Science and the Modern World – Alfred North Whitehead

Lowell lectures, 1925, by Alfred North Whitehead.

The Origins of Modern ScienceMathematics as an Element in the History of Thought — The Century of Genius — The Eighteenth Century — The Romantic Reaction — The Nineteenth Century — Relativity — The Quantum Theory — Science and Philosophy — Abstraction — God — Religion and Science — Requisites for Social Progress.








THE present book embodies a study of some aspects of Western culture during the past three centuries, in so far as it has been influenced by the development of science. This study has been guided by the conviction that the mentality of an epoch springs from the view of the world which is, in fact, dominant in the educated sections of the communities in question. There may be more than one such scheme, corresponding to cultural divisions. The various human interests which suggest cosmologies, and also are influenced by them, are science, aesthetics, ethics, religion. In every age each of these topics suggests a view of the world. In so far as the same set of people are swayed by all, or more than one, of these interests, their effective outlook will be the joint production from these sources. But each age has its dominant preoccupation; and, during the three centuries in question, the cosmology derived from science has been asserting itself at the expense of older points of view with their origins elsewhere. Men can be provincial in time, as well as in place. We may ask ourselves whether the scientific mentality of the modern world in the immediate past is not a successful example of such provincial limitation.

Philosophy, in one of its functions, is the critic of cosmologies. It is its function to harmonise, refashion, and justify divergent intuitions as to the nature of things. It has to insist on the scrutiny of the ultimate ideas, and on the retention of the whole of the evidence in shaping our cosmological scheme. Its business is to render explicit, and—so far as may be—efficient, a process which otherwise is unconsciously performed without rational tests.

Bearing this in mind, I have avoided the introduction of a variety of abstruse detail respecting scientific advance. What is wanted, and what I have striven after, is a sympathetic study of main ideas as seen from the inside. If my view of the function of philosophy is correct, it is the most effective of all the intellectual pursuits. It builds cathedrals before the workmen have moved a stone, and it destroys them before the elements have worn down their arches. It is the architect of the buildings of the spirit, and it is also their solvent:—and the spiritual precedes the material. Philosophy works slowly. Thoughts lie dormant for ages; and then, almost suddenly as it were, mankind finds that they have embodied themselves in institutions.

This book in the main consists of a set of eight Lowell Lectures delivered in the February of 1925. These lectures with some slight expansion, and the subdivision of one lecture into Chapters VII and VIII, are here printed as delivered. But some additional matter has been added, so as to complete the thought of the book on a scale which could not be included within that lecture course. Of this new matter, the second chapter—‘Mathematics as an Element in the History of Thought’—was delivered as a lecture before the Mathematical Society of Brown University, Providence, R. I.; and the twelfth chapter—‘Religion and Science’-—formed an address delivered in the Phillips Brooks House at Harvard, and is to be published in the August number of the Atlantic Monthly of this year (1925). The tenth and eleventh chapters—‘Abstraction’ and ‘God’—are additions which now appear for the first time. But the book represents one train of thought, and the antecedent utilisation of some of its contents is a subsidiary point. _ There has been no occasion in the text to make detailed reference to Lloyd Morgan’s Emergent Evolution or to Alexander’s Space, Time and Deity. It will be obvious to readers that I have found them very suggestive. I am especially indebted to Alexander’s great work. The wide scope of the present book makes it impossible to acknowledge in detail the various sources of information or of ideas. The book is the product of thought and reading in past years, which were not undertaken with any anticipation of utilisation for the present purpose. Accordingly it would now be impossible for me to give reference to my sources for details, even if it were desirable so to do. But there is no need: the facts which are relied upon are simple and well known. On the philosophical side, any consideration of epistemology has been entirely excluded. It would have been impossible to discuss that topic without upsetting the whole balance of the work. ‘The key to the book is the sense of the overwhelming importance of a prevalent philosophy.

My most grateful thanks are due to my colleague Mr. Raphael Demos for reading the proofs and for the suggestion of many improvements in expression.

Harvard University, June 29, 1925.

Alfred North Whitehead




THE progress of civilisation is not wholly a uniform drift towards better things. It may perhaps wear this aspect if we map it on a scale which is large enough. But such broad views obscure the details on which rests our whole understanding of the process. New epochs emerge with comparative suddenness, if we have regard to the scores of thousands of years throughout which the complete history extends. Secluded races suddenly take their places in the mainstream of events: technological discoyeries transform the mechanism of human life: a primitive art quickly flowers into full satisfaction of some aesthetic craving: great religions in their crusading youth spread through the nations the peace of Heaven and the sword of the Lord.

The sixteenth-century of our era saw the disruption of Western Christianity and the rise of modern science. It was an age of ferment. Nothing was settled, though much was opened—new worlds and new ideas. In science, Copernicus and Vesalius may be chosen as representative figures: they typify the new cosmology and the scientific emphasis on direct observation. Giordano Bruno was the martyr: though the cause for which he suffered was not that of science, but that of free imaginative speculation. His death in the year 1600 ushered in the first century of modern science in the strict sense of the term.

The radical Italian thinker was burned at the stake on February 17th, 1600. – The trial of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition. Bronze relief by Ettore Ferrari, Campo de’ Fiori, Rome.

In his execution there was an unconscious symbolism: for the subsequent tone of scientific thought has contained distrust of his type of general speculativeness. The Reformation, for all its importance, may be considered as a domestic affair of the European races. Even the Christianity of the East viewed it with profound disengagement. Furthermore, such disruptions are no new phenomena in the history of Christianity or of other religions. When we project this great revolution upon the whole history of the Christian Church, we cannot look upon it as introducing a new principle into human life. For good or for evil, it was a great transformation of religion; but it was not the coming of religion. It did not itself claim to be so. Reformers maintained that they were only restoring what had been forgotten.

It is quite otherwise with the rise of modern science. In every way it contrasts with the contemporary religious movement. The Reformation was a popular uprising, and for a century and a half drenched Europe in blood. The beginnings of the scientific movement were confined to a minority among the intellectual élite. In a generation which saw the Thirty Years’ War and remembered Alva in the Netherlands, the worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honourable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed. The way in which the persecution of Galileo has been remembered is a tribute to the quiet commencement of the most intimate change in outlook which the human race had yet encountered. Since a babe was born in a manger, it may be doubted whether so great a thing has happened with so little stir.

The thesis which these lectures will illustrate is that this quiet growth of science has practically recoloured our mentality so that modes of thought which in former times were exceptional are now broadly spread through the educated world. This new colouring of ways of thought had been proceeding slowly for many ages in the European peoples. At last it issued in the rapid development of science; and has thereby strengthened itself by its most obvious application. The new mentality is more important even than the new science and the new technology. It has altered the metaphysical presuppositions and the imaginative contents of our minds; so that now the old stimuli provoke a new response. Perhaps my metaphor of a new colour is too strong. What I mean is just that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference. This is exactly illustrated by a sentence from a published letter of that adorable genius, William James. When he was finishing his great treatise on the Principles of Psychology, he wrote to his brother Henry James, “I have to forge every sentence in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts.”

This new tinge to modern minds is a vehement and passionate interest in the relation of general principles to irreducible and stubborn facts. All the world over and at all times there have been practical men, absorbed in ‘irreducible and stubborn facts’: all the world over and at all times there have been men of philosophic temperament who have been absorbed in the weaving of general principles. It is this union of passionate interest in the detailed facts with equal devotion to abstract generalisation which forms the novelty in our present society. Previously it had appeared sporadically and as if by chance. This balance of mind has now become part of the tradition which infects cultivated thought. It is the salt which keeps life sweet. The main business of universities is to transmit this tradition as a widespread inheritance from generation to generation.

Another contrast which singles out science from among the European movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is its universality. Modern science was born in Europe, but its home is the whole world. In the last two centuries there has been a long and confused impact of Western modes upon the civilisation of Asia. The wise men of the East have been puzzling, and are puzzling, as to what may be the regulative secret of life which can be passed from West to East without the wanton destruction of their own inheritance which they so rightly prize. More and more it is becoming evident that what the West can most readily give to the East is its science and its scientific outlook. This is transferable from country to country, and from race to race, wherever there is a rational society.

In this course of lectures I shall not discuss the details of scientific discovery. My theme is the energising of a state of mind in the modern world, its broad generalisations; and its impact upon other spiritual forces. There are two ways of reading history, forwards and backwards. In the history of thought, we require both methods. A climate of opinion—to use the happy phrase of a seventeenth century writer—requires for its understand- ing the consideration of its antecedents and its issues. Accordingly in this lecture I shall consider some of the antecedents of our modern approach to the investigation of nature.

In the first place, there can be no living science unless there is a widespread instinctive conviction in the existence of an Order of Things, and, in partic- ular, of an Order of Nature. I have used the word instinctive advisedly. It does not matter what men say in words, so long as their activities are con- trolled by settled instincts. The words may ulti- mately destroy the instincts. But until this has occurred, words do not count. This remark is important in respect to the history of scientific thought. For we shall find that since the time of Hume, the fashionable scientific philosophy has been such as to deny the rationality of science. This con- clusion lies upon the surface of Hume’s philosophy. Take, for example, the following passage from Sec- tion IV of his Inquiry Concerning Human Under- Standing:

‘In a word, then, every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause; and the first invention or conception of it, a priori, must be entirely arbitrary.’

If the cause in itself discloses no information as to the effect, so that the first invention of it must be entirely arbitrary, it follows at once that science is impossible, except in the sense of establishing entirely arbitrary connections which are not war- ranted by anything intrinsic to the natures either of causes or effects. Some variant of Hume’s philosophy has generally prevailed among men of science. But scientific faith has risen to the occasion, and has tacitly removed the philosophic mountain.

In view of this strange contradiction in scientific thought, it is of the first importance to consider the antecedents of a faith which is impervious to the demand for a consistent rationality. We have therefore to trace the rise of the instinctive faith that there is an Order of Nature which can be traced in every detained-occurrence.

Of course, we all share in this faith, and we therefore believe that the reason for the faith is our apprehension of its truth. But the formation of a general idea—such as the idea of the Order of Nature—and the grasp of its importance, and the observation of its exemplification in a variety of occasions are by no means the necessary consequences of the truth of the idea in question. Familiar things happen, and mankind does not bother about them. It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious. Accordingly, I wish to consider the stages in which this analysis became explicit, and finally became unalterably impressed upon the educated minds of Western Europe.

Obviously, the main recurrences of life are too insistent to escape the notice of the least rational of humans; and even before the dawn of rationality, they have impressed themselves upon the instincts of animals. It is unnecessary to labour the point, that in broad outline certain general states of nature recur, and that our very natures have adapted themselves to such repetitions.

But there is a complementary fact which is equally true and equally obvious:—nothing ever really recurs in exact detail. No two days are identical, no two winters. What has gone, has gone forever. Accordingly the practical philosophy of mankind has been to expect the broad recurrences, and to accept the details as emanating from the inscrutable womb of things beyond the ken of rationality. Men expected the sun to rise, but the wind bloweth where it listeth.

Certainly from the classical Greek civilisation onwards there have been men, and indeed groups of men, who have placed themselves beyond this acceptance of an ultimate irrationality. Such men have endeavoured to explain all phenomena as the outcome of an order of things which extends to every detail. Geniuses such as Aristotle, or Archimedes, or Roger Bacon, must have been endowed’ with the full scientific mentality, which instinctively holds that all things great and small are conceivable as exemplifications of general principles which reign throughout the natural order.

But until the close of the Middle Ages the general educated public did not feel that intimate conviction, and that detailed interest, in such an idea, so as to lead to an unceasing supply of men, with ability and opportunity adequate to maintain a coordinated search for the discovery of these hypothetical principles. Either people were doubtful about the existence of such principles, or were doubtful about any success in finding them, or took no interest in thinking about them, or were oblivious to their practical importance when found. For whatever reason, search was languid, if we have regard to the opportunities of a high civilisation and the length of time concerned. Why did the pace suddenly quicken in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? At the close of the Middle Ages a new mentality discloses itself. Invention stimulated thought, thought quickened physical speculation, Greek manuscripts disclosed what the ancients had discovered. Finally although in the year 1500 Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 B. C., yet in the year 1700, Newton’s Principia had been written and the world was well started on the modern epoch.

There have been great civilisations in which the peculiar balance of mind required for science has only fitfully appeared and has produced the feeblest result. For example, the more we know of Chinese art, of Chinese literature, and of the Chinese philosophy of life, the more we admire the heights to which that civilisation attained. For thousands of years, there have been in China acute and learned men patiently devoting their lives to study. Having regard to the span of time, and to the population concerned, China forms the largest volume of civilisation which the world has seen. There is no reason to doubt the intrinsic capacity of individual Chinamen for the pursuit of science. And yet Chinese science is practically negligible. There is no reason to believe that. China if left to itself would have ever produced any progress in science. The same may be said of India. Furthermore, if the Persians had enslaved the Greeks, there is no definite ground for belief that science would have flourished in Europe. The Romans showed no particular originality in that line. Even as it was, the Greeks, though they founded the movement, did not sustain it with the concentrated interest which modern Europe has shown. I am not alluding to the last few generations of the European peoples on both sides of the ocean; I mean the smaller Europe of the Reformation period, distracted as it was with wars and religious disputes. Consider the world of the eastern Mediterranean, from Sicily to western Asia, during the period of about 1400 years from the death of Archimedes [in 212 B. C.] to the irruption of the Tartars. There were wars and revolutions and large changes of religion: but nothing much worse than the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries throughout Europe. There was a great and wealthy civilisation, Pagan, Christian, Mahometan. In that period a great deal was added to science. But on the whole the progress was slow and wavering; and, except in mathematics, the men of the Renaissance prac- tically started from the position which Archimedes had reached. There had been some progress in medicine and some progress in astronomy. But the total advance was very little compared to the mar- vellous success of the seventeenth century. For example, compare the progress of scientific knowledge from the year 1560, just before the births of Galileo and of Kepler, up to the year 1700, when Newton was in the height of his fame, with the progress in the ancient period, already mentioned, exactly ten times as long.

Nevertheless, Greece was the mother of Europe; and it is to Greece that we must look in order to find the origin of our modern ideas. We all know that on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean there was a very flourishing school of Ionian philosophers, deeply interested in theories concerning nature. Their ideas have been transmitted to us, enriched by the genius of Plato and Aristotle. But, with the exception of Aristotle, and it is a large exception, this school of thought had not attained to the complete scientific mentality. In some ways, it was better. The Greek genius was philosophical, lucid and logical. The men of this group were primarily asking philosophical questions. What is the substratum of nature? Is it fire, or earth, or water, or some combination of any two, or of all three? Or is it a mere flux, not reducible to some static material? Mathematics interested them mightily. They invented its generality, analysed its premises, and made notable discoveries of theorems by a rigid adherence to deductive reasoning. Their minds were infected with an eager generality. They demanded clear, bold ideas, and strict reasoning from them. All this was excellent; it was genius; it was ideal preparatory work. But it was not science as we understand it. The patience of minute observation was not nearly so prominent. Their genius was not so apt for the state of imaginative muddled suspense which precedes successful inductive generalisation. They were lucid thinkers and bold reasoners.

Of course there were exceptions, and at the very top: for example, Aristotle and Archimedes. Also for patient observation, there were the astronomers. There was a mathematical lucidity about the stars, and a fascination about the small numerable band of run-a-way planets.

Every philosophy is tinged with the colouring of some secret imaginative background, which never emerges explicitly into its trains of reasoning. The Greek view of nature, at least that cosmology transmitted from them to later ages, was essentially dramatic. It is not necessarily wrong for this reason: but it was overwhelmingly dramatic. It thus conceived nature as articulated in the way of a work of dramatic art, for the exemplification of general ideas converging to an end. Nature was differentiated so as to provide its proper end for each thing. There was the centre of the universe as the end of motion for those things which are heavy, and the celestial spheres as the end of motion for those things whose natures lead them upwards. The celestial spheres were for things which are impassible and ingenerable, the lower regions for things passible and generable. Nature was a drama in which each thing played its part.

I do not say that this is a view to which Aristotle would have subscribed without severe reservations, in fact without the sort of reservations which we ourselves would make. But it was the view which subsequent Greek thought extracted from Aristotle and passed on to the Middle Ages. The effect of such an imaginative setting for nature was to damp down the historical spirit. For it was the end which seemed illuminating, so why bother about the beginning? The Reformation and the scientific movement were two aspects of the historical revolt which was the dominant intellectual movement of the later Renaissance. The appeal to the origins of Christianity, and Francis Bacon’s appeal to efficient causes as against final causes, were two sides of one movement of thought. Also for this reason Galileo and his adversaries were at hopeless cross purposes, as can be seen from his Dialogues on the Two Systems of the World.

The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo) is a 1632 Italian-language book by Galileo Galilei comparing the Copernican system with the traditional Ptolemaic system. It was translated into Latin as Systema cosmicum (English: Cosmic System) in 1635 by Matthias Bernegger. The book was dedicated to Galileo’s patron, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who received the first printed copy on February 22, 1632.


Galileo keeps harping on how things happen, whereas his adversaries had a complete theory as to why things happen. Unfortunately the two theories did not bring out the same results. Galileo insists upon ‘irreducible and stubborn facts,’ and Simplicius, his opponent, brings forward reasons, completely satisfactory, ‘at least to himself. It is a great mistake to conceive this historical revolt as an appeal to reason. On the contrary, it was through and through an anti-intellectualist movement. It was the return to the contemplation of brute fact; and it was based on a recoil from the inflexible rationality of medieval thought. In making this statement I am merely summarising what at the time the adherents of the old régime them- selves asserted. For example, in the fourth book of Father Paul Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent, you will find that in the year 1551 the Papal Legates who presided over the Council ordered: ‘That the Divines ought to confirm their opinions with the holy Scripture, Traditions of the Apostles, sacred and approved Councils, and by the Constitutions and Authorities of the holy Fathers; that they ought to use brevity, and avoid superfluous and unprofitable questions, and perverse contentions. . .This order did not please the Italian Divines; who said it was a novity, and a condemning of School-Divinity, which, in all difficulties, useth reason, and because it was not lawful [i.e., by this decree | to treat as St. Thomas [Aquinas], St. Bonaventure, and other famous men did.’

It is impossible not to feel sympathy with these Italian divines, maintaining the lost cause of unbridled rationalism. They were deserted on all hands. The Protestants were in full revolt against them. The Papacy failed to support them, and the Bishops of the Council could not even understand them. For a few sentences below the foregoing quotation, we read: “Though many complained here-of [i.e., of the Decree], yet it prevailed but little, because generally the Fathers [i.e., the Bishops] desired to hear men speak with intelligible terms, not abstrusely, as in the matter of Justifica- tion, and others already handled.’

Poor belated medievalists! When they used reason they were not even intelligible to the ruling powers of their epoch. It will take centuries before stubborn facts are reducible by reason, and meanwhile the pendulum swings slowly and heavily to the extreme of the historical method.

Forty-three years after the Italian divines had written this memorial, Richard Hooker in his famous Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity makes exactly the same complaint of his Puritan adversaries.’

Title page of 1666 edition Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie

Hooker’s balanced thought—from which the appellation ‘The Judicious Hooker’ is derived—and his diffuse style, which is the vehicle of such thought, make his writings singularly unfit for the process of summarising by a short, pointed quotation. But, in the section referred to, he reproaches his opponents with Their Disparagement of Reason; and in support of his own position definitely refers to “The greatest amongst the school-divines’ by which designation I presume that he refers to St. Thomas Aquinas.

Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity was published just before Sarpi’s Council of Trent.

Paolo Sarpi; Pierre-François le Courayer (trans.): Histoire du Concile de Trente, ecrite en Italien par Fra-Paolo Sarpi, de l’Ordre des Servites; et traduit de nouveau en François. Amsterdam: J. Wetstein et G. Smith, 1736. First(?) or early edition thus. Two volumes, 4to (26 cm), untrimmed in early/period speckled heavy card boards, gilt-lettered spine labels; [14], lxxv, [1], 696 pp.; [4], 848 pp.; half-title in vol. II; vol. I with engraved portrait frontispiece by Vertue, folding engraved plate, engraved vignette, both vols. with engraved title-page vignettes, woodcut decorations and initials. Sarpi’s influential and controversial history of the Council of Trent, first published in 1619 and here translated into French by Pierre-François le Courayer (1681-1776), a religious exile from France living in England who was granted a doctorate of theology by Oxford University and who dedicated the work to Queen Caroline, the wife of George II. Le Courayer’s translation first appeared in 1736 in two separate editions, one in two folio volumes with a London imprint and this quarto Amsterdam edition. Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623) was a Venetian historian, prelate, scientist, lawyer, statesman and controversialist, a friend and patron of Galileo and a correspondent of Francis Bacon and William Harvey. His writings, as here, were often highly critical of the Catholic Church and the papal curia in particular. Described by some historians as a “crypto-protestant,” his writings influenced Thomas Hobbes and Edward Gibbon, among others, and Milton called him “the great unmasker.”

Accordingly there was complete independence between the two works. But both the Italian divines of 1551, and Hooker at the end of that century testify to the anti-rationalist trend of thought at that epoch, and in this respect contrast their own age with the epoch of scholasticism.

This reaction was undoubtedly a very necessary corrective to the unguarded rationalism of the Middle Ages. But reactions run to extremes. Accordingly, although one outcome of this reaction was the birth of modern science, yet we must remem- ber that science thereby inherited the bias of thought to which it owes its origin.

The effect of Greek dramatic literature was many-sided so far as concerns the various ways in which it indirectly affected medieval thought. The pilgrim fathers of the scientific imagination as it exists today are the great tragedians of ancient Athens, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Their vision of fate, remorseless and indifferent, urging a tragic incident to its inevitable issue, is the vision possessed by science. Fate in Greek Tragedy becomes the order of nature in modern thought. The absorbing interest in the particular heroic incidents, as an example and a verification of the workings of fate, reappears in our epoch as concentration of interest in the crucial experiments. It was my good fortune to be present at the meeting of the Royal Society in London when the Astronomer Royal for England announced that the photographic plates of the famous eclipse, as measured by his colleagues in Greenwich Observatory, had verified the prediction of Einstein that rays of light are bent as they pass in the neighbourhood of the sun. The whole atmosphere of tense interest was exactly that of the Greek drama: we were the chorus commenting on the decree of destiny as disclosed in the development of a supreme incident. There was dramatic quality in the very staging:—the traditional ceremonial, and in the background the picture of Newton to remind us that the greatest of scientific generalisations was now, after more than two centuries, to receive its first modification. Nor was the personal interest wanting: a great adventure in thought had at length come safe to shore.

Let me here remind you that the essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things. This inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama. This remorseless inevitableness is what pervades scientific thought. The laws of physics are the decrees of fate.

The conception of the moral order in the Greek plays was certainly not a discovery of the dramatists. It must have passed into the literary tradition from the general serious opinion of the times. But in finding this magnificent expression, it thereby deepened the stream of thought from which it arose. The spectacle of a moral order was impressed upon the imagination of classical civilisation.

The time came when that great society decayed, and Europe passed into the Middle Ages. The direct influence of Greek literature vanished. But the concept of the moral order and of the order of nature had enshrined itself in the Stoic philosophy. For example, Lecky in his History of European Morals tells us ‘Seneca maintains that the Divinity has determined all things by an inexorable law of destiny, which He has decreed, but which He Himself obeys.’ But the most effective way in which the Stoics influenced the mentality of the Middle Ages was by the diffused sense of order which arose from Roman law. Again to quote Lecky, ‘The Roman legislation was in a twofold manner the child of philosophy. It was in the first place formed upon the philosophical model, for, instead of being a mere empirical system adjusted to the existing requirements of society, it laid down abstract prin- ciples of right to which it endeavoured to conform and, in the next place, these principles were borrowed directly from Stoicism.’

In spite of the actual anarchy throughout large regions in Europe after the collapse of the Empire, the sense of legal order always haunted the racial memories of the Imperial populations. Also the Western Church was always there as a living embodiment of the traditions of Imperial rule.

It is important to notice that this legal impress upon medieval civilisation was not in the form of a few wise precepts which should permeate conduct. It was the conception of a definite articulated system which defines the legality of the detailed structure of social organism, and of the detailed way in which it should function. There was nothing vague. It was not a question of admirable maxims, but of definite procedure to put things right and to keep them there. The Middle Ages formed one long training of the intellect of Western Europe in the sense of order. There may have been some deficiency in respect to practice. But the idea never for a moment lost its grip. It was preéminently an epoch of orderly thought, rationalist through and through. The very anarchy quickened the sense for coherent system; just as the modern anarchy of Europe has stimulated the intellectual vision of a League of Nations.

But for science something more is wanted than a general sense of the order in things. It needs but a sentence to point out how the habit of definite exact thought was implanted in the European mind by the long dominance of scholastic logic and scholastic divinity. The habit remained after the philosophy had been repudiated, the priceless habit of looking for an exact point and of sticking to it when found. Galileo owes more to Aristotle than appears on the surface of his Dialogues: he owes to him his clear head and his analytic mind.

I do not think, however, that I have even yet brought out the greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement. I mean the inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research: —that there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled. How has this conviction been so vividly implanted on the European mind?

When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilisations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality. Remember that I am not talking of the explicit beliefs of a few individuals. What I mean is the impress on the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries. By this I mean the instinctive tone of thought and not a mere creed of words.

In Asia, the conceptions of God were of a being who was either too arbitrary or too impersonal for such ideas to have much effect on instinctive habits of mind. Any definite occurrence might be due to the fiat of an irrational despot, or might issue from some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things. There was not the same confidence as in the intelli- gible rationality of a personal being. I am not arguing that the European trust in the scrutability of nature was logically justified even by its own theology. My only point is to understand how it arose. My expianation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the develop- ment of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious. derivative from medieval theology.

But science is not merely the outcome of instinctive faith. It also requires an active interest in the simple occurrences of life for their own sake.

This qualification ‘for their own sake’ is important. The first phase of the Middle Ages was an age of symbolism. It was an age of vast ideas, and of primitive technique. There was little to be done with nature, except to coin a hard living from it. But there were realms of thought to be explored, realms of philosophy and realms of theology. Primitive art could symbolise those ideas which filled all thoughtful minds. The first phase of medieval art has a haunting charm beyond compare: its own intrinsic quality is enhanced by the fact that its message, which stretched beyond art’s own self-justification of aesthetic achievement, was the symbolism of things lying behind nature itself. In this symbolic phase, medieval art energised in nature as its medium, but pointed to another world.

In order to understand the contrast between these early Middle Ages and the atmosphere required by the scientific mentality, we should compare the sixth century in Italy with the sixteenth century. In both centuries the Italian genius was laying the foundations of a new epoch. The history of the three centuries preceding the earlier period, despite the promise for the future introduced by the rise of Christianity, is overwhelmingly infected by the sense of the decline of civilisation. In each generation something has been lost. As we read the records, we are haunted by the shadow of the coming barbarism. There are great men, with fine achievements in action or in thought. But their total effect is merely for some short time to arrest the general decline. In the sixth century we are, so far as Italy is concerned, at the lowest point of the curve. But in that century every action is laying the foundation for the tremendous rise of the new European civilisation. In the background the Byzantine Empire, under Justinian, in three ways determined the character of the early Middle Ages in Western Europe. In the first place, its armies, under Belisarius and Narses, cleared Italy from the Gothic domination. In this way, the stage was freed for the exercise of the old Italian genius for creating organisations which shall be protective of ideals of cultural activity. It is impossible not to sympathise with the Goths: yet there can be no doubt but that a thousand years of the Papacy were infinitely more valuable for Europe than any effects derivable from a well-established Gothic kingdom of Italy.

In the second place, the codification of the Roman law established the ideal of legality which dominated the sociological thought of Europe in the succeeding centuries. Law is both an engine for government, and a condition restraining government. The canon law of the Church, and the civil law of the State, owe to Justinian’s lawyers their influence on the development of Europe. They established in the Western mind the ideal that an authority should be at once lawful, and law-enforcing, and should in itself exhibit a rationally adjusted system of organisation. The sixth century in Italy gave the initial exhibition of the way in which the impress of these ideas was fostered by contact with the Byzantine Empire.

Thirdly, in the non-political spheres of art and learning Constantinople exhibited a standard of realised achievement which, partly by the impulse to direct imitation, and partly by the indirect inspiration arising from the mere knowledge that such things existed, acted as a perpetual spur to Western culture. The wisdom of the Byzantines, as it stood in the imagination of the first phase of medieval mentality, and the wisdom of the Egyptians as it stood in the imagination of the early Greeks, played analogous roles. Probably the actual knowledge of these respective wisdoms was, in either case, about as much as was good for the recipients. They knew enough to know the sort of standards which are attainable, and not enough to be fettered by static and traditional ways of thought. Accordingly, in both cases men went ahead on their own and did better. No account of the rise of the European scientific mentality can omit some notice of this influence of the Byzantine civilisation in the background. In the sixth century there is a crisis in the history of the relations between the Byzantines and the West; and this crisis is to be contrasted with the influence of Greek literature on European thought in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The two outstanding men, who in the Italy of the sixth century laid the foundations of the future, were St. Benedict and Gregory the Great. By reference to them, we can at once see how absolutely in ruins was the approach to the scientific mentality which had been attained by the Greeks. We are at the zero point of scientific temperature. But the life-work of Gregory and of Benedict contributed elements to the reconstruction of Europe which secured that this reconstruction, when it arrived, should include a more effective scientific mentality than that of the ancient world. The Greeks were over-theoretical. For them science was an offshoot of philosophy. Gregory and Benedict were practical men, with an eye for the importance of ordinary things; and they combined this practical temperament with their religious and cultural activities. In particular, we owe it to St. Benedict that the monasteries were the homes of practical agriculturalists, as well as of saints and of artists and men of learning. The alliance of science with technology, by which learning is kept in contact with irreducible and stubborn facts, owes much to the practical bent of the early Benedictines. Modern science derives from Rome as well as from Greece, and this Roman strain explains its gain in an energy of thought kept closely in contact with the world of facts.

But the influence of this contact between the monasteries and the facts of nature showed itself first in art. The rise of Naturalism in the later Middle Ages was the entry into the European mind of the final ingredient necessary for the rise of science. It was the rise of interest in natural objects and in natural occurrences, for their own sakes. The natural foliage of a district was sculptured in out-of-the-way spots of the later buildings, merely as exhibiting delight in those familiar objects. The whole atmosphere of every art exhibited a direct joy in the apprehension of the things which lie around us. The craftsmen who executed the late medieval decorative sculpture, Giotto, Chaucer, Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, and, at the present day, the New England Poet Robert Frost, are all akin to each other in this respect. The simple immediate facts are the topics of interest, and these reappear in the thought of science as the ‘irreducible stubborn facts.’

The mind of Europe was now prepared for its new venture of thought. It is unnecessary to tell in detail the various incidents which marked the rise of science: the growth of wealth and leisure; the expansion of universities; the invention of printing; the taking of Constantinople; Copernicus; Vasco da Gama; Columbus; the telescope. The soil, the climate, the seeds, were there, and the forest grew. Science has never shaken off the impress of its origin in the historical revolt of the later Renaissance. It has remained predominantly an anti-rationalistic movement, based upon a naive faith. What reasoning it has wanted, has been borrowed from mathematics which is a surviving relic of Greek rationalism, following the deductive method. Science repudiates philosophy. In other words, it has never cared to justify its faith or to explain its meanings; and has remained blandly indifferent to its refutation by Hume.

Of course, the historical revolt was fully justified. It was wanted. It was more than wanted: it was an absolute necessity for healthy progress. The world required centuries of contemplation of irreducible and stubborn facts. It is difficult for men to do more than one thing at a time, and that was the sort of thing they had to do after the rationalistic orgy of the Middle Ages. It was a very sensible reaction; but it was not a protest on behalf of reason.

There is, however, a Nemesis which waits upon those who deliberately avoid avenues of knowledge. Oliver Cromwell’s cry echoes down the ages, ‘My brethren, by the bowels of Christ I beseech you, bethink you that you may be mistaken.’

The progress of science has now reached a turning point. The stable foundations of physics have broken up: also for the first time physiology is asserting itself as an effective body of knowledge, as distinct from a scrap-heap. The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible. Time, space, matter, material, ether, electricity, mechanism, organism, configuration, structure, pattern, function, all require reinterpretation. What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation when you do not know what you mean by mechanics?

The truth is that science started its modern career by taking over ideas derived from the weakest side of the philosophies of Aristotle’s successors. In some respects it was a happy choice. It enabled the knowledge of the seventeenth century to be formularised so far as physics and chemistry were con- cerned, with a completeness which has lasted to the present time. But the progress of biology and psychology has probably been checked by the uncritical assumption of half-truths. If science is not to degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses, it must become philosophical and must enter upon a thorough criticism of its own foundations.

In the succeeding lectures of this course, I shall trace the successes and the failures of the particular conceptions of cosmology with which the European inteliect has clothed itself in the last three centuries. General climates of opinion persist for periods of about two to three generations, that is to say, for periods of sixty to a hundred years. There are also shorter waves of thought, which play on the surface of the tidal movement. We shall find, therefore, transformations in the European outlook, slowly modifying the successive centuries. There persists, however, throughout the whole period the fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread throughout space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ‘scientific materialism.’ Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived. It is not wrong, if properly construed. If we confine ourselves to certain types of facts, abstracted from the complete circumstances in which they occur, the materialistic assumption expresses these facts to perfection. But when we pass beyond the abstraction, either by more subtle employment of our senses, or by the request for meanings and for coherence of thoughts, the scheme breaks down at once. The narrow efficiency of the scheme was the very cause of its supreme methodological success. For it directed attention to just those groups of facts which, in the state of knowledge then existing, required investigation. The success of the scheme has adversely affected the various currents of European thought. The historical revolt was anti-rationalistic, because the rationalism of the scholastics required a sharp correction by contact with brute fact. But the revival of philosophy in the hands of Descartes and his successors was entirely coloured in its development by the acceptance of the scientific cosmology at its face value. The success of their ultimate ideas confirmed scientists in their refusal to modify them as the result of an enquiry into their rationality. Every philosophy was bound in some way or other to swallow them whole. Also the example of science affected other regions of thought. The historical revolt has thus been exaggerated into the exclusion of philosophy from its proper role of harmonising the various abstractions of methodological thought. Thought is abstract; and the intolerant use of abstractions is the major vice of the intellect. This vice is not wholly corrected by the recurrence to concrete experience. For after all, you need only attend to those aspects of your concrete experience which lie within some limited scheme. There are two methods for the purification of ideas. One of them is dispassionate observation by means of the bodily senses. But observation is selection. Accordingly, it is difficult to transcend a scheme of abstraction whose success is sufficiently wide. The other method is by comparing the various schemes of abstraction which are well founded in our various types of experience. This comparison takes the form of satisfying the demands of the Italian scholastic divines whom Paul Sarpi mentioned. They asked that reason should be used. Faith in reason is the trust that the ultimate natures of things lie together in a harmony which excludes mere arbi- trariness. It is the faith that at the base of things we shall not find mere arbitrary mystery. The faith in the order of nature which has made possible the growth of science is a particular example of a deeper faith. This faith cannot be justified by any inductive generalisation. It springs from direct inspection of the nature of things as disclosed in our own immediate present experience. ‘There is no parting from your own shadow. To experience this faith is to know that in being ourselves we are more than ourselves: to know that our experience, dim and fragmentary as it is, yet sounds the utmost depths of reality: to know that detached details merely in order to be themselves demand that they should find themselves in a system of things: to know that this system includes the harmony of logical rationality, and the harmony of aesthetic achievement: to know that, while the harmony of logic lies upon the universe as an iron necessity, the aesthetic harmony stands before it as a living ideal moulding the general flux in its broken progress towards finer, subtler issues.




THE science of Pure Mathematics, in its modern developments, may claim to be the most original creation of the human spirit. Another claimant for this position is music. But we will put aside all rivals, and consider the ground on which such a claim can be made for mathematics. The original- ity of mathematics consists in the fact that in math- ematical science connections between things are exhibited which, apart from the agency of human reason, are extremely unobvious. Thus the ideas, now in the minds of contemporary mathematicians, lie very remote from any notions which can be imme- diately derived by perception through the senses; unless indeed it be perception stimulated and guided by antecedent mathematical knowledge. This is the thesis which I proceed to exemplify.

Suppose we project our imagination backwards through many thousands of years, and endeavour to realise the simple-mindedness of even the great- est intellects in those early societies. Abstract ideas which to us are immediately obvious must have been, for them, matters only of the most dim apprehen- sion. For example take the question of number. We think of the number ‘five’ as applying to appro-



priate groups of any entities whatsoever—to five fishes, five children, five apples, five days. Thus in considering the relations of the number ‘five’ to the number ‘three,’ we are thinking of two groups of things, one with five members and the other with three members. But we are entirely abstracting from any consideration of any particular entities, or even of any particular sorts of entities, which go to make up the membership of either of the two groups. We are merely thinking of those relation- ships between those two groups which are entirely independent of the individual essences of any of the members of either group. This is a very remarkable feat of abstraction; and it must have taken ages for the human race to rise to it. During a long period, groups of fishes will have been com- pared to each other in respect to their multiplicity, and groups of days to each other. But the first man who noticed the analogy between a group of seven fishes and a group of seven days made a nota- ble advance in the history of thought. He was the first man who entertained a concept belonging to the science of pure mathematics. At that moment it must have been impossible for him to divine the complexity and subtlety of these abstract mathe- matical ideas which were waiting for discovery. Nor could he have guessed that these notions would exert a widespread fascination in each succeeding generation. There is an erroneous literary tradi- tion which represents the love of mathematics as a monomania confined to a few eccentrics in each gen- eration. But be this as it may, it would have been impossible to anticipate the pleasure derivable from


a type of abstract thinking which had no counterpart in the then-existing society. ‘Thirdly, the tremen- dous future effect of mathematical knowledge on the lives of men, on their daily avocations, on their habitual thoughts, on the organization of society, must have been even more completely shrouded from the foresight of those early thinkers. Even now there is a very wavering grasp of the true posi- tion of mathematics as an element in the history of thought. I will not go so far as to say that to cons:ruct a history of thought without profound study of the mathematical ideas of successive epochs is like omitting Hamlet from the play which is named after him. That would be claiming too much. But it is certainly analogous to cutting out the part of Ophelia. This simile is singularly exact. For Ophelia is quite essential to the play, she is very charming——and a little mad. Let us grant that the pursuit of mathematics is a divine madness of the human spirit, a refuge from the goading urgency of contingent happenings.

When we think of mathematics, we have in our mind a science devoted to the exploration of num- ber, quantity, geometry, and in modern times also including investigation into yet more abstract con- cepts of order, and into analogous types of purely logical relations. The point of mathematics is that in it we have always got rid of the particular instance, and even of any particular sorts of entities. So that for example, no mathematical truths apply merely to fish, or merely to stones, or merely to colours. So long as you are dealing with pure math- ematics, you are in the realm of complete and abso-


lute abstraction. All you assert is, that reason insists on the admission that, if any entities what- ever have any relations which satisfy such-and-such purely abstract conditions, then they must have other relations which satisfy other purely abstract conditions.

Mathematics is thought moving in the sphere of complete abstraction from any particular instance of what it is talking about. So far is this view of mathematics from being obvious, that we can easily assure ourselves that it is not, even now, gen- erally understood. For example, it is habitually thought that the certainty of mathematics is a reason for the certainty of our geometrical knowledge of the space of the physical universe. ‘This is a delu- sion which has vitiated much philosophy in the past, and some philosophy in the present. ‘This question of geometry is a test case of some urgency. There are certain alternative sets of purely abstract con- ditions possible for the relationship of groups of unspecified entities, which I will call geometrical conditions. I give them this name because of their general analogy to those conditions, which we believe to hold respecting the particular geometrical relations of things observed by us in our direct per- ception of nature. So far as our observations are concerned, we are not quite accurate enough to be certain of the exact conditions regulating the things we come across in nature. But we can by a slight stretch of hypothesis identify these observed condi- tions with some one set of the purely abstract geo- metrical conditions. In doing so, we make a par- ticular determination of the group of unspecified


entities which are the relata in the abstract science. In the pure mathematics of geometrical relation- ships, we say that, if any group entities enjoy any relationships among its members satisfying this set of abstract geometrical conditions, then such-and- such additional abstract conditions must also hold for such relationships. But when we come to physi- cal space, we say that some definitely observed group of physical entities enjoys some definitely observed relationships among its members which do satisfy tunis above-mentioned set of abstract geomet- rical conditions. We thence conclude that the addi- tional relationships which we concluded to hold in any such case, must therefore hold in this particular case.

The certainty of mathematics depends upon its complete abstract generality. But we can have no a priori certainty that we are right in believing that the observed entities in the concrete universe form a particular instance of what falls under our general reasoning. To take another example from arith- metic. It is a general abstract truth of pure math- ematics that any group of forty entities can be sub- divided into two groups of twenty entities. We are therefore justified in concluding that a particular group of apples which we believe to contain forty members can be subdivided into two groups of apples of which each contains twenty members. But there always remains the possibility that we have miscounted the big group; so that, when we come in practice to subdivide it, we shall find that one of the two heaps has an apple too few or an apple too many.


Accordingly, in criticising an argument based upon the application of mathematics to particular matters of fact there are always three processes to be kept perfectly distinct in our minds. We must first scan the purely mathematical reasoning to make sure that there are no mere slips in it— no casual illogicalities due to mental failure. Any mathematician knows from bitter experience that, in first elaborating a train of reasoning, it is very easy to commit a slight error which yet makes all the difference. But when a piece of mathematics has been revised, and has been before the expert world for some time, the chance of a casual error is almost negligible. The next process is to make quite certain of all the abstract conditions which have been presupposed to hold. This is the deter- mination of the abstract premises from which the mathematical reasoning proceeds. This is a matter of considerable difficulty. In the past quite remark- able oversights have been made, and have been accepted by generations of the greatest mathemati- cians. The chief danger is that of oversight, namely, tacitly to introduce some condition, which it is natural for us to presuppose, but which in fact need not always be holding. There is another oppo- site oversight in this connection which does not lead to error, but only to lack of simplification. It is very easy to think that more postulated conditions are required than is in fact the case. In other words, we may think that some abstract postulate is nec- essary which is in fact capable of being proved from the other postulates that we have already on hand. The only effects of this excess of abstract postulates


are to diminish our aesthetic pleasure in the mathe- matical reasoning, and to give us more trouble when we come to the third process of criticism.

This third process of criticism is that of verifying that our abstract postulates hold for the particular case in question. It is in respect to this process of verification for the particular case that all the trouble arises. In some simple instances, such as the counting of forty apples, we can with a little care arrive at practical certainty. But in general, with more complex instances, complete certainty is unat- tainable. Volumes, libraries of volumes, have been written on the subject. It is the battle ground of rival philosophers. There are two distinct ques- tions involved. There are particular definite things observed, and we have to make sure that the rela- tions between these things really do obey certain definite exact abstract conditions. There is great room for error here. The exact observational methods of science are all contrivances for limiting these erroneous conclusions as to direct matters of fact. But another question arises. The things directly observed are, almost always, only samples. We want to conclude that the abstract conditions, which hold for the samples, also hold for all other entities which, for some reason or other, appear to us to be of the same sort. This process of reason- ing from the sample to the whole species is Induc- tion. The theory of Induction is the despair of philosophy—and yet all our activities are based upon it. Anyhow, in criticising a mathematical con- clusion as to a particular matter of fact, the real difficulties consist in finding out the abstract assump-


tions involved, and in estimating the evidence for their applicability to the particular case in hand.

It often happens, therefore, that in criticising a learned book of applied mathematics, or a memoir, one’s whole trouble is with the first chapter, or even with the first page. For it is there, at the very outset, where the author will probably be found to slip in his assumptions. Farther, the trouble is not with what the author does say, but with what he does not say. Also it is not with what he knows he has assumed, but with what he has unconsciously assumed. We do not doubt the author’s honesty. It is his perspicacity which we are criticising. Each generation criticises the unconscious assumptions made by its parents. It may assent to them, but it brings them out in the open.

The history of the development of language illus- trates this point. It is a history of the progressive analysis of ideas. Latin and Greek were inflected languages. This means that they express an unana- lysed complex of ideas by the mere modification of a word; whereas in English, for example, we use prepositions and auxiliary verbs to drag into the open the whole bundle of ideas involved. For cer- tain forms of literary art—though not always— the compact absorption of auxiliary ideas into the main word may be an advantage. But in a language such as English there is the overwhelming gain in explicitness. This increased explicitness is a more complete exhibition of the various abstractions involved in the complex idea which is the meaning of the sentence.

By comparison with language, we can now see


what is the function in thought which is performed by pure mathematics. It is a resolute attempt to go the whole way in the direction of complete analysis, so as to separate the elements of mere matter of fact from the purely abstract conditions which they exemplify.

The habit of such analysis enlightens every act of the functioning of the human mind. It first (by isolating it) emphasizes the direct aesthetic appre- ciation of the content of experience. This direct appreciation means an apprehension of what this experience is in itself in its own particular essence, including its immediate concrete values. ‘This is a question of direct experience, dependent upon sensi- tive subtlety. ‘There is then the abstraction of the particular entities involved, viewed in themselves, and as apart from that particular occasion of experi- ence in which we are then apprehending them. Lastly there is the further apprehension of the abso- lutely general conditions satisfied by the particular relations of those entities as in that experience. These conditions gain their generality from the fact that they are expressible without reference to those particular relations or to those particular relata which occur in that particular occasion of experi- ence. They are conditions which might hold for an indefinite variety of other occasions, involving other entities and other relations between them. Thus these conditions are perfectly general because they refer to no particular occasion, and to no particular entities (such as green, or blue, or trees) which enter into a variety of occasions, and to no particular relationships between such entities.


There is, however, a limitation to be made to the generality of mathematics; it is a qualification which applies equally to all general statements. No state- ment, except one, can be made respecting any remote occasion which enters into no relationship with the immediate occasion so as to form a constitutive ele- ment of the essence of that immediate occasion. By the ‘immediate occasion’ I mean that occasion which involves as an ingredient the individual act of judg- ment in question. The one excepted statement is: —If anything out of relationship, then complete ignorance as to it. Here by ‘ignorance,’ I mean ignorance; accordingly no advice can be given as to how to expect it, or to treat it, in ‘practice’ or in any other way. Either we know something of the remote occasion by the cognition which is itself an element of the immediate occasion, or we know nothing. Accordingly the full universe, disclosed for every variety of experience, is a universe in which every detail enters into its proper relation- ship with the immediate occasion. The generality of mathematics is the most complete generality con- sistent with the community of occasions which con- stitutes our metaphysical situation.

It is further to be noticed that the particular entities require these general conditions for their ingression into any occasions; but the same general conditions may be required by many types of par- ticular entities. This fact, that the general condi- tions transcend any one set of particular entities, is the ground for the entry into mathematics, and into mathematical logic, of the notion of the ‘varia- ble.’ It is by the employment of this notion that


general conditions are investigated without any specification of particular entities. This irrelevance of the particular entities has not been generally understood: for example, the shape-iness of shapes, é.g., circularity and sphericity and cubicality as in actual experience, do not enter into the geometrical reasoning.

The exercise of logical reason is always concerned with these absolutely general conditions. In its broadest sense, the discovery of mathematics is the discovery that the totality of these general abstract conditions, which are concurrently applicable to the relationships among the entities of any one concrete occasion, are themselves inter-connected in the man- ner of a pattern with a key to it. This pattern of relationships among general abstract conditions is imposed alike on external reality, and on our abstract representations of it, by the general necessity that every thing must be just its own individual self, with its own individual way of differing from every- thing else. This is nothing else than the neces- sity of abstract logic, which is the presupposition involved in the very fact of inter-related existence as disclosed in each immediate occasion of experi- ence.

The key to the patterns means this fact:—that from a select set of those general conditions, exem- plified in any one and the same occasion, a pattern involving an infinite variety of other such conditions, also exemplified in the same occasion, can be devel- oped by the pure exercise of abstract logic. Any such select set is called the set of postulates, or premises, from which the reasoning proceeds. ‘The


reasoning is nothing else than the exhibition of the whole pattern of general conditions involved in the pattern derived from the selected postulates.

The harmony of the logical reason, which divines the complete pattern as involved in the postulates, is the most general aesthetic property arising from the mere fact of concurrent existence in the unity of one occasion. Wherever there is a unity of occa- sion there is thereby established an aesthetic rela- tionship between the general conditions involved in that occasion. ‘This aesthetic relationship is that which is divined in the exercise of rationality. Whatever falls within that relationship is thereby exemplified in that occasion, whatever falls without that relationship is thereby excluded from exempli- fication in that occasion. The complete pattern of general conditions, thus exemplified, is determined by any one of many select sets of these conditions. These key sets are sets of equivalent postulates. This reasonable harmony of being, which is re- quired for the unity of a-complex occasion, together with the completeness of the realisation (in that occasion) of all that is involved in its logical har- mony, is the primary article of metaphysical doc- trine. It means that for things to be together involves that they are reasonably together. ‘This means that thought can penetrate into every occa- sion of fact, so that by comprehending its key conditions, the whole complex of its pattern of conditions lies open before it. It comes to this: —provided we know something which is perfectly general about the elements in any occasion, we can then know an indefinite number of other


equally general concepts which must also be exem- plified in that same occasion. The logical harmony involved in the unity of an occasion is both exclusive and inclusive. The occasion must exclude the inhar- monious, and it must include the harmonious. Pythagoras was the first man who had any grasp of the full sweep of this general principle. He lived in the sixth century before Christ. Our knowledge of him is fragmentary. But we know some points which establish his greatness in the history of thought. He insisted on the importance of the utmost generality in reasoning, and he divined the importance of number as an aid to the construction of any representation of the conditions involved in the order of nature. We know also that he studied geometry, and discovered the general proof of the remarkable theorem about right-angled triangles. The formation of the Pythagorean Brotherhood, and the mysterious rumours as to its rites and its influence, afford some evidence that Pythagoras divined, however dimly, the possible importance of mathematics in the formation of science. On the side of philosophy he started a discussion which has agitated thinkers ever since. He asked, ‘What is the status of mathematical entities, such as numbers for example, in the realm of things?’ The number ‘two,’ for example, is in some sense exempt from the flux of time and the necessity of position in space. Yet it is involved in the real world. The same considerations apply to geometrical notions— to circular shape, for example. Pythagoras is said to have taught that the mathematical entities, such as numbers and shapes, were the ultimate stuff out


of which the real entities of our perceptual experi- ence are constructed. As thus baldly stated, the idea seems crude, and indeed silly. But undoubtedly, he had hit upon a philosophical notion of considerable importance; a notion which has a long history, and which has moved the minds of men, and has even entered into Christian theology. About a thousand years separate the Athanasian Creed from Pythag- oras, and about two thousand four hundred years separate Pythagoras from Hegel. Yet for all these distances in time, the importance of definite number in the constitution of the Divine Nature, and the concept of the real world as exhibiting the evolution of an idea, can both be traced back to the train of thought set going by Pythagoras.

The importance of an individual thinker owes something to chance. For it depends upon the fate of his ideas in the minds of his successors. In this respect Pythagoras was fortunate. His philosophi- cal speculations reach us through the mind of Plato. The Platonic world of ideas is the refined, revised form of the Pythagorean doctrine that number lies at the base of the real world. Owing to the Greek mode of representing numbers by patterns of dots, the notions of number and of geometrical configura- tion are less separated than with us. Also Pythag- oras, without doubt, included the shape-iness of shape, which is an impure mathematical entity. So to-day, when Einstein and his followers proclaim that physical facts, such as gravitation, are to be construed as exhibitions of local peculiarities of spatio-temporal properties, they are following the pure Pythagorean tradition. In a sense, Plato and


Pythagoras stand nearer to modern physical science than does Aristotle. The two former were mathe- maticians, whereas Aristotle was the son of a doctor, though of course he was not thereby ignorant of mathematics. The practical counsel to be derived from Pythagoras, is to measure, and thus to express quality in terms of numerically determined quan- tity. But the biological sciences, then and till our own time, have been overwhelmingly classificatory. Accordingly, Aristotle by his Logic throws the emphasis on classification. The popularity of Aris- totelian Logic retarded the advance of physical sci- ence throughout the Middle Ages. If only the schoolmen had measured instead of classifying, how much they might have learnt!

Classification is a halfway house beewesn the immediate concreteness of the individual thing and the complete abstraction of mathematical notions. The species take account of the specific character, and the genera of the generic character. But in the procedure of relating mathematical notions to the’ facts of nature, by counting, by measurement, and by geometrical relations, and by types of order, the rational contemplation is lifted from the incomplete abstractions involved in definite species and genera, to the complete abstractions of mathematics. Classi- fication is necessary. But unless you can progress” from classification to mathematics, your reasoning will not take you very far.

Between the epoch which stretches from Pythag- oras to Plato and the epoch comprised in the seven- teenth century of the modern world nearly two thousand years elapsed. In this long interval matb-


ematics had made immense strides. Geometry had gained the study of conic sections and trigonometry ; the method of exhaustion had almost anticipated the integral calculus; and above all the Arabic arith- metical notation and algebra had been contributed by Asiatic thought. But the progress was on tech- nical lines. Mathematics, as a formative element in the development of philosophy, never, during this long period, recovered from its deposition at the hands of Aristotle. Some of the old ideas derived from the Pythagorean-Platonic epoch lingered on, and can be traced among the Platonic influences which shaped the first period of evolution of Chris- tian theology. But philosophy received no fresh inspiration from the steady advance of mathematical science. In the seventeenth century the influence of Aristotle was at its lowest, and mathematics recov- ered the importance of its earlier period. It was an age of great physicists and great philosophers; and the physicists and philosophers were alike mathema- ticians. The exception of John Locke should be made; although he was greatly influenced by the Newtonian circle of the Royal Society. In the age of Galileo, Descartes, Spinoza, Newton, and Leib- niz, mathematics was an influence of the first magni- tude in the formation of philosophic ideas. But the mathematics, which now emerged into prominence, was a very different science from the mathematics of the earlier epoch. It had gained in generality, and had started upon its almost incredible modern career of piling subtlety of generalization upon sub- tlety of generalization; and of finding, with each growth of complexity, some new application, either


to physical science, or to philosophic thought. The Arabic notation had equipped the science with almost perfect technical efficiency in the manipula- tion of numbers. This relief from a struggle with arithmetical details (as instanced, for example, in the Egyptian arithmetic of B. C. 1600) gave room for a development which had already been faintly anticipated in later Greek mathematics. Algebra now came upon the scene, and algebra is a generali- sation of arithmetic. In the same way as the notion of numter abstracted from reference to any one particular set of entities, so in algebra abstraction is made from the notion of any particular numbers. Just as the number ‘5’ refers impartially to any group of five entities, so in algebra the letters are used to refer impartially to any number, with the proviso that each letter is to refer to the same num- ber throughout the same context of its employment.

This usage was first employed in equations, which are methods of asking complicated arithmetical ques- tions. In this connection, the letters representing numbers were termed ‘unknowns.’ But equations soon suggested a new idea, that, namely, of a func- tion of one or more general symbols, these symbols being letters representing any numbers. In this employment the algebraic letters are called the ‘arguments’ of the function, or sometimes they are called the ‘variables.’ Then, for instance, if an angle is represented by an algebraical letter, as standing for its numerical measure in terms of a given unit, Trigonometry is absorbed into this new algebra. Algebra thus develops into the general science of analysis in which we consider the prop-


erties of various functions of undetermined argu- ments. Finally the particular functions, such as the trigonometrical functions, and the logarithmic func- tions, and the algebraic functions, are generalised into the idea of ‘any function.’ Too large a gener- alisation leads to mere barrenness. It is the large generalisation, limited by a happy particularity, which is the fruitful conception. For instance the idea of any continuous function, whereby the limi- tation of continuity is introduced, is the fruitful idea which has led to most of the important appli- cations. ‘This rise of algebraic analysis was con- current with Descartes’ discovery of analytical geom- etry, and then with the invention of the infinitesimal calculus by Newton and Leibniz. Truly, Pythag- oras, if he could have foreseen the issue of the train of thought which he had set going would have felt himself fully justified in his brotherhood with its excitement of mysterious rites.

The point which I now want to make is that this dominance of the idea of functionality in the abstract sphere of mathematics found itself reflected in the order of nature under the guise of mathematically expressed laws of nature. Apart from this progress of mathematics, the seventeenth century develop- ments of science would have been impossible. Math- ematics supplied the background of imaginative thought with which the men of science approached the observation of nature. Galileo produced form- ulae, Descartes produced formulae, Huyghens pro- duced formulae, Newton produced formulae.

As a particular example of the effect of the abstract development of mathematics upon the sci-


ence of those times, consider the notion of periodic- ity. The general recurrences of things are very obvious in our ordinary experience. Days recur, lunar phases recur, the seasons of the year recur, rotating bodies recur to their old positions, beats of the heart recur, breathing recurs. On every side, we are met by recurrence. Apart from recurrence, knowledge would be impossible; for nothing could be referred to our past experience. Also, apart from some regularity of recurrence, measurement would be impossible. In our experience, as we gain the idea of exactness, recurrence is fundamental. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the theory of periodicity took a fundamental place in science. Kepler divined a law connecting the major axes of the planetary orbits with the periods in which the planets respectively described their orbits: Galileo observed the periodic vibrations of pendu- lums: Newton explained sound as being due to the disturbance of air by the passage through it of periodic waves of condensation and rarefaction: Huyghens explained light as being due to the trans- verse waves of vibration of a subtle ether: Mer- senne connected the period of the vibration of a violin string with its density, tension, and length. The birth of modern physics depended upon the application of the abstract idea of periodicity to a variety of concrete instances. But this would have been impossible, unless mathematicians had already worked out in the abstract the various abstract ideas which cluster round the notions of periodicity. The science of trigonometry arose from that of the relations of the angles of a right-angled triangle,


to the ratios between the sides and hypotenuse of the triangle. Then, under the influence of the newly discovered mathematical science of the anal- ysis of functions, it broadened out into the study of the simple abstract periodic functions which these ratios exemplify. Thus trigonometry became com- pletely abstract; and in thus becoming abstract, it became useful. It illuminated the underlying anal- ogy between sets of utterly diverse physical phenom- ena; and at the same time it supplied the weapons by which any one such set could have its various features analysed and related to each other.*

Nothing is more impressive than the fact that as mathematics withdrew increasingly into the upper regions of ever greater extremes of abstract thought, it returned back to earth with a corresponding growth of importance for the analysis of concrete fact. The history of the seventeenth century science reads as though it were some vivid dream of Plato or Pythagoras. In this characteristic the seven- teenth century was only the forerunner of its suc- cessors.

The paradox is now fully established that the utmost abstractions are the true weapons with which to control our thought of concrete fact. As the result of the prominence of mathematicians in the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century was mathematically minded, more especially where French influence predominated. An exception must be made of the English empiricism derived from

*For a more detailed consideration of the nature and function of pure mathematics cf. my Introduction to Mathematics, Home University Library, Williams and Norgate, London,


Locke. Outside France, Newton’s direct influence on philosophy is best seen in Kant, and not in Hume. In the nineteenth century, the general influence of mathematics waned. The romantic movement in literature, and the idealistic movement in phi- losophy were not the products of mathematical minds. Also, even in science, the growth of geology, of zoology, and of the biological sciences generally, was in each case entirely disconnected from any ref- erence to mathematics. The chief scientific excite- ment of che century was the Darwinian theory of evolution. Accordingly, mathematicians were in the background so far as the general thought of that age was concerned. But this does not mean that mathematics was being neglected, or even that it was uninfluential. During the nineteenth century pure mathematics made almost as much progress as dur- ing all the preceding centuries from Pythagoras onwards. Of course progress was easier, because the technique had been perfected. But allowing for that, the change in mathematics between the years 1800 and 1900 is very remarkable. If we add in the previous hundred years, and take the two cen- turies preceding the present time, one is almost tempted to date the foundation of mathematics somewhere in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. The period of the discovery of the ele- ments stretches from Pythagoras to Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz, and the developed science has been created during the last two hundred and fifty years. This is not a boast as to the superior genius of the modern world; for it is harder to dis- cover the elements than to develop the science.


Throughout the nineteenth century, the influence of the science was its influence on dynamics and physics, and thence derivatively on engineering and chemistry. It is difficult to overrate its indirect influence on human life through the medium of these sciences. But there was no direct influence of mathe- matics upon the general thought of the age.

In reviewing this rapid sketch of the influence of mathematics throughout European history, we see that it had two great periods of direct influence upon general thought, both periods lasting for about two hundred years. The first period was that stretching from Pythagoras to Plato, when the pos. sibility of the science, and its general character, first dawned upon the Grecian thinkers. The second period comprised the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of our modern epoch. Both periods had certain common characteristics. In the earlier, as in the later period, the general categories of thought in many spheres of human interest, were in a state of disintegration. In the age of Pythagoras, the unconscious Paganism, with its traditional clothing of beautiful ritual and of magical rites, was passing into a new phase under two influences. There were waves of religious enthusiasm, seeking direct enlight- enment into the secret. depths of being; and at the opposite pole, there was the awakening of critical analytical thought, probing with cool dispassionate- ness into ultimate meanings. In both influences, so diverse in their outcome, there was one common element—an awakened curiosity, and a movement towards the reconstruction of traditional ways. The pagan mysteries may be compared to the Puri-


tan reaction and to the Catholic reaction; critical scientific interest was alike in both epochs, though with minor differences of substantial importance.

In each age, the earlier stages were placed in periods of rising prosperity, and of new opportuni- ties. In this respect, they differed from the period of gradual declension in the second and third cen- turies when Christianity was advancing to the con- quest of the Roman world. It is only in a period, fortunate both in its opportunities for disengage- ment from the immediate pressure of circumstances, and in its eager curiosity, that the Age-Spirit can undertake any direct revision of those final abstrac- tions which lie hidden in the more concrete concepts from which the serious thought of an age takes its start. In the rare periods when this task can be undertaken, mathematics becomes relevant to phil- osophy. For mathematics is the science of the most complete abstractions to which the human mind can attain.

The parallel between the two epochs must not be pressed too far. The modern world is larger and more complex than the ancient civilisation round the shores of the Mediterranean, or even than that of the Europe which sent Columbus and the Pilgrim Fathers across the ocean. We cannot now explain our age by some simple formula which becomes dominant and will then be laid to rest for a thou- sand years. Thus the temporary submergence of the mathematical mentality from the time of Rous- seau onwards appears already to be at anend. We are entering upon an age of reconstruction, in reli- gion, in science, and in political thought. Such ages,


if they are to avoid mere ignorant oscillation be- tween extremes, must seek truth in its ultimate depths. There can be no vision of this depth of truth apart from a philosophy which takes full account of those ultimate abstractions, whose inter- connections it is the business of mathematics to explore.

In order to explain exactly how mathematics is gaining in general importance at the present time, let us start from a particular scientific perplexity and consider the notions to which we are naturally led by some attempt to unravel its difficulties. At present physics is troubled by the quantum theory. I need not now explain * what this theory is, to those who are not already familiar with it. But the point is that one of the most hopeful lines of explanation is to assume that an electron does not continuously traverse its path in space. The alternative notion as to its mode of existence is that it appears at a series of discrete positions in space which it occupies for successive durations of time. It is as though an automobile, moving at the average rate of thirty miles an hour along a road, did not traverse the road continuously; but appeared successively at the successive milestones, remaining for two minutes at each milestone.

{n the first place there is required the purely technical use of mathematics to determine whether this conception does in fact explain the many per- plexing characteristics of the quantum theory. If the notion survives this test, undoubtedly physics wili adopt it. So far the question is purely one for

* Cf. Chapter VIII.


mathematics and physical science to settle between them, on the basis of mathematical calculations and physical observations.

But now a problem is handed over to the philoso: phers. This discontinuous existence in space, thus assigned to electrons, is very unlike the continuous existence of material entities which we habitually assume as obvious. The electron seems to be bor- rowing the character which some people have as- signed to the Mahatmas of Tibet. These electrons, with the correlative protons, are now conceived as being the fundamental entities out of which the material bodies of ordinary experience are com- posed. Accordingly if this explanation is allowed, we have to revise all our notions of the ultimate character of material existence. For when we penetrate to these final entities, this startling discontinuity of spatial existence discloses itself.

There is no difficulty in explaining the paradox, if we consent to apply to the apparently steady un- differentiated endurance of matter the same prin- ciples as those now accepted for sound and light. A steadily sounding note is explained as the outcome of vibrations in the air: a steady colour is explained as the outcome of vibrations in ether. If we explain the steady endurance of matter on the same prin- ciple, we shall conceive each primordial element as a vibratory ebb and flow of an underlying energy, or activity. Suppose we keep to the physical idea of energy: then each primordial element will be an organised system of vibratory streaming of energy. Accordingly there will be a definite period asso- ciated with each element; and within that period the


stream-system will sway from one stationary maxi- mum to another stationary maximum—or, taking a metaphor from the ocean tides, the system will sway from one high tide to another high tide. This system, forming the primordial element, is nothing at any instant. It requires its whole period in which to manifest itself. In an analogous way, a note of music is nothing at an instant, but it also requires its whole period in which to manifest itself.

Accordingly, in asking where the primordial ele- “ment is, we must settle on its average position at the centre of each period. If we divide time into smaller elements, the vibratory system as one elec- tronic entity has no existence. The path in space of such a vibratory entity—where the entity is con- stituted by the vibrations—must be represented by a series of detached positions in space, analogously to the automobile which is found at successive milestones and at nowhere between.

We first must ask whether there is any evidence to associate the quantum theory with vibration. This question is immediately answered in the affiirm- ative. The whole theory centres round the radiant energy from an atom, and is intimately associated with the periods of the radiant wave-systems. It seems, therefore, that the hypothesis of essentially vibratory existence is the most hopeful way of explaining the paradox of the discontinuous orbit.

In the second place, a new problem is now placed before philosophers and physicists, if we entertain the hypothesis that the ultimate elements of matter are in their essence vibratory. By this I mean that apart from being a periodic system, such an element



would have no existence. With this hypothesis we have to ask, what are the ingredients which form the vibratory organism. We have already got rid of the matter with its appearance of undifferentiated endurance. Apart from some metaphysical com- pulsion, there is no reason to provide another more subtle stuff to take the place of the matter which has just been explained away. The field is now open for the introduction of some new doctrine of organ- ism which may take the place of the materialism with which, since the seventeenth century, science has saddled philosophy. It must be remembered that the physicists’ energy is obviously an abstraction. The concrete fact, which is the organism, must be a complete expression of the character of a real occurrence. Such a displacement of scientific mater- ialism, if it ever takes place, cannot fail to have important consequences in every field of thought.

Finally, our last reflection must be, that we have in the end come back to a version of the doctrine of old Pythagoras, from whom mathematics, and nathematical physics, took their rise. He discov- ered the importance of dealing with abstractions; and in particular directed attention to number as characterising the periodicities of notes of music. The importance of the abstract idea of periodicity. was thus present at the very beginning both of mathematics and of European philosophy.

In the seventeenth century, the birth of modern science required a new mathematics, more fully equipped for the purpose of analysing the charac- teristics of vibratory existence. And now in the twentieth century we find physicists largely engaged


in analysing the periodicities of atoms. Truly, Pythagoras in founding European philosophy and European mathematics, endowed them with the luckiest of lucky guesses—or, was it a flash of divine genius, penetrating to the inmost nature of things?