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To Be Refuted at Each Century: James Ward and Alfred North Whitehead

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Image result for Pierfrancesco Basile

I like forgotten figures in the history of philosophy, they are like smaller, tortuous roads, sometimes leading nowhere, sometimes leading to bizarre, undreamed of places… James Ward is one such figure, both personally and philosophically intriguing.

‘In a way, his life illustrates the basic metaphysical principle that slumbering monads may achieve the highest levels of rationality in the course of time.’

One reason why theologians read Whitehead today is that they find in his writings an original, truly novel conception of God. That theologians read him, I fear, is also one main reason why he is not much read by philosophers…

Whitehead would make an ideal conversation-partner for modern thinkers – after all, as he wittingly says, the acme of philosophical success is not to have reached the truth, but to be refuted at each century. As to the question of verification: I am not aware that any philosophical theory has yet received empirical confirmation.

Pierfrancesco Basile is an expert in the philosophy of Whitehead, Idealism, consciousness and panpsychism. Here he discusses James Ward, Leibniz’s influence, C.S. Peirce, panpsychism and evolution, Ward’s relationship to Whitehead, Whitehead’s connection with both Leibniz and Hume on causality, dangerous beliefs, process metaphysics, and links between early modern and contemporary approaches to panpsychism.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Pierfrancesco Basile: Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein… given such great ancestors, how could I call myself a philosopher? This does not mean that I consider myself a historian of philosophy, although I see historical research as a legitimate, even as an important enterprise. More simply, it means I am a person who finds himself pondering about philosophical questions. I was captured by it (as Plato lets Parmenides say in an imaginary dialogue with a still young Socrates) when I first encountered Kant’s first Critique. That book’s unique combination of rationalism, skepticism and metaphysics still appeals very much to me.

Leibniz, Whitehead and the Metaphysics of Causation

3:AM: James Ward is now little known but in his days he was considered an important philosopher. What drew you to him?

PB: I like forgotten figures in the history of philosophy, they are like smaller, tortuous roads, sometimes leading nowhere, sometimes leading to bizarre, undreamed of places… James Ward is one such figure, both personally and philosophically intriguing. He grew up in a very poor family, went through a religious crisis, studied in Germany, and eventually became a professor in Cambridge. He was also a teacher to Russell and Moore, and Russell always writes of him with great respect and affection. Ward lived at a time when Idealism was the dominant philosophy in Britain. With some simplification, it seems correct to say that the first British idealists looked to Hegel (as well as to other monist metaphysicians like Spinoza and Lotze) as their main source of inspiration. Ward, who disliked Hegelian monism as much as materialism, turned to Leibniz. His metaphysics, which he expounded in a book titled The Realm of Ends, or Pluralism and Theism, is a form of pluralistic metaphysical idealism (or spiritualism), according to which the basic constituents of the world are experiential substances.

3:AM: Although influenced by Leibniz, Ward didn’t slavishly follow him, but adjusted his ideas. Can you sketch for us the system of metaphysics that he developed?

PB: As you say, he did not slavishly follow Leibniz, but tried to adjust the theory of monads to his own needs. His monads differ from Leibniz’s in that they have windows, that is to say, they are capable of direct causal interaction. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but there has been progress in the course of evolution. How is this to be explained? There must be a God working within history, Ward insinuates, leading the monads towards an ideal end, but leaving them free to do their own choices and mistakes. There is a fascinating parallel between this metaphysics and Ward’s own development. Born in a very humble family, he became one of the most respected philosophers of his time (he held the prestigious Gifford Lectures twice). In a way, his life illustrates the basic metaphysical principle that slumbering monads may achieve the highest levels of rationality in the course of time.

3:AM: Why did he disagree with CS Peirce regarding tychism, the idea that absolute chance was of the essence of the universe?

PB: Ward’s metaphysics is an evolutionary process philosophy. In a paper titled “The Architecture of Theories” Peirce had stated the basic conditions that any evolutionary philosophy would have to satisfy. Ward acknowledges his indebtedness to Peirce’s paper, from which he probably derives the idea that natural laws are not eternally fixed, but contingent; they emerged in the course of evolution and may therefore change in the future. Besides order and necessity, Peirce also held, there is an irreducible spontaneous element in things, one that brings the cosmic process forward. This is the view called “tychism” (from the Greek tyche, chance). Ward goes further than Peirce in that he identifies this irreducible spontaneous element with what we are used to call “freedom of the will”. But to the best of my knowledge, he never subjected this notion to any serious scrutiny.

Image result for james ward philosophy

[James Ward]

3:AM: Do you think panpsychism is the only viable sort of physicalism we have?

PB: The theory of evolution lead philosophers to ask this question: if consciousness is a product of evolution, how could it have emerged from insentient matter? How could experience originate from the utterly non-experiential? The panpsychist’s answer is that you cannot get experience out of matter if this does not already contain its seeds. Experience must therefore be in some way a fundamental feature of the natural world, which is why panpsychism is a form of physicalism. It is widely acknowledged that traditional (materialist) versions of physicalism fail to account for the qualitative aspects of consciousness. Unless this is done, panpsychism remains a serious competitor; and the same is true of idealist theories such as Ward’s.

3:AM: In a critique of William Kingdon Clifford’s ‘On the Nature of Things-in-Themselves,’ we see Ward dealing with the combination-problem. Can you say what his arguments were and where you think he doesn’t quite answer all the issues the theory of panpsychism raises?

PB: As I have just explained, panpsychism is a reasonable reaction to a real problem; as such, it must be taken seriously. But that does not mean that it is true. The main difficulty for the panpsychist is to explain how the experiences in a person’s brain could “sum up” and give raise to a person’s unified experience. This is the so-called “combination-problem” and panpsychists are far from having solved it. At the same time, the combination-problem cannot be regarded as the conclusive refutation of panpsychism; for we have no reason to think that mental combination is impossible in principle.

Whitehead's Metaphysics of Power

3:AM: What’s the relationship between Ward and Alfred North Whitehead, a figure you’re greatly interested in?

PB: In its general outlines Whitehead’s system of reality, as developed in Process and Reality, closely resembles Ward’s own. Since the two thinkers were colleagues at Cambridge, one can safely assume they discussed philosophical problems together. Ward must have been stronger in psychology and the history of philosophy, Whitehead more informed about the most recent developments in physical science. Ward and Whitehead were also deeply religious spirits, yet they were both unsatisfied with traditional doctrines. One reason why theologians read Whitehead today is that they find in his writings an original, truly novel conception of God. That theologians read him, I fear, is also one main reason why he is not much read by philosophers…

3:AM: You’ve linked Whitehead’s thinking about causation with both Leibniz – which isn’t surprising given the link with Ward – but also Hume via phenomenology. What’s the link with Hume here then?

PB: Whitehead argues that we experience causation all the time. Notoriously, this is precisely what Hume denies; according to him, we just experience succession, not the action of one thing upon another. Whitehead does not deny that we apprehend sense-impressions; when an object hits me, however, I have direct experience of causal forces acting upon me. This experience of causal force cannot be accurately described in terms of clear-cut, distinct impressions. This critique is not new, James makes this very point in the Principles of Psychology; like James, Whitehead also charges the entire British tradition with having neglected this fundamental dimension of experience. This failure has led to the strange view that experience is like a cage – that it encloses us within the circle of our perceptions, instead of doing what it so obviously does, namely bringing us in touch with the outside world. This is an interesting point, also stressed by John Dewey in another process-oriented book, Experience and Nature.

3:AM: At the beginning of ‘Process and Reality’ Whitehead condemns a list of what he considers are dangerous beliefs widely held by his contemporaries. Could you mention some such beliefs?

PB: The notion that experience is mainly apprehension of sense-data is one such myth. It turns philosophy into a sterile enterprise, one concerned with dialectical, fictitious problems nobody, not even the professional philosophers ferociously debating them, can really take seriously. The consequence is that philosophy has become divorced from the actual concerns of science as well as from the most urgent problems of humankind. This is, I submit, a critique worth pondering. Another myth is the traditional concept of substance as the underlying bearer of properties, a concept inherited from Aristotelian logic.

3:AM: He is indeed a process metaphysician, one who holds that being and power are the same; can you sketch for us this claim as developed?

PB: Whitehead replaces the concept of substance with that of an actual entity. In the already mentioned The Principles of Psychology, a book Whitehead greatly admired, James rejects the concept of the enduring self; a human self, he argues, is a series of momentary pulses of experience, each of which possesses duration, that is to say, it lasts for a brief moment before being superseded by a novel such pulse. These “momentary selves”, as they may be called, are linked together to form unified experiential streams – the inner life of a human being, his or her soul. Whitehead now applies this model to all basic constituents of reality. This move has the consequence that actual occasions, which are the basic constituents of things, now acquire a spatial dimension. Each occasion is thus (i) a quantum of experience as well as (ii) a quantum of space-time. Can these two notions be intelligibly unified? Is Whitehead making a decisive conceptual breakthrough here, or is he simply talking nonsense? I find this question very difficult to answer.

[A.F. Whitehead]

3:AM: You conclude after looking at Russell’s interpretation of Spinoza’s theory of reality that both Russell and Spinoza also held that process and activity are fundamental realities rather than enduring things. Can you sketch for us how you arrive at this conclusion?

PB: In his early book on the philosophy of Leibniz, Russell argues that the traditional notion of substance is irremediably flawed; the basic ontological concept should be that of event. Whitehead obviously follows on Russell’s footsteps with his concept of the actual occasion; this is a power-unit of sorts, for an actual occasion not solely acts upon other existing occasions, but is also responsible for the coming into being of other superseding occasions. Interestingly, Whitehead thinks that all past metaphysical systems link the notion of substance with that of power. As a matter of fact, even the atoms of Democritus possess movement as an intrinsic property, that is to say, they are not moved around by a transcendent reality, but are themselves essentially dynamic. This fundamental metaphysical insight, however, has been spoiled by its association with the logical idea that substances are unchangeable, enduring bearers of properties. There is thus a deep tension pervading the entire history of Western metaphysics, as a faulty logic prevents a sound metaphysical insight to be coherently articulated. Whitehead detects the contradiction in Spinoza’s theory as well. It may not be immediately evident that Spinoza is a process-thinker; and yet, Whithead observes, Spinoza’s substance is not solely natura naturata, but also natura naturans.

3:AM: Does Whitehead link his metaphysical system to an ethics of creativity?

PB: Whitehead aims not solely at solving the mind-body problem, but also at providing an account of moral experience. To this end, he speculates that specific future possibilities are presented to us by God as especially worth pursuing; this is the mysterious way God lures the world towards greater perfections…On this view, values are not produced in the course of human history, but have their source in a superior, extra-worldly Being. It would take a longer exposition to do justice to this idea, as well as to criticize it fully. What I can say here is that it doesn’t square very well with the evolutionary spirit pervading Whitehead’s philosophy.

3:AM: Recent interest in panpsychism has been signaled by Dave Chalmers and Galen Strawson. Are contemporary versions improvements of those of Ward and Whitehead – and do you think either Ward or Whitehead have much to tell us about how we might proceed in the future, especially in the face of the incredulous stare and the lack of scientific experiments to test it so far?

PB: Chalmers and Strawson belong to a different philosophical epoch, which makes comparison with Whitehead difficult. Still, I think contemporary panpsychists have just reached the point at which Whitehead begun to develop his system. One should blame the Zeitgeist here: there is no way one can work out a panpsychist theory unless one develops a whole new set of ontological categories applicable to both mental and natural phenomena; and to do this requires developing a complete system of metaphysics. Now, if there is something academic philosophy has taught us to abhor in the last century, it is precisely this kind of ambitious speculative thinking. This does not mean, of course, that we can take Whitehead’s system as it stands. Whoever has read Whitehead’s books knows how frustrating they can be, full as they are of obscure, nebulous passages. Nevertheless, Whitehead would make an ideal conversation-partner for modern thinkers – after all, as he wittingly says, the acme of philosophical success is not to have reached the truth, but to be refuted at each century. As to the question of verification: I am not aware that any philosophical theory has yet received empirical confirmation. Sure, panpsychism sounds strange on a first hearing – but then, which interesting philosophical theory squares well with common-sense? (And what is so common-sensical, say, in relativity-theory?)

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you can recommend other than your own that will take us further into your philosophical world?

PB:

The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1

 

William James’ Principles of Psychology

Process and Reality

and Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality should obviously be mentioned here.

The Importance of Subjectivity

Among contemporary authors, I would suggest Timothy Sprigge’s The Importance of Subjectivity

Selves

and Galen Strawson’s Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics.

Le Philosophe Ignorant

To these, I would like to add Voltaire’s Le Philosophe ignorant – good-humored skepticism remains the best medicine for an overinflated imagination; especially the philosopher of mind may need to take a look at it every now and then…

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 12th, 2018.