In 2007, Colin Wilson wrote an article for Philosophy Now called, Whitehead as Existentialist. According to Wilson, Alfred North Whitehead was an existentialist. Even if his philosophy is not blatantly existentialist, like Nietzsche’s or Kierkegaard’s, I can understand why Wilson would think so, although what we usually think of as an existentialist is someone like Sartre or Camus, the most famous existentialists. The problem is, however, Sartre and Camus ended up believing that one is helpless against the chaos of life. Wilson writes:
The Outsider is the man who has faced chaos. If he is an abstract philosopher – like Hegel – he will try to demonstrate that chaos is not really chaos, but that underlying it is an order of which we are unaware. If he is an existentialist, he acknowledges that chaos is chaos, a denial of life – or rather, of the conditions under which life is possible. If there is nothing but life and chaos, then life is permanently helpless – as Sartre and Camus think it is. But if a rational relation can somehow exist between them, ultimate pessimism is avoided, as it must be avoided if the Outsider is to live at all.1
Wilson believes there must be a “rational relation” between chaos and life in order for one’s existentialism to be optimistic. Sartre and Camus did not find it. Few have, if any. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw did. Wilson says he is “the key figure of existentialist thought,”2 so he must have believed Shaw was one who did. What is this rational relation Wilson refers to?
One of the most important aspects Wilson discusses is Whitehead’s answer to what he called “the bifurcation of nature.” Whitehead used this term to designate modern philosophies that split reality into two separate parts, assigning to them different degrees of reality. Prior to this, a poet like Percy Bysshe Shelley was able, in his poem Mont Blanc, to express the oneness of Nature in this way:
The everlasting universe of Things
Flows through the Mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom –
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters – with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild woods, among the Mountains lone…3
Obviously, Shelley is experiencing a state of unity between mind and universe. The universe flows through his consciousness, both dark and light (he recognizes that Nature has a dark side, as well as being divine). He believes one can apprehend truth by experiencing Nature via the human imagination. Contrast this idea with what thinkers were saying “a few decades later, [when]Tennyson could express the feeling that each individual was now divided against himself, while Matthew Arnold, in Dover Beach, compared his contemporaries to people on a ‘darkling plain’, ‘where ignorant armies clash by night’?”4 The bifurcation of Nature was the death knell for the Romantic movement. Wilson comments:
. . . Why did so many of the poets and artists of the 19th century fall into depression and die tragically, or commit suicide? It all began so optimistically, with Rousseau’s conviction that the human mind was about to throw off its chains, echoed in Blake’s fragment on the French Revolution and in Wordsworth’s comment “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”. Yet by the time Shelley and Byron died in the 1820s, gloom had descended like a yellow London fog, and the age of optimism was over. . . .5
Later in the century, the zest for life even ended for the thinker who nearly solved the Outsider’s dilemma, Nietzsche, with his descent into insanity, most likely brought on by venereal disease. The nineteenth century’s turn to gloom and despair was a harbinger of doom for what would befall mankind just over a decade later.
Now, a look at an example of what brought about the bifurcation of Nature. David Hume had claimed that we have only one mode of perception; basically, all we can know for certain consists of sense impressions and ideas formed from them. All else that we know is to be doubted, such as the idea “the sun will rise tomorrow.”6 Or the non-immediate idea that we are united with the universe. This is something we are not certain of, therefore it should be doubted. Wilson comments:
David Hume’s scepticism was more devastating and serious. He argued that the only things we can know for certain are sense impressions, which make the impact of ‘presentational immediacy’ upon our minds. Compared to these, our other ‘certainties’, like what we did yesterday, are dim and vague.7
Even our memories are to be doubted! For a thinker to accept Hume’s position is decimating to the idea that one is interconnected with the universe, as the early Romantics believed.
I think Hume’s idea took some time to trickle into the minds of the Romantics, for he wrote around 1748; Shelley wrote Mont Blanc in 1816 and he still had not accepted Hume’s viewpoint, or had not assimilated its implications. He certainly knew of it, having read Hume at Oxford around 1810 or so. Supposedly, he read sixteen hours a day and only attended one lecture. But philosophical ideas sometimes (especially then) take decades to disseminate and be accepted among the intelligentsia.
Wilson claims that Whitehead rescues meaning from the philosophers of empiricism with his revolutionary approach. Instead of just one mode, he postulated two modes of perception:
Presentational Immediacy: perception of the bare facts of sense impressions, images, emotional data, and affective data
Causal Efficacy: the form of perception that unifies all the above items into a meaningful whole
The synthesis of these two Whitehead called “symbolic reference.” It corresponds to our ordinary, everyday consciousness because both modes operate in us. Wilson believes there are ways to change our symbolic reference, to tip the balance of the two modes of perception in either direction. For instance, listening to a beautiful up-tempo piece of music can totally change one’s outlook, causing one to feel happy. This is why art therapy and poetry therapy work to mitigate depression. The introduction of meaning perception breaks the banality of a lopsided emphasis on immediacy. Wilson writes, “When I am feeling low and dull, I am trapped in the mode of presentational immediacy, which is also what Sartre means by ‘nausea’ in his novel of that title.”8
Mistaken perception leads the mind into a morass of delusion. Many people commit suicide because they believe their lives are meaningless. They, like the disappointed and despairing Romantics, lose sight of the vision of meaning through an overemphasis on presentational immediacy.
Finally, Wilson sums up the valuable accomplishments of Whitehead regarding perception:
. . . in Whitehead we have a respectable philosopher in the British empirical tradition going right to the heart of the matter and declaring that our ‘meaninglessness’ is a delusion, like our conviction that the Sun goes round the Earth. Reason tells us that ‘immediacy’ is a half-truth, the other half being ‘meaningfulness’; but we find it very hard to trust reason on such a momentous issue. Yet we are all familiar with the two opposed modes of perception. There are days when I feel totally trapped in the present moment, and days when I have a curious feeling of strength and optimism, a certainty that ‘I can win’. The problem is that the two feelings tend to be mutually contradictory, like two extremely honest people each assuring me that the other is a liar.9
Whitehead’s philosophy of perception gives us a solid foundation on which to build new ways to enliven and expand our consciousness. We will examine this topic in subsequent installments.
Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.
Wilson, Colin. Whitehead As Existentialist. Philosophy Now: Issue 64, 2007. https://philosophynow.org/issues/64/Whitehead_As_Existentialist. Accessed 21 Aug. 2017.
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