A N Whitehead addresses the British Association in 1916

Alfred North Whitehead was President of Section A of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1916. The Association met in Newcastle-on-Tyne in September and Whitehead addressed Section A - Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Below is the first part of his lecture.

To read the second part of Whitehead's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1916, Part 2



Alfred North Whitehead, the President, delivered the following Address:-

The Organisation of Thought.

The subject of this address is the organisation of thought, a topic evidently capable of many diverse modes of treatment. I intend more particularly to give some account of, that department of logical science with which some of my own studies have been connected. But I am anxious, if I can succeed in so doing, to handle this account so as to exhibit the relation with certain considerations which underlie general scientific activities.

It is no accident that an age of science has developed, into an age of organisation. Organised thought is the basis of organised action. Organisation is the adjustment of diverse elements so that their mutual relations may exhibit some predetermined quality. An epic poem is a triumph of organisation, that is to say, it is a triumph in the unlikely event of it being a good epic poem. It is the successful organisation of multitudinous sounds of words, associations of words, pictorial memories of diverse events and feelings ordinarily occurring in life, combined with a special narrative of great events: the whole so disposed to excite emotions which, as defined by Milton, are simple, sensuous, and passionate. The number of successful epic poems is commensurate, or, rather, is inversely commensurate with the obvious difficulty of the task of organisation.

Science is the organisation of thought. But the example of the epic poem warns us that science is not any organisation of thought. It. is an organisation of a certain definite type which we will endeavour to determine.

Science is a river with two sources, the practical source and the theoretical source. The practical source is the desire to direct our actions to achieve predetermined ends. For example, the British nation, fighting for justice, turns to science, which teaches it the importance of compounds of nitrogen. The theoretical source is the desire to understand. Now I am going to emphasise the importance of theory in science. But to avoid misconception I most emphatically state that I do not consider one source as in any sense nobler than the other, or intrinsically more interesting. I cannot see why it is nobler to strive to understand than to busy oneself with the right ordering of one's actions. Both have their bad sides; there are evil ends directing actions, and there are ignoble curiosities of the understanding.

The importance, even in practice, of the theoretical side of science arises from the fact that action must be immediate, and takes place under circumstances which are excessively complicated. If we wait for the necessities of action before we commence to arrange our ideas, in peace we shall have lost our trade, and in war we shall have lost the battle.

Success in practice depends on theorists who, led by other motives of exploration, have been there before, and by some good chance have hit upon the relevant ideas. By a theorist I do not mean a man who is up in the clouds, but a man whose motive for thought is the desire to formulate correctly the rules according to which events occur. A successful theorist should be excessively interested in immediate events, otherwise he is not at all likely to formulate correctly anything about them. Of course, both sources of science exist in all men.

Now, what is this thought organisation which we call science? The first aspect of modern science which struck thoughtful observers was its inductive character. The nature of induction, its importance, and the rules of inductive logic have been considered by a long series of thinkers, especially English thinkers, Bacon, Herschel, J S Mill, Venn, Jevons, and others. I am not going to plunge into an analysis of the process of induction. Induction is the machinery and not the product, and it is the product which I want to consider. When we understand the product we shall be in a stronger position to improve the machinery.

First, there is one point which it is necessary to emphasise. There is a tendency in analysing scientific processes to assume a given assemblage of concepts applying to nature, and to imagine that the discovery of laws of nature consists in selecting by means of inductive logic some one out of a definite set of possible alternative relations which may hold between the things in nature answering to these obvious concepts. In a sense this assumption is fairly correct, especially in regard to the earlier stages of science. Mankind found itself in possession of certain concepts respecting nature - for example, the concept of fairly permanent material bodies - and proceeded to determine laws which related the corresponding percepts in nature. But the formulation of laws changed the concepts, sometimes gently by an added precision, sometimes violently. At first this process was not much noticed, or at least was felt to he a process curbed within narrow bounds, not touching fundamental ideas. At the stage where we now are, the formulation of the concepts can he seen to he as important as the formulation of the empirical laws connecting the events in the universe as thus conceived by us. For example, the concepts of life, of heredity, of a material body, of a molecule, of an atom, of an electron, of energy, of space, of time, of quantity, and of number. I am not dogmatising about the best way of getting such ideas straight. Certainly it will only be done by those who have devoted themselves to a special study of the facts in question. Success is never absolute, and progress in the right direction is the result of a slow, gradual process of continual comparison of ideas with facts. The criterion of success is that we should be able to formulate empirical laws, that is, statements of relations, connecting the various parts of the universe as thus conceived, laws with the property that we can interpret the actual events of our lives as being our fragmentary knowledge of this conceived interrelated whole.

But, for the purposes of science, what is the actual world? Has science to wait for the termination of the metaphysical debate till it can determine its own subject-matter? I suggest that science has a much more homely starting-ground. Its task is the discovery of the relations which exist within that flux of perceptions, sensations, and emotions which forms our experience of life. The panorama yielded by sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, and by more inchoate sensible feelings, is the sole field of its activity. It is in this way that science is the thought organisation of experience. The most obvious aspect of this field, of actual experience is its disorderly character. It is for each person a continuum, fragmentary, and with elements not clearly differentiated. The comparison of the sensible experiences of diverse people brings its own difficulties. I insist on the radically untidy, ill-adjusted character of the fields of actual experience from which science starts. To grasp this fundamental truth is the first step in wisdom, when constructing a philosophy of science. This fact is concealed by the influence of language, moulded by science, which foists on us exact concepts as though they represented the immediate deliverances of experience. The result is that we imagine that we have immediate experience of a world of perfectly defined objects implicated in perfectly defined events which, as known to us by the direct deliverance of our senses, happen at exact instants of time, in a space formed by exact points, without parts and without magnitude: the neat, trim, tidy, exact world which is the goal of scientific thought.

My contention is that this world is a world of ideas, and that its internal relations are relations between abstract concepts, and that the elucidation of the precise connection between this world and the feelings of actual experience is the, fundamental question of scientific philosophy. The question which I am inviting you to consider is this: How does exact thought apply to the fragmentary, vague continua of experience? I am not saying that it does not apply, quite the contrary. But I want to know how it applies. The solution I am asking for is not a phrase however brilliant, but a solid branch of science, constructed with slow patience, showing in detail how the correspondence is effected.

The first great steps in the organisation of thought were due exclusively to the practical source of scientific activity, without any admixture of theoretical impulse. Their slow accomplishment was the cause and also the effect of the gradual evolution of moderately rational beings. I mean the formation of the concepts of definite material objects, of the determinate lapse of time, of simultaneity, of recurrence, of definite relative position, and of analogous fundamental ideas, according to which the flux of our experiences is mentally arranged for handy reference: in fact, the whole apparatus of common-sense thought. Consider in your mind some definite chair. The concept of that chair is simply the concept of all the interrelated experiences connected with that chair - namely, of the experiences of the folk who made it, of the folk who sold it, of the folk who have seen it or used it, of the man who is now experiencing a comfortable sense of support, combined with our expectations of an analogous future terminated finally by, a different set of experiences when the chair collapses and becomes fire-wood. The formation of that type of concept was a tremendous job, and zoologists and geologists tell us that it took many tens of millions of years. I can well believe it.

I now emphasise two points. In the first place, science is rooted in what I have just called the whole apparatus of common-sense thought. That is the datum from which it starts, and to which it must recur. We may speculate, if it amuses us, of other beings in other planets who have arranged analogous experiences according to an entirely different conceptual code - namely, who have directed their chief attention to different relations between their various experiences. But the task is too complex, too gigantic, to be revised in its main outlines. You may polish up common sense, you may contradict it in detail, you may surprise it. But ultimately your whole task is to satisfy it.

In the second place, neither common sense nor science can proceed with their task of thought organisation without departing in some respect from the strict consideration of what is actual in experience. Think again of the chair. Among the experiences upon which its concept is based, I included our expectations of its future history. I should have gone further and included our imagination of all the possible experiences which in ordinary language we should call perceptions of the chair which might have occurred. This is a difficult question, and I do not see my way through it. But at present in the construction of a theory of space and of time, there seem insuperable difficulties if we refuse to admit ideal experiences.

This imaginative perception of experiences, which, if they occurred, would be coherent with our actual experiences, seems fundamental in our lives. It is neither wholly arbitrary, nor yet fully determined. It is a vague background which is only made in part definite by isolated activities of thought. Consider, for example, our thoughts of the unseen flora of Brazil.

Ideal experiences are closely connected with our imaginative reproduction of the actual experiences of other people, and also with our almost inevitable conception of ourselves as receiving our impressions from an external complex reality beyond ourselves. It may be that an adequate analysis of every source and every type of experience yields demonstrative proof of such a reality and of its nature. Indeed, it is hardly to be doubted that this is the case. The precise elucidation of this question is the problem of metaphysics. One of the points which I am urging in this address is that the basis of science does not depend on the assumption of any of the conclusions of metaphysics; but that both science and metaphysics start from the same given groundwork of immediate experience, and in the main proceed in opposite directions on their diverse tasks.

For example, metaphysics inquires how our perceptions of the chair relate us to some true reality. Science gathers up these perceptions into a determinate class, adds to them ideal perceptions of analogous sort, which under assignable circumstances would be obtained, and this single concept of that set of perceptions is all that science needs; unless indeed you prefer that thought find its origin in some legend of those great twin brethren, the Cock and Bull.

My immediate problem is to inquire into the nature of the texture of science. Science is essentially logical. The nexus between its concepts is a logical nexus, and the grounds for its detailed assertions are logical grounds. King James said, 'No bishops, no king.' With greater confidence we can say, 'No logic, no science.' The reason for the instinctive dislike which most men of science feel towards the recognition of this truth is, I think, the barren failure of logical theory during the past three or four centuries. We may trace this failure back to the worship of authority which in some respects increased in the learned world at the time of the Renaissance. Mankind then changed its authority, and this fact temporally acted as an emancipation. But the main fact, and we can find complaints of it at the very commencement of the modern movement, was the establishment of a reverential attitude towards any statement made by a classical author. Scholars became commentators on truths too fragile to bear translation. A science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost. To this hesitation I ascribe the barrenness of logic. Another reason for distrust of logical theory and of mathematics is the belief that deductive reasoning can give you nothing new. Your conclusions are contained in your premises, which by hypothesis are known to you.

In the first place this last condemnation of logic neglects the fragmentary, disconnected character of human knowledge. To know one premise on Monday, and another premise on Tuesday, is useless to you on Wednesday. Science is a permanent record of premises, deductions, and conclusions, verified all along the line by its correspondence with facts. Secondly, it is untrue that when we know the premises we also know the conclusions. In arithmetic, for example, mankind are not calculating boys. Any theory which proves that they are conversant with the consequences of their assumptions must be wrong. We can imagine beings who possess such insight. But we are not such creatures. Both these answers are, I think, true and relevant. But they are not satisfactory. They are too much in the nature of bludgeons, too external. We want something more explanatory of the very real difficulty which the question suggests. In fact, the true answer is embedded in the discussion of our main problem of the relation of logic to natural science.

To read the second part of Whitehead's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1916, Part 2

Last Updated April 2007