The Function of Reason

Chapter Two

Alfred North Whitehead

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In the preceding chapter, two aspects of the function of Reason have been discriminated. In one aspect, the function of Reason was practical. To its operation, the piecemeal discovery and clarification of methodologies is due. In this way it not only elaborates the methodology, but also lifts into conscious experience the detailed operations possible within the limits of that method. In this aspect, Reason is the enlightenment of purpose; within limits, it renders purpose effective. Also when it has rendered purpose effective, it has fulfilled its function and lulls itself with self-satisfaction. It has finished its task. This aspect of the operations of Reason was connected with the legend of Ulysses.

The other aspect of the function of Reason was connected with the lifework of Plato. In this function Reason is enthroned above the practical tasks of the world. It is not concerned with keeping alive. It seeks


( 38) with disinterested curiosity an understanding of the world. Naught that happens is alien to it. It is driven forward by the ultimate faith that all particular fact is understandable as illustrating the general principles of its own nature and of its status among other particular facts. It fulfils its function when understanding has been gained. Its sole satisfaction is that experience has been understood. It rep supposes life, and seeks life rendered good with the goodness of understanding. Also so long as understanding is incomplete, it remains to that extent unsatisfied. It thus constitutes itself the urge from the good life to the better life. But the progress which it seeks is always the progress of a better understanding. This is the urge of disinterested curiosity. In this function Reason serves only itself. It is its own dominant interest, and is not deflected by motives derived from other dominant interests which it may be promoting. This is the speculative Reason.

There is a strong moral intuition that speculative understanding for its own sake is one of the ultimate elements in the good life. The passionate claim for freedom of thought is based upon it. Unlike some other moral feelings, this intuition is not widespread. Throughout the generality of mankind it flickers with very feeble intensity. But it has been transmitted through the genera


( 39) -tions in a succession of outstanding individuals who command unquestioning reverence. Also the perennial struggle between Reason and Authority, is tinged with bitterness by the intrusion of this sentiment of an ultimate moral claim.

The whole story of Solomon's dream suggests that the antithesis between the two functions of Reason is not quite so sharp as it seems at first sight. The speculative Reason produces that accumulation of theoretical understanding which at critical moments enables a transition to be made toward new methodologies. Also the discoveries of the practical understanding provide the raw material necessary for the success of the speculative
Reason. But when all allowance has been made for this interplay of the two functions, there remains the essential distinction between operations of Reason governed by the purposes of some external dominant interest, and operations of Reason governed by the immediate satisfaction arising from themselves. For example, truthfulness as an element in one's own self-respect issues from a reverence for Reason in its own right. Whereas truthfulness as a dodge usually necessary for a happy life depends upon the notion of Reason as serving alien purposes. Sometimes these two grounds for truthfulness are at issue with each other. It may happen that


( 40) the moral issues depending on the latter ground for immediate truthfulness, or for its abandonment, may be superior to those depending on the former ground. But the point of immediate interest is that these two grounds for truthfulness bear witness to the two functions of Reason.

The history of the practical Reason must be traced back into the animal life from which mankind emerged. Its span is measured in terms of millions of years, if we have regard to the faint sporadic flashes of intelligence which guided the slow elaboration of methods. A survey of species seems to show that a customary method soon supersedes the necessity for such flashes of progress. In this way custom supersedes any trace of thought which might transcend it. The species sinks into a stationary stage in which thought is canalized between the banks of custom.

The history of the speculative Reason is altogether shorter. It belongs to the history of civilization, and its span is about six thousand years. But the critical discovery which gave to the speculative Reason its supremeimportance was made by the Greeks. Their discovery of mathematics and of logic introduced method into speculation. Reason was now armed with an objective test and with a method of progress. In this way Reason


( 41) was freed from its sole dependence on mystic vision and fanciful suggestion. Its method of evolution was derived from itself. It ceased to produce a mere series of detached judgments. It produced systems instead of inspirations. The speculative Reason, armed with the Greek methods, is older than two thousand years only by a few centuries.

The ascription of the modern phase of the speculative Reason wholly to the Greeks, is an exaggeration. The great Asiatic civilizations, Indian and Chinese, also produced variants of the same method. But none of these variants gained the perfected technique of the Greek method. Their modes of handling speculative Reason were effective for the abstract religious speculation, and for philosophical speculation, but failed before natural science and mathematics. The Greeks produced the final instrument for the discipline of speculation.

If, however, we include the Asiatic anticipations, we may give about three thousand years for the effective use of speculative Reason. This short period constitutes the modern history of the human race. Within this period all the great religions have been produced, the great rational philosophies, the great sciences. The inward life of man has been transformed.

But until the last hundred and fifty years, the specu-


( 42) lative Reason produced singularly little effect upon technology and upon art. It is arguable that on the whole within the modern period art made no progress, and in some respects declined. Having regard to the rise of modern music, we may reject the theory of a general decline in art. But, on the whole, as artists we certainly have not surpassed the men of a thousand years before Christ, and it is doubtful whether we reach their level. We seem to care less about art. Perhaps we have more to think about, and so neglect to cultivate our esthetic impulses.

Technology has certainly improved during the last three thousand years. But it would be difficult to discern any influence of the speculative Reason upon this progress, until the most recent period. There does not seem to have been much quickening of the process. For example, the technology of Europe in the eighteenth-century had made a very moderate advance over that of the Roman Empire in its prime. The advance does not seem to be much greater than that made in the two thousand years preceding this culmination of the classical civilization.

The enormous advance in the technology of the last hundred and fifty years arises from the fact that the speculative and the practical Reason have at last


( 43) made contact. The speculative Reason has lent its theoretic activity, and the practical Reason has lent its methodologies for dealing with the various types of facts. Both functions of Reason have gained in power. The speculative Reason has acquired content, that is to say, material for its theoretic activity to work upon, and the methodic Reason has acquired theoretic insight transcending its immediate limits. We should be on the threshold of an advance in all the values of human life.

But such optimism requires qualification. The dawn of brilliant epochs is shadowed by the massive obscurantism of human nature. Obscurantism is the inertial resistance of the practical Reason, with its millions of years behind it, to the interference with its fixed methods arising from recent habits of speculation. This obscurantism is rooted in human nature more deeply than any particular subject of interest. It is just as strong among the men of science as among the clergy, and among professional men and business men as among the other classes. Obscurantism is the refusal to speculate freely on the limitations of traditional methods. Itis more than that: it is the negation of the importance of such speculation, the insistence on incidental dangers. A few generations ago the clergy, or to speak more accurately, large sections of the clergy were the stand-


( 44) -ing examples of obscurantism. Today their place has been taken by scientists—

By merit raised to that bad eminence.

The obscurantists of any generation are in the main constituted by the greater part of the practitioners of the dominant methodology. Today scientific methods are dominant, and scientists are the obscurantists.

In order to understand our situation today we must note that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the educated section of western Europe inherited the results of about five centuries of intense speculative activity. The mistaken. expectation of obtaining a dogmatic finality in speculative first principles has obscuredthe very considerable success of this speculative epoch. By reason of the preservation of manuscripts to an extent enjoyed by no previous nascent civilization, this ferment of speculation could appropriate the thoughts of the earlier classical speculation, Pagan and Christian, terminating with the decadence of Rome. This advantage carried with it a weakness. The medieval movement was too learned. It formed a closed system of thinking about other people's thoughts. In this way, medieval philosophy, and indeed modern philosophy, detracted from its utility as a discipline of speculative Reason by


( 45) its inadequate grasp of the fecundity of nature and of the corresponding fecundity of thought. The scholastics confined themselves to framing systems out of a narrow round of ideas. The systems were very intelligently framed. Indeed they were marvels of architectonic genius. But there are more ideas in heaven and on earth than were thought of in their philosophy.

Yet when all this concession has been made to the defects of scholasticism, its success was overwhelming. It formed the intellectual basis of one of the periods of quickest advance known to history. The comparison of the intellectual feebleness of the men, even the ablest men, of the ninth and tenth centuries with the intellectual group of the men of the thirteenth century discloses the extent of this advance. It is not merely that in the earlier times the men knew less. They were intrinsically less able in moving about among general ideas. They failed to discriminate between minor peculiarities of details and the major notions. The power of going for the penetrating idea, even if it has not yet been worked into any methodology, is what constitutes the progressive force of Reason. The great Greeks had this knack to an uncanny degree. The men of the thirteenth century had it. The men of the tenth century lacked it. In between there lay three centuries of specu-


( 46) -lative philosophy. The story is told to perfection in Henry Osborn Taylor's book, The Mediaeval Mind. What scholasticism gave to the European world, was penetration in the handling of ideas.

All things work between limits. This law applies even( to the speculative Reason. The understanding of a civilization is the undeindingof its limits. The penetration of the generations from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries worked within the limits of the ideas provided by scholasticism. These five centuries represent a period of the broadening of interests rather than a period of intellectual growth. Scholasticism had exhausted its possibilities. It had provided a capital of fundamental ideas and it had wearied mankind in its efforts to provide a final dogmatic system by the methodof meditating on those ideas. New interests crept in, slowly at first and finally like an avalanche—Greek literature, Greek art, Greek mathematics, Greek science. The men of the Renaissance wore their learning more lightly than did the scholastics. They tempered it with the joy of direct experience. Thus another ancient secret was discovered, a secret never wholly lost, but sadly in the background among the learned section of the medievals,—the habit of looking for oneself, the habit of observation.


( 47)

The first effect was confusion. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries give an impression of more enlightenment, but of less intellectual power than does the thirteenth century. In some ways it suggests an intellectual throwback to the tenth century. There is the sense of dazed men groping, so far as concerns intellectual interests. The men of the early Renaissance never seem quite clear in their minds whether they should sacrifice a cock or celebrate the mass. They compromised by doing both.

But this analogy is very superficial. The medieval inheritance was never lost. After the first period of bewilderment, their penetration in the circle of scholastic ideas came to the fore. The men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries founded the various modern sciences, natural sciences and moral sciences, with their first principles expressed in terms which the great scholastics would have understood at a glance.

The reason why the founders of modern science were so unconscious of their debt to the medievals was that they had no idea that men could think in any other terms, or for lack of penetration could fail to think at all. Galileo and his antagonists the "Aristotelians" were rival schools employing the same general stock of ideas, and with the same penetrative ability in handling those


( 48) ideas. The recasting of the medieval ideas so as to form the foundations of the modern sciences was one of the intellectual triumphs of the world. It was chiefly accomplished in the seventeenth century, though the whole process occupied about two or three centuries, taking into consideration all the sciences. But in celebrating this triumph it is ungrateful to forget the earlier centuries of scholastic preparation.

Science has been developed under the impulse of the speculative Reason, the desire for explanatory knowledge. Its reaction on technology did not commence till after the invention of the improved steam engine in the year 1769. Even then, the nineteenth century was well advanced before this reaction became one of the dominating facts. Of course, scientific instruments were invented—the telescope, the microscope, and the thermometer, for instance. Also some slight reactions on technical procedure can be traced. But the instruments were used mainly for scientific purposes, and technical improvements were initiated from hints gathered from all kinds of chances, scientific knowledge among others. There was nothing systematic and dominating in the interplay between science and technical procedure. The one great exception was the foundation


( 49) of the Greenwich Observatory for the improvement of navigation.

The antagonism between science and metaphysics has,. like all family quarrels, been disastrous. It was provoked by the obscurantism of the metaphysicians in the later Middle Ages. Or course, there were many exceptions. For example, the famous Cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa, illustrated the fact that quite a different turn might have been given the history of European thought. But the understanding of the proper functions of speculative thought was hampered by the fallacy of dogmatism. It was conceived that metaphysical thought started from principles which were individually clear, distinct, and certain. The result was that the tentative methods of science seemed quite at variance with dogmatic habits of metaphysicians. Also science itself was not quite so certain of its tentative procedure. The triumph of the Newtonian physics settled science upon a dogmatic foundation of materialistic ideas which lasted for two centuries. Unfortunately this approach to the metaphysical dogmatism did not produce a sense of fellowship even in evil habits. For if scientific materialism be the last word, metaphysics must be useless for physical science. The ultimate truths about nature are then


( 50) not capable of any explanatory interpretation. On this theory, all that there is to be known is that inexplicable bits of matter are hurrying about with their motions correlated by inexplicable laws expressible in terms of their spatial relations to each other. If this be the final dogmatic truth, philosophy can have nothing to say to natural science.

In addition to the natural human tendency to turn a successful methodology into a dogmatic creed, the two sciences of mathematics and theology must bear the blame of fostering the dogmatic habit in European thought. The premises of mathematics seem clear, distinct, and certain. Arithmetic and geometry, as it seemed, could not be otherwise and they applied throughout the realm of nature. Also theology, by reason of its formulation of questions concerning our most intimate, sensitive interests, has always shrunk from facing the moments of bewilderment inherent in any tentative approach to the formulation of ideas.

The separation of philosophy and natural science, due to the dominance of Newtonian materialism, is indicated by the division of science into "moral science" and "natural science." For example, the University of Cambridge has inherited the term "moral science" for its department of philosophic studies. The notion is


( 51) that philosophy is concerned with topics of the mind, and that natural science takes care of topics concerning matter. The whole conception of philosophy as concerned with the discipline of the speculative Reason,, to which nothing is alien, has vanished. Newton him

was one of the early scientists who most emphatically repudiated the intrusion of metaphysics into science. There is plenty of evidence that, like many another man of genius, his nerves were delicately balanced. For such men the intrusion of alien considerations into the narrow way of a secure technology produces mere bewildered irritation, by reason of its disturbance of the sense of supreme mastery within the methods of their technique. Of course it would be foolish to believe that any man should dissipate his energies by straying beyond his own best lines of activity. But the pursuit of knowledge is a cooperative enterprise, and the repudiation of the relevance of diverse modes of approach to the same topic requires more justification than appeal to the limitations of individual activities.

The pathetic desire of mankind to find themselves starting from an intellectual basis which is clear, distinct, and certain, is illustrated by Newton's boast, hypotheses non fingo, at the same time when he enunciated his law of universal gravitation. This law states that every


( 52) particle of matter attracts every other particle of matter; though at the moment of enunciation only planets and heavenly bodies had been observed to attract "particles of matter." The verification, that two particles of matter, neither of them heavenly bodies, would attract each other, had to wait for nearly a hundred years to elapse. But there was a second meaning to Newton's motto. It was an antiCartesian statement directed against the vortices. He was, quite correctly, pointing out that his law expressed a sheer fact, and was not accompanied by any explanatory considerations concerning the character or distribution of matter. The nemesis of the Newtonian physics was this barrier of materialism, constituting a block to any further advance to rationalism. The pragmatic value of Newton's methodology at that stage of scientific history is not in question. The interesting fact is the clutch at dogmatic finality.

I need not waste time in pointing out how the finality both of the cosmological scheme and of the particular law in question has now passed into Limbo. Newton vas weaving hypotheses. His hypotheses speculatively embodied the truth vaguely discerned; they embodied this truth in a definite formulation which far outran the powers of analytic intuition of his age. The formulae required limitation as to the scope of their application.


( 53) This definition of scope has now been provided by recent formulae which in their turn will, in the progress of science, have their scope of application defined. Newton's formulae were not false: they were unguardedly stated. Einstein's formulae are not false: they 'are unguardedly stated. We now know how to guard Newton's formulae: we are ignorant of the limitations of Einstein's formulae. In scientific investigations the question, True or False?, is usually irrelevant. The important question is, In what circumstances is this formula true, and in what circumstances is it false? If the circumstances of truth be infrequent or trivial or unknown, we can say, with sufficient accuracy for daily use, that the formula is false.

Of course the unknown limitations to Einstein's formulae constitute a yet more subtle limitation to Newton's formula. In this way dogmatic finality vanishes and is replaced by an asymptotic approach to the truth.

The doctrine that science starts from clear and distinct elements in experience, and that it develops by a clear and distinct process of elaboration, dies hard. There is a constant endeavor to explain the methodology of science in terms which, by reason of their clarity and distinctness, require no metaphysical elucidation. Undoubtedly it is possible to express the procedure of


( 54) science with a happy ambiguity which can receive interpretation from a variety of metaphysical schools. But when we press the question so as to determine without ambiguity the procedure of science, we become involved in the metaphysical formulations of the speculative Reason.

The modern doctrine, popular among scientists, is that science is the mere description of things observed. As such it assumes nothing, neither an objective world, nor causation, nor induction. A simple formula which describes the universals common to many occurrences is scientifically preferable to the complexity of many descriptions of many occurrences. Thus the quest of science is simplicity of description. The conclusion is that science, thus defined, needs no metaphysics. We can then revert to the nave doctrine of the University of Cambridge, and divide knowledge into natural science and moral science, each irrelevant to the other.

This doctrine is beautifully clear; and in the sense in which the doctrine is clear, natural science can be of no importance. We can only urge the importance of science by destroying the clarity of the doctrine.

Mere observations are particular occurrences. Thus if science be concerned with mere observations, it is an epitome of certain occurrences in the lives of certain


( 55) men of science. A treatise on a scientific subject is merely an alternative way of editing a "Scientific Who's Who" with most of the proper names left out. For science is only concerned with particular observations made by particular men. Thus the world is in possession of four kinds of biographies, the old-fashioned "Life and Letters" in two volumes, the new-fashioned biography of the Lytton Strachey school, the Who's Who type, and the variant on the Who's Who type which is termed a treatise on some particular branch of science. Unless we are interested in the particular observers the scientific treatise is of no interest. Unfortunately most of the observers' names are omitted in these treatises—so all interest has evaporated.

Thus, if the doctrine of science as the quest for simplicity of description, be construed in the sense in which it frees science from metaphysics, in that sense science loses its importance. But, as the doctrine is usually handled by its adherents, metaphysics having been dismissed by one interpretation, the importance of science is preserved by the substitution of another interpretation. Two new notions are introduced, both requiring metaphysical discussion for their elucidation. One is the notion of inductive generalization, whereby future observations are brought into the scope of the


( 56) scientific statements. The other is a more complex notion. It commences by introducing the notion of the observable, but not observed. It then proceeds by introducing a speculative description of spatio-temporal occurrences which constitute the factual basis in virtue of which this observability is predicated. It finally proceeds to predict, on the basis of this description and by reason of the facts thus described, the observability of occurrences generically different from any hitherto made.

For example, one type of observation, wholly visual, suggests a theory of electromagnetic equations. By the aid of this theory the design of radio apparatus, transmitting and receiving, is worked out. Finally a band plays in the laboratory of some radio station and people over an area with a radius of hundreds of miles listen to the music. Is it credible to believe that the only principle involved is the mere description of the original particular observations?

We are told, however, that we have misconstrued the intermediate step by terming it "a speculative description of spatio-temporal occurrences." The proper way of expressing the procedure of science is to say that the intermediate step is simply the production of a mathematical formula, and that by the aid of this


( 57) formula the experiences of the people with receiving sets are predicted. But what is the formula doing? It may have some relevance to the sequence of experiences in some scientist's mind, expressing the transition from his original visual experiences to his final enjoyment of an excellent band. The doctrine seems unlikely and far-fetched. By a stretch of the mind, I can imagine it. But we have got to account for the experiences of the unlearned multitude with radio sets. They are ignorant of the original experiments, ignorant of the whereabouts of the band and of the radio laboratory, and ignorant of the inside mechanism both of the generating station and of their own radio sets. What on earth has the mere mathematical formula to do with the experiences of this multitude of listeners, endowed with this comprehensive ignorance and taking their rest after good dinners and a hard day's work?

Is the formula a magical incantation? We can parallel this modern doctrine of the mere description of observations together with the intervention of a mere formula, by recalling our memories of childhood. There is a large audience, a magician comes upon the stage, places a table in front of him, takes off his coat, turns it inside out, shows himself to us, then commences voluble patter with elaborate gestures, and finally produces


( 58) two rabbits from his hat. We are asked to believe that it was the patter that did it.

The common sense of the matter is, that the mathematical formulae are descriptive of those characteristicsof the common external world which are relevant to the transmission of physical states from the band to the bodies of the listeners.

If this be true, we are now a long way from the sweet simplicity of the original doctrine. We have introduced the notion of the external world with its spatio-temporal occurrences, speculatively described by science. We have introduced the notion of potentiality, by substituting the word "observable" for the word "observed." Also hundreds of millions of dollars have been risked in reliance upon inductive generalization. If we ask what we mean by all this apparatus of vague notions, our only appeal must be to the speculative Reason.

It is quite true that exactly at this point we can damp down any further speculative Reason, and can relapse into the routine of successful methodology. But the claim of science that it can produce an understanding of its procedures within the limits of its own categories, or that those categories themselves are understandable without reference to their status within the widest cate


( 59) -gories under exploration by the speculative Reason—that claim is entirely unfounded. Insofar as philosophers have failed, scientists do not know what they are talking about when they pursue their own methods; and insofar as philosophers have succeeded, to that extent scientists can attain an understanding of science. With the success of philosophy, blind habits of scientific thought are transformed into analytic explanation.

The Cartesian dualism, whereby the final actualities were divided into bodies and minds, and the Newtonian materialistic cosmology, combined to set a false goal before philosophic speculation. The notion of mere bodies and of mere minds was accepted uncritically. But the ideal of explaining either minds in terms of bodies, or bodies in terms of minds guided speculative thought. First Hobbes made bodies fundamental, and reduced minds to derivative factors. Then Berkeley made minds fundamental, and reduced bodies to derivative factors—mere ideas in the minds, and more particularly in the mind of God. The most important effect on the relations of philosophy to natural science was, however, produced neither by Hobbes nor by Berkeley, but by Kant. The effect of his Critique of Pure Reason was to reduce the system of nature to mere appearance—or, to use the Greek word, the order of


( 60) nature is phenomenal. But whether we prefer the word "appearance," or the word "phenomenon," the effect is the same. There can be no metaphysics of nature, and no approach to metaphysics by scanning the order of nature. For nature is a mere derivative appearance; and when we consider it, we are remote from any intuition which tells of final truths. It is true that Kant himself did not draw that conclusion. The starry heavens affected him, a triumph of the obvious over philosophy. But in the long run, the effect of the Kantian point of view was to degrade science to the consideration of derivative details. But again the obvious triumphed. There is an insistent importance in the details of our phenomenal life in the phenomenal world. Kant denied that this phenomenal system could bring us to metaphysics. Yet obviously here we are, living phenomenally among phenomena. August Comte was the nemesis which issued from the Critique of Pure Reason. The positivist position inverts the Kantian argument. Positivism holds that we are certainly in the world, and it also holds with Kant that the system of the world reflects no light upon metaphysics. Anyhow from the side of philosophy, Kant drove a wedge between science and the speculative Reason. This issue from Kant did not obtain its proper development till


( 61) the nineteenth century. Kant himself and his immediate followers were intensely interested in natural science. But the English neo-Kantians and neo-Hegelians of the mid-nineteenth century were remote from natural science.

This antagonism between philosophy and natural science has produced unfortunate limitations of thought on both sides. Philosophy has ceased to claim its proper generality, and natural science is content with the narrow round of its methods. The seventeenth century had built the categoreal notions of the sciences so firmly that the divorce from philosophy practically had no effect on immediate progress. We have now come to a critical period of the general reorganisation of categories of scientific thought. Also sciences, such as psychology and physiology, are hovering on the edge of the crevasse separating science from philosophy.

The obscurantist attitude of science is likely to be disastrous in retarding progress. It may be that we are not yet ready to effect a closer union between speculative thought and scientific method. One thing is certain: scientific opinion can have no possible justification for coming to this conclusion. The rejection of any source of evidence is always treason to that ultimate rationalism which urges forward science and philosophy alike.

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