Alfred North Whitehead  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Alfred North Whitehead (15 February 1861 – 30 December 1947) was an English philosopher. He is best known as the defining figure of the philosophical school known as process philosophy, which today has found application to a wide variety of disciplines, including ecology, theology, education, physics, biology, economics, and psychology, among other areas.

In his early career Whitehead wrote primarily on mathematics, logic, and physics. His most notable work in these fields is the three-volume Principia Mathematica (1910–13), which he wrote with former student Bertrand Russell. Principia Mathematica is considered one of the twentieth century's most important works in mathematical logic, and placed 23rd in a list of the top 100 English-language nonfiction books of the twentieth century by Modern Library.

Beginning in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Whitehead gradually turned his attention from mathematics to philosophy of science, and finally to metaphysics. He developed a comprehensive metaphysical system which radically departed from most of western philosophy. Whitehead argued that reality consists of processes rather than material objects, and that processes are best defined by their relations with other processes, thus rejecting the theory that reality is fundamentally constructed by bits of matter that exist independently of one another. Today Whitehead's philosophical works – particularly Process and Reality – are regarded as the foundational texts of process philosophy.

Theory of perception

Since Whitehead's metaphysics described a universe in which all entities experience, he needed a new way of describing perception that was not limited to living, self-conscious beings. The term he coined was "prehension", which comes from the Latin prehensio, meaning "to seize." The term is meant to indicate a kind of perception that can be conscious or unconscious, applying to people as well as electrons. It is also intended to make clear Whitehead's rejection of the theory of representative perception, in which the mind only has private ideas about other entities. For Whitehead, the term "prehension" indicates that the perceiver actually incorporates aspects of the perceived thing into itself. In this way, entities are constituted by their perceptions and relations, rather than being independent of them. Further, Whitehead regards perception as occurring in two modes, causal efficacy (or "physical prehension") and presentational immediacy (or "conceptual prehension").

Whitehead describes causal efficacy as "the experience dominating the primitive living organisms, which have a sense for the fate from which they have emerged, and the fate towards which they go." It is, in other words, the sense of causal relations between entities, a feeling of being influenced and affected by the surrounding environment, unmediated by the senses. Presentational immediacy, on the other hand, is what is usually referred to as "pure sense perception", unmediated by any causal or symbolic interpretation, even unconscious interpretation. In other words, it is pure appearance, which may or may not be delusive (e.g. mistaking an image in a mirror for "the real thing").

In higher organisms (like people), these two modes of perception combine into what Whitehead terms "symbolic reference", which links appearance with causation in a process that is so automatic that both people and animals have difficulty refraining from it. By way of illustration, Whitehead uses the example of a person's encounter with a chair. An ordinary person looks up, sees a colored shape, and immediately infers that it is a chair. However, an artist, Whitehead supposes, "might not have jumped to the notion of a chair", but instead "might have stopped at the mere contemplation of a beautiful color and a beautiful shape." This is not the normal human reaction; most people place objects in categories by habit and instinct, without even thinking about it. Moreover, animals do the same thing. Using the same example, Whitehead points out that a dog "would have acted immediately on the hypothesis of a chair and would have jumped onto it by way of using it as such." In this way symbolic reference is a fusion of pure sense perceptions on the one hand and causal relations on the other, and that it is in fact the causal relationships that dominate the more basic mentality (as the dog illustrates), while it is the sense perceptions which indicate a higher grade mentality (as the artist illustrates).

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Alfred North Whitehead" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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