welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Whitehead As Existentialist

Colin Wilson pays attention to Whitehead’s awareness of meaning.

The title sounds almost self-contradictory. What has the creator of the Philosophy of Organism in common with Kierkegaard, Sartre or Heidegger? The answer is: more than at first appears. “Speculative philosophy,” says Whitehead at the beginning of his book Process and Reality, “is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” And what does he understand by ‘experience’? The answer can be found in Chapter XV of Adventures of Ideas:

“Nothing can be omitted, experience drunk and experience sober, experience sleeping and experience waking, experience drowsy and experience wide-awake, experience self-conscious and experience self-forgetful, experience intellectual and experience physical, experience religious and experience sceptical, experience anxious and experience care-free, experience anticipatory and experience retrospective, experience happy and experience grieving, experience dominated by emotion and experience under self-restraint, experience in the light and experience in the dark, experience normal and experience abnormal.”

Even the words “experience drunk and experience sober” make us recognise that Whitehead is thinking in the same categories as Kierkegaard and Sartre: everyday experience, not philosophical abstractions. In fact, in Science and the Modern World he says “Philosophy is the critic of abstractions.”

Whitehead began his career as a mathematician, and it is to this period that his Mathematical Concepts of the Material World (1905) belongs. These years culminated in the three volumes of the Principia Mathematica (1910, 1912, 1913) co-authored with Bertrand Russell. This was a heroic attempt to reduce the principles of mathematics to logic, and, in a sense, to create a foundation-stone for all scientific knowledge. However, it was subsequently undermined by Kurt Gödel’s discovery in 1930 of the Incompleteness Theorem, to the effect that no set of postulates can ever be comprehensive, but will always give rise to further questions that cannot be answered on the basis of the postulates. I would suspect that there is a similar Incompleteness Theorem in philosophy.

Whitehead’s extraordinary powers of intellectual concentration can be glimpsed in this paragraph from Russell’s autobiography:

“His capacity for concentration on work was quite extraordinary. One hot summer’s day, when I was staying with him at Grantchester, our friend Crompton Davies arrived and I took him into the garden to say how-do-you-do to his host. Whitehead was sitting writing mathematics. Davies and I stood in front of him at a distance of no more than a yard and watched him covering page after page with symbols. He never saw us, and after a time we went away with a feeling of awe.”

Whitehead’s ‘second period’ is marked by his work in the philosophy of science, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), The Concept of Nature (1920) and The Principle of Relativity with Applications to Physical Science (1922). Science and the Modern World followed in 1925. This may be seen as providing the foundation of all his subsequent work in philosophy. It is deservedly Whitehead’s most popular book. It’s an exciting historical overview that gives the reader the feeling of a journey in an old-fashioned airship, travelling calmly across the landscape at a height slightly above trees and church steeples.

For me, its most fascinating chapter is the fifth, ‘The Romantic Reaction’, about the revolt against what Whitehead called the ‘bifurcation of nature’ created by Locke’s secondary qualities – which were in turn a response to Galileo’s division of the world into the ‘apparent’ and ‘true scientific reality’. Primary qualities, like length and weight, are basic and a real part of the external world. Secondary qualities, like colour and smell, vary according to our senses, and exist only in minds. Bishop Berkeley, probably with his tongue in his cheek, went on to argue that even primary qualities are relative, since shape, for example, depends on the angle from which an object is viewed. David Hume’s scepticism was more devastating and serious. He argued that the only things we can know for certain are sense impressions, which make the impact of ‘presentational immediacy’ upon our minds. Compared to these, our other ‘certainties’, like what we did yesterday, are dim and vague. So all we know for certain is immediacy. Everything else we ‘know’, such as that the sun will rise tomorrow, is non-immediate and therefore doubtful.

The ‘romantic reaction’ was not an intellectual revolt against the ‘mechanical nature’ of Galileo and Newton and the bifurcation of the world into the apparent and the unknowable, but an instinctive rejection of these concepts by poets. Before Newton, Milton had no need to revolt; he took it for granted that he was capable of “justifying the ways of God to men.” So did Pope, who in the Essay on Man refers airily to the world as “a mighty maze, but not without a plan.” Yet by the time of Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ in 1849, doubt had set in like a toothache.

What had intervened was the Romantic revolt. Where Wordsworth for example differs most basically from poets of the previous age is in his sense of a meaning behind the face of nature. In Book 1 of The Prelude he describes how, rowing out on the lake in a borrowed boat, “a huge cliff / Rose up between me and the stars,” and how, for many days after, “my brain work’d with a dim and undetermined sense of unknown modes of being.”

Locke or Hume might say he was merely sensing secondary qualities/impressions, but for Wordsworth, what he grasped was the truth behind nature. It’s also clear that Wordsworth has no sympathy for science or scientists: “We murder to dissect.”

Shelley, on the other hand, loves science, and invokes it in poem after poem. He is thrilled by the tremendous forces of nature, and can see no contradiction between the power of the west wind and the power of the human mind to understand it.

Such a serene union of mind and the natural is what was lost through the ‘bifurcation of nature’. And by the end of the ‘romantic century’ it had also been lost from poetry. A mere generation later, Tennyson is deeply troubled by “Nature red in tooth and claw,” and by the fact that ‘“the stars... blindly run.” But if the stars blindly run, then so, surely, do the molecules of the human brain and body? Are we not in the end living in a mechanical universe, in which we are also machines?

Whitehead’s Insight

Whitehead’s next book was a small volume less than a hundred pages long, called Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (1927). In my view, this is not only one of Whitehead’s most important books, but one of the most important books of the 20th century. I contend that Whitehead was the first to clearly pinpoint David Hume’s inadequate view of perception, and that this recognition is the central significance of the philosophy of organism.

Fairly early on he speaks about Hume and impressions. Compared to these, most of our other pieces of knowledge, for example, ideas and memories, are rather indefinite, like poor copies. And I suspect that it was in the paragraph describing the way a wall presents itself to our senses that Whitehead saw what is wrong with Hume’s account. ‘Presentational immediacy’ (Whitehead’s phrase) may be our most definite form of impression, but there is another, weaker, but just as important form, which helps us make sense of the world. If Whitehead had taken more interest in psychology, as Edmund Husserl did, he might have come across it sooner, under the name of ‘Gestalt’. A gestalt is a combination of the qualities of experience into a meaningful, coherent totality, and it is fundamental to the way we perceive things. Gestalt psychology had been created around the beginning of the 20th century by experimental psychologists such as Kurt Koffka, Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Kohler.

In order to grasp the significance of Whitehead’s insight, we must go back to Wordsworth and Shelley – Wordsworth recognising the “unknown modes of being” concealed from us by the material world, and Shelley declaring (in ‘Mont Blanc’):

“The everlasting universe of Things
Flows through the Mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom –
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters – with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild woods, among the Mountains lone...”

Shelley is less direct than Wordsworth, but his meaning is plain. The universe is not separated from the human mind; its impulses flow through us, as a brook threads its way through wild woods. The “unknown modes of being” can somehow speak to us in human language. How is it, then, that a few decades later, Tennyson could express the feeling that each individual was now divided against himself, while Matthew Arnold, in Dover Beach, compared his contemporaries to people on a “darkling plain”, “where ignorant armies clash by night”?

This question was the starting point of my own investigations in my first book The Outsider (1956). Why did so many of the poets and artists of the 19th century fall into depression and die tragically, or commit suicide? It all began so optimistically, with Rousseau’s conviction that the human mind was about to throw off its chains, echoed in Blake’s fragment on the French Revolution and in Wordsworth’s comment “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”. Yet by the time Shelley and Byron died in the 1820s, gloom had descended like a yellow London fog, and the age of optimism was over. The mood of world-weariness was expressed by Villiers de L’Isle-Adam in his posthumous play Axel (1890) when the hero, about to commit suicide, declares: “As for living, our servants can do that for us.”

Of course, it would be a mistake to assume that the world-rejection of Axel springs from the same cause as the gloom of Tennyson and Arnold. They are worried by the problem of mechanism, and the status of man in a mechanical universe. What bothers Axel is that there seems to be nothing in the ‘real world’ that can satisfy the romantic craving for meaning and harmony. Yeats wrote in ‘The Shadowy Waters’: “What the world’s million lips are searching for / Must be substantial somewhere…” He suspects that all that the romantic revolution has done for man is to awaken cravings for which there is no satisfaction, like a man awakening to his dying of thirst in a desert.

Friedrich Nietzsche eventually saw another possibility. He says:

“Yesterday an oppressive storm hung over the sky, and I hurried to a neighbouring hill called Leutsch. . . . At the top I found a hut, where a man was killing two kids while his son watched him. The storm broke with a tremendous crash, discharging thunder and hail, and I had an indescribable sense of well-being and zest. . . . Lightning and tempest are different worlds, free powers, without morality. Pure Will, without the confusions of intellect – how happy, how free.”

This experience, which occurred in 1865 when Nietzsche was 21, became the basis of his own solution to the problem of self- and reality-division: ‘great health’. And if his sanity had not been undermined by (congenital) venereal disease, he might well have been the first philosopher to put such a solution into practice.

As it was, Whitehead grasped the solution to the bifurcation problem with his insight about the refutation of Hume. According to Hume, we have only one mode of perception, which brings us impressions and ideas, ideas being faded sense impressions. Whitehead replied: no, we have two modes of perception, and the second mode discloses meanings. What happened to Nietzsche on Leutsch was the same order of experience as happened to Wordsworth when he saw the shape of the hill against the sky. It was a perception of a meaning that lies behind ‘presentational immediacy’, as a bird’s view of a landscape is broader than that of a man on the ground.

Whitehead decided to call the other mode of perception ‘causal efficacy’, thinking in terms of Hume’s remarks on cause and effect. I prefer to call the faculty that comes into play ‘meaning perception’. But now we can begin to see clearly what Whitehead was proposing, and its tremendous importance – something his contemporaries failed to grasp because they filed him as a ‘philosopher of organism’ who developed a terminology of appalling obscurity.

Whitehead Saves Meaning From The Philosophers

In everyday consciousness, immediacy perception is stronger than meaning perception, for a fairly low degree of meaning-perception will serve well enough for ordinary purposes, since much that we do is repetitive and mechanical. On the other hand, when we set out on holiday we ‘pay attention’, although not necessarily as a conscious decision. The prospect of change makes us feel ‘more alive’, and things somehow look more interesting. Conversely, when we are bored, things seem to become duller and greyer as perception become more ‘mechanical’.

We take these different ways of seeing for granted, without noticing that they pose an interesting philosophical question. The Victorian magazine Punch had a cartoon showing a child standing with his father watching a military parade and asking, “Why does military music make you feel so much happier than you really are?” He means, of course, make you feel happier than usual. We take the level of everyday consciousness for granted as ‘normal’. In Whitehead’s terminology, a certain balance between ‘presentational immediacy’ and ‘causal efficacy’ tends to establish itself in our everyday lives, the synthesis being what he calls ‘symbolic perception’, and this is taken for granted as our idea of ‘normality’. Wordsworth points out in his ‘Intimations of Immortality’ Ode that:

“There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,”

and he notes gloomily:

“It is not now as it hath been of yore –
Turn wheresoe’er I may
by night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”

The problem, as Wordsworth sees it, is growing up and having to cope with increasingly complex problems:

“Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy…
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.”

The ‘light of common day’ is our normal human level of awareness. But there is clearly a fallacy here. Every consciousness is a balance between immediacy perception and meaning perception. And, as the small boy noted, the balance can be changed by military music, and dozens of other things. It can be changed in a downward direction by tiredness or boredom, and upward by a recollection that your wife is cooking your favourite dinner this evening.

C.S. Lewis has a remarkable story called ‘The Shoddy Lands’ which is to the point. An Oxford professor is visited by a former student who is accompanied by his girlfriend. As they are in the midst of a dull and polite conversation, everything changes and he is alone among trees – dingy, green, shoddy trees: “I felt as if I had suddenly been banished from the real, bright, concrete and prodigally complex world into some sort of second-rate universe that had been put together on the cheap.”

What has happened is that in some odd way he is seeing things through the eyes of Peggy, the girlfriend. Walking down a street, everything seems blurred, and the people, like the trees, seem somehow half-finished. Occasional faces suddenly stand out – always men – and also clothes – always women’s. Then he looks in a jeweller’s shop window, and its sheer vividness takes his breath away. The frocks in the next shop window are just as vivid. So are the shoes in a women’s shoe shop. Then he has a vision of Peggy as a sort of giantess wearing a bikini. He is, it seems, seeing the world through the eyes of a complete egoist, for whom other human beings scarcely exist. When the professor finds himself back in his own world he is almost drunk with relief.

The story is a reminder that we all live in subjective universes, and that we allow our preoccupations to determine what we see. Our world becomes ‘symbolic’ rather than real. Those are not real trees, but cardboard symbols of trees. So how can you see ‘real’ trees? You can’t, Hume would say: you can only see your impressions of trees, as if on a television screen.

Whitehead will have none of this. He is a ‘Realist’. What you see are real trees, albeit partly ‘symbolified’ by your preoccupations. C.S. Lewis’ protagonist luckily awakened from the symbolic world of Peggy. But how could Lewis, or anyone else, make sure that they are not still trapped in their own symbolically-perceived world?

The Zen Master Ikkyu knew the answer to that. When a workman asked him to write something on his tablet, Ikkyu wrote ‘Attention’. Disappointed, the workman asked him to add something more. Ikkyu responded by writing ‘Attention. Attention’. “But what does ‘Attention’ mean?” asked the workman fretfully. “Attention means attention,” said Ikkyu.

He meant that by preventing our senses from lapsing into mechanicalness we become more aware. Ikkyu’s meaning can be glimpsed by casting our minds back to Bertrand Russell’s description of Whitehead sitting in the garden and writing page after page of mathematical symbols without noticing his companions. Whitehead possessed the capacity for ‘Attention’.

When I am feeling low and dull, I am trapped in the mode of presentational immediacy, which is also what Sartre means by ‘nausea’ in his novel of that title. Whitehead cites the British Prime Minister Mr Pitt, who on his death bed was heard to murmur “What shades we are, what shadows we pursue.” Whitehead comments: “His mind had suddenly lost the sense of causal efficacy [meaning perception], and was illuminated by the remembrance of the intensity of emotion, which had enveloped his life, in its comparison with the barren emptiness of the world passing in sense perception.” In other words, Pitt was simply tired, and was mistaking his tiredness for an ultimate perception of the empty futility of life.

I would say that this feeling is the starting point of a great deal of existentialism and post-modernism. This, for me, was the fundamental ‘Outsider problem’, the problem of so many of those oversensitive romantics who committed suicide or fell into depression, the problem of ‘negation’ as expressed by Dostoevsky in The Possessed or by Eliot in The Waste Land and The Hollow Men. I asserted in The Outsider that this is the most basic problem of human existence – all others are trivial in comparison.

For me, this problem of ‘meaning perception’ or its lack has always been fundamental. When van Gogh painted The Starry Night, he was overwhelmed with a total conviction of meaning. When he shot himself in the stomach, he was overwhelmed with a total conviction of tragedy and meaninglessness – not just personal, but universal: “Misery will never end,” he said. Dostoevsky raised the same question in the most powerful chapter in all his work, the ‘Pro and Contra’ chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. And in Whitehead we have a respectable philosopher in the British empirical tradition going right to the heart of the matter and declaring that our ‘meaninglessness’ is a delusion, like our conviction that the Sun goes round the Earth. Reason tells us that ‘immediacy’ is a half-truth, the other half being ‘meaningfulness’; but we find it very hard to trust reason on such a momentous issue. Yet we are all familiar with the two opposed modes of perception. There are days when I feel totally trapped in the present moment, and days when I have a curious feeling of strength and optimism, a certainty that ‘I can win’. The problem is that the two feelings tend to be mutually contradictory, like two extremely honest people each assuring me that the other is a liar.

However, what I found most significant is that there are moments when the two visions seem to combine. Even Sartre’s ‘nauseated’ hero Roquentin experiences such moments – for example, when listening to a record of a woman singing ‘Some of These Days’, “My body feels at rest, like a precision machine.” Yes, in such moments we experience a curious sense of precision, of control. It is as if the two beams of perception – meaning and immediacy – combine and operate simultaneously. Such moments, I would contend, are the moments of vision experienced by Wordsworth and Shelley and van Gogh, and they are the closest a philosopher can come to a truly objective perception.

What conclusions can we draw from this? Well, first of all, such conclusions are bound to be practical – existential – as well as philosophical. As far as Whitehead is concerned – and this is confirmed in his later Adventures of Ideas – the aim is a raising of perception to a higher level, such as Wordsworth, Shelley and Ikkyu achieved. The two beams of perception must be drawn together until we become aware of vibrations of meaning that lie beyond the flat ‘ordinary consciousness’ we take for granted.

The ending of Process and Reality sounds oddly Hegelian:

“The consequent nature of God is the fulfillment of his experience by his reception of the multiple freedom of actuality into the harmony of his own actualisation. It is God as really actual, completing the deficiency of his mere conceptual actuality.”

Whitehead never expressed so clearly his sense that we are living in a dynamic, not passive, universe – a universe full of ‘unknown modes of being’ waiting for us to discipline our senses until we see them. We might even say that in Process and Reality Whitehead brings Hegel and Kierkegaard together in an act of synthesis.

© Colin Wilson 2007

Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider (1956) made him the most famous English existentialist. He has published copiously and widely ever since.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X