in a new way. I myself started out from the later Whitehead, and I have become less and less happy about its obscurities. But I am coming increasingly to see the importance of some of what he was saying in these earlier books. I have been encouraged as a result of what has come out of these Dialogues. I think Whitehead himself would have approved of our approach; he would have said, "If you think anything I have said is fertile and could have applications, go ahead and use it." He might well have got tired of endless exegesis. He thought of philosophy as something going on, as nature and life go on, not as backward-looking commentaries on what was in books. And he started out and remained a philosopher of science.
1See his paper, "Whitehead and Modern Science" in Mind In Nature: Essays on the Interface of Science and Philosophy, edited by John B. Cobb, Jr. and David R. Griffin (University Press of America. t977, pp. 143-46).
2 "Cellular Oscillations and Development" in Towards a Theoretical Biology 2: Sketches of a Symposium of the International Union of Biological Sciences, edited by C. H. Waddington (Edinburgh University Press, 1969).
3 Passages from The Concept of Nature (1920) are quoted by permission of the Cambridge University Press,