A. N. Whitehead and Social Theory: Tracing a Culture of Thought

A. N. Whitehead and Social Theory: Tracing a Culture of Thought

by Michael Halewood


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The contemporary importance of A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947) lies in his direct yet productive challenge to the culture of thought inherent in modernity, a challenge that suffuses science, social theory and philosophy alike. Unlike some of the more destructive aspects of postmodernism and poststructuralism, Whitehead's diagnosis of the conceptual fault lines of the modern era does not entail a passive relativism. Instead, he calls for a renewal of our concepts, offering a positive, philosophical approach based on becoming, relativity, and a reconception of subjectivity and the social. This book outlines Whitehead's philosophy, using it to reorient a range of specific questions and topics within contemporary social theory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783080694
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Series: Key Issues in Modern Sociology Series
Pages: 198
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Michael Halewood is a Senior Lecturer in Social Theory at the University of Essex. He has published articles and chapters on Whitehead’s relation to Deleuze, Badiou and Butler, as well as pieces on John Dewey, subjectivity and materiality, the body, language and sociality. He has also edited a special section of the journal ‘Theory, Culture and Society’ dedicated to Whitehead, and is an International Academic Advisor to the Whitehead Research Project.

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A. N. Whitehead and Social Theory

Tracing a Culture of Thought

By Michael Halewood

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Michael Halewood
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-099-1



Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) was the most sociological of philosophers. This in two ways: first, he viewed all enduring things as 'societies'; second, he believed that one major role of theory is to challenge the deepest preconceptions and assumptions which permeate our attempts to understand and explain the world. What such claims mean and what their consequences might be will be considered throughout this book. Its overall aim is to outline Whitehead's philosophy; the challenges that it makes and the opportunities that it offers social theory with regard to a specific set of problems and concerns, namely those of realism and causation, value, subjectivity, the body, sexual difference and capitalism. Yet it must be stressed that Whitehead was a philosopher not a sociologist and his ideas are not to be envisaged as simply and directly applicable to social theory. He will not miraculously solve or explain away a set of conceptual problems relating to contemporary society or analyses thereof. Having said this, Whitehead's work has some fundamental implications for the status and procedures of social theory and social theorists which could lead to a reconceptualization of some of its founding claims and methods of analysis. Whitehead's philosophy constitutes a bold cosmological vision which diagnoses the fault lines of modernity and its conceptual apparatus by identifying what might be termed its "culture of thought". It also offers a prognosis which might enable the production of novel, differently textured modes of thought. This introductory chapter will, having given a brief biographical sketch of Whitehead, outline the specific assumptions and conceptual problems which Whitehead sees as suffusing the contemporary world and theory. As will be seen, the major constituent of modern thought identified is the acceptance of what he calls "The Bifurcation of Nature". The discussion of the problems inherent in this worldview make up the key conceptual fulcrum around which this book turns, namely the notion of "a culture of thought". This will, in turn, indicate the problematics which will be taken up and elaborated in the following chapters.

Whitehead was born in 1861 in Ramsgate, Kent, in the south of England. He went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1880 where he remained as an undergraduate, fellow and senior lecturer until 1910. His field of interest at this time was pure and applied mathematics and he specialized in symbolic logic. During this period he collaborated with Bertrand Russell, and they wrote the ground-breaking Principia Mathematica between the years 1903–10. In 1910 Whitehead left Cambridge and moved to London where he eventually took up a professorship at Imperial College, University of London. This period witnessed a shift in Whitehead's interest toward mathematical physics and more especially the work of Einstein on relativity. As will be seen throughout this book, the consequences of the notion of relativity for science, philosophy, history and the understanding of society and societies were an important and ongoing concern of Whitehead. This is evident in both his direct discussion of Einstein's theories in his 1922 publication The Principle of Relativity with applications to Physical Science (PRPS) and in the later elaboration of his own version of the principle of relativity as fundamental to his philosophical approach which he termed "philosophy of organism" in his major 1929 work Process and Reality (PR).

Whitehead's move to London led not only to an extension of his ideas to mathematical physics but also to the practicalities and purpose of universities and education in general. He took up high-ranking administrative positions in the Senate of the University of London and worked to open up the colleges and curriculum to both women and local communities (SP, 18–19). This interest in the role of education carried on throughout Whitehead's life and culminated in the publication of his 1929 collection of essays The Aims of Education (AE). In 1924, at the age of 63, Whitehead was invited to another Cambridge, that of Massachusetts, USA, where he was asked to take up a professorship in philosophy at Harvard University. Here he worked until 1937 and it is during this period that he produced most of the works that will be discussed in this book, namely Science and the Modern World (SMW, 1925), Religion in the Making (RM, 1926), Symbolism. Its Meaning and Effect (SYM, 1927), Process and Reality (PR, 1929), Adventures of Ideas (AI, 1933) and Modes of Thought (MT, 1938). It is sometimes reported that after giving his first lecture at Harvard, Whitehead commented that this was the first philosophy lecture that he had ever attended (e.g. Stengers 2008a, 100). This is not to suggest that Whitehead lacked philosophical knowledge. He had been reading and discussing philosophy since his early years at Cambridge (SP, 13–14) but the lack of any professionalized legacy and constraint, which might well be conferred by a lifetime in a philosophy department, is evident in the close but almost heretical renderings of major philosophical texts which run throughout his later works. Steven Shaviro in his recent and important work, Without Criteria (2009), describes Whitehead's method of reading the "great philosophers" as one which 'mines ... unexpected creative sparks, excerpting those moments where, for instance, Plato affirms Becoming against the static world of ideas, or Descartes refutes mind-body dualism' (Shaviro 2009, x). This creative, rather than deconstructive, approach is one which Isabelle Stengers (2002, 2008a) assigns both to Whitehead and to her own work and which she refers to, in the subtitle of her enormously important work on Whitehead, Penser Avec Whitehead (Stengers 2002), as 'a free and savage creation of concepts'. It is this inventive yet scholarly take on the history of thought, and the specific role of concepts and abstractions, that Whitehead developed toward the end of his life which this book will attempt to elucidate in terms of their import for social theory. In doing so, it will provide the first sustained account of such interrelations, building on the positive but partial references and usages of Whitehead's work and terms that have been developed by certain key contemporary theorists such as Donna Haraway who has stated that 'Alfred North Whitehead was a great influence on me' (Haraway 2000, 21), Bruno Latour (for example, Latour 1999a, 141; Latour 1999b, 315) and, more recently, Judith Butler.

Whitehead was not only a mathematician, mathematical physicist and a philosopher, he was also a historian of the philosophy of science. Throughout his work he was interested in tracing the manner in which modern science developed and accepted new concepts and how these bled into apparently common-sense understandings of the world, especially from the seventeenth century to the present day. He also outlines how such concepts were derived from or related to the realm of philosophy and, on occasions, led to antagonisms between science, philosophy and more generalized questions about the status of knowledge and reality. His analysis is not always purely abstract or philosophical, though it often is, but also surveys the everyday, commonplace assumptions about reality and experience which run throughout contemporary thought and society. It is an important theoretical task to identify and interrogate such assumptions and this is one which will be undertaken in this book.

Metaphysics and Sociology

Before moving on to the initial analysis of Whitehead's relevance to social theory, it is worth spending a little time considering some questions which might already be troubling those who feel it important to distinguish between the methods and purpose of sociology, social theory and philosophy.

The danger of adopting a philosophical stance with regard to analyses of the social is that it would seem, by definition, to remove all the "social" elements. Insofar as philosophy aims for a "pure" and dislocated consideration of thought, it disregards the details of the play of power and ideology which permeate the social world, including ideas and thoughts about such a world. It neglects to see that the very act of philosophy is socially situated and needs to be explained with regards to its specific historical and cultural location, not vice versa. The case is even starker with regard to metaphysics. This branch of philosophy which traditionally dealt with supposedly fundamental questions and first principles, but which required no reference to experience or to what might now be called "empirical evidence" to supports its arguments, has fallen into disrepute. Its link to medieval theology and the propensity of its arguments to indulge in apparently irrelevant debates, such as that of the number of angels which can fit on the head of a pin, led to its rejection by the cadre of modern philosophers.

Yet the major work of Whitehead, Process and Reality (PR), is one of metaphysics and comprises the major resource for the analyses developed in this book. Although it is hoped that the reasons and justification for a treatment of the work of Whitehead will unfold as the chapters proceed, the following passages will make some elementary moves to situate the vital importance of Whitehead's concepts for those of sociology and social theory.

One of the most striking aspects of Whitehead's work is that he is concerned not just with what we think but how we think. However, he does not use the usual social descriptions to outline how we think; that is, he does not invoke any prior notions of community, culture, economic relations or human nature. Such notions themselves need to be explained, not assumed. Instead, he focuses on the inextricable link between the concepts that we have inherited and how they were developed, as well as how they are currently deployed. And, as just mentioned, such investigations cannot take anything for granted, not the social, the political, the cultural or even the human. It is this lack of any fixed starting point and the willingness to deal with our concepts and their consequences in the most abstract of terms that makes Whitehead's work metaphysical. What makes it "sociological" in the usual sense of the word, is Whitehead's readiness to challenge our deepest conceptual assumptions. This is a new kind of metaphysics, one which is not a search for first principles as such, but a thorough investigation of the workings of the conceptual scheme that we have inherited.

Traces remain of what might seem like traditional metaphysics, especially in Process and Reality. The second chapter of this work is titled "The Categoreal Scheme" amidst which are found "The Category of the Ultimate", "Categories of Existence", "Categories of Explanation" and nine "Categoreal Obligations" (PR, 18–30). Furthermore, Whitehead introduces many technical terms such as "actual entities", "eternal objects", "prehensions" and so on. Despite these appearances, this does not mean that this text should be envisaged as just another work on metaphysics and hence outdated and irrelevant. Instead, two important, interlinked points must be insisted upon both here and throughout the following chapters:

i. The technical terms that Whitehead uses are not to be learned and applied to the world.

ii. His metaphysics is not a description of reality-as-it-is, in the sense of a discovery of the previously unfathomed secrets of the universe (it is not the true picture of all existence in its fundamental state).

To think in such ways, to assume that there is a key which can unlock the depths of reality, is, according to Whitehead, to have already fallen into the traps set by the concepts that we have inherited and to passively accept what has been termed in this book modernity's "culture of thought". These pitfalls and limitations are precisely what Whitehead's metaphysics is designed to illustrate and help us avoid. Shaviro puts it as follows: 'Whitehead's metaphysics is a ramshackle construction, continually open to revision, and not an assertion of absolute truths' (Shaviro 2009, xiii). Whilst the term "ramshackle" may be a little strong, the important point remains: Whitehead's metaphysics is not interested in providing final answers or solutions but in providing novel ways of thinking.

These novel modes of thought might be aided by some of the themes which run throughout Whitehead's work, such as "becoming", "relativity" and "construction". Later chapters will investigate the status of these and the contribution that they can make to social theory, but again it should be noted that these are not overarching answers or simple solutions; they are not simply to be learned and applied to the social realm. (For example, it is not simply a matter of saying that the social body is always becoming. More work will have to be done to satisfy the opportunities and requirements that Whitehead offers us. Later chapters will attempt to do this work.)

To summarize: the point is to interrogate our concepts, to recognize the limits that they place on us and to seek ways of re-energizing the problems which have led us to think in this way, in order to produce novel concepts and insights. With this in mind, it is time to turn to the details of Whitehead's work.

A Culture of Thought – The Bifurcation of Nature

'In each period there is a general form of the forms of thought; and, like the air we breathe, such a form is so translucent, and so pervading, and so seemingly necessary, that only by extreme effort can we become aware of it' (AI, 14). This is the first demand that Whitehead makes of his reader. To stop, to pause and to be prepared to reconsider and investigate that which enables thought and also that which hinders it. The "form of the forms of thought" is the first indication of what, in the title of this book, has been referred to as "a culture of thought". This is not something which provides the ground for our thinking, it is not a base upon which arises a set of ideas. As is indicated by the use of the word "form", this is a notion which refers to the manner of thinking, the way it is carried out and carried on. It is a 'tone of thought' (PR, 5). The prevalent tone, or tones, of thought are what constitute a culture of thought. Such thought and thinking, according to Whitehead, must involve the construction of abstractions. 'You cannot think without abstractions; accordingly, it is of the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your modes of abstraction. It is here that philosophy finds its niche as essential to the healthy progress of society' (SMW, 73, with emphasis in original; see also Stengers 2008a for a discussion of Whitehead's notion of abstraction). The task of theoretical investigations is, therefore, to locate and revise the manner in which abstractions are made. But, it must be stressed that there is no such thing as purely abstract thinking or wholly abstract knowledge. The supposition that thought is, in and of itself, purely abstract and can lead to pure knowledge is indicative of an assumption and presumption which characterizes the specific and constraining mode of thought which lingers throughout modernity. 'The notion of a sphere of human knowledge characterized by unalloyed truth is the pet delusion of dogmatists, whether they be theologians, scientists, or humanistic scholars' (MT, 94). For Whitehead, thinking is an abstractive activity which itself is always a located activity. Each abstraction occurs in a specific field or with regard to a specific problem; this is what provides it with both its purpose and its effectivity. Some abstractions are concerned with quarks, some with analyses of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and some with the link between social class and education. To claim that such abstractions are self-sufficient is to forget that they arise from a more fundamental interconnection of things as they are. Abstraction and the activity of thinking are genuine processes which arise within reality but are neither a reflection nor a representation of reality as: 'every abstraction neglects the influx of the factors omitted into the factors retained' (MT, 196).

The above discussion of the status of abstraction is not intended to provide a full, or fully convincing, account of the importance of this term for Whitehead. It is offered as a first foray into some of his most abiding concerns, an indication of the depth of his critique. An elaboration of his alternative understanding of abstractions will be discussed throughout this book. To point ahead, the notions of the body, sexual difference, subjectivity and capitalism will all be immersed in problems and questions of abstraction, which have their place both in the world and in thinking about the world. For the moment, and as a next step in outlining Whitehead's thought, the dominant abstraction which Whitehead locates as the ongoing and most influential within modernity is that of "the bifurcation of nature".


Excerpted from A. N. Whitehead and Social Theory by Michael Halewood. Copyright © 2013 Michael Halewood. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; List of Abbreviations; Chapter One: A Culture of Thought – The Bifurcation of Nature; Chapter Two: Introducing Whitehead’s Philosophy – The Lure of Whitehead; Chapter Three: ‘A Thorough-Going Realism’ – Whitehead On Cause and Conformation; Chapter Four: The Value of Existence; Chapter Five: Societies, the Social and Subjectivity; Chapter Six: Language and the Body – From Signification to Symbolism; Chapter Seven: This Nature Which Is Not One; Chapter Eight: Capitalism, Process and Abstraction; Notes; Bibliography; Index

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From the Publisher

‘Michael Halewood’s book is a brilliant exposition of the philosophy of A. N. Whitehead. Outstanding scholarship, combined with careful, sophisticated illustration, brings out the enormous relevance of Whitehead’s radical process thinking for contemporary social theory and social scientific analysis.’ —Professor Mike Michael, Goldsmiths, University of London

‘Alfred North Whitehead is best known as a mathematician and as a speculative metaphysician. But in this incisive book, Michael Halewood breaks new ground by showing Whitehead’s surprising relevance for social theory, and especially for feminist and Marxist concerns.’ —Professor Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University, Detroit

‘What if social theory gave up defining the social as opposed to the natural, and accepted the demands of a “culture of thought”, assuming nothing, ruling out nothing? Halewood’s book, exploring the challenge associated with Whitehead’s speculative philosophy, does not propose still another theory, but a new idea of theory.’ —Professor Isabelle Stengers, Université Libre de Bruxelles

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