On Whitehead’s Sociological Theory in “Adventures of Ideas”

Whitehead’s goal is these pages to elucidate the concept of civilization. He operates under the assumption that human civilization has profound cosmological significance. The fact that civilized beings have emerged in the course of the evolution of the universe tells us something important about the nature and perhaps even the purpose of that universe. His hypothesis is that the rise of human civilization exemplifies the effective lure of ideas in the adventure of cosmogenesis. While the issue of novel ideas into practical consequences may be slow, the upward adventure of life on Earth testifies to their power. 

He begins by reminding his readers that history is not just a collection of facts. Were we to be presented with the bare facts, devoid of any theoretical interpretation, we would have merely sound vibrations and the motion of colored shapes (3). History is a story told in the present, often to serve as material for the formation of our own self-understanding. Our imaginations of history are inseparable from our metaphysical and cosmological presuppositions. 

Whitehead claims that the study of history reveals a general dichotomy, that between senseless, often violent, compulsion and consciously formulated aspiration. People “are driven by their thoughts as well as by the molecules in their bodies, by intelligence and by senseless forces” (46). Whitehead lists environmental conditions and the brute necessities of technological production (e.g., the socially transformative effects of coal, steam, electricity, and oil) among the senseless forces, and Axial religion and democratic humanitarianism as examples of intelligent aspiration (7).  

While Whitehead was himself a progressive (he was involved in the women’s rights and educational reform movements of his day), he cautions against the impetuous insistence upon imposing new ideas in the wrong season. Sometimes in the rush to implement social improvements, attendant complexities are ignored, and the attempt to remove an evil ends up releasing further evils (20). “A great idea is not to be conceived as merely waiting for enough good [people] to carry it into practical effect…The ideal in the background is promoting the gradual growth of the requisite communal customs, adequate to sustain the load of its exemplification” (21). Ideals may be well-intentioned, but given the complexities of both nature and culture (and the complex interplay and continual overlap between them), the actual effects of their implementation often far outrun their conscious intent.

Whitehead dwells on the institutions of human sacrifice and slavery, long accepted among supposedly civilized peoples, as examples of the power of inherited instinctive behaviors to override higher ideals. “Freedom” was almost a meaningless notion for earlier societies, such as the Egyptian or Babylonian (49). Whitehead tasks philosophy with seeking to consciously entertain and articulate those ultimate intuitions, obscured by habitual customs, that nonetheless guide human beings toward civilized order, that is, toward a world wherein the persuasion of free beings has emerged victorious over coercive force as the prime agent of history (25). Whitehead offers an updated rendering of Plato’s suggestion in the Republic—that the ideal state would be run by philosopher-kings: “today, in an age of democracy, the kings are plain citizens pursuing their various avocations. There can be no successful democratic society till general education conveys a philosophic outlook” (98). 

Such a philosophical outlook would marshal wisdom as a “modifying agency” upon the two streams that feed into our consciousness, that is, inherited instincts/routines and intellectual ferment/spontaneity (47). Wisdom functions to coalesce these streams into some self-determining (i.e., free) and holistic judgment. Wise decision-making is limited by the limitations of our consciousness: “We do not initiate thought by an effort of self-consciousness. We find ourselves thinking, just as we find ourselves breathing and enjoying the sunset.” Nonetheless, few are willing to deny the role of knowledge and freedom in human life, though admittedly they tend to come in brief and unexpected flashes. Civilization advances, if it does, because wisdom kindles these flashes so as to melt and make malleable inherited customs and to light the way toward juster futures. 

Whitehead sees little evidence that humanity’s inborn mental capacities have increased during the historical period. Rather, he points to “the outfit which the environment provides for the service of thought,” that is, to the impact of various media technologies (e.g., literary and mathematical symbolisms, communication methods, etc.). The downside is that technologically mediated intelligence is liable to get locked into its favored abstractions, “[dismissing] the baffling aspects of things” in favor of the certainty provided by logical system. “Wisdom,” Whitehead suggests, “is persistent pursuit of the deeper understanding, ever confronting intellectual system with the importance of its omissions…The folly of intelligent people, clear-headed and narrow-visioned, has precipitated many catastrophes” (47-48).

Writing in the early 20th century, Whitehead thought that the economic sphere constituted the “most massive problem of human relationships” (62). He maintains high hopes for commerce, since ideally “it is the great example of intercourse in the way of persuasion,” while “war, slavery, and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force” (83). But difficulties stand in the way of realizing the ideal. Whitehead discusses the invention of corporate personhood, which he believes totally undermined classical liberal political philosophy, wherein freedom belonged to individual human beings, rather than to fictional corporate entities. He also discusses the hazy notion of private property, which with the expansion of monopolistic corporate rule and competitive market dynamics has come to signify little more than “the will of the stronger” (63). But Whitehead admits that the classical liberal idea of “absolute individuals with absolute rights” is both metaphysically and politically inadequate: “The human being is inseparable from its environment in each occasion of its existence.” Whitehead’s process-relational understanding of reality has it that individuals, while they constitute real loci of aesthetic and moral value, are nonetheless emergent from their social relations; similarly, societies are shaped by the mutual transactions of their members. The emergence of individuals from their social relations means that custom forms the instinctive basis of our behavior. But determination by custom is not total, as individuals are also free to emphasize novel intuitions of alternative courses of action, and to consciously agree to mutually beneficial contractual transactions with one another, thus allowing for the possibility of a genuinely free marketplace. In the end, “nothing is effective except massively coordinated inheritance. Sporadic spontaneity is composed of flashes mutually thwarting each other. Ideas have to be sustained, disentangled, diffused, and coordinated with the background. Finally they pass into exemplification in action” (64). Thus, much work remains to be done to translate the ideal of freedom into the economic domain.

Whitehead traces the rise of the ideal of freedom in the history of human societies. Once a negligible fancy, it has gradually become the founding value of democratic nation-states. But Whitehead warns us against conceiving of freedom in purely cultural terms, as freedom of thought and speech, of the press, or of religious practice; that is, it is shortsighted to conceive of restraints on our freedom as stemming merely from the conflicting desires of other human beings. It is not our fellow human beings, but the “massive habits of physical nature” that constrain our freedom and set the scene for our suffering: “birth and death, heat, cold, hunger, separation, disease…all bring their quota to imprison the souls of women and of men” (66). Political philosopher William Connolly’s book The Fragility of Things (2013) begins by recounting the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake in 1755, which provides as striking an example as we could ask for of what Whitehead means. Connolly describes how the senseless shock of this terrible natural disaster fed into the emergent Enlightenment mentality represented by Voltaire, who in his satirical book Candide ridiculed both traditional religious consolations as well as Leibniz’s conception that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. In Connolly’s terms, the event exemplifies the way “the human estate is both imbricated with and periodically over-matched by a cosmos composed of multiple, interacting force fields moving at different speeds” (7). But rather than adopting an atheistic position in light of nature’s vicissitudes and the fragility of human life, Whitehead affirms the role of Ideas in history, believing that we can directly intuit an eternal Good beyond all changing circumstances. Without such ideal intuitions to stir the soul toward higher life, he sees no reason why civilized beings should have come to exist in the first place.

Whitehead then turns to critique the socioeconomic consequences of the Malthusian doctrine and the attendant Darwinian notion of “the survival of the fittest,” which he believes are at best an over-simplification and, at worst, when compared with the recent facts of European history, demonstrably false. The doctrine naturalizes the inequalities of capitalist society, with “the fortunate few, and…the semi-destitute many,” forcing us to abandon “hope of improving the social system by a humane adjustment of social…conditions” (73). Connolly goes into more detail regarding the continued effect of these doctrines in his discussion of neoliberalism, which is an ideology seeking to use state power to inject market dynamics into all domains of human life (21). The assumption is that the self-organizing dynamics of the market will result in the best of all possible worlds. Neoliberalism is thus a kind of capitalist Panglossianism (6) (Pangloss, remember, is Voltaire’s caricature of Leibniz).

Though Whitehead emphasizes the selective agency required for the evolution of civilization out of raw nature, he rejects the prevalent dichotomy between humanity and nature. “Mankind is that factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of Nature” (78). He goes on to claim that life itself is about more than mere survival, as living beings are constantly playing offense, groping toward novelty and expansion of their powers. In the human sphere, it follows that “a policy of sociological defense is doomed to failure” (81). “In a live civilization, there is always an element of unrest. For sensitiveness to ideas means curiosity, adventure, change” (83).