Alfred North Whitehead – First Lecture at Harvard – 1924

Whitehead at Harvard, 1924-1925

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) A.N. Whitehead, Sherborne School, 1879. Alfred North Whitehead OM, FRS, FBA (1861-1947), mathematician and philosopher, co-author with Bertrand Russell of Principia Mathematica. Alfred North Whitehead is best known for his work in mathematical logic and the philosophy of science. In collaboration with Bertrand Russell, he co-authored the landmark three-volume Principia Mathematica (1910, 1912, 1913). Later, he was instrumental in pioneering the approach to metaphysics now known as process philosophy.

Brian G. Henning (ed.), Joseph Petek (ed.)



1 First Lecture: September, 1924 

Alfred North Whitehead Author Notes

Pages 41-55

Published: February 2020


This chapter is the manuscript of Whitehead’s first lecture at Harvard, delivered on September 25, 1924. Whitehead writes on its second page that ‘At the present time, if philosophy is to remain true to its task of revealing and rationalising the inner preoccupations of humanity, one strain of philosophy must start from the analysis of the presuppositions of science’. He proceeds to argue the need for examining the ‘philosophical presuppositions of science’ (which would be the title of the class), and their relationship to metaphysics and theology.

Whitehead’s own manuscript of what he delivered in his very first philosophy lecture in Emerson Hall on September 25, 1924.

“The opening lecture plunged us into a morass of absolutely unintelligible metaphysics … [Whitehead’s] longest and most difficult sentences all ended … with the gleaming words, “. .. you know.” We, of course, didn’t know anything, so far as that lecture was concerned. When the hour ended we were completely baffled and in despair about the course, but we were also all in love with Whitehead as a person, for somehow the overwhelming magic of his being had shown through. – R.W. Miller, graduate student

Victor Lowe, Alfred North Whitehead, Volume II. p. 142

Subject: Metaphysics

|1|2 My first words in this university will be expressive of personal feeling. I can discern in myself many strains of intense emotion. Among them there are two feelings to which I must give explicit expression. One of them is my sense of the honour you have conferred by your invitation to occupy a chair of philosophy in a University which, throughout its centuries of existence, has been continuously occupied with the deepest topic which can fill the mind of man: a University whose foundations were laid amidst debate on the metaphysical mysteries of Puritan theology, –

[They] reasoned high

Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate, Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute;

And found no end, in wand’ring mazes lost.-:3

A University which studied Berkeley’s doctrines before their full importance was recognised in Europe: And, to come at once to recent times, a University in which the senior portion of my audience will have listened to William James, to Hugo Munsterberg and to Josiah Royce. A man would be dull indeed who in this position did not feel emotion.

My other feeling is one of immense responsibility. I cherish to the full the implications of that ancient phrase ‘Divine Philosophy’. The Faculty of Philosophy in a great University exists to foster and to make explicit the ultimate meanings which underlie all rational activities, crafts and sciences and arts alike.

There is a meaning in things, and perplexities can be unraveled – dimly, slowly, patiently. It is not given to one man, to one nation, to one age of history, or to one school of thought, to exhaust the |2| depth and the p. 42 full-ness of reality, of all that has been, and can be, and is. I have an immense distrust of l, all-inclusive neat systems which profess to finish up the philosophical problem in well-chosen explanations. I hold that every system of philosophy, if it be properly expounded, should show on the face of it that it is dealing with a few aspects of a limitless interplay of relations. It is for this reason that the philosophy of any age is so intensely characteristic of the inward motives and outlook of that age. It emphasises4 those relations of things which fill the mind of the age. The philosophy prevalent during a period of history is the autobiography of its Time-Spirit.

At the present time, if philosophy is to remain true to its task of revealing and rationalising the inner preoccupations of humanity, one strain of philosophy must start from the analysis of the presuppositions of science. In the Graeco-Roman period of civilisation an analogous position was held by ethics; and accordingly the Stoics and the Epicureans and others started with an analysis of ethical meanings. Of course they also took account of science, and we also take account of ethics. But in our day a dominant emphasis may be claimed for Science; and until we can feel our way towards a rationalisation of scientific thought, we cannot lie easy in our philosophic beds.

Now every philosophy is dominated by some type of difficulty which is in the mind of those who put forward the system. A philosophy is a solution of some ultimate problem which is crying aloud for explanation.

There is some wonder, some puzzle which disturbs the rationality of thought and demands the evolution of a point of view capable of reintroducing harmony. It is useless to expound philosophy to I3I those who have never wondered, or to those who are exclusively occupied with other aspects of the great mystery of things. Conversely, from the point of view of those who enter upon an examination of a system of philosophy, the first question to ask is, What are the peculiar difficulties of everyday thought which this philosophy is designed to resolve? Every philosophy is a riddle until that question has been answered. Accordingly in this lecture I propose to touch upon some of the philosophical difficulties which immediately press upon us when we consider those aspects of knowledge which are systematised in science. Of course, I cannot touch upon them all, nor can I consider them in detail. But what I can say will, as I hope, serve to lay bare the sort of difficulties which are perplexing my mind and are guiding my development of the philosophical problem. Conversely5 in my next lecture I desire to illustrate how philosophical considerations may guide us in our search for that urgent necessity, namely a re-constitution of a coherent system of assumptions for physical science. This second lecture will be more purely scientific than is usual, or even proper, for a philosophical p. 43 lecture. But I think that it will illustrate the l, possibilities of philosophy in an age when the fundamental conceptions of science are in process of re-constitution. I have planned the two lectures together so that they may jointly illustrate the practical bearing of science upon philosophy, and of philosophy upon science.

In this lecture we want to elucidate what science is in itself. We ask what is the true character of this great unexpected movement of human thought issuing in modern science. How does it arise, and what is it now that it has arisen? I call the movement ‘unexpected’ I4I because it seems impossible that men in the remote civilisations which flourished over two thousand years ago can have had the most remote anticipation that the course of history was finally to be controlled by this outgrowth of man’s curiosity.

We might take our start from an examination of the chief motives of scientific activity as they exist in the constitution of the human spirit. We should thus enter upon the subject along that line of thought which first considers how men came to think of science – having regard to what human nature is -, and thence proceed to the further consideration of what are the general characters which bind together the various strains of scientific thought.

In this lecture my starting point will be different from that of human psychology. I ask what is there in the nature of things which necessitates that science should have the general type of character which in fact it does have. The psychological starting point would propound the question, What is there in human nature which leads mankind to think of science: I ask, What is there in the nature of things which leads there to be any science – such as there in fact is – for men to think about? I start from experience, and consider what is the general character of things experienced which leads science to be what in outline it is.

Such a discussion can be initiated by touching upon some general relations of metaphysics, theology and science. As we all know, Theology has been warned off the scientific premises. About a hundred years later Metaphysics shared the same fate. As to dates, we may put the departure of Theology at the year 1600 a.d., and that of Metaphysics at the year 1700 A.D. Of course you 151 will not construe these dates too pedantically. But up to and including the sixteenth century Theology was influencing the development of scientific thought, and during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries metaphysics did not seriously affect scientific progress.

I am not counting the external collision between Science and Theology due to the current interpretations of certain chapters in the Bible; nor am I counting the unconscious metaphysical assumptions which influenced scientific hypotheses.

  1. 44 The reason for this assertion of the autonomy of Science, is, I think, to be found in this consideration. There must be complete freedom for scientific hypothesis. Any hypothesis which will work on a sufficient scale must be given its fair trial. This is the first condition of scientific progress. We could illustrate this necessity of freedom by examples of, the repudiation of the claims of one branch of Science to control other branches. But exactly the same considerations hold as between natural science in general and Theology or Metaphysics. Though we are seeking for a rational systematisation of our beliefs, we must not be over­anxious about its smooth completeness. The complexity of things is beyond our powers to cope with it. We must resign ourselves to rough edges of thought, if we are not arbitrarily to exclude inconvenient facts. I have always been struck by the extreme crudity in appearance which is characteristic of some new ideas. They may look silly, because they do not fit into our inherited system of thought. We are not used to the nomenclature which they impose.

But when we have said everything about freedom of hypothesis and the autonomy of natural science and of |6| its branches, we must come back to the fundamental fact that it is a rational synthesis that we are seeking. The unity of science over-rides all the autonomies. The autonomy of science, or of sciences, is merely a practical expedient to secure the progress of knowledge, having regard to the way human nature works. If we look to the nature of things, the truth is that all things are interconnected. There are no autonomous entities or groups of entities. If the human body is composed of compounds of carbon, it will behave as compounds of carbon do behave; and we must call in the chemist to inform us upon that question.

In conformity with this principle of unity, we must hold that Philosophy and even Theology are capable of rendering services very necessary for Natural Science, insofar as those two sciences have themselves arrived at any formulations which are sufficiently true. Furthermore, there is some cause to believe that even medieval Western Theology, obstructive as it has been over details, has in a general way in the past rendered incalculable service in fostering the scientific spirit. At the present time, there is in every country a corps of eager scientific workers. Our present epoch is a stage of utilisation, which issues in our general support of science, and in our keen sense of its importance. But this attitude is very recent.

It is true that, wherever men are civilised, there is the stage of wonder, of romance. But how does romance pass into precise investigation, and thus generate science. The spur to this transition is the unconquerable

belief that there are great simple truths dominating the complexity of appearance. Without such a belief, p. 45 what is the good of precise investigation? |y| It would l, be natural to believe that things happen one way one day, and another way another day, and that all the order there is lies on the surface of things, such as the succession of the seasons. In the great civilisations of Eastern Asia, civilisations older and more continuous than ours, when men wondered they retired to mountains and to monasteries, and continued to wonder. There was nothing else to be done.

Again even the Greeks, and the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean, from the death of Aristotle to the irruption of the Tartars and Turks in the fourteenth century, had a period of about fifteen hundred years during which under various forms of government a high civilisation prevailed generally. They were distracted by no disturbances worse than those in Europe during the seventeenth century. Yet in that one century in Europe the foundations of modern science were laid; whereas in the fifteen centuries of Levantine prosperity subsequent to the death of Aristotle, some things indeed were added to science, but very little outside mathematics.

I ask, what was the spirit, the outlook, which had gradually been acquiring strength in Western Europe, so that at the appointed moment it burst its bounds and founded modern Science.

The Chinese are at least as patient and observant as the Europeans; why did not they do it in the course of two thousand years?

The pursuit of science presumes that the nature of things is adjusted in every detail with inflexible rationality. For example, we know something of the molecular nature of chemical elements, and we observe the complexity of the lines in the spectra due |8| to light from these elements. Throughout Europe and America our spectroscopists are searching with the most detailed analysis to discover the correlations between the characteristic atom of a substance and the characteristic spectrum it emits. But why should there be any such correlation to be discovered. We do in fact believe that there is one, simply and solely because we believe that there is in every detail a rational adjustment in the properties of connected things. If a thing behaves one way at one time, and another way at another time, we believe that there are other determinate factors, which we have overlooked, to which the variation is due. Now there can be no justification for this ultimate motive towards scientific investigation, except our knowledge of something in the very nature of reality which justifies it. It is the weakness of Hume’s philosophy and of its modern derivatives that it gives no such justification. Furthermore, it gives no reason to believe that, because scientific generalisations have been discovered in the past, there are any more to be discovered in the future. Nor does this philosophy even give any reason to suppose that the generalisations which worked in the past will continue to work in the future.

  1. 46 The motive towards science must include an intimate conviction in the ultimate rationality of things in their minutest detail. A Cambridge mathematician once expressed this to me by the outburst – ‘I assume that there is a fundamental decency of things.’ Speaking generally the men of Asia generated but little science because they had a weak hold upon this fundamental decency of things. Their Theology presented them with a God either too arbitrary or too inert to make the Universe safe for decency. The 191 men of Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries inherited from the middle ages the impression of scholastic theology with its insistence upon the rationality of the nature of God. Indeed it was over­impressed upon them, so that they thought that they could deduce the motions of the planets from their knowledge of that nature, a knowledge which they sadly over-estimated. But as soon as it was realised that there was no substitute for looking at the facts, modern science was generated by this union of the method of observation with unquestioned belief in the decency of the Universe. Without Scholastic Theology it is not likely that, so far as science is concerned, Western Europe would have surpassed Eastern China. It all depended on the habit of mind which came from a belief in an active rational God who attends personally to every detail.

We are, most of us, not in a mood to receive our ideas of Providence from Scholastic Theology. But our trust in science demands a metaphysic which equally supports this belief in the coherent rationality of things.

It is one of the many great merits of Immanuel Kant as a Philosopher that, being also a Scientist, he realised that metaphysics has to satisfy this condition. You will not ask me, in an aside in this lecture, to explain the general character of the Kantian solution.

The principle on which he proceeded was to ascribe to our process of cognition, a function analogous to that exercised by Mrs. Grundy6 over morals in the social world and by the late Mr. Bowdler in his edition of Shakespeare.7 According to Kant we |io| never know the real things, but only an edition de luxe which has been expurgated into rationality.

But although nobody, so far as I am aware, takes seriously Kant’s exact theory of things in themselves, I cannot understand how anyone who lays emphasis on the problem which he set himself to solve, can doubt but that his work forms a turning point in the progress of metaphysics. The process of cognition is merely one type of relationship between things which occurs in the general becoming of reality. The becoming of relationships between things requires that the things which become related should be such as to be capable of these relations. Accordingly the fact of any particular entity forming an element in a united Universe p. 47 which is in the process of becoming, imposes U upon that Universe the obligation of being patient of it.

Thus every particular entity, by reason of what we may call its relational essence, imposes upon the rest of things a certain systematic character whereby they tolerate its possibility of reality. Kant worked out this theory for the particular case of an entity capable of the relation of cognisance in the capacity of cognisant. He asked, How is cognisance possible? I suggest to you the more general question, How is any particular, entity possible having regard to the relationships which it presupposes? It is along this line of thought that – at least in my opinion – metaphysics will be able to deal with another, and very analogous, problem for which science looks to metaphysics for explanation; I mean the problem of Inductive Logic.

Why are the generalisations of Inductive Logic sensible procedures? I do not mean what are the particular precautions to be taken in order that these generalisations may carry the greatest weight. This |11| latter problem was discussed by Mill in the famous second volume of his Logic and also by Venn in his Inductive Logic, and later by statisticians such as Karl Pearson. The problem which I am thinking of is the more fundamental one, Why should these generalisations carry any probability whatsoever, however carefully they are conducted? I have no doubt but that they ought to carry about the amount of probability which all men in practice ascribe to them. It follows therefore that a metaphysical description of the nature of things must account for the fact that inductive reasoning can give knowledge respecting the Universe.

The point is this: – How can our knowledge of one fact A give us any knowledge of another fact B which is not included in fact A? As Hume points out, it is no good protesting that no cautious reasoner does depend for his induction on one fact only. In the first place, if the one fact A can give no information of any kind as to fact B, it is quite obvious that 100 facts, A1, A2,. … A100, each of which separately has no bearing at all upon B, cannot in conjunction afford any information as to B. Hume affirms this position, and I cannot see any escape from it. Accordingly, the consideration as to how to generalise with comparative safety from a large number of particular facts – the sort of consideration which was undertaken by Bacon, and Mill, and Karl Pearson – affords no answer to this problem. We have got first to solve the preliminary problem, as to how one particular fact can afford information, however slight, about any particular fact. When we have settled this point, there can be no difficulty in understanding that 100 relevant facts can afford much more information when properly analysed. But the root question is, |12| How can one fact be relevant to another fact which is not included in it? Science collapses if you once admit an independent atomicity of facts.

  1. 48 In the second place, you do not get out of the difficulty by introducing probability. If fact A is entirely irrelevant to fact B, it can make nothing probable as to B. You can never get rid of your question, as to how particulars can be relevant to other particulars.

Thirdly, you do not get rid of the difficulty by saying that in practice nobody doubts it. We are all agreed there. We are only asking that a metaphysical description of the general nature of the Universe should account for this procedure, which is essential to science, and which is such that nobody doubts it.

Fourthly, no help is to be got by basing your trust on past experience. You can in this way explain – as Hume explained – your habit of making these generalisations. But when you are convinced of the truth of this explanation of the habit, you ought to find your belief in its rationality rather weakened than otherwise. Apparently there has been a run of luck, and the human race has slid into indefensible habits of thought. Furthermore, if the present is irrelevant to the future, the past was irrelevant to the present. Accordingly, our memory, which is a present fact, is merely delusive if we take it as giving knowledge of the past. You cannot evade accounting for the relevance of a particular fact A to another particular fact B. The answer which I would give in outline is that the becomingness of reality is a process of exhibiting the togetherness of things, and that this togetherness is essential. Accordingly, I13I any one entity X which is realised requires of the rest of reality a patience of the entry of X into that togetherness. From the point of view of X, I call this the significance of X, and from the point of view of the rest of the Universe, I call it the patience of reality for X. Now a fact A is a complex of many inter-related entities X1,    Xn together with their relatedness in A. Thus in some way or other, such a complex entity as A has significance as to the constitution of all reality, and in particular, may well have important significance as to the possible constitution of some other fact B.

The Togetherness of Things. I wish to make it evident that the first step in the Philosophy of Science is the consideration of the togetherness of things. As we look around – either in perception or thought – we do not find things in isolation. For example, we do not find one horse, out of time and out of space, disjoined from the rest of creation. Zoology does not take its start from the examination of such isolated entities. There could not even be a horse without time and space. The very idea of a non-temporal, non-spatial horse is nonsense. It is not wrong; because it has no meaning at all, and cannot arrive at the dignity of rightness or wrongness. What we mean by an individual horse requires time and space in order to show its points.

  1. 49 But time and space simply exhibit aspects of the way in which things are together with each other. Thus, to say that a non-temporal, non-spatial horse is an unmeaning collection of ideas, is merely another way of saying that there can be no such thing as a horse apart from its togetherness with other things. I am not talking of where a horse will be happiest, or survive longest, but of the general character of the togetherness I14I which is necessary for the very being of a horse. For example, a horse is happy when galloping over grass downs, it could exist for a few seconds under water at the bottom of the English Channel, and for a very small fraction of a second somewhere between the Sun and Sirius, even if those two stars were blotted out. But, apart from its systematic togetherness with the electromagnetic field required by its electrons, there can be no horse even for a billion billionth of a second. A certain systematic type of togetherness is required for the very being of a horse. Apart from that, it cannot even proceed to die. The happiness of the horse, producing its continued survival, issues from conditions of reality which retain the horse as a realised value in the system of things. It is in this sense that I call every individual entity ‘abstract’. Because every such entity presupposes a definite togetherness with other things. This togetherness must have a certain general systematic character in order that there may be such an entity at all – for example, a horse requires spatial and temporal relations with other things. But also in every particular instance, the togetherness will have accidental characters which might be otherwise, though they must be definite. For example, a definite horse at the present moment is either in London in the Strand opposite Charing Cross, or in South America, or on the surface of the moon, or somewhere else. It must have definite relations to other things in time and space; and what those other things are is somewhat accidental, though there is usually a historical explanation.

When we consider an entity by itself, we ignore this togetherness except those aspects of its general systematic character which are necessary to give meaning to our thoughts. But no definite horse at a definite I15I moment is living indefinitely in ‘any environment’. There is no such thing as ‘any environment’. The definite horse requires a definite environment. We ignore that, though it must be there. I am elaborating an obvious idea. For the idea is obvious, if I have expressed myself with any clearness, though the history of the philosophy of science shows that it is very necessary to elaborate it. The brilliant, and deserved, success of the Aristotelian system of classification has in the past somewhat obscured this essential togetherness of things. Classification directs attention to an entity in isolation. The entity is cross- p. 50 examined as to its predicates, which are its own peculiar property, and is then assigned to l> its proper genus and species. Thus the procedure of classification ignores the primary consideration of togetherness. Half the difficulties of philosophy result from an exaggerated emphasis on the abstract entity as though it were capable of independent reality. The predicates of an entity are in general merely a one-sided way of expressing its relation to its environment. These predicates belong to the environment just as much as to the entity. For example, the grass is not green apart from its environment: since the light in the environment is required for this greenness. Accordingly classification, by ignoring the environment, has badly misled philosophy.

Classification does not express the origin of science in the very nature of things. The predication of qualities and the resulting classification are very useful and highly technical devices, but they cloak the fundamental idea which lies at the base of science. This idea is that every entity must be studied in its environment; and that this environment has partly a |16| systematic character required by the very essence of the entity, and partly an accidental character, which must be determinate, but which is not determined by the mere consideration of the entity. The togetherness of an entity with the accidental items of its determinate environment is what we mean by the experience of the entity. [By experience I do not mean cognition]. The total environment of an entity can be discriminated into a fluent environment of changing parts. The way the entity is connected with the succession of its partial experiences is what we mean by the behaviour of the entity. It is one purpose of science to determine general truths concerning the behaviour of entities as their partial experiences succeed each other. It is another purpose of science to determine the systematic characters of the types of togetherness required by various types of entities.

The Process of Realisation. This togetherness of things takes the form of a process of realisation. Reality is not static: it is a process of becoming. This fluent character of the togetherness of things was already emphasised in Greek philosophy: All things flow, said Heraclitus. Indeed the fact is too obvious to escape notice. But unfortunately things which are too obvious often escape receiving their due emphasis. The result is that there has been a tendency to give an account of reality which omits this essential processional character of the togetherness of things. It is then held that what is processional cannot be real. The fluent togetherness of things is then given a lower place as mere appearance, and we are left with a world in which the appearance which passes is contrasted with the I17I reality in the background, exempt from passage.

This train of metaphysical thought has the unfortunate effect of separating philosophy from science. For p. 51 science is concerned with our experience of the l, passage of things in their fluent togetherness. Whereas, on this metaphysical theory, philosophy is concerned with the ultimately real which lies behind the superficialities which lie within the scope of science.

According to the view which I am putting before you there is nothing behind the veil of the procession of becomingness, though there is much pictured on that veil and essential to it which our dim consciousness does not readily decipher. Indeed the metaphor of a veil of appearance is wholly wrong. Reality is nothing else than the process of becomingness, of which we are dimly conscious. Every detail of the process is open for consciousness, though in fact our individual consciousness is only aware of a very small fragment of what is there for knowledge.

Relativity. The process of becoming real is a process of making real the togetherness of things. It follows that there are degrees of reality according to the completeness of realisation of togetherness. It is the connections which are realised. In a sense the idea of reality does not apply absolutely to the things thus connected, but only relatively. Thus by reason of the realisation of a type of togetherness between A and B, A is real for B and B is real for A. But it is nonsense to speak of A as absolutely real in itself, or of B as absolutely real in itself. A and B are individual existents with a relative reality each for the other. This relative reality of B for A is the becoming of B for A: namely B becomes a reality for A: that is to say, |18| the individual quality of B – what B is in itself – becomes significant for A, and affects the character of A’s experience: thus the Universe is what it is for A because of the realisation for it of B’s individual character. Thus realisation means at bottom the making real of value. It is the achievement of valuation, and valuation is a one-sided view of realisation. The process of becoming from the standard-point of A is the breaking in of B’s character upon A. Then A is real because it is a term in this process and so is B. But the true reality is the achievement of this relation between A and B. There are stages of reality and degrees of reality of an entity A, according to the completeness with which A’s individual character has ej ected itself into the entities of its environment, and according to the completeness with which A on its side has received the injection of the characters of those entities. A mere absence of any such transfusion of character – value spells nonentity. Every existence is somehow envisaged from the standpoint of reality, and to that extent has some element of reality in its basic individual existence. But, an existent is not fully absorbed into the becomingness of reality unless the realised valuation is reciprocal, so that its mere formal experience has gained a realised significance for it.

This is the doctrine of the complete relativity of reality – at least, it is a doctrine of relativity, expressed p. 52 from a realist standpoint in philosophy. An l, entity is not merely abstract by reason of its general requirements of togetherness with other entities; this is its formal experience. But in the fluent becomingness of reality, even the intrinsic essence or character of an entity is not for itself alone: it becomes a value for other entities. Otherwise, this transition I19I of individual essence into value for others constitutes the relative character of reality. It is here that contingence arises, and we meet the last problem to which I shall draw your attention in this lecture.

An entity enjoys all the formal experience which its significance requires. This is the basis of the necessity which reigns throughout nature. But its real experience, its experience of the becomingness of value, has for us an air of contingence.

Why are we all here in the exact way we are, immersed in this special realisation of the becomingness of real values? Or to put the matter in a more limited special form, Why have the events of today followed those of yesterday in the exact way in which in fact they have? Why not in other ways? Cannot we discern some ground for the determination of the process?

Science seeks to discover what are the factors in the present which determine the direction of this process of achievement.

Now the present reality can be analysed into valuation as display, which is the realisation of the intrinsic character of the sense-data, such as colour, sound, bodily feelings, and into valuation as directive, i.e., into a distribution of character directive of display. This character distribution is what may be termed the physical field. It is the electromagnetic field of electrons, protons, and the field of activity which they stand for. This directive field is intertwined from the present to the future; so that the present being what it is, the future is thereby determined to be what it will be. Whereas the field of display in the present can be definitely determined as that display in the present without reference to the future. The physical field on the other hand is I20I nothing but the way in which in the present the foundations of the future are being laid. The display in the present can be definitely expressed in terms of the physical field in the present: but the physical field in the present cannot be adequately analysed except in terms of what it transmits into the
future. For example, the theory of the retarded potential exhibits an electron nothing else than a process of transmission into the future.

Thus the display of the present is connected with the display of the future, by means of the connection of the display of the present with the physical field of the present, and the connection of the physical field of the present with the physical field of the future, and the connection of the physical field of the future with the display of the future.

  1. 53 But – and here is one great problem -, is not this physical field a mere myth, based on no knowledge? I do not believe in this mythical theory. It is difficult to understand how the scientific machinery of thought ever arose, if there is no direct discernment of the physical field. It is a clear fact of scientific history that the machinery arose from a gradual making precise of objects which mankind has always imagined itself to have direct immediate knowledge of: I mean chairs, trees, stones, and other objects of perception.

If mankind does in any real sense observe such objects, then the scientific objects merely claim to be merely a more precise rendering of perceptual objects which are somewhat vaguely observed. But if no such perceptual objects are really observed, and if the so-called perceptual objects are merely our ways of recollecting classes of sense-data, then the scientific |21| physical field is based upon no direct knowledge and must be treated as a useful mythical method of expressing somewhat complicated relations which hold directly between sense-data. For example, when you see a cricket ball coming swiftly towards you, and you catch it, and it stings your hands, the introduction of the ball is mere myth on this latter theory. There is a dot of colour in the sky approaching you, and this is succeeded by a sort of bumpy feeling, and this by a tingling stinging feeling; these various sense-data having certain definite spatial relations.

This account seems to me to be very unconvincing. If you are a school-boy with an important catch coming your way, it is not the colour you ever think of: it is the object exhibiting the colour. These objects are the most insistent things in our experience. They are vague in definition, but insistent for apprehension. You may forget the colour of the ball, but the ball imprints itself on your memory. Why on earth does one worry about the myth? How account for its vividness and universality?

One theory as to the status of the perceptual object – for example, of the cricket ball – is that such an object is merely the class of its appearances. There is a certain flux of sense-data, such as, patches of colour, sensations of touch, and other experiences, all associated with the various locations of the ball. These sense-data – it is said – are all we know of the ball, and are in fact the ball itself when we have added to them the sense-data which might have been observed but which in fact have escaped notice. This is the class-theory of the status of a perceptual object. The theory has been advocated by Bertrand Russell, and was put forward by him I22I in his Lowell lectures on Our Knowledge of the External World. It is a theory with strong reasons on its side, and I will examine it with more care in subsequent lectures. But I am growing increasingly sceptical of it.

  1. 54 The class theory would make the school-boy, in the agony of catching, have his mind occupied with a class of sense-data such as the redness of the ball when it was a new ball at the beginning of the match. Whereas such a thought never enters into his mind. He is thinking of the ball as a unique entity which is the control of display, but he does not classify the display which in its main outlines is not interesting him.

According to the alternative theory – I mean the control theory – the perceptual object is a persistent character inherent in the flux of reality which expresses the selective control by which a definite process is achieved. There is an element of display even in this character, since its individual reality breaks in upon us, and we have a discernment of it. This discernment is insistent and in a sense vivid, yet it is vague. In the endeavour to cure this vagueness science introduces its molecules, its atoms, its electrons and its protons. This procedure of science is entirely analogous to the analysis of the total volume of sound in a concert hall into definite notes, and each note into its fundamental tone with its harmonic overtones.

Both lines of thought, the class-theory and the control-theory present great difficulties and secure certain philosophical advantages. I cannot at this final stage of my lecture consider them further.

I will conclude with one reflection. Neither in Science nor in Philosophy, nor in any branch of human achievement do we reach finality. The data of crude 1231 evidence upon which Philosophy works is provided by the general state of civilised thought at the epoch in question. In one sense Philosophy does nothing. It merely satisfies the entirely impractical craving to probe and adjust ideas which have been found adequate each in its special sphere of use.

In the same way the ocean tides do nothing. Twice daily they beat upon the cliffs of continents and then retire. But have patience and look deeper; and you find that in the end whole continents of thought have been submerged by philosophic tides, and have been rebuilt in the depths awaiting emergence. The fate of humanity depends upon the ultimate continental faith by which it shapes its action, and this faith is in the end shaped by philosophy.


  1. Denotes Whitehead’s original page breaks.
  2. Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book II, lines 558-61.
  3. Authorial interlineations have been placed in their intended locations and marked with carets, following the convention used in volume one of the Critical Edition.
  4. 55 5. L» The text from this point until the end of the paragraph was marked with a brace in the left margin.
  5. An unseen character introduced in Thomas Morton’s 1798 play Speed the Plough, the name became an English figure of speech for a conventional or priggish person.
  6. Thomas Bowdler famously edited Shakespeare’s plays to remove content he deemed inappropriate for women and children, publishing the result as The Family Shakespeare in 1807.