Wilson now turns to Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), perhaps the greatest intellectual of his era. Time will tell if he will be recognized as the greatest thinker of the twentieth century. The sublimity of his thought is unsurpassed for his day and time. The only one that comes close, perhaps, is C.G. Jung. Wilson has a high regard for Whitehead, mostly because Whitehead began his career as the “typical abstract philosopher.” He “gradually rejected ‘abstractionism’ until he became one of the broadest and most profound minds since Plato.”1 Wilson views this as the act of a man who laid aside the role of Insider, and clearly made the choice to follow the path of the Outsider. It is a true existentialist act of will.
Whitehead’s work can be organized into three different periods: mathematical, scientific, and metaphysical. We will be examining his metaphysical period because it deals with the Outsider philosophy. There is one book, however, that he wrote during his scientific period in which he proposes an important idea that will segue into his metaphysical period. Wilson describes one of Whitehead’s examples of the bifurcation of Nature:
“. . . when the scientist knocks a molecule to pieces, he does not see a molecule, but a flash of light. The same scientist will then say: ‘Yes, this is what I saw happening [the flash of light], but what really happened is. . . .’ He is making a sharp bifurcation (division) of the world into things as they really are and things as they seem.2
Whitehead opposed this splitting of Nature. He believed that Nature was a unified organism:
If we are to avoid this unfortunate bifurcation, we must construe our knowledge of the apparent world as being an individual experience of something which is more than personal. Nature is thus a totality including individual experiences, so that we must reject the distinction between nature as it really is and experiences of it which are purely psychological. Our experiences of the apparent world are nature itself.3.
This last sentence is incredible. “Our experiences of the apparent world are nature itself.” Wilson will deal with this idea later, when discussing Whitehead’s idea of prehension. For now, just remember it is very important.
Wilson mentioned Whitehead’s idea of the “bifurcation of nature” earlier in Religion and the Rebel when he stated:
The Outsider only exists because our civilisation has lost its religion. The Outsider is the result of Whitehead’s ‘bifurcation of nature,’ and Spengler’s Decline is a study of civilisation in which the Outsider has become the representative figure. The bifurcation of nature is the cause of the decline of the West.4
Whitehead’s metaphysical period began after becoming a professor at Harvard in 1924. His first book of this period is Science and the Modern World, where he immediately launches an attack on what he calls “abstract philosophy,” or logical positivism and materialism. He would continue his offensive until his death in 1947. Wilson discusses Whitehead’s primary theme of this book, which is, “the energising of a state of mind in the modern world . . . and its impact on other spiritual forces.”5 With the advent of science, it was believed we would be able to learn all the secrets of Nature, basically becoming god-like in our knowledge, and being able to control every aspect of our lives. That notion was predominant until World War I. Whitehead is writing from a postwar mentality. He has witnessed the destruction, death, and chaos wrought upon mankind. Even though science had seen some amazing achievements in its quest to unlock the secrets of Nature, it could not hold back the dogs of war from ravaging the earth. Whitehead attributes the problem to “placing too much weight on the intellect alone.” This is a “lopsided confusion.”6 Wilson writes:
He puts the problem with unexampled clarity. Scientific materialism ends with the view that there is no mind, only matter, and ‘spirit’ is an outcome of matter. Berkeley went to the other extreme , and said there was no matter, only mind. Berkeley was a bishop, and he was attempting to refute the materialistic view of the universe. The truth, Whitehead says, lies between the two. Complete materialism denies that man has any free will. It asserts that the human body and the human mind are subject to the ‘laws of nature,’ and that nature is dead. There is only one clear logical alternative: to state that nature is alive, that the human body is more alive, and that the human mind is more alive still; that life pervades the whole of nature as the ‘ether’ was once supposed to pervade the whole of space.7
Whitehead considers Nature to be a single, living body, “and all events in it as biological cells.” Rather than refer to “objects,” as we normally think of material things, Whitehead calls them “events.” This is because he views Nature as a “four-dimensional continuum.”8
Wilson asserts that Whitehead is basically saying “the poets are right, and the scientists wrong. . . . He wants to build an unassailable ‘scientific’ doctrine of nature which conforms to the insights of poets like Shelley and Wordsworth. This is the essence of his ‘philosophy of organism.'”9
Whitehead’s idea of prehension is one of hist most astounding achievements. Wilson says it is “the concept which forms his link with existentialism, and with the idea of Bildung in Goethe (and Goethe, it must be remembered, also believed that all nature is a single living organism) . . .”10 To clarify, he quotes a passage from Whitehead’s book, Modes of Thought:
. . . the notion of life implies a certain absoluteness of self-enjoyment. This must mean a certain immediate individuality, which is a complex process of appropriating into a unity of existence the many data presented as relevant by the physical processes of nature. Life implies the absolute, individual self-enjoyment arising out of this process of appropriation. I have, in my recent writings, used the word ‘prehension’ to express this process of appropriation. Also I have termed each individual act of self-enjoyment an ‘occasion of experience.’ I hold that these unities of existence, these occasions of experience, are the really real things which . . . compose the evolving universe, ever plunging into the creative advance.”11
Wilson says, “Prehension, in other words, is the act of reaching out to grasp experience.”12 Furthermore, it is “that act of the soul, reaching out like an octopus to digest its experience.”13 Of course, it is much more than this. Whitehead’s is a very complex philosophy of organism and process. I have found that a concrete example works best when trying to understand prehension. When searching for examples online, I found a very good blog that covers process philosophy written by one, Mayra Morales. The blog is called Writing Explorations and Compositions on Art, Movement and Process Philosophy. Here is the example that helped me understand prehension:
For Whitehead, the “actual world” is a “process” of “becoming” of “actual entities” (33). For the purposes of tracing Whitehead’s trajectories from one term to another, let’s consider an ‘actual entity’ becoming such. An ‘actual entity’ prehends other ‘actual entities’, in order to become it’s own actuality. In here, prehension means: “[e]ach process of appropriation of a particular . . . element of the universe out of which it arises” (Whitehead 335). In our example, skin would be an actual entity. It would also be that skin is not only skin, but that it becomes skin. Thus, skin is in a constant process of becoming skin. This is somehow understood when skin is healing from an injury. The processes of becoming skin are constantly happening even if there’s no cut, in a less emphasized manner, because it happens that it is various processes, following Whitehead’s proposition, so it is not only skin but skins. With this example, still tracing the trajectory from world to actual entities, and to prehension, we have that, in its process of becoming, the actual entity skin, prehends other ‘actual entities’. For this example let’s say that the other actual entities are: nutrients and erosion (Please feel free to use other illustrations of your own). So skin becomes skin by prehending nutrients and by also prehending wind, in this case. It also prehends other many entities but for this example let’s stick to two. We can see that every particular element that the actual entity prehends has it’s own process of prehension also. Here, the elements of the universe (nutrients) prehended by the ‘physical prehensions’ are in themselves also ‘actual entities’ becoming other ‘actual entities’ . . .14 (Quotes are from Whitehead’s Process and Reality)
As you can see, this idea of prehension can be applied to any “actual entity” in the universe. The real fascination begins when you start thinking of the prehensions involved in human consciousness and spirituality. Wilson is concerned with how prehension fits into the existentialist/Outsider framework. He says, “Prehension is the act of gaining power over experience. The only question in which existentialism is interested with regard to a human being is: Master or slave? Master of his own complexity, or the slave of it?”15 Due to mankind’s ability to “master his own chaos,” Wilson says he has a greater power of prehension. Because of this, prehension is “the most fundamental term of an existentialist philosophy.” This is due to the fact that humans mature only to a certain extent, which is mostly unconscious. If further development is desired, “a conscious effort of prehension is needed.” This is through the existentialist’s will power, or, as Nietzsche called it, “the will to power.” As a human develops and gains mastery over his chaos, he accumulates more and more prehensions, which are “actual units of his living experience.”16
Next, Wilson turns to Whitehead’s thinking on religion. He presented his views in a 1926 book entitled, Religion in the Making. According to Whitehead, “Religion is the art and the theory of the internal life of man. . . .”17 For Whitehead, religion is not a social phenomenon, it “is what the individual does with his own solitariness. . . . Thus, religion is solitariness; and if you are never solitary, you are never religious.”18
One more point I’d like to cover before I close. William James’ great work, Varieties of Religious Experience was the inspiration for Wilson’s book, The Outsider, and, of course, also Religion and the Rebel. James’ primary argument is basically this: “Man is at his most complete when his imagination is at its most intense.”19 Wilson makes an incredibly powerful statement after this, which is a clue to the immense value of Whitehead’s idea of prehension to the person concerned with self-mastery and man’s apotheosis:
Imagination is the power of prehension; without it, man would be an imbecile, without memory, without forethought, without power of interpreting what he sees and feels. The higher the form of life, the greater its power of prehension; and in man, prehension becomes a conscious faculty, which can be labelled imagination. If life is to advance yet a stage higher, beyond the ape, beyond man the toiler or even man the artist, it will be through a further development of the power of prehension. This craving for greater intensity of imagination is the religious appetite.20
There is so much more to say about the thinking of Alfred North Whitehead. I will certainly be doing other articles on him. The ground is extremely fertile and will yield an abundant harvest.
Wilson’s book has been a wondrous adventure. His thought is very valuable, as we have seen. I plan on more investigations soon. Stay tuned. Thank you for reading.
Morales, Mayra. Conceptual Prehension. Web blog post. Writing Explorations and Compositions on Art, Movement and Process Philosophy. September 8, 2014. Web. August 15, 2017.
Whitehead, Alfred North. The Principle of Relativity. Cambridge UP: London, 1922
Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. MacMillan: New York, 1925
Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.
- Religion and the Rebel, 304. ↩
- Religion and the Rebel, 307 ↩
- The Principle of Relativity, 62 ↩
- Religion and the Rebel, 99 ↩
- qtd. in Religion and the Rebel, 308 ↩
- Religion and the Rebel, 308 ↩
- Religion and the Rebel, 308-309 ↩
- Religion and the Rebel, 309 ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Religion and the Rebel, 310 ↩
- qtd. in Religion and the Rebel, 310 ↩
- Religion and the Rebel, 310 ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Writing Explorations and Compositions on Art, Movement and Process Philosophy ↩
- Religion and the Rebel, 310 ↩
- Religion and the Rebel, 311 ↩
- qtd. in Religion and the Rebel, 311 ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Religion and the Rebel, 318 ↩
- Religion and the Rebel, 318-319 ↩
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