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Essays by Me

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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 III:

The Influence of Empirical Method in Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s Analyses of Human Subjectivity [Continued]

Whitehead’s Analysis of Human Subjectivity [Continued]

Consciousness, Rationality, and Knowing [Continued]

The Fundamental Problem of Epistemology


It is widely held that knowledge must be a form of relatedness between the knower and the known.  The fundamental problem of modern epistemology has been the difficulty of illustrating that knowledge is an actual relationship between humans as knowers and the world of which human knowers are a part. Be-cause of the pervasive influence of the sensationalist doctrine, the human subject has been left entertaining private thoughts with no visible means of escape from solipsism, or has been abandoned to skepticism concerning the reality or actual nature of the world in which it lives, and moves, and has its being.

See, among many possible references, SMW, IX, pp. 209-211, 216-219.  See also Thesis, pp. 235-242; I am here discussing the epistemological import of what I discussed there more generally.

The fundamental contribution of Whitehead’s ontological approach to knowledge is that it illustrates convincingly that our knowing, however limited, is an actual relationship between ourselves as actualities and the actuality of the world we live in and partially know.  This is what we presume in naive experience and in scientific inquiry, and this is what Whitehead establishes by a metaphysical analysis of the operations and processes underlying our con-scious reflection and upon which our reflective knowing is based.  In a sense the whole of Whitehead’s philosophy is a sustained attempt to elucidate this fact and rescue human knowing and acting from the paralyzing fate that must result if knowledge is viewed in excessive abstraction from the ground of actuality.

Knowledge is a form of relationship between the actuality of the knower and the actuality of the known.  It is thus a particular form or “species” of the wider truth that “all relatedness had its foundation in the relatedness of actualities . . .” [PR, Preface (M, p. ix; C, p. xiii).]  The point that must be noticed about actuality and our experiencing

is the insistent particularity of things experienced and of the act of experiencing. Bradley’s doctrine—Wolf-eating-Lamb as a universal qualifying the absolute—is a travesty of the evidence.  That wolf eat that lamb at that spot at that time: the wolf knew it; the lamb knew it; and the carrion birds knew it.

PR, II.1.ii (M, p. 69; C, p. 43).  In British usage “eat” can express the past tense.  Whitehead cites Bradley’s Logic, Bk. I, Ch. II, Sec. 42.

If knowing is a part of our experiencing, then as our experience, so our knowing.  An act of knowing is a particular relationship between one particular actuality—the knowing subject at that moment—and another particular actuality—the thing known at that moment.  But this simple statement conceals the infinite complexity of actualities in their concrete fulless.  Whitehead’s entire metaphysics is an attempt to elucidate the infinite ground from which the human subject knowing at this moment springs, and without which not only knowledge but life and existence of any sort could not be.  His metaphysics is also an attempt to elucidate the ultimate importance of our reason and our reflective knowing, to cast light upon its metaphysical and transcendent function in actuality.  It is to show the ultimate ground and the ultimate worth of each particular human subject and each moment of that subject’s reasoning and knowing that Whitehead approaches epistemological questions from an ontological point of view.  But this evaluation can only be substantiated by our intervening analysis.

The methodological reason why Whitehead approaches epistemology from ontology is that this is the empirical approach, the one which has always been followed in the philosophical tradition.

A method is a way of dealing with data, with evidence.  What are the evidences to which philosophy appeals?

It is customary to contrast the objective approach of the ancient Greeks with the subjective approach of the moderns, initiated by Descartes, and further emphasized by Locke and Hume.

But whether we be ancient or modern, we can only deal with things, in some sense, experienced.  The Greeks dealt with things that they thought they experienced, and Hume merely asked, What do we experience?  This is exactly the question which Plato and Aristotle thought that they were answering. . . .

The difference between ancients and moderns is that the ancients asked what have we experienced, and the moderns asked what can we experience.  But in both cases, they asked about things transcending the act of experience which is the occasion of asking.

AI, XV, iv, pp. 223, 224.  This chapter of AI, entitled “Philosophic Method,” is one of Whitehead’s clearest defenses of the legitimacy .of his method.

The difficulties of modern epistemology, Whitehead is convinced, are in the main the result of beginning from too narrow an analysis of human experience and taking that limited aspect of experience as the ultimate data of knowing.

The translation of Hume’s question from “What do we experience” to “What can we experience” makes all the difference, though in his “Treatise” Hume makes the transition, time and again, without explicit comment.  For modern epistemology the latter form of the question—with its substitution of can for do—is accompanied by the implicit presupposition of a method, namely that of placing ourselves in an introspective attitude of attention so as to determine the given components of experi-ence in abstraction from our private way of subjective reaction, by reflexion, conjecture, emotion, and purpose.

In this attitude of strained attention, there can be no doubt as to the answer.  The data are the patterns of sensa provided by the sense organs.  This is the sensationalist doctrine of Locke and Hume.  Later, Kant has interpreted the patterns as forms introduced by the mode of reception provided by the recipient.  Here Kant introduces the Leibnizian notion of the self-development of the experiencing subject.  Thus for Kant the data are somewhat narrower than for Hume: they are the sensa devoid of their patterns.  Hume’s general analysis of the consequences of this doctrine stands unshaken.  So also does his final reflection that the philosophic doctrine fails to justify the practice of daily life.  The justification of this procedure of modern epistemology is two-fold, and both of its branches are based upon mistakes.  The mistakes go back to the Greek philosophers. What is modern, is the exclusive reliance upon them. [AI, XV, v, pp. 224-225.]

The two mistakes are, first, the assumption that the five senses are the sole “avenues of communication with the external world,” and second, the presup-position that “the sole way of examining experience is by acts of conscious introspective analysis.” [AI, XV, vi, vii, p. 225.] This attitude of conscious introspec-tive analysis “lifts the clear-cut data of sensation into primacy, and cloaks the vague compulsions and derivations which form the main stuff of experience.” [AI, XV, vii, p. 226.]

Whitehead proceeds to summarize the types of human experience I have discussed in the two preceding, subsections, the common practice of human beings and, how language interprets practice. He concludes:

Thus an appeal to literature, to common language, to common practice, at once carries us away from the narrow basis for epistemology provided by the sense-data disclosed in direct introspection.  The world within experience is identical with the world beyond experience, the occasion of experience is within the world and the world is within the occasion.  The categories have to elucidate this paradox of the connectedness of things:--the many things, the one world without and within. [AI, XV, viii, p. 228.]

Methodologically, epistemology has always begun from a base involving particular ontological presup-positions concerning the nature of our experience and the method of analyzing that experience. Whitehead sees that the fundamental problems of modern epistemology are the result of the narrowness of this presupposed ontological base with its correlative method of analysis, and that these problems cannot be resolved until epistemology begins instead with a more adequate rendering of the nature of our experience and the recognition that its nature demands a different mode of analysis.  The presupposed ontological theory and the method of analysis in epistemological study are connected.  For “theory dictates method . . . This close relation of theory to method partly arises from the fact that the relevance of evidence depends on the theory which is dominating the discussion.” [AI, XV, i, p. 220.]  Since the presuppositions of the sensationalist doctrine have been the theory dominating modern epistemo-logical discussion, the first requirement in extricating human knowing from the problems in which it has become mired is the development of a new ontological theory capable of illuminating the evidence ignored by the sensationalist theory.

An example is afforded when we inter-rogate experience for direct evidence of the interconnectedness of things.  If we hold with Hume, that the sole data originating reflective experience are impressions of sensation, and also if we also admit with him the obvious fact that no one such impression by its own individual nature discloses any information as to another such impression, then on that hypothesis the direct evidence for intercon-nectedness vanishes. . . . But if we hold, as for example in Process and Reality, that all final individual actualities have the metaphysical character of occasions of experience, then on that hypothesis the direct evidence as to the connectedness of one’s immediate present occasion of experience with one’s immediately past occasions, can be validly used to suggest categories applying to the connectedness of all occasions in nature. [Ibid., pp. 220-221.]

The issue, in brief, concerns the “data originating reflective experience.”  In the ontological theory I have been considering in this chapter, Whitehead is trying to show that the data originating reflective experience are much more complex than has been assumed by epistemological theory.  Further, he is trying to show that the reason modern epistemology has had such great difficulty resolving its funda-mental problem—namely, illustrating that knowing is an actual relation between the knower and the objective world known—lies precisely in the inadequacies of its presuppositions concerning the data originating reflective experience.  The ontological approach is necessary in order to show the metaphysical ground of the possibility of knowing.

I must now consider the elaboration of Whitehead’s ontological theory for the higher phases of experience in order to show how that theory casts new light on cognition and epistemology.


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Propositions and Propositional Feelings: Simple Comparative Feelings

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