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Posts Tagged ‘Alfred North Whitehead’

It is the business of the future to be dangerous.
     —    Alfred North Whitehead
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Science only renders the metaphysical need more urgent.  In itself, it contributes little directly to the solution of the metaphysical problem.  But it does contribute something, namely, the exposition of the fact that our experience of sensible apparent things is capable of being analysed into a scientific theory, a theory not indeed complete, but giving every promise of indefinite expansion.  This achievement emphasizes the intimate relation between our logical thought and the facts of sensible apprehension.  Also the special form of scientific theory is bound to have some influence.  In the past false science has been the parent of bad metaphysics.  After all, science embodies a rigorous scrutiny of one part of the whole evidence from which metaphysicians deduce their conclusions.
    —    Alfred North Whitehead
From his book:  “The Aims Of Education
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The key to modern mentality is the continued advance of science with the consequential shift of ideas and progress of technology.  In the ancient world Mesopotamia and Egypt were made possible by irrigation.  But the Roman Empire existed by virtue of the grandest application of technology that the world had hitherto seen:  its vast buildings, its organized merchant navies, its military science, its metallurgy, and its agriculture.  This was the secret of the extension and the unity of Roman civilization.
     —    Alfred North Whitehead
From his essay:  “The Place Of Classics In Education
From his book:  “The Aims Of Education
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In training a child to activity of thought, above all things we must beware of what I will call “inert ideas”  —  that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.
Every intellectual revolution which has ever stirred humanity into greatness has been a passionate protest against inert ideas.  Then, alas, with pathetic ignorance of human psychology, it has proceeded by some educational scheme to bind humanity afresh with inert ideas of its own fashioning.
    —   Alfred North Whitehead
From his book:  “The Aims Of Education
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Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling.  Scraps of information have nothing to do with it.  A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.  What we should aim at producing is men who possess both the culture and expert knowledge in some special direction.  Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art.
    —    Alfred North Whitehead
From his book:  “The Aims of Education
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Today’s book review is:  “The Aims Of Education” (1929 ©), by Alfred North Whitehead.  The book is a collection of papers and presentations (speeches) given by the author on a number of topics:  education, freedom and discipline, science, the function of universities and the nature of thought itself.  Although a relatively small work, it is quite deep and scholastic / academic in tone, which will not be to everyone’s taste.
Whitehead was a mathematician who emigrated to America and became a philosopher in his later years.  Apparently, Cambridge had a lecturer time limit of twenty-five years and he was forced into retirement.  He lectured in London for another dozen years before moving to Harvard where he also spent a little over a dozen years.
The book is really in two parts for me:  the parts I understood and agreed with wholeheartedly (the first half of the book) and the later part (mainly dealing with the “organization of thought” and “the anatomy of some scientific ideas“) which I believe I understood, but which I disagreed with.  Metaphysically speaking, Whitehead poses that reality is what we (individually) perceive it to be and the normalization of perception is (what we agree on collectively) what we “scientifically” say is the “real” world.  In a strange way, the only things which can be real are those which we perceive to be real and on which we can agree with others in their perceptions.  This “relativism” of a perceived real world has consequences, but I’m not sure I have ever been able to get my head around them.  (I went through this in a political theory class back in my own university days.)
While I feel I understood what Whitehead was trying to express, I found it extremely dry reading and in the end (after several weeks of having the book on my bedside table), I had to force myself to read the last 30-40 odd pages.  My difficulty was less my “disagreement” with his proposition, as the general feeling of its irrelevance in “my” real world.  I don’t really care if all the universe is really changing and even mountains are eventually reduced to sand.  For my lifetime, they are mountains.  I recognize that in a billion or so years, the Earth will no longer be here (or the mountain), but for now, I still need to climb it, ski it, or build a train tunnel through it and I (we) can still ascertain (agree) on it’s location, height, circumference, etc.  It is as real as I need it to be.
If this review seems a bit negative, let me also high-light the books strengths (or at least the parts I agree with), too.  The book’s title refers to the first lecture in the book and describes what we as a society should hope to gain by educating our youth.  It describes the “rhythm” of education in a person’s life.  It also relates Whitehead’s views on subjects to be taught and their order of learning.  As mentioned above, he goes on to discuss the value of a liberal education, the use of classics in education, and the role of a university in developing the leaders society requires.  Whitehead does not neglect the necessity of practical and technical training in the spectrum of education .  He simply notes they will be sufficient for the masses and remain a minimum standard for the well developed (pre-) university graduate.  This seems an extremely elitist view until one recognizes that education is a lifetime endeavor and returning to school (university) is not (or it should not be) prohibited for those who start their working lives as tradesmen and technicians.
Final recommendation:  moderate to strong recommendation.  This book is a definite “classic” and I feel I am “better” for having experienced it.  But, and this is a rather large qualification for me, it isn’t a book I left feeling many others would be interested in.  Primarily because of the nature of the subject matter, but also because of the way it’s expressed (extremely erudite language), this is not a book (I believe) many will force themselves to wade through.  Very reminiscent of a description I once heard of the book “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking, this is a book you want people to see on your coffee table, but which nobody ever actually reads.  Stick to the first bits on education, liberal arts and the purpose of a university, and leave the rest for when you tire of insomnia.
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We — I am talking of schoolmasters and of university dons — are apt to forget that we are only subordinate elements in the education of a grown man;  and that, in their own good time, in later life, our pupils will learn for themselves.  The phenomena of growth cannot be hurried beyond certain very narrow limits.  But an unskillful practitioner can easily damage a sensitive organism.  Yet, when all has been said in the way of caution, there is such a thing as pushing on, of getting to know the fundamental details and the main exact generalisations, and of acquiring an easy mastery of technique.  There is no getting away from the fact that things have been found out, and that to be effective in the modern world you must have a store of definite acquirement of the best practice.  To write poetry you must study metre;  and to build bridges you must be learned in the strength of material.  Even the Hebrew prophets had learned to write, probably in those days requiring no mean effort.  The untutored art of genius is — in the words of the Prayer Book — a vain thing, fondly invented.
    —    Alfred North Whitehead
From his book:  “The Aims Of Education
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Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge.
    —    Alfred North Whitehead
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Simple solutions seldom are.  It takes a very unusual mind to undertake analysis of the obvious.
    —    Alfred North Whitehead
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No period of history has ever been great or ever can be that does not act on some sort of high, idealistic motives, and idealism in our time has been shoved aside, and we are paying the penalty for it.
    —     Alfred North Whitehead
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No one who achieves success does so without acknowledging the help of others.  The wise and confident acknowledge this help with gratitude.
    —    Alfred North Whitehead
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Ideas won’t keep:  Something must be done about them.
    —     Alfred North Whitehead
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