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From Frontiers in American Philosophy, edited by Robert W. Burch and Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr., Volume I, Texas A&M University Press, 1992, 95-101. 

Dewey’s criticism [of Whitehead] is wide of the mark, . . . in part, I suspect, because of a rather unusual circumstance surrounding the writing of . . . Dewey’s contribution to the Library of Living Philosophers volume on Whitehead . . . . Whitehead had worked out a mode of systematization that avoided certainly many, if not all, of the problems Dewey had with traditional metaphysics, and at the same time looped back again and again to the very practical, concrete issues that shape the character of a culture.”


Whitehead and Dewey on Experience and System

Donald W.  Sherburne


Whitehead has generally been viewed as just a bit apart from the mainstream defined by the so-called “classical” American philosophers, so in this paper, in an effort to counteract this impression, I shall begin by drawing out and emphasizing the extensive similarities between Whitehead and Dewey before looking at, and responding to, Dewey’s main criticism of Whitehead.  I will argue that Dewey’s criticism is wide of the mark, and wide of the mark in part, I suspect, because of a rather unusual circumstance surrounding the writing of the one major study of Whitehead’s thought undertaken by Dewey.  That study is Dewey’s contribution to the Library of Living Philosophers volume on Whitehead, and the unusual circumstance surrounding its writing will emerge as my study progresses.

Early in the Library of Living Philosophers article, Dewey stresses that “what I have called the background and point of departure seems to be the same for both of us, no matter what deviations may occur later.”  These deviations will occupy us eventually, but first it is interesting to note Dewey’s characterization of the shared beginnings.  He isolates three and describes them on the same page: “the ideas that [1] experience is a manifestation of the energies of the organism; [2] that these energies are in such intimate continuity with the rest of nature that the traits of experience provide clews for forming ‘generalized descriptions’ of nature—the especial business of philosophy according to Whitehead—and [3] that what is discovered about the rest of nature (constituting the conclusions of the natural sciences) provides the organs for analyzing and understanding what is otherwise obscure and ambiguous in experiences directly had.”1 

We must now look harder and more carefully at the account Dewey gives of the “background and point of departure” he shares with Whitehead.  In the second section of his paper Dewey elaborates upon his understanding of Whitehead’s version of their shared insight that “the traits of experience provide clews for forming ‘generalized descriptions’ of nature.”  Noting Whitehead’s well-known denial of the bifurcation of nature, Dewey goes on to comment that “no doubt the denial has its completion in the express sense that physical nature must be such as to account for the specialized peculiarities of human experience, while the latter provides clews to be used in expanding to their full significance that which physical science discovers.”2  Then, quite on his own, Dewey goes on to make the point central to Whitehead’s whole project.  Whereas as long as Newtonian physics dominated science dualism was enormously tempting (because there was such a huge difference between the traits exhibited by the objects that populated Newtonian nature on the one hand, and the features of human experience, on the other), once Newtonian physics was surpassed, then the door was open to a denial of a difference between the traits of nature and the traits of human experience.  In a gesture of genuine respect Dewey observes, “The genius of Whitehead is exhibited in the earliness of his perception that the new mathematical physics did away with the supposedly scientific foundations, upon the physical side, which gave obvious point to the separation.”3

I will take one more paragraph to emphasize as strongly as possible the extent to which Dewey shares in Whitehead’s fundamental project.  Dewey goes on, immediately following this quotation, to present three passages from Whitehead that Dewey sees as presenting the very heart of the “point of departure” the two men share.  All three of the passages from Whitehead that Dewey selects are from Adventures of Ideas and they read:  “It is a false dichotomy to think of Nature and Man.  Mankind is that factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of nature. . . . An occasion of experience which includes a human mentality is an extreme instance, at one end of the scale, of those happenings which constitute nature. . . . The direct evidence as to the connectedness of one’s immediately past occasions can be validly used to suggest categories applying to the connectedness of all occasions in nature.”4  Dewey’s summary reflection on these passages marks him as being in a most profound sense a card-carrying Whiteheadian.  He concludes:

The idea that the immediate traits of distinctively human experience are highly specialized cases of what actually goes on in every actualized event of nature does infinitely more than merely deny the existence of an impassable gulf between physical and psychological subject-matter.  It authorizes us, as philosophers engaged in forming highly generalized descriptions of nature, to use the traits of immediate experience as clews for interpreting our observations of non-human and non-animate nature.  It also authorizes us to carry over the main conclusions of physical science into explanation and description of mysterious and inexplicable traits of experience marked by “consciousness.”  It enables us to do so without engaging in the dogmatic mechanistic materialism that inevitably resulted when Newtonian physics was used to account for what is distinctive in human experience.5

I have not forgotten those deviations Dewey alluded to, but before I turn to them, I want to back away from both Whitehead’s and Dewey’s language to give my own version of the significance of these “shared beginnings,” this shared “point of departure.”  Dewey wanted philosophers to put more emphasis on understanding their discipline as a historical phenomenon, wanted a genetic-functional account rather than an ontology built out of stiff, unbending categories.  What follows is, in the briefest of nutshells, my version of such an account.  It uses as a diagnostic tool a casual remark once made by Paul Weiss, who opined that three philosophers have succeeded in doing justice to man as a part of nature—Aristotle, Hegel, and Whitehead.  That observation, for me, sets the parameters in terms of which one can grasp the history of philosophy in its deepest significance.  The aim of philosophy, if one takes the accomplishments of the giants in the tradition seriously, is to give an account of nature, and of human being, that is such that human being can be seen to be an integral part of nature.  Aristotle is still “the Philosopher” from this perspective, and one justifies this term of praise because of the way he was able to shape a vocabulary that was able to understand the crucial aspects of human being in just those terms that he used to understand the crucial aspects of nature.  Richard Rorty, of course, would roll his eyes at this point.  He has written that a post-Philosophical culture “would contain nobody called ‘the Philosopher,’’’6 and this swipe at Aristotle is expanded by the claim that in his Metaphysics Aristotle is “solemnly laying down dicta which are utterly irrelevant to the kind of work he was really good at, the kind of thing we get in the Historia animalium.”7  I would certainly not want to deny that Aristotle was good at what he did in the Historia animalium, but Rorty’s expression “really good” speaks worlds about his genetic analysis of Philosophy (with a capital P).  But I would be willing to bet that when St. Thomas and Dante, a millennium and a half after the death of Aristotle, thought about what Aristotle was good at, the Historia animalium was not what leaped to mind!

But back to my genetic analysis, not Rorty’s.  When the Copernican revolution knocked the props out from under Aristotle’s vocabulary for talking about nature, and replaced it with a very different vocabulary, the task of philosophy became finding a way to complete the Copernican revolution by generating a way of doing justice to human beings as a part of nature as it was now understood.  Hobbes is the fascinating figure of this post-Copernican era, for he failed in that, while he clearly saw humankind as a part of nature, the concepts at his disposal did not permit him to do justice to that human being he was putting in the new version of nature.  (In my own view, Rorty is Rorty just because he accepts a Hobbesian account of humankind, a materialist, behaviorist account that cannot do justice to the character of human experience any more than can the account found in the first one hundred fifty pages of Leviathan.)  Descartes’ dualism or some form of idealism seemed to be the only alternatives, but Descartes’ bifurcation removed human being from nature while Hegel’s idealism, brilliant as it was, was a big fudge in that the nature in which it placed human being was the peculiarly human “nature” of human history and not the nature of Galileo and Newton.  (Kant, in contrast, had the real nature in view but failed to reach it because he insisted on trying to do justice to nature as a part of humankind, rather than humankind as a part of nature.)  This genetic account of philosophy sees the scientific revolution of the twentieth century as ushering in the possibility of finally completing the Copernican revolution precisely because the notion of nature has been modified in ways that invite the possibility of seeing human being as a part of that nature while still doing justice to the nature of human being and its experience.  Whereas Dewey and Whitehead are in the forefront of those struggling to complete the Copernican revolution, they are by no means alone—one need only think of Teilhard de Chardin, Polanyi, and Merleau-Ponty to realize that they have a lot of company bringing a variety of perspectives to the completion of the self-same task.

But now it is time to turn to Dewey’s disagreements with Whitehead, for in spite of the enormous overlap in terms of background and point of departure, “deviations,” as Dewey says, do occur later.  The criticisms of Whitehead all spin out of a reference to, as Dewey says, “a mathematical strain [which] dominates his cosmological account.”8  Or again, in referring to Whitehead’s aspiration to construct a “coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted,” Dewey claims that this aspiration suggests “the kind of structure exhibited in pure mathematics.  It seems to go much further than the mere statement—to which no exception can be taken—that different portions of any philosophical scheme must hang together.”9  And again, we find Dewey condemning in Whitehead’s work “the abstract formalization that defines systematization upon the model provided by mathematics.”10 

These comments, as the basis of Dewey’s uneasiness with Whitehead’s metaphysics, rest on a mistaken understanding, which in turn follows, I strongly believe, from that “unusual circumstance” to which I have referred.  It emerges in the first footnote—in Dewey’s article, where, after citing a passage in Adventures of Ideas, he adds:  “The fact that my further references and quotations are limited to this particular book of Whitehead’s is partially due to the limitations under which this essay is written.”11  My hunch is that Dewey wrote his article at his summer place and had not brought along Process and Reality or any other work by Whitehead.  But in any case, it is in the very first section of the first chapter of the first part of Process and Reality that we find the extraordinary passages where Whitehead, one of the great mathematicians of his time, condemns any attempt to foist the method of mathematics off on philosophy.  Let’s attend to Whitehead:

Philosophy has been misled by the example of mathematics. . . . The verification of a rationalistic scheme is to be sought in its general success, and not in the peculiar certainty, or initial clarity, of its first principles. . . . Philosophy has been haunted by the unfortunate notion that its method is dogmatically to indicate premises which are severally clear, distinct, and certain; and to erect upon those premises a deductive system of thought.

But the accurate expression of the final generalities is the goal of discussion and not its origin. . . . The primary method of mathematics is deduction; the primary method of philosophy is descriptive generalization.  Under the influence of mathematics, deduction has been foisted onto philosophy as its standard method, instead of taking its true place as an essential auxiliary mode of verification whereby to test the scope of generalities.12

My conclusion is that had Dewey studied Process and Reality with the same care he obviously lavished on Adventures of Ideas, he would have realized not only that he and Whitehead shared “background and point of departure,” but that they went much further down the path of philosophy together than Dewey had ever realized.  Dewey was concerned that philosophy not consider itself as an intellectual report from the outside upon a subject matter that it looked upon as complete and finished in itself.  He fought against the idea that philosophy is a finished set of meanings, a formal, static product of intellectual analysis.  Rather Dewey, while he does see philosophy as engaged in the search for generic traits of experience, and realizes that this involves a “purification” of experience, that is, some sort of systematization of experience, nevertheless wants a systematization that remains close, close, close to the ground, so that it is ready at every turn to loop back to primary experience to reform and direct it.  Dewey knows that you have to have secondary discourses derived from primary experience, and he knows that science is one such secondary discourse.  But the systematization of science is close to the ground, involving a sort of horizontal type of abstraction rather than building straight up into a sharply vertical abstraction of the Hegelian or Platonic sort.  Dewey’s reconstruction in philosophy is deeply suspicious of system and abstraction, but he knows you cannot get at the generic traits of primary experience without some abstraction and some systematization.  He distrusts system, and he needs system—that is his problem.  Whitehead has a system, and Dewey thinks it is the bad kind, too final, too mathematical, too vertical, too removed from primary experience to admit the looping return to experience that lights up the values that might be brought about in the culture.  And here Dewey is wrong.  It might have helped him to see this if he had read in Process and Reality not only the passages on mathematics and method already quoted, but the following passage from the end of the preface: “There remains the final reflection, how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things.  In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.”13

Finally, Dewey should have sensed from his reading of Adventures of Ideas that Whitehead has a low, horizontal systematization that easily loops back to impact upon primary experience.  It is there, in the introduction, that Whitehead introduces the famous opposition of Steam and Barbarians on the one hand, and Democracy and Christians on the other.  The insight is that as a culture moves from one age to another, that movement is brought about by the impact of senseless agencies on the one hand, and formulated aspirations on the other.  In the world of the Roman Empire the senseless agency, beyond the range of philosophy, was the brute force of the barbarians, while the formulated aspirations also shaping the cultural transition were found in the beliefs and values of the Christians.  The analogous elements shaping the development of the European Renaissance were Steam, the senseless agency, and Democracy, the formulated aspiration.  The formulated aspirations that mold cultures emerge from philosophical understandings.  The whole point of Adventures of Ideas is to show that the scientific developments of the twentieth century require new philosophical understandings, to adumbrate Whitehead’s version of those understandings in a less technical form than they were given in Process and Reality, and then to tease out of these understandings new formulated aspirations capable of shaping the future development of our culture.  The famous part IV of that book, titled “Civilization,” which generates and explores the notions of Beauty, Zest, Peace, and Adventure, is a laying out of a set of formulated aspirations apt for guiding cultural development now, here, today.  This is a looping return to primary experience if there ever was one.  I think Dewey never got a sense of the structure of that volume; if he had, I think he might have seen that Whitehead had worked out a mode of systematization that avoided certainly many, if not all, of the problems Dewey had with traditional metaphysics, and at the same time looped back again and again to the very practical, concrete issues that shape the character of a culture. 


1 Paul Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Tutor, 1951), p. 645; numbers added.

2 Ibid., p. 646.

3 Ibid., p. 647.

4 Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Macmillan Co., 1933), pp. 99, 237, 284.

5 Schilpp, ed., Philosophy of Whitehead, pp. 647-48.

6 Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), p. xxxix.

7 Richard Rorty, “Comments on Sleeper and Edel,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 7 (Winter 1985), p. 44.

8 Schilpp, ed., Philosophy of Whitehead, p. 646.

9 Ibid., p. 657.

10 Ibid., p. 661.

11 Ibid., p. 644.

12 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corr. ed. (New York: Free Press, 1978), pp. 8, 10.

13 Ibid., p. xiv.

Posted April 26, 2007


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