by Harry K. Wells

FOR a number of years I studied with Professor Whitehead at Harvard University, and, like so many of his students, was strongly influenced by his philosophy of organism as well as by his completely charming and ingenuous personality. But there was one aspect of his teaching which always bothered me—namely, his appeal to speculative cosmology. By "speculative cosmology'' I here mean philosophy employed to build a universal system in the form of a creation myth which of necessity must deal in concepts that are not disprovable. For some time I thought that his natural philosophy could be separated from his speculative cosmology, that the latter was merely a superstructure erected over the former and could be mechanically removed as an unnecessary appendage.

However, a rather intensive chronological examination, undertaken in the course of the past year, has finally convinced me that my original contention does not correspond to the facts; that, indeed, the reverse is more nearly true: that Whitehead's speculative cosmology is implied in and required by his philosophy of nature. The two are not mechanically but rather organically related, and no amount of surgery, however skillful, can disengage the natural philosophy from the speculative system.

I came to this conclusion only after the discovery that Whitehead's method was in absolute opposition to the content on which he employed it. It was his uncritical acceptance of traditional method which led him to posit a dualism in nature in the form of "events" and "objects"; and it was this dualism in his natural philosophy which implied and required a speculative resolution. In an attempt to examine the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, and above all in an attempt to examine his method, it is important to keep in mind the fact that he came to the field of


philosophy from a background of mathematics and mathematical physics. His work in these fields posed a problem which was to be of major concern to him in the second half of his life. The twentieth-century revolution in physics had replaced the old mechanical materialist categories of explanation—such as substance, structure, absolute space and time, motion as change of place, and indestructable atoms in external. relation—with such new categories as process, internal interconnection, fields of force, and radiant energy. Whitehead felt that a thorough critique of the old categories was an imperative step toward the development of a new foundation for physics. He turned to philosophy in order to carry out this task.

An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and The Concept of Nature (1920) constitute his attempt both to criticize the Newtonian synthesis and to establish a foundation for the new physics which would be an adequate philosophy of nature. Now the fundamental category of the new physics is process, whereas its counterpart in the old physics is substance. In attempting to work out a foundation for the new physics, Whitehead employed a method which was suitable rather to Newtonian physics. It was the use of this traditional method which was instrumental in impelling him to create a speculative cosmology.

Anyone familiar with the logistic school of mathematics, from Leibniz to Frege, Peano, Russell, and Whitehead, will not be surprised to find that the latter bases philosophic method on the traditional laws of thought. In a contribution to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Whitehead says that mathematics is the "science concerned with the logical deduction of consequences from the general premises of all reasoning." This is an obvious paraphrasing of the famous statement of Leibniz that "the great foundation of mathematics is the principle of contradiction or identity, that is, that a proposition cannot be true and false at the same time; and that therefore A is A, and cannot be not A." Whitehead carries over these "general premises of all reasoning" from his work in mathematics into his philosophical works.

Whitehead based method on what he called "logical harmony"


namely, on the traditional principles of identity and non-contradiction. Such a method is eminently suited to a world conceived to be composed of static entities, whether the entities be eternal ideas, bits of matter, or God-created eternal atoms. In such cases to base method on identity and non-contradiction involves no absolute opposition. Both method and the world view are then based on the same principles. But if the world is characterizcd by process, then all things are in the process of becoming and are not self-identical. They are, at the simplest level, both what they were and what they are becoming.

fit attempting to deal with process by rooting method in principles of identity and non-contradiction, Whitehead was attempting the well-nigh impossible. It is little wonder that he was impelled to call on God, eternal objects and pre-established harmony. In short, his speculative cosmology is implied in his philosophy of nature because the method employed in the latter is unequal to the task. He was attempting to employ a method designed to deal with a static content on the dynamic world presented by contemporary physics.

The irony of it is that, with all his bitterness against Aristotle for misleading the course of European thought, and in the first place Newton, the Peripatetic philosopher has his revenge. Whitehead himself was taken in. But for Plato and Aristotle, as well as for Newton, the method based on the principles of identity and non-contradiction was more or less suitable and adequate to the content on which they employed it. Whitehead, not Newton, was the one who, along with many of his contemporaries, was misled.

Whitehead once wrote that "in formal logic, a contradiction is a signal of a defeat: but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress towards a victory." The absolute opposition, or "contradiction," between Whitehead's method and the content on which he attempted to apply it can, itself, be a "step in progress towards a victory.'' The lesson to be learned is that method must be brought into line with content: that a method must be developed which will be adequate to deal with process in its own terms—that is, without attempting to find something


static, eternal, and unchanging. This does not mean that there cannot be relative permanences in the form of laws of nature and of thought. But it does mean that such relative permanences must be developed as functional structures within process, not standing over and above it in the form of mechanisms by means of which to rescue traditional method from bankruptcy.

Whitehead himself might have been led to recognize the contradiction between traditional method and process had he gone to Hegel's criticism of formal logic in The Science of Logic or the Logic of the Encyclopedia. Recognizing the difficulty, he might have been led further, perhaps partly through Hegel, to develop a new method.

Whereas Whitehead was in fact influenced by Hegel, though second hand through Bradley, J. B. Haldane, and McTaggart, it was by Hegel's system rather than his method. However, Whitehead should have gone directly to Hegel, himself. Had he done so, he might at least have been stimulated to question the presuppositions of the traditional method. Not having been so stimulated, Whitehead had the task of dealing with process through the formal logical method. He could not, therefore, succeed in developing an adequate philosophy of nature as process. By an adequate philosophy of nature, I mean, inter alia, one which does not imply or require a deus ex machina, a speculative cosmology.

It is most certainly not the case that only by reading Hegel could Whitehead have developed an adequate philosophy of nature. He, however, could have developed an adequate philosophy of nature as process only by ridding himself of the presupposition of "logical harmony" as identical with method. One way in which he might have done this is by going directly to Hegel rather than to the neo-Hegelians. In the latter the system of absolute idealism is adopted, while the method employed by Hegel is repudiated. In a sense the neo-Hegelians were correct. There was a basic contradiction in Hegel between the system and the method. To resolve this absolute opposition it was necessary to accept one of the two arid reject the other. But it is the method, not the system, which is rich in suggestions for modern philosophy.


Further, I am not concerned with the problem, primarily historical or generic, of Hegel's influence on Whitehead. That is another matter, and one which requires investigation. But I would like briefly to refer to Whitehead's remarks, in various of his published works, regarding Hegel.

In his "Autobiographical Notes" (1941), Whitehead, with his usual candor, states flatly: "I have never been able to read Hegel''; and he goes on to say: "I initiated an attempt by studying some remarks of his on mathematics which struck me as complete nonsense." Then he adds significantly: "It was foolish of me, but I am not writing to explain my good sense."

Earlier, in 1932, in a little essay entitled "Process and Reality" (not to be confused with the book of the same title) Whitehead makes a more extended reference in which he repeats the fact that he had read no more than one page of Hegel, states some of the reasons for this omission, and admits that, nevertheless, he was influenced by him:

I said very little in my book Process and Reality about Hegel for a very good reason. You remember that the greater part of my professional life was passed as a mathematician, lecturing and teaching mathematics, and a great deal of the rest has been devoted to the elaboration of symbolic logic. So you will not be surprised when I confess to you that the amount of philosophy I have not read passes all telling, and that as a matter of fact I have never read a page of Hegel. That is not true. I remember when I was staying with Haldane at Cloan I read one page of Hegel. I was an intimate friend of McTaggart almost from the very first day he came to the University, and saw him for a few minutes almost daily, and I had many a chat with Lord Haldane about his Hegelian point of view, and I have read books about Hegel. But lack of first-hand acquaintance is a very good reason for not endeavoring in print to display any knowledge of Hegel.

In the Preface to the book Process and Reality (1929), Whitehead refers to Bradley and notes the similarity of the final outcome of his own philosophy to "some main doctrines of Absolute Idealism":


The fifth part of Process and Reality is concerned with the final interpretation of the ultimate way in which the cosmological problem is to be conceived. It answers the question, What does it all come to? In this part, the approximation to Bradley is evident. Indeed, if this cosmology be deemed successful, it becomes natural at this point to ask whether the type of thought involved be not a transformation of some of the main doctrines of Absolute Idealism onto a realistic basis.

At the end of chapter vii of Process and Reality, Whitehead spells out this ultimate similarity between his system and that of Hegel:

It is now evident that the final analogy to philosophies of the Hegelian school, noted in the Preface, is not accidental. The universe is at once the multiplicity of res verae and the solidarity of res verae. The solidarity is itself the efficiency of the microscopic res vera, embodying the principle of unbounded permanence acquiring novelty through flux. The multiplicity is composed of microscopic res verae, each embodying the principle of bounded flux acquiring "everlasting" permanence. On one side, the one becomes many; and on the other side, the many become one. But what becomes is always a res vera, and the concrescence of a res vera is the development of a subjective aim. This development is nothing else than the Hegelian development of an idea.

Whitehead sums up this analogy of his system with that of Hegel by adding that "cosmological story, in every part and in every chapter, relates the interplay of the static vision and the dynamic history."

From the above references to Hegel, four conclusions may be drawn: one, that Whitehead did not go directly to Hegel, whom he did not read with the exception of the unfortunate experience of one page; two, that by his own admission he was indirectly influenced by Hegel; three, that it was not the method but the system of Hegel which, through the neo-Hegelians and notably Bradley, influenced his thinking; and four, that, at least in his own


estimation, the final outcome of his philosophy is analogous to the Hegelian School of Absolute Idealism.

However, for the purpose at hand, it is not important to establish in detail the conclusions noted above. They merely set the stage for the main body of the argument. The latter can be summed up as follows:

That Whitehead's speculative cosmology is implied in and required by his philosophy of nature; that it was his acceptance of traditional method which led him to establish a dualism of "events" and "objects" which in turn led him to appeal to a deus ex machina in the form of a principle of relevance of the eternal world to the world of process; that had he gone directly to Hegel's works on logic he might have been made aware of his difficulty and, thereby, might have taken "the first step in progress towards a victory"—namely, he might have gone on to develop a method adequate to deal with process in its own terms; that to deal with process in its own terms would have meant an attempt to discover a functional structure within, rather than in absolute and eternal "reality" without, process.

The single reference, known to the writer, which remotely deals with this subject, is the paper, "Organic Categories in Whitehead," by Gregory Vlastos. In this paper, Dr. Vlastos asks the question: ''Why is it then that Whitehead, building on the cornerstone of internal relatedness, should take no notice of the Hegelian dialectic?" He goes on to answer his own question by pointing out that, whereas Hegel employs the dialectic in a "homogeneous idealism," Whitehead is precluded from its use by his "heterogeneous antithesis'' of the "physical" and the "conceptual," or the "material" and the "ideal."

Without going into the matter in detail, it may help elucidate the thesis I am advancing to indicate a basic disagreement with Dr. Vlastos. It seems to me that he has the cart before the horse. It is not the "heterogeneous antithesis" of physical and conceptual which precludes Whitehead from employing the dialectic. On the contrary, it is precisely his failure to employ the dialectic—namely, a method adequate to deal with process in its own terms—which


impels him to develop a heterogeneous antithesis between the physical and the conceptual, and leads him to the invention of a speculative cosmology as a rationale for a static or non-dialectical conception of method.

The ten chapters comprising this examination of Whitehead's philosophical method divide logically into three parts: Part I deals with his natural philosophy; Part II with traditional method, together with Whitehead's interpretation of it and Hegel's criticism of and alternative to it; Part III with the Whiteheadian cosmological system. Of the three parts, the first is the most important for grasping the central problem raised by Whitehead; the second, while not offering any solution, may perhaps indicate a general direction in which one might be be found; the third serves to dramatize the lengths to which a philosopher may be impelled when, in dealing with process, he uncritically accepts the traditional method.

In Part 1, reference is made primarily to two works: An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge and The Concept of Nature. In addition reference is made to other books and papers published prior to 1925, the year in which Science and the Modern World appeared in print. The latter marks his first major resort to speculative cosmology. Only incidental reference is made to the various treatises and papers on mathematics which comprise the bulk of Whitehead's work before 1919. Chronologically, therefore, Part I is concerned essentially with the two works that appeared in the years 1919 and 1920.

Of these two books Whitehead says: "This volume on 'the Concept of Nature' forms a companion book to my previous work An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. Either book can be read independently, but they supplement each other." He adds the judgment that "I am not conscious that I have in any way altered my views." Speaking of the difference between the Enquiry and The Concept of Nature, he says in the Preface to the latter: "On the whole, whereas the former work based itself chiefly on ideas directly drawn from mathematical physics, the present book keeps closer to certain fields of philoso-


phy and physics to the exclusion of mathematics." Of the two books together he states that "the object of the present volume and its predecessor is to lay the basis of a natural philosophy which is the necessary presupposition of a reorganized speculative physics."

In the Preface to the Enquiry Whitehead makes it clear that in developing his natural philosophy he is not concerned with metaphysical problems. He states that "we are concerned only with Nature, that is, with the object of perceptual knowledge, and not with the synthesis of the knower and the known," and he adds that "this distinction is exactly that which separates natural philosophy from metaphysics." In spite of this distinction between nature and metaphysics, Whitehead's natural philosophy does imply and require his speculative cosmology. To show that this is the case I limit myself, in Part I, to the two books in which he explicitly states that he is not dealing with metaphysics, but with nature.

After the discussion of method in Part II, Whitehead's cosmological system is dealt with in Part III. The central problem of this system is to work out a basis of coordination between the two sides of nature. The problem, reduced to its simplest terms, is: How has the realm of eternal objects relevance for the creative advance of nature, that is, for events?

In this connection three works are of particular importance: Science in the Modern World (1925), Process and Reality (1929), and Adventures of Ideas (1933). Other books are relevant also, for example, The Function of Reason (1929), Symbol' ism (1927), The Aims of Education (1929), Modes of Thought (1938), and Religion in the Making (1926). But the three works constitute the definitive statement of his system. Of them he says: "The three books . . . are an endeavor to express a way of understanding the nature of things, and to point out how that way of understanding is illustrated by a survey of the mutations of human experience. Each book can be read separately, but they supplement each other's omissions or compressions."

There are, then, five major works which together comprise


Whitehead's essential philosophical contribution—two on natural philosophy, three on speculative cosmology. This is not to say that he does not carry forward into his later works his attempt to develop natural philosophy. He does; but he does it always with the total system in mind. There are changes in the natural philosophy in the later works, but the essential features are retained.


IN the writing of this book I have become indebted to many friends who have helped me with their criticism. In particular I wish to express my appreciation of the patient help of the faculty members, of the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University, including Professors Edman, Friess, Schneider, Buchler, Guttman, and especially Professor John Herman Randall, Jr., who guided the work in progress. In addition I wish to express appreciation to my colleagues, Dr. Howard Selsam and the faculty members of the Philosophy Department of the Jefferson School of Social Science. Finally, as a veteran studying under the G.I. Bill, I am happy to express my heartfelt appreciation to my wife, Joan Wells, whose work made possible both the study and the writing of this book.

The Cambridge University Press, The Macmillan Company, The Princeton University Press, The University of Chicago Press, and Northwestern University Press have graciously granted me permission to quote from books published by them.

H. K. W.

New York City
January, 1950

SOURCE: Wells, Harry K. Process and Unreality: A Criticism of Method in Whitehead's Philosophy. New York: King's Crown Press, 1950. (Published also as thesis, Columbia University.) Preface: pp. v-xiv. (Note: footnotes are not included here.)

Historical Origins of the Logic of Classification and the Logic of Genesis by Harry K. Wells

Harry Wells on the History of Logic by Ralph Dumain

American Philosophy Study Guide

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides
My Writings
| Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Sign Registry View Registry

Uploaded 1 June 2002

Site ©1999-2003 Ralph Dumain