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Poets and Patterns

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

The Modes of Thought. By Alfred North Whitehead. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50.

Technical philosophy is continually revenging

itself upon common sense—to its own disadvantage.

Its most bitter scorn of vulgar opinion as opposed to its own high ideal of certainty and absolute truth seems inevitably to culminate in the tragic realization of failure through some omitted factor which common sense might easily have suggested to it, were common sense not so notoriously lacking in articulateness and wit. To many, this peculiar, almost negative, power of common sense over metaphysics would indicate a theological solution in terms of some traditional dogma. To others, the delicious certainty of the recurrent drama brings a kind of sexless pleasure, and history becomes the tragic pattern playing itself out to no discernible end.

Alfred North Whitehead has undertaken to diagnose this situation. In “The Modes of Thought,” the author—whom John Jay Chapman referred to as “the open-mindedest and the quickest intelligence I have ever come across”—gives us his calm and authoritative reassurance that there is no cause for despair. It is true, he holds, that the pitfalls which exist for systematic thought are no less great than those which exist for less enlightened opinion; but, sympathetic with both alternatives mentioned above, he suggests that the primary need in the face of such a dilemma is for wider perspectives which do not sternly ignore whole regions of our experience and condemn them to “unreality.” Frustration, either on the part of the philosopher or on the part of the common man, is symptomatic of a certain finitude of mentality, of an inability to question persistently and well. Thus a fairly definite discipline is implied which, though indicated in many of Professor Whitehead’s other works, is here put forward in some detail with great clarity and force.

Assuredly, system is essential to thought, but it is the deliberate closure of any system which destroys living understanding. “Our primary insight is a mixture of clarity and vagueness,” and our most profound attempts at explanation “wander beyond all system.” Since “there is no reason to hold that confusion is less fundamental than order,” the task becomes that of developing a general concept “which allows room for both; and which also suggests the path for the enlargement of our penetration.” It is here that the notion of the pattern becomes of immense importance, for “understanding . . . is the self-evidence of pattern, so far as it has been discriminated.”

Philosophy is essentially analogous to poetry. The difficulty for both poet and philosopher is that the expression of what (for them) is self-evident is scarcely possible by means of ordinary symbolisms. “Philosophy is the endeavour to find a conventional phraseology for the vivid suggestiveness of the poet.” But poetry does more than simply parallel philosophy; it recalls the philosopher to those aesthetic problems of which common sense is so incurably aware. Thus the author explicitly indicates a place for the poets whom Plato would fain expunge from the State.

And Professor Whitehead himself is something of a poet; the same man who, in other works, has produced such barbarous technical phraseology as almost to blast the English language from the printed page, can also upon occasion express himself with a delicacy and clarity rarely found in philosophical discourse, or again, speak fluently and even chattily in the language of the common man. Considered from one point of view, “The Modes of Thought” is extremely pleasant and easy reading. But when one begins to comprehend the amazing wealth of meaning which is packed into a seemingly commonplace utterance, this small volume is very difficult reading indeed.

Thanks to the training given by college courses in English throughout the country, the ability to read is exceedingly rare; and not the least of the special values of this book lies in the suggestions it gives concerning the nature and function of language. Portions of this work are already familiar to many; but the hitherto unpublished Wellesley Lectures (constituting the first six chapters) are a refreshing and important restatement of Professor Whitehead’s position, which, it is to be hoped, accomplish what every good restatement should accomplish — the conveyance of a new and deeper insight.

In one sense, the diagnosis which the author has given us in this work is too advanced for our own age. We lack the technical facility in abstract speculation which he presupposes. But in so far as such facility does in fact enter into our theoretical sciences and, in some measure, into our more comprehensive generalizations, we have here an ideal counter-irritant for dogmatism at whatever level we happen to discover it.


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