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The Western Odyssey

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

Adventures of Ideas. By Alfred North Whitehead. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.50.

It seems that there are only two ways of writing history, the epic and the dramatic. They may be distinguished by very trivial differences in technique: in the epic way the narrator appeals to the Muses to help him tell a story; in the dramatic way it is taken for granted that the facts will reveal a dramatic pattern of characters in a plot. Both, when they are successful, tend toward a theological or metaphysical interpretation of human life, and each has many degradations. At present historians sail precariously between, on one side, the many-headed Scylla of patriotic justification of the ways of men to the keepers of local tradition and, on the other side, the Charybdis of impartial science. In “Adventures of Ideas” Mr. Whitehead is a modern Homer telling the adventures of his own Ulysses-like soul, and his story is also the Odyssey of Western civilization told in the musical themes and varying harmonies of the Platonic tradition. It is a Platonic philosophy of history with a difference that makes it modern; the center of attention is on ideas, but in a medium which makes them look like romantic adventures, rather than like stars in the firmament.

The persistent, easy, interpretive, historical generalizations are, of course, progress and degradation. Over-emphasis on one or the other of these to the exclusion or suppression of the other has become the recognized mark of bad history, but the proper ordering and articulation of them in a more stable pattern has not been often achieved. It would seem that the seeing of history as the continuous adventures of ideas would somehow solve the problem. At any rate it seems worth trying. But of course the immediate difficulty of choosing the ideas appears; this is the radical difficulty of right emphasis and accent and it needs a wide base of cultivated feeling and the sophistication of a critical philosophy to give it security. Mr. Whitehead is very careful to put his gifts in these respects at our disposal. For instance, he continually warns us of the impossibility of making our prejudices and presuppositions exhaustively clear so that they may be allowed for and rectified with any certainty. This he has, no doubt, learned from his experience with the foundations of mathematics. Again he repeatedly remarks on the general fact that the most powerful ideas are those that have never been clearly and distinctly understood. This is most obvious in the section on sociological ideas, where he is showing the occasions in which persuasion has taken the place of force in human affairs. It is less obvious in the section on scientific thought, which is treated as cosmology, although it is even more vitally important to recognize it there. It is of course the ultimate and fatal futility in all philosophic enterprise. The paradox of civilization may be stated in several keys: rationality, as the mode in which human beings know ideas the clearest, is the only way they have of bringing themselves and the world under control, and yet rationality itself is ultimately not controllable; the wind bloweth where it listeth. Rationality is an adventure of the most romantic sort; yet it is our only hope of securely enjoying permanent values. Rationality is the very essence of madness—and the only route to wisdom. This paradoxology is itself a wisdom language from which European thought has with much struggle and great waste drawn its knowledges and its cultures.

The critical treatment of our intellectual faith has been given in the two preceding volumes, “Science and the Modern World” and “Process and Reality,” in the series of which this is the third. These, with other earlier volumes, have expounded a system of philosophy which has been called organic mechanism. The philosophic reader has been able in the first of these to divine an immanent Platonic criticism of modern scientific thought, and as the system has taken form and extended itself to wider subject-matters the method and doctrine have become increasingly Platonic. One could see how Mr. Whitehead’s notions described the organic mechanisms by which “ideas” are embodied in the coming-to-be and passing-away of “events.” Machines and organisms as previously described by scientific philosophers showed a fatal imperviousness to ideas and were themselves involved in difficulties and antinomies for human understanding. Mr. Whitehead’s theory is plausible and not a little illuminating with respect to the tangles in scientific procedures and theories. This book finally throws the whole system into Plato’s own terms, and it gains a dignity and clarity by its translation. It will doubtless suffer greatly with the scientists on account of its very clarity; but it will gain with the philosophers who are still connected in thought with the great tradition.

The Whitehead system gains also a new power by its transcendence of a fixed system. “Plato moves about amid a fragmentary system like a man dazed by his own penetration. A few main doctrines stand out and they are of priceless importance for science, in the largest sense of that term. As to their co-ordination in a system, he is undogmatic and can only tell ‘the most likely tale.’ Indeed in his seventh epistle he denounces that a final system can be verbally expressed. His later thought circles round the interweaving of seven main notions, namely, The Ideas, The Physical Elements, The Psyche, The Eros, The Harmony, The Mathematical Relations, The Receptacle. These notions are as important now as they were at the dawn of the modern world, when civilizations of the old type were dying.” These notions that Mr. Whitehead has chosen from Plato’s Dialogues are also the ideas which he has chosen to make the fundamental ingredients of European history; Europe also has “moved about amid a fragmentary system like a man dazed by his own penetration.” Each section deals with the passage of The Ideas in and out of The Receptacle (formerly Mr. Whitehead’s “eternal objects” and “events”), and the sections are distinguished by the special modes and patterns of the processes involved. Plato was chiefly concerned with isolating and clarifying these notions; Mr. Whitehead, like every great philosopher since Plato, is concerned with the processes and realities which show them forth.

The final section on “Civilization” is concerned with the Real Values that the processes involve. In it he discusses what might be called the transcendentals of his system, those things which qualify everything equally and paradoxically and also qualify each other: Truth, Beauty, Adventure, Peace. In my opinion this is the crucial section and I believe it fails to accomplish what it should if the project of the book belongs to the great tradition. Mr. Whitehead has fallen before the historian’s temptation, that is to remain an historian. But it must be said that he has fallen before it only in its subtlest form.

Western philosophers from Heraclitus to Emerson have, among other human concerns, been concerned with the notions of Psyche and Eros, those media by which ideas enter into change, and every great philosopher has had something definite and decisive to say about them, something which does not deny in any, even the slightest, degree the natures of ideas and change, nor glosses over the gap between them. Mr. Whitehead’s difficulty appears when he is discussing Peace. He there recognizes the really crucial point about adventures with ideas: such adventures conceived in their own terms must necessarily fail. He suggests the Greek poets’ answer, the tragic purgation, to “render clear to popular understanding some eternal greatness incarnate in the passage of temporal fact,” but he does not make clear how this understanding may be reached even by a select few moderns, all of whom seem to have lost the necessary insight. The “passage of temporal fact” has been left seeking its “eternal greatness.” The trouble is that Mr. Whitehead, with many other moderns who discuss the past, present, and future of civilization, has raised a difficult question in applied theology. It is to his credit that he has raised it, but its solution requires the full speculative treatment of dogmatic theology. If we are to attain the even view of things that his discussion of Peace calls for, either he or someone with at least his gifts of insight must find and point out the ways by which ideal adventure and contemplative love are supported in the creation and preservation of the eternal greatness. Until then it will be impossible to discuss or enjoy Truth and Beauty without sentimentality. A genuinely tragic philosophy of history demands a calmly dogmatic theology.


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