Adventures of Ideas, A Dialogue: Part 1

Dear David,

I’m sitting in my bedroom wondering why my laptop is running so hot, and imagining what your reaction to reading the first chapters of Alfred North Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas. I first got exposed to Whitehead via a Sunstone article by Floyd Ross with a response from Sterling McMurrin. McMurrin provided perhaps damning praise of Whitehad:

Whitehead’s treatment of reality as process is perhaps the high-water mark of twentieth-century philosophical refinement. His great work Process and Reality is rightly regarded as one of the most difficult and most abstruse philosophical treatises ever produced.

Inspired rather than deterred by McMurrin I round a copy of Process and Reality at the Borders in Madison, Wisconsin and purchased it for airplane reading for our summer trip back to Salt Lake City. Whether or not Process and Reality is “the most difficult and most abstruse philosophical treatises every produced,” I learned that at the very least it is not airplane reading. It is still on my “to read” list, although I’ll probably tackle the book in the form of  Donald Sherburne’s A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Luckily Whitehead has produced some more digestible books, particularly Science and the Modern World, and Adventures of Ideas, but I’ve also loved An Introduction to Mathematics, Religion in the Making, and Modes of Thought. But while I find Whitehead inspiring and filled with great quotes, I don’t think anyone would every quip of Whitehead, like they have of William James, that he wrote philosophy like novels. Given your request for something intellectually invigorating and spiritually inspiring, both Science and the Modern World and Religion in the Making would also be of interest to you.

Skipping Chapter 1 where Whitehead briefly lays out his objectives, let’s talk about Chapter 2, “The Human Soul.” This is where Whitehead introduces what I’ll call the Three Ps: Plato, Process, and Patience.

Plato

Whitehead is an unapologetic Platonist, providing great praise of Plato in several of other books, most notably in Process and Reality where he states all of western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. Throughout Adventures of Ideas Plato keeps cropping up as The Prophet, which as a Mormon Whiteheadian I have to kind of laugh at since Platonism is often viewed as the intellectual fuel to the “Great Apostasy,” and the faithful must cringe at Whitehead’s claim that Christianity is but a partial and imperfect realization of Plato’s more general ideals.

Process

Process, the central concept of Whitehead’s metaphysics, is not explicitly referred to but is continually referenced through example. The theme will be illustrated and made concrete as we proceed through the book.

Patience

Patience is perhaps a necessary corollary  of Process, and patience might well be the primary message I take away from Adventures. This chapter introduces the human soul via Plato and then lays out the slow realization of this idea in the beliefs and actions of western society over more than two thousand years.

  • “nerving the race in its slow ascent.” (p. 18)
  • “background of dim consciousness” (p. 19)
  • “The slow working of ideas” (p. 20)
  • “the growth of generality of apprehension is the slowest of all evolutionary changes” (p. 24)
  • “gradual purification of conduct” (p. 25)

This repeated reminder of how slow we improve our vision teaches us to be patient in our judgment of history, a point explicitly made by Whitehead who wrote

The final introduction of a reform does not necessarily prove the moral superiority of the reforming generation. It certainly does require that that generation exhibits reforming energy. But conditions may have changed, so that what is possible now may not have been possible then. A great idea is not to be conceived as merely waiting for enough good men to carry it into practical effect. (pp. 21-22)

We are also reminded to be patient with ourselves and with our peers, because, just like our ancestors in the past, we are people caught up in our times, blinded by unquestioned assumptions. But that is OK, as long as we remember this abstract limitation and seek to see how our foundational ideals could better be realized in the concrete aspects of our lives. Which is kind of a nice tie-in into many of our discussions of religion and our dissatisfactions. Whitehead is not a Christian (although Truman Madsen called him one of the most spiritual writers of the 20th Century), but he gives praise to Christianity and its “impracticable ethics” as a great driving force in the evolution of society. Early Mormonism certainly laid out its share of “impracticable ethics,” and I now wonder if our own new-found practicality is the cause of the more pedestrian Mormonism we are plagued with.

However, for Mormons Whitehead ends his chapter with a bang, and for all the parallels I’ve seen drawn between Whitehead’s philosophy and Mormon theology, I don’t think I’ve seen anyway else point out the similarity between D&C 121, that lays out the ideal of governance, and Whitehead’s description, repeated elsewhere, of Plato’s insight that “The creation of the world—that is to say, the world of civilized order—is the victory of persuasion over force.” (p. 25).

Brian

 

 

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