Thursday, October 9, 2014

Chapter 23 - Strange Footprints: Part 6 - Alfred North Whitehead

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

The work of Russell’s Principia collaborator, the philosophical mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, also had great importance for Korzybski’s subsequent formulating. Whitehead’s synthetic metaphysical interests lay in a different direction from Russell’s focus on logical analysis, despite a common interest with Russell in mathematical foundations.(16) After Principia, Whitehead published a book of short pieces, The Organization of Thought, in 1917, and two major works, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge in 1919 and The Concept of Nature in 1920. In 1921-22, Korzybski was studying them avidly. When Whitehead’s alternative rendering of the theory of relativity, The Principle of Relativity With Applications to Physical Science, came out later in 1922, Alfred also read it carefully and with admiration. The obscurity some found in Whitehead’s later metaphysics seemed somewhat less in evidence in these books. In particular, the latter three—in which Whitehead still very much involved himself with mathematical and scientific issues—had a marked influence on the development of Korzybski’s work.(17) Whitehead could at times write beautiful, clear, crisp prose. His focus on the philosophy of science combined with his broad humanism appealed to Korzybski, as well. Even Whitehead’s interest in speculative philosophy was not entirely foreign to Korzybski’s goals. 
Alfred North Whitehead (circa 1910), 
from Bertrand Russell's Wisdom of the West

In his later book Process and Reality, Whitehead defined speculative philosophy as “the endeavor to form a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas, in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.”(18) It was becoming quite clear to Alfred that humans willy-nilly interpret their experience in terms of one or another system of general ideas. People constantly make assumptions about the nature of causality, reality, experience, etc., which they express in their everyday speech. If they are going to do this anyway, then why not do it as consciously, coherently, and as much as possible in keeping with the most accurate view of the world given by science at that date? In Manhood he had looked at some of the major ideas about humankind by which people ultimately interpret their experiences of themselves and their fellow humans. He had tried to show how the definition of ‘man’ accepted by a man could determine to a significant extent how the man saw himself and his possibilities for action. Now he was studying not just human nature but Nature as a whole. The general principles by which humans understood that broader Nature also affected what they could see and do. Could one expect people to adequately adjust to the actual world by means of an out-of-date view of the world? 

In studying relativity, etc.—a product of some of the best of human time-binding efforts up to 1921–22—Alfred could see there were principles operating, broader than any particular type of logic. A new system of principles defined a new scientifically-based worldview and Whitehead was in the forefront of enunciating it. In it, the substantialness of things had dissolved. Neither ‘space’, ‘time’, or ‘matter’ were absolutes. ‘Things’ had lost their ultimate ‘thinginess’. As Einstein and Minkowski had shown, the ultimate ‘thing’ was not ‘matter’, ‘space’, or ‘time’ separately but some kind of agglomeration of all three. Not ‘things’ but events, happenings, process appeared as ultimate, and these notions in turn could be expressed in terms of the foundational mathematical-logical notions of structure, order and relation. As Whitehead wrote in The Concept of Nature, “Nature is a process.”(19) 

Whitehead had said at the beginning of that book, “…it is possible to think of nature in conjunction with thought about the fact that nature is thought about.”(20) Whitehead was doing that. Buried within Whitehead’s books Alfred had found a “physico-mathematical theory of events and of objects”, a theory about nature that took into consideration how nature was thought about. The sheer density of this effort seemed at least partly responsible for the obscurity of Whitehead’s theory. Alfred had to work to pull it out.

The theory had something to do with Whitehead’s battle against what he called “the bifurcation of nature”. In principle, he rejected the dualistic notion of two entirely different realms of ‘reality’, one realm “the nature apprehended in awareness…[which included] the greenness of trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet” and another realm “the nature which is the cause of awareness…the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature.”(21) But how to explain the relation between these two versions of nature? Korzybski was beginning to understand the two systems as different, interrelated dimensions emerging out of the process of human knowing—the process of how we come to know what we think we know. It seemed essential for him to understand this process better in order to understand the mechanism of time-binding.

Whitehead had hinted that the process of human knowledge involved a process of abstraction. The concepts of time and space were, he had said, “…abstractions from more concrete elements of nature, namely, from events. The discussion of the process of abstraction will exhibit time and space as interconnected,...”.(22) There was something important here but Whitehead’s use of terminology seemed confusing. Whitehead seemed to be using the terms “abstract” and “concrete” in the traditional philosophical sense of conceptual generality. But then again he seemed to use the term “abstraction” somewhat more broadly. It seemed Whitehead was ‘flying over’ some of the most important issues that Korzybski was concerned with, taking clear sight of them, and then getting lost—at least losing Korzybski—in a cloud of unclear terminology. If the understanding of Whitehead’s ‘event’ resulted from a process of many years of scientific formulating culminating in the theory of relativity, didn’t the notion of “event” also have to be understood as an abstraction? And if so, how could it be considered ‘concrete’? The linguistic usage here seemed bound to lead to confusion.(23) 

Relatedly, with the terminology of “events” and “objects”, Whitehead had made what seemed like a useful distinction to Korzybski. The underlying event world related to the postulated physical world of molecules and electrons and whatnot, a relativistic space-time world according to the newest understandings of science. Then there were the recognizable objects of the phenomenal world as one experienced it. As Whitehead put it, “…You cannot recognize an event; because when it is gone, it is gone.…But a character of an event can be recognized. …Things which we thus recognize I call objects.”(24) Yes,…but something seemed wrong with Whitehead’s discussion: professing that we live in a world of process, rejecting in principle the bifurcation of nature into disconnected metaphysical realms, Whitehead continued bifurcating nature in practice, writing as if the phenomenal objects we recognize don’t relate to the process world at all. For example, he had written:
...An object is an entity of a different type from an event. For example, the event which is the life of nature within the Great Pyramid yesterday and to-day is divisible into two pairs, namely the Great Pyramid yesterday and the Great Pyramid to-day. But the recognisable object which is also called the Great Pyramid is the same object to-day as it was yesterday....[W]e have no language to distinguish the event from the object. In the case of the Great Pyramid, the object is the perceived unit entity which as perceived remains self-identical throughout the ages; while the whole dance of molecules and the shifting play of the electromagnetic field are ingredients of the event....(25) 

Alfred had not been to Egypt to observe the Great Pyramid in person. But he had seen the ancient monuments of Rome, recognizable objects which given long enough spans of time had certainly not remained the same in all respects. Did it make sense to talk about them as “self-identical throughout the ages”? Descriptions of the Coliseum from classical times did not describe the visible ruins he’d observed. And in the war, he’d seen long-standing structures, old churches, etc., that—however recognizable from before—any observer could see had not remained exactly ‘the same object’, after, say, a momentary artillery barrage. The fact that many objects did appear recognizably the ‘same’ and ‘self-identical’ simply meant changes resulting from their event character hadn’t yet been registered by an observer. Accepting Whitehead’s vision of the creative passage of nature, the terms “event” and “object” clearly referred to different dimensions of one process world. There seemed no inherent reason for supposing one couldn’t find some language to distinguish these dimensions while still indicating the process character of everyday experience. The old philosophical terminology used by Whitehead wouldn’t do.

After Principia, the work of Whitehead and Russell had diverged. Still, it seemed to Korzybski that what he called “Whitehead’s physico-mathematical theory of events and objects” could be related to Russell’s theory of types and analysis of language. Neither Whitehead nor Russell had addressed how their separate work connected. Neither man had shown much of the applicability of mathematical philosophy to living life. In order to show that applicability, it seemed clear to Korzybski he was also going to have to work out some of the theoretical issues as to how the work of the two men connected.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
16. As Whyte put it :
Whitehead...had a rich sense of the role of the religious, aesthetic, and moral elements in human experience. Indeed I think that it is fair to say that most of his energies from 1910 to his death in 1947 were devoted to the attempt to bring his mathematical and scientific knowledge into harmony with the qualities and values of personal experience. His attempt at a synthesis centered round one philosophic idea, that of the creative passage of nature, the time process which somehow transcends the apparent separation of individual entities, and carries the whole on into new forms of existence. [L. L. Whyte 1951, p. 46.]

17. AK to Harrington Emerson, 11/26/1922. AKDA 9.269. 

18. Whitehead (Process and Reality, Part I, Chapter I, Section I) in Whitehead 1961, Alfred North Whitehead: An anthology. Eds., F. S. C. Northrop and Mason W. Gross, p. 567. 

19. Whitehead (1920) 1964, p. 53. 

20. Ibid., p. 3. 

21. Ibid., p. 31. 

22. Ibid., p. 33. 

23. See Whiteheads discussion of Cleopatra’s Needle. Ibid., p. 171:
We cannot well miss Cleopatra’s Needle [a London landmark, one of a trio of ancient Egyptian obelisks standing in London, Paris and New York City], if we are in its neighborhood; but no one has seen a single molecule or a single electron, yet the characters of events are only explicable to us by expressing them in terms of these scientific objects. Undoubtedly molecules and electrons are abstractions. But then so is Cleopatra’s Needle. The concrete facts are the events themselves—I have already explained to you that to be an abstraction does not mean that an entity is nothing. It merely means that its existence is only one factor of a more concrete element of nature. 
24. Ibid., p. 169. 

25. Ibid., pp. 77–78. 

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