Quantcast Donald W. Sherburne "Reason and the Claims of Ulysses: A Comparative Study of Two Rationalists, Blanshard and Whitehead"


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From Idealistic Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, January 1974, 18-34.

Had Blanshard clearly grasped the nature of the kind of experience to which Whitehead was pointing with the symbol Ulysses he never would have fallen victim to this confusion, for Ulysses represents precisely the power to come to grips in a rational way with possibilities for realizing future determinables that are not yet fully determinate whereas the doctrine of internal relations that Blanshard attributes, erroneously, to Whitehead involves the denial that there are such indeterminate future events.


Reason and the Claim of Ulysses:

A Comparative Study of Two Rationalists, Blanshard and Whitehead 

Donald W.  Sherburne


This essay is a comparative study of two rationalists in as far as they differ in their understanding of the nature of Reason.  It is an essay written from the point of view of Alfred North Whitehead’s process metaphysics, an essay which, while remaining almost completely free of Whitehead’s confusing and complex technical vocabulary, explicates and defends Whitehead’s conception of Reason by focusing on just those points where Whitehead deviates from the position taken by a second contemporary rationalist, Brand Blanshard

The title of the essay refers to Whitehead’s use of the symbols “Plato” and “Ulysses” to personify what he views as the two aspects of Reason.  Blanshard is familiar with Whitehead’s position and has briskly attacked Whitehead’s use of the symbol “Ulysses.”  The full import of the symbol “Ulysses” is not, however, immediately apparent in those places where Whitehead uses it and it is my deep suspicion that Blanshard, and undoubtedly many other readers of Whitehead, fail fully to grasp the import of this symbol because they do not see that it derives its power in large part from its relationship to Whitehead’s somewhat obscure account of the nature of propositions and how they function in the world.  Therefore Part I of this paper both explicates the doctrine of propositions held by Whitehead (and this without falling back on technical jargon) and interprets the meaning of the symbol “Ulysses” in the light of that explication.  Part II turns polemical and argues simultaneously for the soundness of Whitehead’s view of the nature of Reason and the inadequacy of Blanshard’s alternative position.

Before turning to Part I, I wish to indicate why I feel it is appropriate that this Whitehead-ian study use the position of Brand Blanshard as its foil. 

First, through his writing and lecturing, Blanshard has been one of the great teachers of philosophy in the twentieth century.  As happened with so many other young persons, I came under his influence at a formative time in my life.  But as is also the case with many other persons, while I was profoundly influenced by Blanshard’s critique of analytic philosophy I was not won over by his own affirmative claims.  I found, instead, that the position of Whitehead is far more plausible as a philosophical home, and this essay focuses on some of the crucial differences between Whitehead and Blanshard which led me to that decision. 

Secondly, even though it is the differences between Whitehead and Blanshard I wish to emphasize, it should not be forgotten that there are striking affinities in the thought of these two brilliant Rationalists.  Whitehead wrote with Bradley very much in mind, and it has been widely noted that the Preface to Process and Reality (hereafter referred to as PR) contains the following acknowledgment: “Finally, though throughout the main body of the work I am in sharp disagreement with Bradley, the final outcome is after all not so greatly different.” 

Mr. Blanshard knows, as this quote implies, that in some respects he has an ally in Whitehead and his writings are liberally sprinkled with references appealing to the authority of Whitehead.  Many of these references are justly made and emphasize the joint concern of Whitehead and Blanshard to expose the inadequacies of prevailing fashions in philosophy.  But a study of some of the references has led me to suspect that Blanshard has not fully appreciated the extent to which differences exist between himself and Whitehead.  Consequently, even though Blanshard has done such a thorough job of presenting other positions, probing them, and then developing his own thought in relationship to their inadequacies that he is well qualified through his works to serve as an Aristotle for some future age, permitting its philosophers to capture a panoramic overview of the philosophical alignments and antagonisms of a bygone day, his very affinities with Whitehead are perhaps what have kept him from probing the important differences I will emphasize. 

Thirdly, these observations acquire more importance when one realizes that Blanshard clinches some of his arguments by using the method of disjunctive syllogism—for instance, speaking of his conception of the relation of thought to its object, he writes in Philosophical Interrogations, p. 249:  “I was driven to this view not by its initial plausibility, but by the failure of its alternatives.”  This method is effective and illuminating but it must be used with care, for it is always possible that some alternatives have escaped scrutiny.  I do not think Blanshard has faced the challenge of Whitehead in his works to date, and this leads me to hope that this statement of some aspects of that challenge will contribute to expanding his continuing dialogue with so many different representatives of the philosophical community.


Part I

Whitehead introduces the symbols Plato and Ulysses in The Function of Reason (FR).  He presents “two contrasted ways of considering Reason” (FR 9).  The first way thinks of Reason “in abstraction from any particular animal operations” (FR 9) and consequently thinks of it as theoretical, as “the godlike faculty which surveys, judges and understands” (FR 9).  The second way thinks of Reason as “one of the items of operation implicated in the welter of the process” (FR 9), as “one among the operations involved in the existence of an animal body” (FR 9), as that the function of which is “the direction of the attack on the environment” (FR 8).  It is in this context that the well-known passage occurs:

The Greeks have bequeathed to us two figures, whose real or mythical lives conform to these two notions—Plato and Ulysses.  The one shares Reason with the Gods, the other shares it with the foxes (FR 10).

Blanshard quotes the second sentence and from his subsequent comments it is very clear that he has little use for foxes!  Ulysses is described as “competent, formidable, and hateful” and the producer of “an enormous progeny of Iagos, Machiavellis, and Mussolinis” (Reason and Analysis, p. 53).  Having set these accusations ringing in our ears, it is then Blanshard’s tactic to flee away from Ulysses to Plato as rapidly as possible and never to look back. 

But surely these accusations and the inferences based upon them require a more careful analysis.  The attempt to reject the symbol Ulysses in this way is logically equivalent to the attempt to dismiss the symbol Plato because a few housewives made a few miscalculations on a few occasions in computing their laundry bills!  We are dealing with extremely important matters as we confront the issues and insights lying behind these two symbols and they deserve a much more careful consideration.  In particular, we must weigh much more carefully the claim of Ulysses, and ultimately (in Part II) we must bring ourselves to a clear confrontation with the kind of experience upon which the symbol Ulysses is grounded.

The first point to be emphasized is that Whitehead does not see Plato/Ulysses as an either/or.  It is most decidedly both/and.  Whitehead is as sensitive to the limitations of a Dewey as he is to the limitations of a Bradley, and he is as aware of the strengths of the one as he is of the strengths of the other.  The emphasis is on the “coordination” (FR 10) of the two standpoints:  “We have got to remember the two aspects of Reason, the Reason of Plato and the Reason of Ulysses, Reason as seeking a complete understanding and Reason as seeking an immediate method of action” (FR 11). 

In an elegant development of the metaphor White-head pleads for Plato against a too narrow empiricism:  “Ulysses has no use for Plato and the bones of his companions are strewn on many a reef and many an isle” (FR 12).  I am sure that Blanshard reads that line with some relish!  But the line is not a blanket condemnation of Ulysses, not at all.  In context it has the force of “Any Ulysses who has no use for Plato” etc., etc.  There could be, though Whitehead never provides it in such striking metaphorical language, another forceful way of stressing the interconnection, but this time from the standpoint of Ulysses.  It would begin, “Plato has no use for Ulysses and . . . meaning, “Any Plato who turns his back on Ulysses. . . .” 

I should not presume to complete White-head’s metaphor, but I know what it would be like and it might well suggest that the “theoretical realizations” to emerge would be just as dry, inert, and irrelevant to life as the heap of dust and bones left behind in the cave of Polyphemus.  In any case, it is imperative to remember constantly in what follows that an argument for Ulysses is not at all to be construed as a diminution of the importance of Plato.

Ulysses, as we have seen, is Reason as a factor in the world, Reason as leading the attack on the environment, Reason as an operation involved in the existence of an animal body.  But these descriptions do not get at the essence of the symbol in the way that the following statement does: Reason as personified by Ulysses “is a factor in experience which directs and criticizes the urge towards the attainment of an end realized in imagination but not in fact” (FR 8).  When we have unpacked this statement we will have elaborated those aspects of Reason important for this study.

To understand the phrase “an end realized in imagination but not in fact” we must examine Whitehead’s treatment of propositions, something, fortunately, which can be done to the depth we require by an analysis which avoids technical jargon. Whitehead, and keep in mind that he is a master logician, makes the following interesting observation about logic and propositions:  “The fact that propositions were first considered in connection with logic, and the moralistic preference for true propositions, have obscured the role of propositions in the actual world” (PR 395). 

This role is of the first importance in understanding Ulysses, but before spelling it out, I will stop a moment to point out that here we have a point where Whitehead and Blanshard have failed to communicate.  In a review of Lucian Price’s book, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (in the Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 37, issue for May 8, 1954), Blanshard elects to dip into only one question of philosophical substance, and it is a question closely related to the discussion at hand.  He writes (p. 33): “… in one place he [Whitehead] announces that ‘apart from beauty, truth is neither good nor bad,’ which, with all respect, is nonsense.” 

I am prepared to admit that this statement by Whitehead does not carry its full meaning on its face and consequently I can understand why Blanshard lashes out at it.  But this is no aberrant statement on Whitehead’s part, for the words reflect the presuppositions of his symbol Ulysses, and Blanshard’s reaction indicates that he has sensed a threat to his own position in Whitehead’s claim, or failed to understand it, or a bit of both.  It will help in grasping Whitehead’s meaning to note the following similar, though more fully elaborated, statement which occurs in the chapter titled “Truth” in Adventures of Ideas (p. 313):

It is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true.  This statement is almost a tautology.  For the energy of operation of a proposition in an occasion of experience is its interest, and is its importance.  But of course a true proposition is more apt to be interesting than a false one.  Also action in accordance with the emotional lure of a proposition is more apt to be successful if the proposition be true.  And apart from action, the contemplation of truth has an interest of its own [the moment of Plato].  But, after all this explanation and qualification, it remains true that the importance of a proposition lies in its interest [the moment of Ulysses].

What, then, is the role of propositions in the actual world?  There are hints in the above passage, but we need a more explicit statement before we can come to terms with Ulysses.

The conception of propositions as merely material for judgments is fatal to any understanding of their role in the universe.  In that purely logical aspect, a non-conformal proposition is merely wrong, and therefore worse than useless.  But in their primary role, they pave the way along which the world advances into novelty (PR 284).  It is an essential doctrine in the philosophy of organism that the primary function of a proposition is to be relevant as a lure for feeling (PR 37).

A nonconformal proposition, i.e., a false proposition, can function as a lure for feeling, and, as such, play a role in shaping the character of the emerging universe.  We need a concrete example of a proposition performing in this role.  In the last phrenetic months of his life Senator Robert Kennedy exemplified the meaning of Whitehead’s words as he lured the feelings of the youth of the nation with the words, “Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I see things that never were and say ‘Why not?’”  A Whiteheadian analysis of this utterance would be that it points to the power of a nonconformal proposition to lure the feelings of men.  We need mention but one instance fully to express the point.  Presume one of the “things” (i.e., propositional lures) that Senator Kennedy “saw” was the possibility of pollution-free cities in America.  The proposition expressed by the words “most American cities free of most pollution” was, and is, nonconfor-mal. 

Whitehead’s point is that simply to judge this proposition to be false and thereby to be done with it is to miss completely the role that such propositions play in this world.  A nonconformal proposition of this sort, provided that it interests, provided it appeals to the imagina-tion, provided it thereby grips attention and directs the expenditure of energy, “paves the way along which the world advances into novelty.” 

It is in this context that we must understand the claim that it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true.1 Truth has its interest—Plato will be satisfied—but Reason has as its function more than the grasping of necessary relations and conformal propositions: it has in addition the function of “directing the attack on the environment” and the attack follows the lead of interest, of felt importance.  An analogue of this doctrine is commonplace in the philosophy of science, i.e., it is frequently pointed out that observation that is not directed by theory rarely produces great advances in thought.

One main law which underlies modern progress is that, except for the rarest accidents of chance, thought precedes observation. . . . 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 (FR 72).

Likewise, energy that is not channeled by the discipline of rational purpose is dissipated.  Reason personified as Ulysses is that which “directs and criticizes the urge towards the attainment of an end realized in imagination but not in fact” (FR 8), which is to say that Ulysses is the power to visualize and actualize relevant possibilities.  Ulysses is the man most profoundly described as “he who was never at a loss.”2  In the context of these explanations and these meanings it seems perfectly appropriate to me to insist that Ulysses as a symbol refers to one of the highest of human functions, and it is no paradox to describe this function as the passionate appropriation of fascinating falsehoods. 

The rational man is not simply the Plato who can grasp necessary relationships between abstract entities; he is also the Ulysses who can seize upon possibilities relevant to concrete circumstances, who can visualize “nonconfor-mal” propositions which “pave the way” for concrete advances into the novel world of each unfolding tomorrow.  Reason “above the world,” busying itself with the eternal, necessary relatedness of those entities which are eternal, and Reason “in the world,” a factor within the world which plays a role in the emergence of the character of the evolving tomorrows which make up the world.  Plato and Ulysses!

This completes the portrait of Ulysses.  The question now is whether the portrait is the figment of the philosopher’s imagination or the accurate likeness of a factor in fact.  Is the portrait grounded in experience?  Are there elements in our experience which require the philosophical commitment to a doctrine of Reason as more than Plato, as Plato and Ulysses?  I think that there are and to show this as clearly as possible is the purpose of Part II.


 Part II

The methodology of Part II reflects my conviction that Blanshard presents us with an internally consistent system.  Faced with this conclusion there is only one way to proceed, and Whitehead has indicated what it must be:

It has been remarked that a system of philosophy is never refuted; it is only abandoned.  The reason is that logical contradictions, except as temporary slips of the mind—plentiful, though tempo-rary—are the most gratuitous of errors; and usually they are trivial.  Thus, after criticism, systems do not exhibit mere illogicalities.  They suffer from inadequa-cy and incoherence.  Failure to include some obvious elements of experience in the scope of the system is met by boldly denying the facts (PR 9).

We must isolate certain of those “obvious elements in experience” which are relevant as grounds for the construction of a theory of the nature of Reason.  It is my contention that there are experiences which we cannot ignore which make it very difficult to empathize philoso-phically with one who flees from Ulysses as precipitously as does Blanshard. 

I am acutely aware that there is no such thing as proof or disproof in this kind of procedure—one struggles to bring others to look at their own experiences in such a way that they can directly intuit the grounds for a philosophical conception.  The events we are about to discuss are complex and controversial, and I would never dare embark on this analysis were I not convinced that unless we make the effort to test our philosophical concepts against such concrete experiences we will pay the penalty of irrelevance, no matter how elegant and coherent our constructions be. 

The theoretical problem we face is familiar and frustrating.  It is articulated in the tension exhibited in two of Whitehead’s observations, for on the one hand he opines in a letter to his son North (dated March 7, 1928):  “Philosophers seem to me to be playing about with a ‘book’ tradition, and not trying to express the facts directly observed”; and yet on the other hand he insists that “there are no brute, self-contained matters of fact, capable of being understood apart from interpretation as an element in a system” (PR 21). 

In a totally different context Whitehead points to the stance I wish to assume:  “There is nothing here in the nature of proof.  There is merely the confrontation of the theoretic system with a certain rendering of the facts” (PR 521).  This stance is actually very similar to that taken by Blanshard in Reason and Analysis.  On page 383 he acknowledges (1) that no one “has ever proved the world to be a necessary system” and (2) that, recognizing the interrelatedness of one’s view of the world and one’s view of the nature of reason, what one can do here is postulate the world as a necessary system “and then examine how far the actual exercise of reason goes toward justifying the postulate.”  Part II focuses on “the actual exercise of reason” and the question before us will be whether or not the actual exercise of reason, as we examine it, is such that we can do without that aspect of reason personified as Ulysses. 

Though we are primarily concerned here with Ulysses, and not with Blanshard’s postulate that the world is a necessary system, the two are inextricably bound together, for the activity of reason personified as Ulysses is the activity of reason facing a dynamic, unfolding, in many respects contingent universe.

The complex and controversial events on which I wish to focus the discussion are the events associated with student unrest in the late 60’s and very early 70’s.  These are events which constitute a web of experiences through which all of us in academe lived, and with which we are therefore familiar, and yet, in the fall of 1973, they are far enough behind us so we can reflect upon them with some sense of detachment.  Furthermore, these are events and experiences about which Blanshard, speaking from a standpoint which views reason as Plato exclusively, made some observations in print.  And yet, I would hold, they are experiences in which reason operating as Plato alone led to disaster while instances of reason functioning as Plato and Ulysses combined were bright features in a rather dismal landscape.

A modern university is an enormously complex institution with many different aims, with very diversified constituencies making claims on its resources, and with complicated relationships to other institutions in our society.  These complex and interrelated aims, constituencies, and institutions generate tensions, frictions, and swirling crosscurrents of interest which are dynamic, unpredictable, and vexing.  Those which underlay the recent period of campus unrest have been analyzed ad nauseum—I am not interested here in isolating particular tensions, frictions, etc.  I am concerned to argue that the tensions, frictions, and contradictions inherent in the sum of all those crosscurrents created an interlocking series of specific issues and confrontations which defied abstract, theoretical solution, which had no “right” and “wrong” resolution immediately obvious to open-minded men committed to reasonable dealing. 

Rather than arguing for any specific solutions or interpretations, I am suggesting that the recent traumas experienced in connection with these tensions were such as to make us wary of absolutes, one-best-wayisms, and a priori solutions.  The suggestion that there is one set of rational structures to guide the resolution of conflicts of this nature is not, I will argue, in accord with our recent experiences.  Yet this, as I understand it, is the presupposition of the theorist who makes appeal to Plato alone, which is a way of saying that this is how I understand the general stance taken by Blanshard in the face of these issues.  It is time, therefore, to take a brief look at some remarks Blanshard has addressed to these issues.

Writing in a special issue of The Monist, which is devoted to education (Volume 52, No. 1), Blanshard deplores student “sit-ins, picketing and protest marches.”  He then observes about “academic administrators” that “their position as heads of an educated community commits them to an endeavor at openness of mind and reasonable dealing.”  Consequently he urges that students “prepare a reasoned statement of their views, sign it, and submit it to the administration; I think they will find without exception that it will be heard with respect.  If, after considering such a statement, an administration finds it inadequate, then it ought not to yield to any kind of coercion” (pp. 22–23).  This is the statement of Plato.  I do not judge it right or wrong, foolish or wise, but rather as partial, to be seen as waiting on the addenda which must be supplied by Ulysses.  Let me elaborate.

Blanshard’s statement presupposes the belief that there are rational structures permeating the institutions of academe such that rational, experienced administrators can grasp these structures and immediately judge the appropriateness or inappropriateness of recommendations designed to modify these institutions. 

Within certain limits and bounds this belief is correct; let me insist once more that I am not turning my back on Plato.  For example, administrators can clearly see from the nature of the educational enterprise that it would be irrational to put an untutored custodian to the business of teaching a course in Greek history.  This is a trivial example and of course there are many, many substantive issues for which the Platonic moment is relevant and applicable. 

But to use this mode of analysis alone, and to expect it to resolve such complex issues as those involved in the recent waves of student unrest, is unreal, is counter to the experiences we have had in actually dealing with these matters, as I hope to indicate.  It would lead to a hero-villain understanding of this unrest which my experience tells me is a grossly oversimplified reading of events.  It would be to ignore what my experience imposes upon me so vividly, viz., the insight that the resolution of university tensions and problems is bound up with the resolution of all the tensions renting and polarizing our society and that the kind of Reason required in the face of these challenges is more than Plato alone can provide—required is Reason capable of bringing new ideals into concrete realization, Reason capable of structuring change, Reason personified as Ulysses.

An academic administrator is subject to coercions from many different quarters.  His job is to find the narrow, difficult path which leads to a formulation of ends and priorities for his institution which have some hope of realization, given the particular talents of its constituencies, the particular opportunities offered by its region and its past, and the limitations imposed by the particular threats of overt and covert coercion within which it must operate.  In this task he must exhibit the Reason of Plato, i.e., he must have his own vision of the Good—the Good for education, for his constituencies, and for his institution.  Without this vision he will not be a firm leader and the institution committed to his charge will not prosper.

But he needs more than the Reason of Plato.  He needs also the Reason of Ulysses.  To depend solely on the Reason of Plato is to invite the politics of confrontation.  It is to select some of the aims of some of the constituencies and transform them into eternal forms the realization of which “ought not to yield to any kind of coercion.”  It is to draw hard and fast lines across which dissidents are, in effect, dared to thrust one single toe.  Now I want to argue that it is just this very same Platonic extremism which created just those student attitudes and actions which, one infers, Blanshard deplored.

Three observations make this point. 

(1) It seems to me quite clear that at the beginning of the period of turmoil administrators had tended somewhat to ignore the specific interests of students in their concern to deal with very real coercions from other constituencies, the blunting of which was not always compatible with student interests—faculty and government pressures for more research, with a consequent reduction in teaching effectiveness, being a good example.  In that context the student coercion of picketing and marching as a response could be expected from a generation that had recently learned the power of picketing and marching in its crusade to abolish the vestiges of Jim Crowism in the South. 

(2) The deep moral roots of the student-inspired sit-ins and marches to root out segregation in the South gave a heady sense of moral righteousness to those protest activities because the activities being protested in the South had such an aura of evil about them.  When the confrontation came with universities it was easy to transfer the moral flavor of confronting southern sheriffs, with their police dogs and hoses, to confronting university officials with their national guard detachments, and this largely because of the intertwining of war issues and university activities, such as research sponsored by the military. 

(3) In this context students just as frequently as administrators showed themselves true sons of Plato with very little tincture of Ulysses in their souls.  There is a deep irony here, for whereas Plato, speaking through Blanshard, demands that administrators reflect, judge on principles, and then refuse to yield to any coercion, so Plato whispers to students in the same vein: prepare a reasoned statement of your sense of moral outrage, submit it to the administration, and if it be ignored, yield to no coercion whatsoever in your determination to achieve your goals!  In short, Platonic Reason worked both sides of the street—to the detriment of us all!  Reason personified as Plato must be supplemented by Reason personified as Ulysses, by Reason the mediator, the bargainer, the compromiser—by Reason as the ability “never to be at a loss” in finding alternative possibilities for the use of events and conditions in the passing world as vehicles for realizing one’s ends to the fullest extent possible in a contingent universe liberally sprinkled with unforeseeable develop-ments.

Fortunately, Ulysses was at work constantly during those troubled years, at work in many situations where conflict was avoided and exciting new possibilities for education were developed.  It is now time to focus on the fact that there were many administrators and students who thought carefully and pragmatic-ally, moved slowly, avoided boxing themselves in with ultimatums, and were exceptionally creative at discovering possibilities for controlled change, productive compromise, and effective innovation. 

It is my central point that in the activities of successful campus leaders in those recent years we saw Reason as personified by Ulysses actively at work in coming to terms with difficult problems that defy the Reason of Plato precisely because they occur in a context, not of necessity, but of suspense, uncertainty, and contingency. 

In a talk given toward the end of those troubled times, Chancellor Alexander Heard of Vanderbilt University said: “The development of a university is inescapably a mixture of deliberate planning and opportunistic improvisation” (reported in the Vanderbilt Gazette for September 15, 1971, p. 2).  The “opportunistic improvisation” is the moment of Ulysses, is the moment of Reason as an “item of operation implicated in the process,” is Reason undertaking “the direction of the attack on the environment.” 

The “opportunistic improvisa-tion” is the moment when Ulysses passionately appropriates fascinating falsehoods, i.e., nonconformal propositions which lure human feelings towards possibilities for order which have never before been grasped by Reason because the context of events with which Reason must deal is novel, contingent, and riddled with ambiguities and uncertainties. 

I am trying to draw the attention of each and every reader to his own experience of how he saw American educators deal with the tensions of the recent past; and as each reader canvasses the gallery of impressions in his mind of the various ways Reason operated in those days, I am certain he will find in his experience a recognition of moments when Reason was brilliantly, positively, and productively present as Ulysses and Plato.  Men in whose opportunistic improvisations the Reason of Ulysses was present were artists in politics, exhibiting the creative Reason of the innovative painter or musician.  Ulysses is not Plato the mathematician, discovering formal, necessary relationships; he is, rather, the demiurgos-artist struggling against a recalcitrant receptacle to instantiate form to the extent that the flux will bend itself to form under his guidance.

As these last remarks might suggest, Blanshard’s comments on Art also reflect his preoccupation with Plato to the exclusion of Ulysses.  His claim that there is in the artist “a surrender of the will to an order whose structure is quite independent of it and whose affirmation through the mind is very largely so” (The Nature of Thought, II, p. 166) rings true and yet rings false precisely again because it is partial.  Certainly the creative spirit is sensitive to form and oriented toward order, but it is not a mere discoverer; it is a maker, a visualizer of possibilities that selects from its visions a new order “that never was on sea or land.”  The creative spirit instantiates an order which it itself recognizes through its own Platonic sensitivity to form, but which it recognizes as the creative, unique, and highly personal product of its own odyssey through random materials that had to be brought to order.  Blanshard’s analysis of the creation of the last act of Othello is well-known.  He argues that “given the character of Othello, his prevailing mood, his habits of speech, the situation in which he was placed,” etc., Shakespeare wrote the only last act possible—“he could no other” (The Nature of Thought, II, p. 145). 

Now there is some truth here—Plato will have his due.  But how about things at the end of the first act?  Why pick just the last act?  How about Melville and Moby Dick?  Assuming he wrote the celebrated opening line, “Call me Ishmael,” at the beginning, would we want to say that in writing all the rest “he could no other”?  These questions are ridiculous precisely because Shakespeare’s creative effort lies in shaping “the character of Othello, his previous mood, his habits of speech, the situation in which he was placed,” etc.  Of course, given all this, the Platonic moment of sensitivity to form is strongly operative.  But it has been preceded by a strong Ulyssean moment. 

One probably ought to look at the creative process in art as a constant fluctuation between Ulysses and Plato—the one constantly breaking new ground, relating relevant new possibilities to previous progress; the other constantly stepping back as critic to judge the emerging product in terms of an ideal of harmony and balance.  And this, I would maintain, is an accurate account of the activities of those academic administrators who were successful in dealing with the tensions of those troubled times three and four years ago—they were superb artists creating new relationships from the disintegration of the old; and to describe their rational activities in terms of Plato alone seems, to me, totally inadequate to my experience of their genius.

To summarize, I agree with Blanshard that Reason involves “the power and function of grasping necessary connections” (Reason and Analysis, p. 382).  This is Reason personified as Plato, and a Whiteheadian would speak of this role of Reason in the language of grasping the structures involved in the realm of eternal objects, structures reflected in the occasions that instantiate those eternal objects.  But my experiences in such areas as education and art, as described above, lead me to recognize Reason as functioning also in another capacity, Reason functioning as Ulysses.  Ulysses is only intelligible as a symbol if one postulates reality to be a process not only shot through and through with form and structure (Plato and eternal objects) but also open to novel becomings.3 

As we saw at the beginning, Blanshard postulates the world as a necessary system (a system in which novelty and becoming are unreal) and then examines “how far the actual exercise of reason goes towards justifying the postulate.”   It has been the purpose of my presentation to suggest that the actual exercise of Reason in some concrete contexts is such that we recognize Ulysses as operative in them as well as Plato, which is in effect an argument that “the actual exercise of reason” does not justify the postulate of the world as a necessary system, for experience reveals the active presence of Reason personified as Ulysses, and Ulysses is incompatible with that postulate.  

Put again, certain experiences with which we are all familiar are such that if we permit our philosophical constructs to reflect those experiences then we must find room for the claim of Ulysses.   Finally, it is worth reiterating that “there is nothing here in the nature of proof.  There is merely the confrontation of the theoretic system with a certain rendering of the facts.”  And this is as far as philosophy can go. 

1 The whole question of the relationship between propositions and time is complex.  I do not accept the view that truth is timeless.  We can look at the relationship between propositions and time in either of two ways in connection with propositions of the class of the one referred to by the words, “most American cities free of most pollution.”  One can say that the proposition itself contains no time reference, that as entertained for judgment now, in the year 1973, it is false, but that as entertained, say, in the year 1992 it becomes true.  On this interpretation one can accept James’ insight that truth “happens” to an idea; it becomes true from having been false.  This interpretation is one possible context for understanding the Whiteheadian directive to focus our attention on the importance of false propositions.

But one could preserve the same insight by looking at the relationship between propositions of this sort and time in a different way.  One could hold that there is a specific time reference implicitly built into the propositions themselves, so that as regards 1973 and 1992 we have two different propositions.  This suggestion would seem to rule out any meaning for the notion that “truth happens to an idea” and might seem to obviate Whitehead’s analysis, for a critic of Whitehead could argue that the proposition referred to by the words “most American cities free of most pollution in 1973” (P1) is false, and timelessly so, and is an entirely different proposition from that referred to by the words “most American cities free of most pollution in 1992” (P2), which is in fact either true or false now, whether we know which or not.  Therefore, the critic might continue, assuming P2 to be true, it makes no sense to talk about it as though it would become true late of a Friday afternoon in May of 1992.  I would dispute this analysis.  Understanding the time reference of propositions in this latter way, I would then hold that P2 is now (in the year 1973) indeterminate as to its truth value, neither true nor false.  This is to deny the doctrine of the timelessness of truth and to maintain that truth happens to an idea, not in the sense that a false proposition becomes true, but in the sense that a proposition of indefinite truth value about a future contingency, about a finishable as opposed to a finished event, is transformed by the passage of events into a proposition of definite truth value. 

It has been argued that to take this alternative is to deny the Law of Excluded Middle and hence to repudiate logic.  The Law of Excluded Middle may indeed cease to have the status of an axiom, but this move can be made without undermining logic per se.  Consider the expression “p v ~p.”  On my analysis this is a truth functional compound, which is to say that the truth or falsehood of the expression as a whole is a function of the truth or falsehood of its component expressions.  If the components have no truth value, then the compound can have no truth value either.  If “p” is either true or false, then the compound “p v ~p” is true.  But when “p” has no truth value, is neither true nor false, then “p v ~p” can have no truth value.  If Excluded Middle is taken, as it generally is, to assert that any proposition is timelessly either true or false, then I cannot accept the principle.  But to reject Excluded Middle as an axiom is not to reject logic.  Frederic Fitch has developed a system which does not possess the Law of Excluded Middle as an axiom because he wishes, for logical reasons, to claim that some propositions (such as the one expressed by the sentence “This proposition itself is false”) are indefinite.  Mr. Fitch’s recognition of indefinite propositions, and his subsequent repudiation of Excluded Middle as an axiom, is accomplished without any reference to propositions about future contingencies.  His system is demonstrably free from contradiction, adequate for the main principles of mathematical analysis, possessed of modal operators, and not encumbered by a theory of types.  Adding propositions about future contingencies to Mr. Fitch’s category of indefinite propositions enables process metaphysicians to hold the doctrine of temporally conditioned truths at the same time that they retain a logic eminently suited to the needs of both the mathematician and the philosopher.  Such a procedure also retains a meaning for the claim that truth happens to an idea.  In one form or another this claim is presupposed by the symbol Ulysses just as a denial of this claim is presupposed by anyone who insists upon the symbol Plato to the exclusion of Ulysses.  The whole issue of a necessarily interconnected, block universe vs. a universe with a looseness of play at the joints hinges on the question of the adequacy of the symbol Plato to carry the full load of our experiential awareness of the nature of Reason.  My point in this footnote is that the claims of logic do not throw decisive weight one way or the other; it is no more “illogical” to deny the timelessness of truth than it is to affirm this doctrine.

2 Here lies the great irony in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, the man always at a loss!

3 In this connection it is worth pointing out that Blanshard makes an erroneous observation about Whitehead’s philosophy which he never would have made if he had had any feel for the presuppositions of the symbol Ulysses. 

In Reason and Analysis, p. 155, he speaks of Whitehead’s “later doctrine that everything is internally related to everything else. . . .”  This is not Whitehead’s doctrine, earlier or later. 

For Whitehead (1) an actual entity is what it is as a result of its own decision coupled with its relations (termed prehensions) to the actual entities which constitute its actual world, and (2) these relations are internal relations.  It is therefore true to say that every actual entity is related internally to many other actual entities. 

But the actual world of an actual entity is, in Whiteheadian jargon, just that set of actual entities which fan out and constitute the past of the concrescing occasion.  There are many other actual entities which will come along in subsequent generations, for example, which do not belong to its actual world.  Nor do contemporary occasions so belong.  Therefore, it is not at all proper from the point of view of the philosophy of organism to say that an actual entity is related internally to subsequent entities nor to contemporary entities. 

Blanshard has confused the claim that all actual entities are internally related to some other actual entities with the claim that all relations among actual entities are internal.  Had Blanshard clearly grasped the nature of the kind of experience to which Whitehead was pointing with the symbol Ulysses he never would have fallen victim to this confusion, for Ulysses represents precisely the power to come to grips in a rational way with possibilities for realizing future determinables that are not yet fully determinate whereas the doctrine of internal relations that Blanshard attributes, erroneously, to Whitehead involves the denial that there are such indeterminate future events.

Posted April 15, 2007


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