Reflections on “The Function of Reason” (1929) by Alfred North Whitehead

The function of Reason,” says Whitehead, “is to promote the art of life” (4). Reason thereby becomes primarily an aesthetic concern, a matter of appetition, and of the appetition of appetition with “emphasis upon novelty” (20). Reason is not simply the art of surviving, but of living well, and living better.

If some degree of life is active at every level of nature (the boundary between organic and inorganic being endlessly blurred), selective appetition–or Reason–would also then be active not only in the evolution of earth-bound plants, animals, and humans, but in the formation of the material cosmos itself.

“The material universe has contained in itself, and perhaps still contains, some mysterious impulse for its energy to run upwards,” says Whitehead (24).

What is the “upward trend,” the “counter-agency” that is already necessary to account for the genesis of those organized beings known to science as protons, electrons, molecules, stars, and galaxies? From whence comes the purposiveness of nature, the urge towards higher forms of organization despite the equally real tendency towards decay and fatigue? For Whitehead, the counter-agency to entropy is Reason. “Reason is the special embodiment in us of the disciplined counter-agency which saves the world” (34). Reason is then not only the presupposition of civilized human society and the ground of our scientific knowledge of nature, it is the creative source of the cosmic order itself.

“Mankind has gradually developed from the lowliest forms of life, and must therefore be explained in terms applicable to all such forms. But why construe the later forms by analogy to the earlier forms? Why not reverse the process? … In the course of evolution why should the trend have arrived at mankind, if his activities of Reason remain without influence on his bodily actions?” (15, 27).

Whitehead reverses the typical evolutionary epistemology that would attempt to explain away human consciousness and Reason by reducing them to seemingly inanimate physical and chemical processes. Instead, he attempts to understand the simplest processes of the physical universe in terms applicable to the presuppositions of civilized human life. His cosmologizing begins with what science must assume in all its investigations into nature, namely that human consciousness is capable of rational reflection upon the facts as observed. The human being is the primary instrument of all scientific investigation: we cannot separate the consciousness of the scientist or the purposeful process of his or her research from the scientific knowledge that is produced. The knowledge claimed by materialistic science that life is a mere mechanism governed by physics, chemistry, and the absolutely purposeless pressures of natural selection undermines this science’s own epistemic foundations. If unconscious Reason were not already rooted in every cosmic process, its conscious form could never have flowered in human scientists. To argue otherwise is to fall victim to blatant self-contradiction by denying in theory what no one can deny in practice. “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study,” says Whitehead (16).


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