Whitehead and Peirce’s Synchronicity with Hegel’s Capital Error. Thought of the Day 97.0


The focus on experience ensures that Whitehead’s metaphysics is grounded. Otherwise the narrowness of approach would only culminate in sterile measurement. This becomes especially evident with regard to the science of history. Whitehead gives a lucid example of such ‘sterile measurement’ lacking the immediacy of experience.

Consider, for example, the scientific notion of measurement. Can we elucidate the turmoil of Europe by weighing its dictators, its prime ministers, and its editors of newspapers? The idea is absurd, although some relevant information might be obtained. (Alfred North Whitehead – Modes of Thought)

The wealth of experience leaves us with the problem of how to cope with it. Selection of data is required. This selection is done by a value judgment – the judgment of importance. Although Whitehead opposes the dichotomy of the two notions ‘importance’ and ‘matter of fact’, it is still necessary to distinguish grades and types of importance, which enables us to structure our experience, to focus it. This is very similar to hermeneutical theories in Schleiermacher, Gadamer and Habermas: the horizon of understanding structures the data. Therefore, we not only need judgment but the process of concrescence implicitly requires an aim. Whitehead explains that

By this term ‘aim’ is meant the exclusion of the boundless wealth of alternative potentiality and the inclusion of that definite factor of novelty which constitutes the selected way of entertaining those data in that process of unification.

The other idea that underlies experience is “matter of fact.”

There are two contrasted ideas which seem inevitably to underlie all width of experience, one of them is the notion of importance, the sense of importance, the presupposition of importance. The other is the notion of matter of fact. There is no escape from sheer matter of fact. It is the basis of importance; and importance is important because of the inescapable character of matter of fact.

By stressing the “alien character” of feeling that enters into the privately felt feeling of an occasion, Whitehead is able to distinguish the responsive and the supplemental stages of concrescence. The responsive stage being a purely receptive phase, the latter integrating the former ‘alien elements’ into a unity of feeling. The alien factor in the experiencing subjects saves Whitehead’s concept from being pure Spirit (Geist) in a Hegelian sense. There are more similarities between Hegelian thinking and Whitehead’s thought than his own comments on Hegel may suggest. But, his major criticism could probably be stated with Peirce, who wrote that

The capital error of Hegel which permeates his whole system in every part of it is that he almost altogether ignores the Outward clash. (The Essential Peirce 1)

Whitehead refers to that clash as matter of fact. Although, even there, one has to keep in mind that matter-of-fact is an abstraction. 

Matter of fact is an abstraction, arrived at by confining thought to purely formal relations which then masquerade as the final reality. This is why science, in its perfection, relapses into the study of differential equations. The concrete world has slipped through the meshes of the scientific net.

Whitehead clearly keeps the notion of prehension in his late writings as developed in Process and Reality. Just to give one example, 

I have, in my recent writings, used the word ‘prehension’ to express this process of appropriation. Also I have termed each individual act of immediate self-enjoyment an ‘occasion of experience’. I hold that these unities of existence, these occasions of experience, are the really real things which in their collective unity compose the evolving universe, ever plunging into the creative advance. 

Process needs an aim in Process and Reality as much as in Modes of Thought:

We must add yet another character to our description of life. This missing characteristic is ‘aim’. By this term ‘aim’ is meant the exclusion of the boundless wealth of alternative potentiality, and the inclusion of that definite factor of novelty which constitutes the selected way of entertaining those data in that process of unification. The aim is at that complex of feeling which is the enjoyment of those data in that way. ‘That way of enjoyment’ is selected from the boundless wealth of alternatives. It has been aimed at for actualization in that process.

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