"One of the most valuable books on the relation of philosophy and science which has appeared for many years." — The Cambridge Review
"A great contribution to Natur-philosophie, far the finest contribution . . . made by any one man. — Mind
In addition to his brilliant achievements in theoretical mathematics, Alfred North Whitehead exercised an extensive knowledge of philosophy and literature that informs and elevates all of his works. This ...

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The Concept of Nature

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"One of the most valuable books on the relation of philosophy and science which has appeared for many years." — The Cambridge Review
"A great contribution to Natur-philosophie, far the finest contribution . . . made by any one man. — Mind
In addition to his brilliant achievements in theoretical mathematics, Alfred North Whitehead exercised an extensive knowledge of philosophy and literature that informs and elevates all of his works. This book represents one of his most significant achievements in the field of natural philosophy. The Concept of Nature originated with Whitehead's Tarner Lectures, and it offers undergraduate students and other readers an absorbing exploration of the fundamental problems of substance, space, and time.
Whitehead's discussions are highlighted by a criticism of Einstein's method of interpreting results, and by his alternative development of the celebrated theory of the four-dimensional space-time manifold.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780486170299
  • Publisher: Dover Publications
  • Publication date: 12/26/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 224
  • File size: 621 KB

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The Concept of Nature

The Tarner Lectures Delivered in Trinity College, November 1919

By Alfred North Whitehead

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-17029-9



THE subject-matter of the Tarner lectures is defined by the founder to be 'the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Relations or Want of Relations between the different Departments of Knowledge.' It is fitting at the first lecture of this new foundation to dwell for a few moments on the intentions of the donor as expressed in this definition; and I do so the more willingly as I shall thereby be enabled to introduce the topics to which the present course is to be devoted.

We are justified, I think, in taking the second clause of the definition as in part explanatory of the earlier clause. What is the philosophy of the sciences? It is not a bad answer to say that it is the study of the relations between the different departments of knowledge. Then with admirable solicitude for the freedom of learning there is inserted in the definition after the word 'relations' the phrase 'or want of relations.' A disproof of relations between sciences would in itself constitute a philosophy of the sciences. But we could not dispense either with the earlier or the later clause. It is not every relation between sciences which enters into their philosophy. For example biology and physics are connected by the use of the microscope. Still, I may safely assert that a technical description of the uses of the microscope in biology is not part of the philosophy of the sciences. Again, you cannot abandon the later clause of the definition; namely that referring to the relations between the sciences, without abandoning the explicit reference to an ideal in the absence of which philosophy must languish from lack of intrinsic interest. That ideal is the attainment of some unifying concept which will set in assigned relationships within itself all that there is for knowledge, for feeling, and for emotion. That far off ideal is the motive power of philosophic research; and claims allegiance even as you expel it. The philosophic pluralist is a strict logician; the Hegelian thrives on contradictions by the help of his absolute; the Mohammedan divine bows before the creative will of Allah; and the pragmatist will swallow anything so long as it 'works.'

The mention of these vast systems and of the agelong controversies from which they spring, warns us to concentrate. Our task is the simpler one of the philosophy of the sciences. Now a science has already a certain unity which is the very reason why that body of knowledge has been instinctively recognised as forming a science. The philosophy of a science is the endeavour to express explicitly those unifying characteristics which pervade that complex of thoughts and make it to be a science. The philosophy of the sciences—conceived as one subject—is the endeavour to exhibit all sciences as one science, or—in case of defeat—the disproof of such a possibility.

Again I will make a further simplification, and confine attention to the natural sciences, that is, to the sciences whose subject-matter is nature. By postulating a common subject-matter for this group of sciences a unifying philosophy of natural science has been thereby presupposed.

What do we mean by nature? We have to discuss the philosophy of natural science. Natural science is the science of nature. But—What is nature?

Nature is that which we observe in perception through the senses. In this sense-perception we are aware of something which is not thought and which is self-contained for thought. This property of being self-contained for thought lies at the base of natural science. It means that nature can be thought of as a closed system whose mutual relations do not require the expression of the fact that they are thought about.

Thus in a sense nature is independent of thought. By this statement no metaphysical pronouncement is intended. What I mean is that we can think about nature without thinking about thought. I shall say that then we are thinking 'homogeneously' about nature.

Of course it is possible to think of nature in conjunction with thought about the fact that nature is thought about. In such a case I shall say that we are thinking 'heterogeneously' about nature. In fact during the last few minutes we have been thinking heterogeneously about nature. Natural science is exclusively concerned with homogeneous thoughts about nature.

But sense-perception has in it an element which is not thought. It is a difficult psychological question whether sense- perception involves thought; and if it does involve thought, what is the kind of thought which it necessarily involves. Note that it has been stated above that sense-perception is an awareness of something which is not thought. Namely, nature is not thought. But this is a different question, namely that the fact of sense-perception has a factor which is not thought. I call this factor 'sense-awareness.' Accordingly the doctrine that natural science is exclusively concerned with homogeneous thoughts about nature does not immediately carry with it the conclusion that natural science is not concerned with sense-awareness.

However, I do assert this further statement; namely, that though natural science is concerned with nature which is the terminus of sense-perception, it is not concerned with the sense-awareness itself.

I repeat the main line of this argument, and expand it in certain directions.

Thought about nature is different from the sense-perception of nature. Hence the fact of sense-perception has an ingredient or factor which is not thought. I call this ingredient sense-awareness. It is indifferent to my argument whether sense-perception has or has not thought as another ingredient. If sense-perception does not involve thought, then sense-awareness and sense-perception are identical. But the something perceived is perceived as an entity which is the terminus of the sense-awareness, something which for thought is beyond the fact of that sense-awareness. Also the something perceived certainly does not contain other sense-awarenesses which are different from the sense-awareness which is an ingredient in that perception. Accordingly nature as disclosed in sense-perception is self-contained as against sense-awareness, in addition to being self-contained as against thought. I will also express this self- containedness of nature by saying that nature is closed to mind.

This closure of nature does not carry with it any metaphysical doctrine of the disjunction of nature and mind. It means that in sense-perception nature is disclosed as a complex of entities whose mutual relations are expressible in thought without reference to mind, that is, without reference either to sense-awareness or to thought. Furthermore, I do not wish to be understood as implying that sense-awareness and thought are the only activities which are to be ascribed to mind. Also I am not denying that there are relations of natural entities to mind or minds other than being the termini of the sense-awarenesses of minds. Accordingly I will extend the meaning of the terms 'homogeneous thoughts' and 'heterogeneous thoughts' which have already been introduced. We are thinking 'homogeneously' about nature when we are thinking about it without thinking about thought or about sense-awareness, and we are thinking 'heterogeneously' about nature when we are thinking about it in conjunction with thinking either about thought or about sense-awareness or about both.

I also take the homogeneity of thought about nature as excluding any reference to moral or aesthetic values whose apprehension is vivid in proportion to self-conscious activity. The values of nature are perhaps the key to the metaphysical synthesis of existence. But such a synthesis is exactly what I am not attempting. I am concerned exclusively with the generalisations of widest scope which can be effected respecting that which is known to us as the direct deliverance of sense-awareness.

I have said that nature is disclosed in sense-perception as a complex of entities. It is worth considering what we mean by an entity in this connexion. 'Entity' is simply the Latin equivalent for 'thing' unless some arbitrary distinction is drawn between the words for technical purposes. All thought has to be about things. We can gain some idea of this necessity of things for thought by examination of the structure of a proposition.

Let us suppose that a proposition is being communicated by an expositor to a recipient. Such a proposition is composed of phrases; some of these phrases may be demonstrative and others may be descriptive.

By a demonstrative phrase I mean a phrase which makes the recipient aware of an entity in a way which is independent of the particular demonstrative phrase. You will understand that I am here using 'demonstration' in the non-logical sense, namely in the sense in which a lecturer demonstrates by the aid of a frog and a microscope the circulation of the blood for an elementary class of medical students. I will call such demonstration 'speculative' demonstration, remembering Hamlet's use of the word 'speculation' when he says,

There is no speculation in those eyes.

Thus a demonstrative phrase demonstrates an entity speculatively. It may happen that the expositor has meant some other entity—namely, the phrase demonstrates to him an entity which is diverse from the entity which it demonstrates to the recipient. In that case there is confusion; for there are two diverse propositions, namely the proposition for the expositor and the proposition for the recipient. I put this possibility aside as irrelevant for our discussion, though in practice it may be difficult for two persons to concur in the consideration of exactly the same proposition, or even for one person to have determined exactly the proposition which he is considering.

Again the demonstrative phrase may fail to demonstrate any entity. In that case there is no proposition for the recipient. I think that we may assume (perhaps rashly) that the expositor knows what he means.

A demonstrative phrase is a gesture. It is not itself a constituent of the proposition, but the entity which it demonstrates is such a constituent. You may quarrel with a demonstrative phrase as in some way obnoxious to you; but if it demonstrates the right entity, the proposition is unaffected though your taste may be offended. This suggestiveness of the phraseology is part of the literary quality of the sentence which conveys the proposition. This is because a sentence directly conveys one proposition, while in its phraseology it suggests a penumbra of other propositions charged with emotional value. We are now talking of the one proposition directly conveyed in any phraseology.

This doctrine is obscured by the fact that in most cases what is in form a mere part of the demonstrative gesture is in fact a part of the proposition which it is desired directly to convey. In such a case we will call the phraseology of the proposition elliptical. In ordinary intercourse the phraseology of nearly all propositions is elliptical.

Let us take some examples. Suppose that the expositor is in London, say in Regent's Park and in Bedford College, the great women's college which is situated in that park. He is speaking in the college hall and he says,

'This college building is commodious.'

The phrase 'this college building' is a demonstrative phrase. Now suppose the recipient answers,

'This is not a college building, it is the lion-house in the Zoo.'

Then, provided that the expositor's original proposition has not been couched in elliptical phraseology, the expositor sticks to his original proposition when he replies,

'Anyhow, it is commodious.'

Note that the recipient's answer accepts the speculative demonstration of the phrase 'This college building.' He does not say, 'What do you mean?' He accepts the phrase as demonstrating an entity, but declares that same entity to be the lion-house in the Zoo. In his reply, the expositor in his turn recognises the success of his original gesture as a speculative demonstration, and waives the question of the suitability of its mode of suggestiveness with an 'anyhow.' But he is now in a position to repeat the original proposition with the aid of a demonstrative gesture robbed of any suggestiveness, suitable or unsuitable, by saying,

'It is commodious.'

The 'it' of this final statement presupposes that thought has seized on the entity as a bare objective for consideration.

We confine ourselves to entities disclosed in sense-awareness. The entity is so disclosed as a relatum in the complex which is nature. It dawns on an observer because of its relations; but it is an objective for thought in its own bare individuality. Thought cannot proceed otherwise; namely, it cannot proceed without the ideal bare 'it' which is speculatively demonstrated. This setting up of the entity as a bare objective does not ascribe to it an existence apart from the complex in which it has been found by sense-perception. The 'it' for thought is essentially a relatum for sense-awareness.

The chances are that the dialogue as to the college building takes another form. Whatever the expositor originally meant, he almost certainly now takes his former statement as couched in elliptical phraseology, and assumes that he was meaning,

'This is a college building and is commodious.'

Here the demonstrative phrase or the gesture, which demonstrates the 'it' which is commodious, has now been reduced to 'this'; and the attenuated phrase, under the circumstances in which it is uttered, is sufficient for the purpose of correct demonstration. This brings out the point that the verbal form is never the whole phraseology of the proposition; this phraseology also includes the general circumstances of its production. Thus the aim of a demonstrative phrase is to exhibit a definite 'it' as a bare objective for thought; but the modus operandi of a demonstrative phrase is to produce an awareness of the entity as a particular relatum in an auxiliary complex, chosen merely for the sake of the speculative demonstration and irrelevant to the proposition. For example, in the above dialogue, colleges and buildings, as related to the 'it' speculatively demonstrated by the phrase 'this college building,' set that 'it' in an auxiliary complex which is irrelevant to the proposition

'It is commodious.'

Of course in language every phrase is invariably highly elliptical. Accordingly the sentence

'This college building is commodious' means probably

'This college building is commodious as a college building.'

But it will be found that in the above discussion we can replace 'commodious' by 'commodious as a college building' without altering our conclusion; though we can guess that the recipient, who thought he was in the lion-house of the Zoo, would be less likely to assent to

'Anyhow, it is commodious as a college building.'

A more obvious instance of elliptical phraseology arises if the expositor should address the recipient with the remark,

'That criminal is your friend.'

The recipient might answer,

'He is my friend and you are insulting.'

Here the recipient assumes that the phrase 'That criminal' is elliptical and not merely demonstrative. In fact, pure demonstration is impossible though it is the ideal of thought. This practical impossibility of pure demonstration is a difficulty which arises in the communication of thought and in the retention of thought. Namely, a proposition about a particular factor in nature can neither be expressed to others nor retained for repeated consideration without the aid of auxiliary complexes which are irrelevant to it.

I now pass to descriptive phrases. The expositor says,

'A college in Regent's Park is commodious.'

The recipient knows Regent's Park well. The phrase 'A college in Regent's Park' is descriptive for him. If its phraseology is not elliptical, which in ordinary life it certainly will be in some way or other, this proposition simply means,

'There is an entity which is a college building in Regent's Park and is commodious.'

If the recipient rejoins,

'The lion-house in the Zoo is the only commodious building in Regent's Park,' he now contradicts the expositor, on the assumption that a lion-house in a Zoo is not a college building.

Thus whereas in the first dialogue the recipient merely quarrelled with the expositor without contradicting him, in this dialogue he contradicts him. Thus a descriptive phrase is part of the proposition which it helps to express, whereas a demonstrative phrase is not part of the proposition which it helps to express.

Again the expositor might be standing in Green Park—where there are no college buildings—and say,

'This college building is commodious.'

Probably no proposition will be received by the recipient because the demonstrative phrase,

'This college building' has failed to demonstrate owing to the absence of the background of sense-awareness which it presupposes.

But if the expositor had said,


Excerpted from The Concept of Nature by Alfred North Whitehead. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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