The Function of Reason

Chapter Three

Alfred North Whitehead

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The speculative Reason is in its essence untrammelled by method. Its function is to pierce into the general reasons beyond limited reasons, to understand all methods as coordinated in a nature of things only to be grasped by transcending all method. This infinite ideal is never to be attained by the bounded intelligence of mankind. But what distinguishes men from the animals, some humans from other humans, is the inclusion in their natures, waveringly and dimly, of a disturbing element, which is the flight after the unattainable. This element is that touch of infinity which has goaded races onward, sometimes to their destruction. It is a tropism to the beckoning ligh tto the sun passing toward the finality of things, and to the sun arising from their origin. The speculative Reason turns east and west, to the source and to the end, alike hidden below the rim of the world.

Reason which is methodic is content to limit itself

( 66) within the bounds of a successful method. It works in the secure daylight of traditional practical activity. It is the discipline of shrewdness. Reason which is speculative questions the methods, refusing to let them rest. The passionate demand for freedom of thought is a tribute to the deep connection of the speculative Reason with religious intuitions. The Stoics emphasized this right of the religious spirit to face the infinitude of things, with such understanding as it might. In the first period when the speculative Reason emerged as a distinguishable force, it appeared in the guise of sporadic inspirations. Seers, prophets, men with a new secret, appeared. They brought to the world fire, or salvation, or release, or moral insight. Their common character was to be bearers of some imaginative novelty, relevant and yet transcending traditional ways.

The real importance of the Greeks for the progress of the world is that they discovered the almost incredible secret that the speculative Reason was itself subject to orderly method. They robbed it of its anarchic character without destroying its function of reaching beyond set bounds. That is why we now speak of the speculative Reason in the place of Inspiration. Reason appeals to the orderliness of what is reasonable while "speculation" expresses the transcendence of any par-

( 67)-ticular method. The Greek secret is, how to be bounded by method even in its transcendence. They hardly understand their own discovery. But we have the advantage of having watched it in operation for twenty centuries.

The world's experience of professed seers has on the whole been very unfortunate. In the main, they are a shady lot with a bad reputation. Even if we put, aside those with some tinge of insincerity, there still remain the presumptuous, ignorant, incompetent, unbalanced band of false prophets who deceive the people. On the whole, the odds are so heavily against any particular prophet that, apart from some method of testing, perhaps it is safer to stone them, in some merciful way. The Greeks invented logic in the broadest sense of that term—the logic of discovery. The Greek logic as finally perfected by the experience of centuries provides a set of criteria to which the content of a belief should be subjected. These are:

(i) Conformity to intuitive experience: 

(ii)     Clarity of the propositional content: 

(iii)    Internal Logical consistency: 

(iv)    External Logical consistency: 

(v)     Status of a Logical scheme with, 

(a)     widespread conformity to experience,

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(b)     no discordance with experience, 

(c) coherence among its categoreal notions, 

(d)     methodological consequences. 

The misconception which has haunted the ages of thought down to the present time is that these criteria are easy to apply. For example, the Greek and the medieval thinkers were under the impression that they could easily obtain clear and distinct premises which conformed to experience. Accordingly they were comparatively careless in the criticism of premises, and devoted themselves to the elaboration of deductive systems. The modems have, equally with the Greeks, assumed that it is easy to formulate exactly expressed propositions. They have also assumed that the interrogation of experience is a straightforward operation. But they have recognized that the main effort is to be devoted to the discovery of propositions which do in fact conform to experience. Thus the moderns stress induction. The view which I am maintaining is that none of these operations are easy. In fact they are extremely difficult. Apart from a complete metaphysical understanding of the universe, it is very difficult to understand any proposition clearly and distinctly, so far as concerns the analysis of its component elements.

Again the analysis of experience without the intro

( 69) -duction of interpretive elements which may be faulty, is extremely difficult. It follows also from these two difficulties that judgment of direct conformity to experience is very difficult to bring to a decisive issue, with the elimination of all elements of doubt.

There is also some doubt even as to the self-consistency of a proposition. For if the analysis of the proposition be vague, there is always a possibility that a more complete analysis will disclose a flaw. The same doubt also applies to the fourth criterion which is that of external consistency. In this case we are comparing the proposition under the scrutiny with other propositions accepted as true.

It is obvious that if the first two criteria were capable of easy determination nothing else would be wanted. Also if the first four could be decisively determined, the fifth criterion would be unnecessary. But this last criterion is evidently a procedure, to remedy the difficulty of judging individual propositions, by having recourse to a system of ideas, whose mutual relevance shall lend to each other clarity, and which hang together so that the verification of some reflects upon the verification of the others. Also if the system has the character of suggesting methodologies of which it is explanatory, it gains the character of generating ideas

( 70) coherent with itself and receiving continuous verification.

The whole point of the fifth criterion is that the scheme produces a greater understanding of the world, including the better definition of ideas and the more direct analysis of immediate fact. A single proposition rests upon vague apprehensions: whereas a scheme of ideas provides its own measure of definiteness by the mutual relatedness of its own categoreal methods.

It is by their emphasis of schemes of thought that the Greeks founded the various branches of science, which have remade civilization. A proposition which falls within a scientific scheme is accepted with surprisingly slight direct verification. For example, at the present time we all accept the famous doctrine of the shift of the spectral lines. But so far as direct evidence is concerned, there are some experiments on rays from the sun, with very dubious interpretations, and the clear-cut instance of the light from the dark companion of Sirius. There are millions of untested stars, apart from the question as to whether the same star will always give the same effect. But no one doubts the doctrine because it falls within the reigning scientific scheme. The importance of the scheme is illustrated by imagining some occurrence which does not fall within any

( 71) scheme. You go to a strange foreign country, and among your first observations on your first day is that of a man standing on his head. If you are cautious, you will refrain from generalizing on the propensity of the inhabitants to stand on their heads; also half your friends will disbelieve you when you mention the incident. Yet your direct evidence is comparable to that respecting the shift of the spectral lines.

The production of a scheme is a major effort of the speculative Reason. It involves imagination far out-running the direct observations. The interwoven group of categoreal notions which constitute the scheme allow of derivative extension by the constructive power of deductive logic. Throughout the whole range of these propositions respecting the interrelations of the forms of things, some of them allow of direct comparison with experience. The extent of its conformity or non-conformity with observed fact can thus be explored. A scheme which, for a time at least, is useless methodologically, is one which fails to yield these observable contacts with fact.

An abstract scheme which is merely developed by the abstract methodology of logic, and which fails to achieve contact with fact by means of a correlate practical methodology of experiment, may yet be of the

( 72) utmost importance. The history of modern civilization shows that such schemes fulfil the promise of the dream of Solomon. They first amplify life by satisfying the peculiar claim of the speculative Reason, which is understanding for its own sake. Secondly, they represent the capital of ideas which each age holds in trust for its successors. The ultimate moral claim that civilization lays upon its possessors is that they transmit, and add to, this reserve of potential development by which it has profited. One main law which underlies modern progress is that, except for the rarest accidents of chance, thought precedes observation. It may not decide the details, but it suggests the type. Nobody would count, whose mind was vacant of the idea of number. Nobody directs attention when there is nothing that he expects to see. The novel observation which comes by chance is a rare accident, and is usually wasted. For if there be no scheme to fit it into, its significance is lost. The way of thoughtless nature is by waste—a million seeds, and one tree; a million eggs, and one fish. In the same way, from a million observations of fact beyond the routine of human life it rarely happens that one useful development issues.

The comparative stagnation of Asiatic civilization after its brilliant development was due to the fact that

( 73) it had exhausted its capital of ideas, the product of curiosity. Asia had no large schemes of abstract thought, energizing in the minds of men and waiting to give significance to their chance experiences. It remained in contemplation and the ideas became static. This sheer contemplation of abstract ideas had stifled the anarchic curiosity producing novelty. Speculation had faded out of Reason. Millions had seen apples fall from trees, but Newton had in his mind the mathematical scheme of dynamic relations: millions had seen lamps swinging in temples and churches, but Galileo had in his mind his vaguer anticipation of this same mathematical scheme: millions had seen animals preying on each other, vegetables choking each other, millions had endured famine and thirst, but Charles Darwin had in his mind the Malthusian scheme. The secret of progress is the speculative interest in abstract schemes of morphology. It is hardly realized for how long a time such abstract schemes can grow in the minds of men before contact with practical interests. The story of the development of mathematical physics has been told and retold, but its moral is so overwhelming that it, must never be allowed out of sight.

Consider the early stages of mathematics—a few technological dodges in Egypt about two thousand years

( 74) before Christ. It was a minor element in a great civilization. About five hundred years before Christ, the Greeks initiated its theoretical development for the love of the theory. This was about four or five hundred after the date of Solomon's dream, the greatest prophecy ever made. The genius of the Greeks was shown by their clear divination of the importance of mathematics for the study of nature. The necessity for fostering the development of abstract morphology is illustrated by considering the state of the science of geometry at the commencement of the sixteenth century. The science had been studied for about two thousand years. It had been elaborated in great detail. But, allowing for some minor qualifications, nothing had come from it except the intrinsic interest of the study. Then, as if a door had suddenly opened, Kepler produced the first important utilization of conic sections, the first among hundreds, Descartes and Desargues revolutionized the methods of the science, Newton wrote his Principia, and the modern period of civilization commenced. Apart from the capital of abstract ideas which had accumulated slowly during two thousand years, our modern life would have been impossible. There is nothing magical about mathematics as such. It is simply the greatest example of a science of abstract forms.

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The abstract theory of music is another such science: the abstract theory of political economy is another: and the abstract theory of the currency is another. The point is that the development of abstract theory precedes the understanding of fact. The instance of political economy illustrates another important point. We all know that abstract political economy has in recent years been somewhat under a cloud. It deals with men under an abstraction; it limits its view to the "economic man." It also makes assumptions as to markets and competition which neglect many important factors. We have here an example of the necessity of transcending a given morphological scheme. Up to a point the scheme is invaluable. It clarifies thought, it suggests observation, it explains fact. But there is a strict limit to the utility of any finite scheme. If the scheme be pressed beyond its proper scope, definite error results. The art of the speculative Reason consists quite as much in the transcendence of schemes as in their utilization.

Mathematical physics suggests another reflection. We must dwell upon the extreme abstractness of the mathematical ideas involved. It is surprising that a scheme of such abstract ideas should have proved to be of such importance. We can imagine that an Egyptian country gentleman at the beginning of the Greek period might

( 76) have tolerated the technical devices of his land surveyors, but would have felt that the airy generalizations of the speculative Greeks were tenuous, unpractical, and a waste of time. The obscurantists of all ages exhibit the same principles. All common sense is with them. Their only serious antagonist is History, and the history of Europe is dead against them. Abstract speculation has been the salvation of the world—speculation which made systems and then transcended them, speculations which ventured to the furthest limit of abstraction. To set limits to speculation is treason to the future.

But the weaving itself requires discipline. It has to /be kept in some relation to the general facts of this epoch. Cosmology is the effort to frame a scheme of the general character of the present stage of the universe. The cosmological scheme should present the genus, for which the special schemes of the sciences are the species. The task of Cosmology is twofold. t restrains the aberrations of the mere undisciplined imagination. A special scheme should either fit in with the general cosmology, or should by its conformity to fact present reasons why the cosmology should be modified. In the case of such a misfit, the more probable result is some modification of the cosmology and some

( 77) modification of the scheme in question. Thus the cosmology and the schemes of the sciences are mutually critics of each other. The limited morphology of a special science is confessedly incapable of expressing in its own categoreal notions all forms which are illustrated in the world. But it is the business of a cosmology to be adequate. For this reason a cosmology must consider those factors which have not been adequately embraced in some science. It has also to include all the sciences.

The dim recesses of experience present immense difficulties for analysis. The mere interrogation of immediate consciousness at one immediate moment tells us very little. Analytic power vanishes under such direct scrutiny. We have recourse to memory, to the testimony of others including their memories, to language in the form of the analysis of words and phrases—that is to say, to etymology and syntax. We should also consider the institutions of mankind in the light of an embodiment of their stable experience.

In the search for categorical notions sufficiently general to figure in a cosmological morphology, we must lay stress on those factors in experience which are "stable." By this it is meant that the discerning of them

( 78) as illustrated in fact is not confined to a few special people, or a few special occasions. The illustration must rest on broad, widespread testimony.

Here a distinction must be made. The first discernment may be due to an exceptional man in an exceptional moment. But a secret which cannot be shared, must remain a secret. The categoreal forms should come to us with some evidence that they are widsepread in experience. But we are now considering the main difficulty of the speculative Reason, its confrontation with experience.

There is a conventional view of experience, never admitted when explicitly challenged, but persistently lurking in the tacit presuppositions. This view conceives conscious experience as a clear-cut knowledge of clear-cut items with clear-cut connections with each other. This is the conception of a trim, tidy, finite experience uniformly illuminated. No notion could be further from the truth. In the first place the equating of experience with clarity of knowledge is against evidence. In our own lives, and at any one moment, there is a focus of attention, a few items in clarity of awareness, but interconnected vaguely and yet insistently with other items in dim apprehension, and this dimness shading off imperceptibly into undiscriminated feeling.

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Further, the clarity cannot be segregated from the vagueness. The togetherness of the things that are clear refuses to yield its secret to clear analytic intuition. The whole forms a system, but when we set out to describe the system direct intuition plays us false. Our conscious awareness is fluctuating, flitting, and not under control. It lacks penetration. The penetration of intuition follows upon the expectation of thought. This is the secret of attention.

But besides this character of an immediate moment of experience, these moments differ among themselves in the life of any one of us. We are alert, or we are drowsy, or we are excited, or we are contemplative, or we are asleep, or we are dreaming, or we are intently expecting, or we are devoid of any concentrated expectation. Our variety of phases is infinite.

Again when we consider other humans, and animals, an analogous variation suggests itself between their average states, and between the highest stages respectively possible for different individuals. As we descend the scale, it seems that we find in the lower types a dim unconscious drowse, of undiscriminated feeling. For the lower types, experience loses its illustration of forms, and its illumination by consciousness, and its discrimination of purpose. It seems finally to end in a massive

( 80) unconscious urge derived from undiscriminated feeling, this feeling being itself a derivation from the immediate past.

The basis of all authority is the supremacy of fact over thought. Yet this contrast of fact and thought can be conceived fallaciously. For thought is a factor in the fact of experience. Thus the immediate fact is what it is, partly by reason of the thought involved in it. The quality of an act of experience is largely determined by the factor of the thinking which it contains. But the thought involved in any one such act involves an analytic survey of experience beyond itself. The supremacy of fact over thought means that even the utmost flight of speculative thought should have its measure of truth. It may be the truth of art. But thought irrelevant to the wide world of experience, is unproductive.

The proper satisfaction to be derived from speculative thought is elucidation. It is for this reason that fact is supreme over thought. This supremacy is the basis of authority. We scan the world to find evidence for this elucidatory power.

Thus the supreme verification of the speculative flight is that it issues in the establishment of a practical technique for well-attested ends, and that the speculative

( 81) system maintains itself as the elucidation of that technique. In this way there is the progress from thought to practice, and regress from practice to the same thought. This interplay of thought and practice is the supreme authority. It is the test by which the charlatanism of speculation is restrained.

In human history, a practical technique embodies itself in established institutions—professional associations, scientific associations, business associations, universities, churches, governments. Thus the study of the ideas which underlie the sociological structure is an appeal to the supreme authority. It is the Stoic appeal to the "voice of nature."

But even this supreme authority fails to be final, and this for two reasons. In the first place the evidence is confused, ambiguous, and contradictory. In the second place, if at any period of human history it had been accepted as final, all progress would have been stopped. The horrid practices of the past, brutish and nasty, would have been fastened upon us for all ages. Nor can we accept the present age as our final standard. We can live, and we can live well. But we feel the urge of the trend upwards: we still look toward the better life.

We have to seek for a discipline of the speculative Reason. It is of the essence of such speculation that it

( 82) transcends immediate fact. Its business is to make thought creative of the future. It effects this by its vision of systems of ideas, including observation but generalized beyond it. The need of discipline arises because the history of speculation is analogous to the history of practice. If we survey mankind, their speculations have been foolish, brutish, and nasty. The true use of history is that we extract from it general principles as to the discipline of practice and the discipline of speculation.

The object of this discipline is not stability but progress. It has been urged in these pages, that there is no true stability. What looks like stability is a relatively slow process of atrophied decay. The stable universe is slipping away from under us. Our aim is upwards.

The men who made speculation effective were the Greek thinkers. We owe to them the progressive European civilization. It is therefore common sense to observe the methods which they introduced into the conduct of thought.

In the first place, they were unboundedly curious. They probed into everything, questioned everything, and sought to understand everything. This is merely to say that they were speculative to a superlative degree. In the second place, they were rigidly systematic both

( 83) in their aim at clear definition and at logical consistency. In fact, they invented logic in order to be consistent. Thirdly, they were omnivorous in their interests—natural science, ethics, mathematics, political philosophy, metaphysics, theology, esthetics, and all alike attracted their curiosity. Nor did they keep these subjects rigidly apart. They very deliberately strove to combine them into one coherent system of ideas. Fourthly, they sought truths of the highest generality. Also m seeking these truths, they paid attention to the whole body of their varied interests. Fifthly, they were men with active practical interests. Plato went to Sicily in order to assist in a political experiment, and throughout his life studied mathematics. In those days mathematics and its applications were not so separated as they can be today. No doubt, the sort of facts that he observed were the applications of mathematical theory. But no one had a keener appreciation than Plato of the divergence between the exactness of abstract thought and the vague margin of ambiguity which haunts all observation. Indeed in this respect Plato, the abstract thinker, far surpasses John Stuart Mill, the inductive philosopher. Mill in his account of the inductive methods of science never faces the difficulty that no observation ever does exactly verify the law which it is presumed to support.

( 84) Plato's feeling for the inexactness of physical experience in contrast to the exactness of thought certainly suggests that he could look for himself. Mill's determinism is, according to his own theory, an induction respecting the exactness of conformation to the conditions set by antecedent circumstances. But no one has ever had any such experience of exact conformation. No observational basis whatsoever can ever be obtained for the support of Mill's doctrine. Plato knew this primary fact about experience, Mill did not. Determinism may be the true doctrine, but it can never be proved by the methods prescribed by English empiricism.

When we come to Aristotle the enumeration of his practical activities makes us wonder that he had any time for thought at all. He analyzed the constitutions of the leading Greek states, he dissected the great dramatic literature of his age, he dissected fishes, he dissected sentences and arguments, he taught the youthful Alexander. A man, who had done these things and others, might well have been excused if he had pleaded lack of time for mere abstract thought.

In considering the culmination of Greek speculation in Plato and Aristotle the characteristics which finally stand out are the universality of their interests, the systematic exactness at which they aimed, and the

( 85) generality of their thoughts. It is no rash induction to conclude that these combined characteristics constitute one main preservative of speculation from folly.

The speculative Reason works in two ways so as to submit itself to the authority of facts without loss of its mission to transcend the existing analysis of facts. In one way it accepts the limitations of a special topic, such as a science or a practical methodology.. It then seeks speculatively to enlarge and recast the categoreal ideas within the limits of that topic. This is speculative Reason in its closest alliance with the methodological Reason.

In the other way, it seeks to build a cosmology expressing the general nature of the world as disclosed in human interests. It has already been pointed out, that in order to keep such a cosmology in contact with reality account must be taken of the welter of established institutions constituting the structures of human society throughout the ages. It is only in this way that we can appeal to the widespread effective elements in the experience of mankind. What those institutions stood for in the experience of their contemporaries, represents the massive facts of ultimate authority.

The discordance at once disclosed among the beliefs and purposes of men is commonplace. But in a way,

( 86) the task is simplified. The superficial details at once disclose themselves by the discordance which they disclose. The concordance in general notions stands out. The very fact of institutions to effect purposes witnesses to unquestioned belief that foresight and purpose can shape the attainment of ends. The discordance over moral codes witnesses to the fact of moral experience. You cannot quarrel about unknown elements. The basis of every discord is some common experience, discordantly realized.

A cosmology should above all things be adequate. It should not confine itself to the categoreal notions of one science, and explain away everything which will not fit in. Its business is not to refuse experience but to find the most general interpretive system. Also it is not a mere juxtaposition of the various sciences. It generalizes beyond any special science, and thus provides e interpretive system which expresses their interconnection. Cosmology, since it is the outcome of the highest generality of speculation, is the critic of all speculation inferior to itself in generality.

But cosmology shares the imperfections of all the efforts of finite intelligence. The special sciences fall short of their aim, and cosmology equally fails. Thus When the novel speculation is produced a threefold

( 87) problem is set. Some special science, the cosmological scheme, and the novel concept will have points of agreement and points of variance. Reason intervenes in the capacity of arbiter and yet with a further exercise of speculation. The science is modified, the cosmological outlook is modified, and the novel concept is modified. The joint discipline has eliminated elements of folly, or of mere omission, from all three. The purposes of mankind receive the consequential modification, and the shock is transmitted through the whole sociological structure of technical methods and of institutions.

Every construction of human intelligence is more special, more limited than was its original aim. Cosmology sets out to be made from all subordinate details. Thus there should be one cosmology presiding over many sciences. Unfortunately this ideal has not been realized. The cosmological outlooks of different schools of philosophy differ. They do more than differ, they are largely inconsistent with each other. The discredit of philosophy has largely arisen from this warring of the schools.

So long as the dogmatic fallacy infests the world, this discordance will continue to be misinterpreted. If philosophy be erected upon clear and distinct ideas, then the discord of philosophers, competent and sincere

( 88) men, implies that they are pursuing a will-o'-the-wisp. But as soon as the true function of rationalism is understood, that it is a gradual approach to ideas of clarity and generality, the discord is what may be expected.

The various cosmologies have in various degrees failed to achieve the generality and the clarity at which they aim. They are inadequate, vague, and push special notions beyond the proper limits of their application. For example, Descartes is obviously right, in some sense or other, when he says that we have bodies and that we have minds, and that they can be studied in some disconnection. It is what we do daily in practical life. This philosophy makes a large generalization which obviously has some important validity. But if you turn it into a final cosmology, errors will creep in. The same is true of other schools of philosophy. They all say something which is importantly true. Some types of philosophy have produced more penetrating cosmologies than other schools. At certain epochs a cosmology may be produced which includes its predecessors and assigns to them their scope of validity. But at length, that cosmology will be found out. Rivals will appear correcting it, and perhaps failing to include some of its general truths.

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In this way mankind stumbles on in its task of understanding the world.

In conclusion we must recur to our initial question, which is the title of this discussion, The Function of Reason. If we survey the world as a physical system determined by its antecedent states, it presents to us the spectacle of a finite system steadily running down—losing its activities and its varieties. The various evolutionary formulae give no hint of any contrary tendency. The struggle for existence gives no hint why there should be cities. Again the crowding of houses is no explanation why houses should be beautiful. But there is in nature some tendency upwards, in a contrary direction to the aspect of physical decay. In our experience we find appetition, effecting a final causation towards ideal ends which lie outside the mere physical tendency. In the burning desert there is appetition towards water, whereas the physical tendency is towards increased dryness of the animal body. The appetition towards esthetic satisfaction by some enjoyment of beauty is equally outside the mere physical order.

But mere blind appetition would be the product of chance and could lead nowhere. In our experience, we find Reason and speculative imagination. There is a

( 90) discrimination of appetitions according to a rule of fitness. This reign of Reason is vacillating, vague, and dim. But it is there.

We have thus some knowledge, in a form specialized to the special aptitudes of human beings,—we have some knowledge of that counter-tendency which converts the decay of one order into the birth of its successor.


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