“That Slightest Change of Tone Which Yet Makes All the Difference”: Science and Bodily Knowledge in Alfred North Whitehead


Alfred North Whitehead observes in Modes of Thought: “the current philosophic doctrines, mostly derived from Hume, are defective by reason of their neglect of bodily reference” (153), based explicitly on the privileging of science which, as Whitehead subsequently notes, “only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience” (154). Whitehead continues: “if we wish to understand the relation of our personal experience to the activities of nature, the proper procedure is to examine the dependence of our personal experiences upon our personal bodies” (159), for “the whole complexity of mental experience is either derived or modified by such [bodily] functioning. Also our basic feeling is this sense of derivation, which leads to our claim for unity, body and mind” (160). Thus, Whitehead sees the fundamental problems articulated so profoundly by modern philosophy to be resolvable by attention to “our personal bodies.”  By leaving out this whole domain of experience, Whitehead suggests, rational intellect has come to focus primarily on the negative, for as he writes in Process and Reality: “The negative judgment is the peak of mentality” (5).

Furthermore, in Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead observes that humanity “is now in one of its rare moods of shifting its outlook” (99), proclaiming that “transitions to new fruitfulness of understanding are achieved by recurrence to the utmost depths of intuition for the refreshment of imagination” (159). Thus, for Whitehead as for Henri Bergson, intuition appears to mean conscious attention to affective experience.  In Whitehead’s view, when intellect becomes static and locked into a fixed symbolic system as it has in the intellectual privileging of modernity, it is necessary to literally get “out of one’s head” and descend into the “depths” of the body that have been repressed and rendered unconscious since the Cartesian philosophical revolution, exemplified in the cogito’s equation of thought with human being in general. As illustration, Whitehead discusses several other historical moments when a similar static fixation has taken place. As he writes: “Modern scholarship and modern science reproduce the same limitations as dominated the bygone Hellenistic epoch, and the bygone Scholastic epoch. They canalize thought and observation within predetermined limits, based upon inadequate metaphysical assumptions dogmatically assumed” (118). However, though he sees the era of late modernity as bearing some deep similarities to these two older epochs, roughly ancient Rome and medieval Christianity, Whitehead seems to believe that our era has taken the focus on rationality and the concomitant exclusion of bodily reference to its most extreme conclusion. Indeed, as Whitehead contends, the focus solely on intellect denies conscious access to the more fundamental kinds of meaning that rational thought can structure, analyze, and critique, but cannot engender for, as he writes: “Knowledge is always accompanied with accessories of emotion and purpose” (4).

Whitehead demonstrates that the privileging of an intellectual epistemology over other modes is perhaps the primary fallacy of modern thought for, as he puts it: “Each mode of consideration is a sort of searchlight elucidating some of the facts, and retreating the remainder into an omitted background” (43). In Whitehead’s view, intellectual and intuitive ways of knowing reveal different, but equally valid information about experience. And Whitehead, like Bergson and William James, explicitly calls for the integration of these two modes, going so far as to nominate this epistemological synthesis “Wisdom.”  As he writes: “To some extent, to understand is always to exclude a background of intellectual incoherence. But Wisdom is persistent pursuit of the deeper understanding, ever confronting intellectual system with the importance of its omissions” (47). While this kind of “wisdom” as an integration of intellect and intuition is no doubt something that individuals have achieved in our culture, Whitehead seems to believe that intuitive knowledge has generally been excluded from consideration in an academia in which scientific objectivity and rational logic are the implicit ideals, even in the humanities. While in our personal lives we may recognize the efficacy of intuitive modes, Whitehead seems to suggest that as long as these modes are “omitted” from open commerce with our explicit intellectual understanding, our culture will never attain “Wisdom” on a mass scale, but only rational knowledge, an unbalanced situation that seems to have played a large part in producing the ecological, economic, social, and political crises in which we now find ourselves.

Whitehead finds precedent for this more expansive way of thinking in Plato for, as Whitehead writes of the father of philosophy: “In his view, the entertainment of ideas is intrinsically associated with inward ferment, an activity of subjective feeling, which is at once immediate enjoyment, and also an appetition which melts into action. This is Plato’s Eros” (148). However, this acceptance of “subjective feeling” as a valid and indispensable tool in the process of cognition appears often to have been suppressed in our own era. As Whitehead writes in Science and the Modern World:

Each age has its dominant preoccupations; and, during the three centuries in question, the cosmology derived from science has been asserting itself at the expense of older points of view with their origins elsewhere. Men can be provincial in time, as well as in place. We may ask ourselves whether the scientific mentality of the modern world in the immediate past is not a successful example of such provincial limitation (vii).

Thus, according to Whitehead, the broader Platonic cosmology, having evolved through many permutations over the centuries, was effectively repressed by Cartesianism in favor of the pure equation of thought with being so concisely expressed in the cogito. For a view of the world based on the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, subject and object, Whitehead explains that “Nature is a dull 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” (54).  In Whitehead’s view, this is not the only way to approach immediate experience, for the world can appear radically different based on different fundamental premises about the nature of reality, particularly when those premises are held for centuries, worked out through countless lives to their inevitable conclusions. As Whitehead explains:

This quiet growth of science has practically recoloured our mentality so that modes of thought which in former times were exceptional are now broadly spread through the educated world. . . . It has altered the metaphysical presuppositions and the imaginative contents of our minds; so that now the old stimuli provoke new response . . . that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference (2).

We live in a radically different world than that inhabited by people of earlier ages because of the radically different assumptions that we hold and through which we cognize that world by means of collective attention and discourse. In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead critiques the “fundamental duality” of “mind” and “material” instituted by science. As he writes: “In between there lie the concepts of life, organism, function, instantaneous reality, interaction, order of nature, which collectively form the Achilles heel of the whole system” (57). This domain of “instantaneous reality” is apparently coextensive with the Bergsonian durational affectivity of lived experience that has been repressed by the predominance of scientific rationality, but which seems to have been slowly reemerging in the twentieth century through various artistic media such as popular music, painting, dance, and cinema, as well as in depth psychology perhaps more than the main streams of philosophy, excepting those exemplified by James, Bergson, Whitehead, and their conceptual progeny.

Furthermore, Whitehead sees William James as the initiator, much like Descartes, of a qualitatively new mode of thought still in the process of emerging from the previously dominant Cartesian philosophy:

The scientific materialism and the Cartesian Ego were both challenged at the same moment, one by science and the other by philosophy, as represented by William James with his psychological antecedents; and the double challenge marks the end of a period which lasted for about two hundred and fifty years. . . . The reason why I have put Descartes and James in close juxtaposition is now evident. Neither philosopher finished an epoch by a final solution of a problem. Their great merit is of the opposite sort. They each of them open an epoch by their clear formulation of terms in which thought could profitably express itself at particular stages of knowledge, one for the seventeenth century, the other for the twentieth century (143-47).

Thus, Whitehead suggests that while the seventeenth century was a period of transition from the static orthodoxy of medieval scholasticism to the liberating rationality of the Enlightenment, the twentieth century initiated a similar moment of transition from Enlightenment rationalism, which had itself developed into a static orthodoxy, to a new way of approaching experience that integrates the rational capacities developed particularly over the last few centuries with the older capacities that had been developed in premodernity, which Whitehead describes, along with Bergson, as “intuition.”

Ultimately, none of these three philosophers, James, Bergson, and Whitehead, wish to place intuition above intellect, but merely to redress the imbalanced emphasis of these two primary ways of knowing the world. And to be sure, this imbalance did not go unnoticed in modernity, for various strains of literature, Romanticism and its issue in particular, have been vocal in their objections to the privileging of rationality, which Blake, for but one early instance, memorably referred to as “single vision and Newton’s sleep.” To this point, Whitehead writes: “the literature of the nineteenth century, especially its English poetic literature, is a witness to the discord between the aesthetic intuitions of mankind and the mechanism of science” (87). However, despite this literary awareness, the primacy of science as the governing metaphor for the production of knowledge still seems to have come to dominate even the study of literature in the academy, though the deconstructions of the last few decades have amended this imbalance to some extent, and the current widespread interest in affect perhaps suggests that a shift in the modes of thought considered acceptable in academia is now underway. Indeed, as Whitehead presaged this emerging mode of thought, intuition and affect may become ways of knowing the world considered equally valid to scientific calculability and repeatability:

The make-weight which balances the thoroughness of the specialist intellectual training should be of a radically different kind from purely intellectual analytical knowledge . . . This professional training can only touch one side of education. Its centre of gravity lies in the intellect, and its chief tool is the printed book. The centre of gravity of the other side of training should lie in intuition without an analytical divorce from the total environment (198).

Whitehead seems to suggest here that, in order for true knowledge to be attained in the academy, as elsewhere, we must pursue a more complete kind of education in which scientific rationality is balanced and mediated by training in intuitive modes, though what this intuitive education might entail is probably the project of generations to determine. However, one suspects that those schools which have begun to integrate primarily Eastern and indigenous meditative, contemplative, yogic, and shamanic practices with the curriculum more traditional in the West are taking significant strides in this direction, experimenting with activities that may gradually find their way into the curricula of more orthodox institutions of higher learning to produce a more comprehensive kind of knowledge.


Blake, William. “Letter to Thomas Butt.” 22 November, 1802. The Letters of William Blake. Ed.

Geoffrey Keynes. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2011.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Whitehead. Alfred North. Modes of Thought. New York: The Free Press, 1968.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: Corrected Edition. Ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The Free Press, 1985.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York: The Free Press, 1967.



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3 responses to ““That Slightest Change of Tone Which Yet Makes All the Difference”: Science and Bodily Knowledge in Alfred North Whitehead

  1. Pingback: Imagining Nature with Schelling and Whitehead | Footnotes 2 Plato

  2. Pingback: Whitehead, Alfred North | Earthpages.ca

  3. Pingback: Alfred North Whitehead | Earthpages.ca

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