Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Process, Insight, and Empirical Method 

An Argument for the Compatibility of the Philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Bernard J. F. Lonergan and Its Implications for Foundational Theology.

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Divinity School, The University of Chicago, for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy

December 1983

Thomas Hosinski, C.S.C.

Chapter I:

Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s Interpretations of Empirical Scientific Method and Philosophic Method [continued] 


The Method of Empirical Science

As noted above, the method of empirical science is rarely the focus of Whitehead’s analysis.  Rather, what Whitehead says about scientific method usually is said in the context of other discussions and usually concerns only one or two aspects of his total view of scientific method raised to elucidate a point he is making within another context.  As a result, Whitehead’s statements about the method of empirical science are of two main types: general summary statements without a great deal of detailed analysis, and more detailed considerations of one or two elements of that method.  The plan for this section, then, will be to begin with, some of his summary statements to give the general view of his interpretation of empirical scientific method, and then to fill out the meaning of that, view by reference to his more detailed but more limited discussions.


The Summary View

Perhaps the best-known of Whitehead’s descriptions of empirical method occurs within the context of his analysis and defense of speculative philosophy, the opening chapter of Process and Reality.  

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: Macmillan, 1929), Part I, Chapter 1, Section ii hereafter cited as PR).  There are several editions of PR in circulation.  Due to this, all references to PR will first be given by Part, Chapter, and Section numbers, followed parenthetically by page references to the two major American editions.  The first, preceded by M, is to the pagination of the original Macmillan edition and its reprints; the second, preceded by C, is to the recent “Corrected Edition,” edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: The Free Press, 1978), which is sure to become the standard edition for the future.  Thus the reference in this note would be stated as follows: PR, I.1.ii (M, pp. 6-8; C, pp. 4-5).

There Whitehead notes that the datum for thought “is the actual world, including ourselves,” [PR, I.1.ii (M, p. 6; C, p. 4).] and that this datum presents itself to us for observation in the form of our immediate experience.  Thus, Whitehead argues, “the elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought; and the starting point for thought is the analytic observation of components of this experience.” [Ibid.  But we lack a clear-cut and complete analysis of immediate experience. “The various details which comprise the definiteness of our experience are not discriminated for us but lie hidden together in the woven fabric of our lives.  As a result, our observation, the starting-point of our thought, begins with the obvious.  To use the image of the fabric, we begin by noting that a certain color of thread is present in some places, but not in others; we observe our experience by noting differences that occur within it.  “We habitually observe by the method of difference.  Sometimes we see an elephant, and sometimes we do not.  The result is that an elephant, when present, is noticed.” [Ibid.]   The success of this “method of difference” depends on the observed object being important when it is present, but also on the fact that it is sometimes absent.  If elephants were a constant in our experience, we would take no special note of them.

There have been interpretations of science that would restrict scientific method to strict systematization of differences noted in the observation of nature,

This is the positivist interpretation of scientific method.  I will discuss Whitehead’s response to this interpretation below.

but Whitehead argues that such an interpretation does not describe the actual method of discovery. He calls the method of limiting thought to systematization of observed differences “the method of rigid empiricism” and notes that this method breaks down “whenever we seek the larger generalities,” [PR, I.1.ii (M, p. 7; C, pp. 4-5).] because it is incapable of elucidating those components of immediate experience that are always present.  He then presents his summary view of “the method of discovery” in contrast to this method of rigid empiricism.

In natural science this rigid method is the Baconian method of induction, a method which, if consistently pursued, would have left science where it found it.  What Bacon omitted was the play of a free imagination, controlled by the requirements of coherence and logic.  The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane.  It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.  The reason for the success of this method of imaginative rationalization is that, when the method of difference fails, factors which are constantly present may yet be observed under the influence of imaginative thought.  Such thought supplies the differences which the direct observation lacks. [Ibid. (M, p. 7; C, p. 5).]

Although Whitehead in the context is interested in showing that this is the method of speculative philosophy, the method to be used in the metaphysical analysis of experience, the first part of the quotation makes it clear that this is also a summary statement of his interpretation of the general method of the ‘empirical sciences.

This statement provides us with a handy framework around which to present Whitehead’s interpretation of empirical scientific method.  It interprets the method of the empirical sciences as consisting of three stages or moments: (1) particular observation; (2) imaginative generalization; and (3) renewed observation.  These three stages or moments of empirical scientific method are more generally known among scientists as (1) observation; (2) hypothesis formation; and (3) testing.

We shall shortly see why it is possible to identify the terms Whitehead uses for these stages and those in more common use, and further comment seems unnecessary here.

The simile Whitehead uses in describing the “method of discovery” is important, since the image of the mind as an airplane ascending from particular observation to imaginative generalization and descending to renewed observation implies that these three stages of empirical method are linked by movements of the inquiring mind in a dynamic unity. In this passage Whitehead does not discuss in what these movements of the mind consist, but he does elsewhere and I will consider them below.

Another point to be noticed about this summary interpretation of scientific method is that the “flight” of the inquiring mind does not consist in unbridled imaginative speculation; the “flight” is controlled by rational and empirical conditions.  On the rational side, “the play of a free imagination” is “controlled by the requirements of coherence and logic.” Coherence, in Whitehead’s usage, means that the fundamental ideas employed by the imagination in formulating a generalized interpretive scheme must presuppose each other so that they are meaningless if taken in isolation.  [PR, I.1.ii (M, pp. 5, 8-9; C, pp. 3, 6).] The requirement of logical perfection means that the ideas thus employed must not, so far as can be discerned, contain contradictions.  On the empirical side, there are also two requirements: applicability and adequacy.  Applicability means simply that the imaginative generalization or scheme of interpretation must have some application or illustration in the facts of experience. In scientific work this is secured in the first movement from observation to hypothesis or imaginative generalization; the hypothesis or imaginative scheme is produced in response to a given set of data observed in experience and hence the scheme has applicability to that set of data.  Adequacy means that the imaginative scheme must not have a unique illustration, but must be capable of repeated illustrations in the data of experience.  This is the requirement that in terms more familiar to the scientist demands repeatability of performance, and in scientific work adequacy is determined (not finally, but continuously and cumulatively) in the third stage or moment of empirical method, by testing and renewed observation. The ultimate requirement for any interpretive scheme if it is to be trusted in assisting us to recast our thought is that it be illustrated widely and recurrently in experience. [PR, I.1.i (M, p. 5; C, pp. 3-4); I.1.ii (M, pp. 8-9; C, p. 5); (i, p. 25; C, p. 17).]

In an early essay entitled “Technical Education and Its Relation to Science and Literature,

Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1929; Free Press pb. Ed., 1967), pp. 43-59.  Hereafter cited as AE.) (Originally published in Alfred North Whitehead, The Organisation of Thought, Educational and Scientific [London: Williams and Norgate, 1917].)

Whitehead gives another summary description of empirical scientific method, calling it “the logic of discovery” and “the logic of the discovered”:

The thought which science evokes is logical thought.  Now logic is of two kinds: the logic of discovery and the logic of the discovered.

The logic of discovery consists in the weighing of probabilities, in discarding details deemed to be irrelevant, in divining the general rules according to which events occur, and in testing hypothesis by devising suitable experiments.  This is inductive logic.  

The logic of the discovered is the deduction of the special events which, under certain circumstances, would happen in obedience to the assumed laws of nature.  Thus when the laws are discovered or assumed, their utilisation entirely depends on deductive logic. Without deductive logic science would be entirely useless.  It is merely a barren game to ascend from the particular to the general, unless afterwards we can reverse the process and descend from the general to the particular, ascending and descending like the angels on Jacob’s ladder.  [AE, pp. 51-52.]

This summary interpretation of empirical scientific method is important because in describing “the logic of discovery” and “the logic of the discovered” Whitehead indicates the kind of mental activities by which the mind moves “from observation to imaginative generalization to renewed observation in the special sciences.  Assuming the starting point of particular observation, the mind weighs probabilities, discards irrelevant details, and “divines” the general rules governing the occurrence of the events under consideration.  By this last activity, “divination” of the general rules, Whitehead clearly means the tentative formulation of hypotheses, or the stage of “imaginative generalization.”  Thus the first movement from observation to hypothesis consists in an inductive move from the concrete particularity of the observed events to a more general or abstract conception of the events to be understood (more abstract because details deemed to be irrelevant for the purposes of the science are discarded from consideration).  By the weighing of probabilities the scientist eventually arrives at a hypothetical formulation of the general rules or “laws” governing all events of the type under consideration.  The hypothesis, in short, is to be explanatory not only of the observed events from which the thought process began (applicability), but also of all events of that type as yet unobserved (the aim at adequacy).

From this moment of formulation of hypothesis, another movement takes place which is deductive and consists in prediction.  With a grasp of the implications of the law of nature discovered in the process of formulating the hypothesis, the scientist uses deductive logic to predict what events will take place in obedience to this law under certain circumstances, and devises experiments to test the hypothetical understanding.  When the experiments are conducted, when the imaginative generalization is confronted with the facts of particular concrete events, we have the third stage or moment of empirical scientific method.  Here the imaginative scheme (hypothesis) is to some degree either confirmed or negated by its confrontation with the facts of observed experience.  Thus the movement from hypothesis to testing is actually both deductive and inductive.  It is deductive because in order to test, the scientist must predict the implications of the hypothesis, that is, deduce, from the general and abstract hypothesis what will occur in specific circumstances and particular events.  It is inductive because once the testing has been done, the confrontation with experience issues in a judgment concerning the hypothesis: that in these specific circumstances and particular events the hypothesis either has been confirmed or has been shown to be erroneous or in need of modification, or that the results have been inconclusive and further testing is required.  Testing requires deductive thought in order to devise experiments by which to test hypotheses, and issues in an inductive judgment concerning the hypothesis.

Whitehead notes this in the continuation of the passage quoted above: “When Newton had divined the law of gravitation he at once proceeded to calculate the earth’s attractions on an apple at its surface, and on the moon.  We may note in passing that inductive logic would be impossible without deductive logic.  Thus Newton’s calculations were an essential step in his inductive verification of the great law.”  AE, p. 52.  See also “The Organization of Thought,” IS, p. 33: “A more important question is the relation of induction, based on observation, to deductive logic.  There is a tradition of opposition between adherents of induction and of deduction.  In my view, it would be just as sensible for the two ends of a worm to quarrel.  Both observation and deduction are necessary for any knowledge worth having.”

Before moving on to consider in more detail each of the elements of empirical scientific method as Whitehead interprets it, perhaps two observations might be made.  First, it ought to be noted that Whitehead’s description of scientific method is general.  That is, he is not describing any of the special methods of the particular sciences, but is trying to describe the general method of thought employed by all scientists as they do their work, the general method that governs the development, use, and application of all special methods.  Second, it is important to note that Whitehead is not constructing a theoretical model of scientific method based on some philosophical position; his interpretation of scientific method is descriptive.  He means to be describing how scientists actually proceed, what assumptions they actually make and what general procedures they actually follow.  The importance of this will emerge later in my discussion.

To summarize Whitehead’s general interpretation of scientific method, then, it may be outlined as follows.  Thought begins by observation of events in experience.  The mind then follows an inductive movement, discarding details deemed irrelevant, weighing probabilities, and arriving at the second stage, imaginative generalization.  In this stage a hypothesis is formulated to account not only for the originating set of observed events but also for the entire set of like events including those as yet unobserved.  This hypothesis formulates what the observer thinks is the rule or “law” of nature governing the occurrence of such events.  There is then a deductive movement of thought, predicting what events would take place under specific circumstances if the hypothesis has indeed formulated a rule or “law” of nature.  This prepares the way for the third stage of empirical method, testing, in which the hypothesis is confronted with the concrete facts of experience as the scientist renews his or her observation in the form of experimentation guided by the hypothesis.  Testing issues in an inductive judgment concerning the adequacy of the hypothesis.

I will now discuss several points of this interpretation in more detail.


The Detailed Discussions: The Debate with Positivism

Much of Whitehead’s discussion of empirical scientific method is carried on in direct or indirect opposition to the interpretation of science dominant at the time he wrote, namely, positivism.  The positivist interpretation of science, drawing inspiration from Francis Bacon and appealing to the philosophical analysis of David Hume, centers attention on the role of observation.  In our experience, positivism holds, we are acquainted with a succession of things.  Because of our sense perceptions we can analyze our acquaintance into a succession of things observed.  Because of our memories we not only have distinct observations of the distinct things in succession, but we also have a comparative knowledge of our successive observations.  Hence we build up a cumulative and comprehensive set of observations, which allows us finally to detect regularities of sequence and association and identify patterns of occurrence and recurrence which persist throughout the series of our observations.  The task of science, then, is to describe the observed recurrence, the patterns, the regularities of sequence.  What we call a “law of nature” is merely a description of “an observed persistence of pattern in the observed succession of natural things . . . .”

AI, VII, vii, pp. 115-116.  See also Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1929; pb. ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), p. 54.  (Hereafter cited as FR.)

Whitehead grants that the positivist interpretation “contains a fundamental truth about scientific methodology.”  It expresses “the first rule of scientific method, -- Enunciate observed correlations of observed fact.  This is the great Baconian doctrine, namely, Observe and observe, until finally you detect a regularity of sequence.” [AI, VII, vii, pp. 116-117.]  He further affirms “all scientific progress depends on first framing a formula giving a general description of observed fact. . . . At one stage, the method of all discovery conforms to the Positivist doctrine.”  [AI, VIII, v, p. 128.  Whitehead gives an example from the history of science in support of this assessment: Newton’s Law of Gravitation (see VII, vii, p. 116).]  Positivism, however, insists that this is all science is, that scientific method is merely the description of observed correlations of observed facts.  

AI, VIII, v, p. 128.  See also an early statement of this interpretation in The Concept of Nature, p. 163: “The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts.”

Whitehead argues that even though this interpretation does describe the first stage of scientific method, it is inadequate as a complete interpretation because it ignores the actual practice of scientists and the goals for which scientists strive. Scientists in fact are not satisfied with mere description of the observed facts; they are not satisfied with even a general description of observed facts.  Rather, they desire and work for an explanatory description of observed facts.  In fact they do not rest with simple, generalized descriptions of observed correlations but develop hypotheses in order to give some explanatory account of the observed correlations.  The history of scientific discovery is filled with examples which illustrate the evidence that the positivist interpretation of science ignores.

See Whitehead’s analysis of how the urge toward explanatory description is manifest in Percy Lowell’s discovery of the planet Pluto (a discovery which was publicized as Whitehead was writing Chapter VIII of AI), AI, VIII, v, pp. 126-128.  Also see Whitehead’s analysis of how Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, in spite of Newton’s claim that it was simply a description of sheer fact, is in the end to be understood as the “weaving” of hypotheses; FR, pp. 51-53.

In addition to this argument claiming that the positivist interpretation of science cannot bear confrontation with the facts of scientific activity and the history of discovery, Whitehead also argues that to limit the activity of science to mere description of observations ignores the actual interrelationship of observation and theory in scientific work.

Our coordinated knowledge, which in the general sense of the term is Science, is formed by the meeting of two orders of experience. One order is constituted by the direct, immediate discriminations of particular observations.  The other order is constituted by our general way of conceiving the Universe. They will be called, the Observational Order, and the Conceptual Order.  The first point to remember is that the observational order is invariably interpreted in terms of the concepts supplied by the conceptual order.  The question as to the priority of one or the other is, for the purpose of this discussion, academic.  We inherit an observational order, namely types of things which we do in fact discriminate; and we inherit a conceptual order, namely a rough system of ideas in terms of which we do in fact interpret.  We can point to no epoch in human history, or even in animal history, at which this interplay began. Also it is true that novel observations modify the conceptual order.  But equally, novel concepts suggest novel possibilities of observational discrimination. [AI, IX, vi, pp. 154-155.]

In this passage Whitehead is formulating the basis for his argument that a consciously elaborated metaphysics is necessary to secure the ultimate meaning of scientific knowledge and to explore the limitations of scientific statements. [See AI, IX, v & vi, pp. 154, 155.]   But what he says in this passage also has implications for an interpretation of “scientific method itself.  There are two points in particular to which I wish to call attention.  First, Whitehead would seem to be arguing that there are in fact no presuppositionless observation terms.  Every statement, even the most commonsensical observation statement, uses words which imply a particular way of conceiving the universe, and this is true for scientific observation statements as well. The scientist, using a specialized vocabulary, may think that his or her terms are free of any particular theory or hypothesis concerning the matter under investigation, and for the practical and limited concerns of the special science this may seem to be true.  In fact, however, every observation statement has conceptual implications and contains unarticulated presuppositions regarding the way reality is conceived.

[See PR,-V.5.ii (M, pp. 494-495; C, pp. 324-325).  This is why metaphysical analysis is so important.  It makes explicit the presuppositions and implications of the special sciences as well as those of other types of human experience, thus opening them to criticism and reformulation and hopefully leading to a coherent result that brings us closer to speaking the truth of reality.

A second and closely related point Whitehead is making is that observation is aided, informed, and directed by theory, and that advances in the observational realm are often caused by development of new hypotheses.  He puts this point well in another place:

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. . . .

. . . 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.  [FR, pp. 72, 73.]

It is the presence in a scientist’s mind of a hypothesis, a speculative scheme of thought, which most often directs his or her observation, which suggests connections between observations, and which reveals significance in oft-repeated observations.  It is the hypothesis or theory which provides reasonable explanations, at first dimly intuited, of observed data.

The extension of observation waits upon some dim apprehension of reasonable connection. For example, the observation of insects on flowers dimly suggests some congruity between the natures of insects and of flowers, and thus leads to a wealth of observation from which whole branches of science have developed.  But a consistent positivist should be content with the observed facts, namely insects visiting flowers.  It is a fact of charming simplicity.  There is nothing further to be said upon the matter, according to the doctrine of a positivist. [Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1938; Free Press pb. ed., 1968), Chapter VIII, p. 149.  (Hereafter cited as MT.)]

The positivist interpretation of science fails to take account of this interrelationship of hypothesis and observation in the actual development and practice of science.

It is interesting to note that in this critique of the positivist interpretation of science Whitehead is enunciating arguments and using methods of interpretation which are being widely used today in the community of philosophers of science (very often without any apparent influence from Whitehead’s work).  His comments on observation being preceded by thought and on observations being made and described in terms of theory are quite similar to the widely influential work of Norwood R. Hanson (see Patterns of Discovery [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958], Chapters I & III) which argues that all data in science are “theory-laden.”  Whitehead’s arguments from the actual history and practice of science are quite similar to the method of interpretation gaining wide influence today among philosophers of science; see Frederick Suppe, “Afterword,” in Suppe, ed., The Structure of Scientific Theories, pp. 618, 650-659, and especially his treatment of the work of Dudley Shapere, pp. 682-705.

A further criticism Whitehead raises against the positivist interpretation of science is that it is impossible to act upon this interpretation.  [See AI, VIII, iv, p. 124.]  As we have seen, the second movement involved in scientific method is a deductive operation.  Once the scientist has a grasp of the hypothesis or theory, an understanding of how the hypothesis explains the originating data, she or he proceeds to deduce the implications of the hypothesis for sets of events other than the ones originally observed.  The scientist predicts what will happen in specific circumstances according to the hypothesis.  This prediction or forecast is integral to the process of testing a hypothesis.  Proper testing cannot be done if the scientist is unable to predict what the hypothesis implies about events to be observed in the future.  Moreover, the application of scientific knowledge in technology is also dependent on forecast or prediction regarding future events. Without some minimal assurance that scientific theory will be borne out in future events, technological applications of scientific knowledge are impossible in theory and foolhardy in practice.  Thus prediction—forecast that future events of the types analyzed in science will take place in a particular manner—is an integral part both of scientific method and of the technological application of science.  But the positivist interpretation of science offers no basis for prediction, no basis for any forecast of the future. According to the positivist analysis we can know only observed facts and have no basis for knowledge regarding future events; all we have is a groundless expectation that they will conform to the pattern of known observed events.  This analysis of science “has never been acted on.  It can never be acted on, for it gives no foothold for any forecast of the future around which purpose can weave itself. [Ibid.] The positivist account of science, in short, cannot make any sense out of and indeed would deny the legitimacy of the deductive and predictive movement integral both to the inductive testing of scientific hypotheses and to the practical application of scientific research.  In this way its inadequacy as an interpretation of scientific method is further revealed.

This positivist denial of our ability to predict or forecast the future reasonably is actually a denial of any reasonable ground for purposive thought and action.  To limit knowledge to an anemic description of past events is to eviscerate the possibility of any useful or significant knowledge.  In our actions in the world and in society, in our reflection and our search for understanding and knowledge, we assume that the past and the present condition the future. Moreover, the significance of our understanding and knowledge is related to our belief that we can anticipate to a better degree the course of future events, can influence the pattern of future events, plan for them, and, with regard to the conduct of our own lives; alter our own actions for the better (however one chooses to define the good). The positivist position on knowledge inherent in its interpretation of science can give no account of this sort of assumption and belief, and would judge it a rationally unfounded “animal faith.”  Given the positivist interpretation of science, “we can describe what has happened; but with that description all possibility of knowledge ends.” [Ibid. VIII, iii, p. 123.  See also MT, VIII, pp. 164-165.]   Whitehead observes that most thinkers who champion this analysis assert it theoretically and then, ironically, continue to act purposively and affirm that science does have significance.

If observed fact be all we know, then there is no other knowledge.  Probability is relative to knowledge.  There is no probability as to the future within the doctrine of Positivism.

Of course most men of science, and many philosophers, use the Positivist doctrine to avoid the necessity of considering perplexing fundamental questions—in short, to avoid metaphysics—, and then save the importance of science by an implicit recurrence to their metaphysical persuasion that the past does in fact condition the future.

Indeed, as Hume pointed out, human life cannot be carried on without this persuasion. [AI, VIII, iv, pp. 125-126.]


Understanding, Knowledge, and Scientific Method

The full import of Whitehead’s position on knowledge will be discussed later, but a brief treatment of its implications here will fill out my presentation of Whitehead’s interpretation of empirical scientific method. Knowledge for Whitehead rests on the process of discovery and is the result of illustrating in the facts of experience the understanding one has gained of the processes and relations operative in reality.  It is the confrontation of understanding with the facts of experience which produces knowledge, and knowledge consists in the elucidation of immediate experience,

This seems to be the final meaning of Whitehead’s assertion that “the elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought . . . .”  PR, I.1.ii (M, p. 6; C, p. 4).

the ability to “throw light on” and “clarify” the various components and processes and their relations that together form the definiteness of our experience.  Thus for Whitehead knowledge is ultimately description, but description of an explanatory sort that has been tested against the facts of experience.  “The final problem for thought,” says Whitehead, “is to conceive a complete fact.”  [AI, IX, viii, p. 158.]

If one considers the structure of empirical scientific method with this distinction between understanding and knowledge in mind, one can see that for Whitehead understanding comes in the second moment, in the formation of the imaginative generalization or hypothesis.  Knowledge, however, can only come as a product of the third moment, when the understanding is tested by confrontation with the facts of experience and judged as to its adequacy.  After making particular observations, the scientist weighs probabilities, discards details deemed irrelevant, and tries to discover what “rule” or “law of nature” is governing the occurrence of the observed events.  In the second major moment of scientific method the scientist formulates a hypothesis which embodies an explanatory description of the observed events and as yet unobserved events of the same type.  This is what Whitehead would call “understanding,” which is fundamentally rational interpretation of certain aspects of our experience.  But understanding, embodied in the imaginative generalization, is limited, can be erroneous, and is untested. Understanding needs to be tested against the facts of experience; and only if it is shown that this understanding elucidates immediate experience can it be judged to produce knowledge.  Hence the purposive forecast of the future, necessary in order to test a hypothesis, is according to Whitehead integral to the growth and development of knowledge.

In one passage where Whitehead is discussing the world of commerce, he presents an interpretation of knowledge summarized in his use of the terms “insight” and “foresight.” [AI, VI, I, p. 89.]  His purpose is “to illustrate the function of ideas in the provision of anticipation and purpose”; he is discussing the kind of mentality which will “promote the general success of a commercial community” taken in its widest sense. [Ibid., p. 88.]  I will quote this rather lengthy passage because it has bearing on the understanding of Whitehead’s interpretation of knowledge and of scientific method.

. . . our knowledge of scientific laws is woefully defective, and our knowledge of the relevant facts of the present and the past is scanty in the extreme.  Thus as the result of all our science, we are ignorant of that remote epoch when there will be a second collision between the sun and a passing star, we are ignorant of the future of life on earth, we are ignorant of the future of mankind, we are ignorant of the course of history a year hence, we are ignorant of most of the domestic details of our lives tomorrow . . . .

This catalogue of ignorances at once reminds us that our state is not that of blank absence of knowledge.  Our ignorance is suffused with Foresight.  Also the basis of our defect in foresight is our scant knowledge of the relevant detailed facts in past and present which are required for the application of the scientific laws. . . . Foresight depends on understanding.  In practical affairs it is a habit.  But the habit of forseeing is elicited by the habit of understanding.  To a large extent, understanding can be acquired by a conscious effort and it can be taught.  Thus the training of Foresight is by the medium of Understanding.  Foresight is the product of Insight. [Ibid., pp. 87, 89.]  

The implications of this passage are significant for the present topic.  Whitehead is saying, in short, that understanding is produced by insight, and understanding in turn is the basis for foresight. Although he does not say so specifically, it can be concluded from what he says that knowledge is the product of foresight’s confrontation with the concrete facts of experience as they become actual.  Even in our vast and multitudinous ignorances “our state is not that of blank absence of knowledge.”  It is not that we do not know at all, but that we know only very partially some possibilities for the future.  This limitation of our foresight is due to our very limited and partial and incomplete knowledge of past and present facts.  But the knowledge that we do have, incomplete though it is, is the result of our understanding having in the past given rise to foresight, purposive expectations and anticipations which were then confronted with the facts of experience as they became actual, which in turn allowed us to judge to what extent our understanding actually conceived the facts as they are.

Now if we apply this to Whitehead’s interpretation of empirical scientific method, we can locate the production of understanding and knowledge within the dynamic of scientific method, and we are given two generalized terms for the activities of the inquiring mind which connect the three major moments of empirical scientific method.  From Whitehead’s distinction between understanding and knowledge, it seems clear that understanding is produced by an inductive movement toward an imaginative generalization and embodied in the explanatory description that constitutes the imaginative generalization or hypothesis.  The process or movement of the mind from observation to hypothesis discussed above and which is productive of understanding can be called “insight.” The process or movement of the mind which deduces the implications of the hypothesis and predicts what will happen in specific circumstances according to the understanding embodied in the hypothesis can be called “foresight.”  When observation has been renewed, when the predictions concerning future occurrence have been tested by confrontation with the facts of experience, the result is an inductive judgment concerning the accuracy or adequacy of the understanding or hypothesis which was tested against the facts.  This judgment can be said to produce knowledge.


The Nature of Scientific Knowledge

To complete my presentation of Whitehead’s interpretation of empirical scientific method, something needs to be said about the character of scientific knowledge.  Whitehead maintains throughout his writings that all understanding and knowledge is partial and limited.  No knowledge or understanding can capture the fullness of concrete experienced reality.  All other reasons aside, the lessons offered by the history of science would prohibit any reasonable person from claiming to have arrived at an understanding and knowledge which is unlimited and which will not need revision in the future.  Whitehead has clearly stated his position on the growth and nature of scientific knowledge in the following passage.

I need not waste time in pointing out how the finality both of the cosmological scheme and of the particular law in question [Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation] has now passed into Limbo.  Newton was weaving hypotheses.  His hypotheses speculatively embodied the truth vaguely discerned; they embodied the 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.  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. . . .  

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 truths. [FR, pp. 52-53.]

It is clear from this passage that Whitehead regards the growth of scientific knowledge as cumulative and progressive, but the growth of knowledge by the development and consequent verification, falsification, or modification of hypotheses and theories does not lead to any final knowledge of truth.  Rather, the approach to truth is always asymptotic, and the measure or proper test of success in the search for knowledge is “not that of finality, but of progress.”

[PR, (M, p. 21; C, p. 14).  See also “The Organization of Thought,” IS, p. 21: “Success is never absolute, and progress in the right direction is the result of a slow, gradual process of continual comparison of ideas with facts.”]   

In what does progress consist?  Whitehead gives two answers which are really two ways of saying the same thing.  First, as the above-quoted passage clearly states, progress is a matter of better knowing the limitations of our ideas.  We have made progress in our approach to the truth when we are able to determine to a better degree the limits of applicability of our abstract notions.

In the omitted part of the quotation above, Whitehead says this:  “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.”  FR, p. 53.  See also PR, II.3.iii (M, pp. 142-147; C, pp. 93-96).

But how do we become better aware of the limitations of our ideas, how do we become more able to determine the limits of applicability of our abstract notions?  We do so by a continual testing of our concepts, a continual reformation of our way of conceiving reality a we confront our concepts with the concrete facts of the experience we are endeavoring to describe, understand, and know.

Progress in truth—truth of science and truth of religion—is mainly a progress in the framing of concepts, in discarding artificial abstractions or partial metaphors, and in evolving notions which strike more deeply into the root of reality. [RM, IV, 1, p. 127.]

As is evident, Whitehead believes this position to have applicability to all forms of cognitive knowing. As we shall see in some detail below, although there is certainly progress in knowledge within each of the special sciences and all forms of human knowing, it is philosophy in particular that has as its chief responsibility the determination of the limits of applicability of all concepts and the framing of concepts “which strike more deeply into the root of reality.”

See, for example, Whitehead’s judgment of Newton’s Scholium in PR, II.3. iii (M, pp. 142-143; C, p. 93), where he observes that “the penalty of its philosophical deficiency is that the Scholium conveys no hint of the limits of its own application.  The practical effect is that the readers, and almost certainly Newton himself, so construe its meaning as to fall into what I have elsewhere termed the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness.’  It is the office of metaphysics to determine the limits of applicability of such abstract notions.”

Thus this topic of the character of scientific knowledge leads naturally to a consideration of the relation between science and philosophy in Whitehead’s thought.  Before entering into this discussion, however, it might prove helpful to summarize Whitehead’s interpretation of empirical scientific method.



The basic method of empirical science is a process of discovery, testing, and continual revision of ideas and concepts in light of what has been discovered in the confrontation between concepts and the concrete facts of observed experience.  The structure of this basic method consists of three stages or moments connected by two activities or “movements” of the inquiring mind and issuing in an inductive judgment. The first moment is observation and description of some aspect of experience.  The description in science involves delineation of the types of “things” observed, and also some attempt to obtain quantitative decisions regarding the occurrence of the observed “things.” [See MT, VII, pp. 141-142.] The mind then begins its inductive movement, abstracting from the full definiteness of the observed events, discarding details deemed irrelevant, and (often under the conscious or unconscious guidance of some dimly intuited hypothesis of causal connection) introducing the notion of patterns in which the observed events seem to occur. [See MT, pp. 142-143.] The mind is striving not just for a generalized description of the observed events, but for an explanatory description, and this most often involves the tracing of causal connections between the observed events.  This whole inductive movement striving for explanation can be called “insight.”  It results in the second stage or moment of empirical scientific method, the central creative moment of hypothesis formation.  In this moment the scientist formulates a hypothesis to give an explanatory account not only of the observed events which first stimulated the inquiry, but an hypothesis which the scientist hopes will elucidate the occurrence of all similar types of events.  In this stage of the method the scientist has formulated an understanding of what factors seem to be influencing and governing the occurrence of the type of events under investigation.

Having formulated an explanatory hypothesis which embodies the imaginatively generalized understanding, the scientist then moves toward the third major moment of scientific method.  This movement consists in deducing the implications of the hypothetical understanding and in predicting what will happen under certain circumstances according to the hypothesis.  In this way the hypothetical understanding is prepared for testing, and we may refer to this second movement in scientific method as “foresight.”  Foresight leads to the third major moment of empirical method, testing, in which the hypothetical understanding is confronted with the facts of concrete experience.  By renewed observation (now more sharply focused by means of the formulated rational interpretation) and experimentation the scientist attempts to test the accuracy and adequacy of the hypothetical understanding.  Testing results in some inductive judgment concerning the hypothesis, verification or falsification

The terms “verification” and “falsification” are being used loosely here, as they are used by practicing scientists, not with the philosophical sophistication and qualifications of contemporary discussions of the verification-falsification issue in the philosophy of science.  Whitehead would, of course, agree that no scientific hypothesis can be verified in any final sense, but he would argue that within limitations and for practical purposes scientific hypotheses can be verified.  See the quotation on pp. 26-27 above, and the quotations on p. 16 note 1 and p. 27 note 3.

(or the judgment that the results have been inconclusive).  It is at this point that one can speak of scientific method having led to knowledge, for in Whitehead’s interpretation knowledge is the product of the confrontation of understanding with the facts of concrete experience.  The knowledge produced by empirical scientific method, however, is never final. The method yields cumulative and progressive results that follow or define an asymptotic approach to the truth; but cognitive knowledge never is a complete grasp of the fullness of concrete experience.


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