lyrics to ourselves?

“The mind in apprehending also experience sensations which, properly speaking, are qualities of the mind alone,” as Whitehead put it. “These sensations are projected by the mind so as to clothe appropriate bodies in external nature. Thus the bodies are perceived as which qualities which in reality do not belong to them, qualities which in fact are purely the offspring of the mind. Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose for its scent: the nightingale for his song: and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellence of the human mind. Nature is a dully affair, soundless, scentless, colourless: merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.

However you disguise it, this is the practical outcome of the characteristic scientific philosophy which closed the seventeenth century. In the first place, we must note its astounding efficiency as a system of concepts for the organisation of scientific research. In this respect, it is fully worthy of the genius of the century which produced it. It has held its own as the guiding principle of scientific studies ever since. It is still reigning. Every university in the world organises itself in accordance with it. No alternative system of organising the pursuit of scientific truth has been suggested. It is not only reigning, but it is without a rival. And yet it is quite unbelievable.

[And a little later in the book]

Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century.

Alfred North Whitehead, _Science and the Modern World_ (New York: Free Press, 1967), pg 54+

PS: thanks to the kind commenters to help fix the oversight. i had initially quoted a footnote by Alphonso Lingis, who apparently took it out of context.

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4 thoughts on “lyrics to ourselves?

  1. Ha! Well done… Great example of how a quote taken out of context can be mis-ascribed to its author, i.e. as his own perspective rather than the view he is trying to demolish. (See here.) One more sentence would have given the game away. (The book’s worth reading – see here.)

    Thanks for keeping us on our toes ;-)

  2. Just for context, so no one thinks Whitehead is giving his own position here,…

    A few lines after this excerpt (which is Whitehead sarcastically depicting John Locke’s theory of primary and secondary qualities), Whitehead writes (in 1925):
    “However you disguise it, this is the practical outcome of the characteristic scientific philosophy of the 17th century…It is still reigning. Every university in the world organizes itself in accordance with it. No alternative system of organizing the pursuit of scientific truth has been suggested. It is not only reigning, but it is without rival. And yet–it is quite unbelievable. This conception of the universe is surely framed in terms of high abstractions, and the paradox only arises because we have mistaken our abstractions for concrete realities.”

  3. With a little help from my friends (in the comments below), I just found out that this quote is taken out of context. I’m told that Whitehead is actually being sarcastic here in depicting John Locke’s theory of primary and secondary qualities. In other words, this is not Whitehead’s position but rather the one he is arguing against.

    To put the quote in its immediate context, the very next lines read as follows:

    “However you disguise it, this is the practical outcome of the characteristic scientific philosophy which closed the seventeenth century. In the first place, we must note its astounding efficiency as a system of concepts for the organisation of scientific research. In this respect, it is fully worthy of the genius of the century which produced it. It has held its own as the guiding principle of scientific studies ever since. It is still reigning. Every university in the world organises itself in accordance with it. No alternative system of organising the pursuit of scientific truth has been suggested. It is not only reigning, but it is without a rival. And yet it is quite unbelievable.”

    And a little later in the book:

    “Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century.”

    When I first encountered this quote I immediately thought something was askew. I’ve never read anything like that from Whitehead before, and was taken aback by what I perceive as a very ill-informed understanding of how (I believe) perception and consciousness actually works. I obviously need to read more Whitehead.

    And, for the record, I also take issue with Locke’s model. I think the primary/secondary divide is artificial and based on a very incomplete (non-empirical) position in comparison with what we now know about embodied cognitive faculties. Perception is far more sensuous and intrinsic to the nature of embodied entities.

    “…we have mistaken our abstractions for concrete realities.” Indeed we have.

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