Alfred Whitehead (1861 – 1947) was an English thinker best known in his early life for his work in the logic of mathematics, and in later life for his contribution to the metaphysical school of thought of process philosophy. Whitehead co-wrote with his former student Bertrand Russell the largely influential Principia Mathematica, one of the 20th centuries most important works in mathematical logic.
Whitehead’s philosophical works were, like most great thinkers, a response to a crisis. The early 20th century saw the full throes of Enlightenment optimism, in which the development of metaphysical systems was regarded as futile due to their lack of subjectivity to the mechanistic scientific method. However, Whitehead contended that rather than abandoning metaphyiscs entirely, the thinkers of his generation had instead imported a type of Cartesianism that went unscrutinised. He called this “scientific materialism”.
There persists … [a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ‘scientific materialism.’ Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived.
- Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World
Whitehead’s primary criticism of viewing reality, in the mechanistic tradition, as discrete and independent pieces of matter was that under this schema knowledge of causation is impossible. Whitehead argues that two things that are separate from each other in space simply cannot bear a causal relationship between them. Whitehead says that knowledge of a cause will give full knowledge of all its effects, but this is impossible if pieces of matter are truly distinct from one another. In essence, Whitehead is arguing that efficient causality is unintelligible if scientific materialism is true.
While the Aristotelian tradition turns to final causality to solve this problem, Whitehead instead jettisons the relevance of static things such as substance, form and matter. Whitehead like Hegel envisions reality as a type of organism or process, which consists in its most primary form as interrelated events. For Whitehead, the universe just is a series of occasions that are causally affected by all other occasions and the idea that there could be objects existing separate and distinct in space and time is deeply mistaken.