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Alfred North Whitehead

English Philosopher


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Narrated by Ralph Cosham

Download mp3 file: The Concept of Nature

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What do we mean by nature? We have to discuss the philosophy of natural science. Natural science is the science of nature. But—What is nature?

Nature is that which we observe in perception through the senses. In this sense-perception, we are aware of something which is not thought and which is self-contained for thought. This property of being self-contained for thought lies at the base of natural science. It means that nature can be thought of as a closed system whose mutual relations do not require the expression of the fact that they are thought about.

Thus in a sense nature is independent of thought. By this statement no metaphysical pronouncement is intended. What I mean is that we can think about nature without thinking about thought. I shall say that then we are thinking ‘homogeneously’ about nature.

Of course it is possible to think of nature in conjunction with thought about the fact that nature is thought about. In such a case I shall say that we are thinking ‘heterogeneously’ about nature. In fact during the last few minutes we have been thinking heterogeneously about nature. Natural science is exclusively concerned with homogeneous thoughts about nature.

But sense-perception has in it an element which is not thought. It is a difficult psychological question whether sense-perception involves thought; and if it does involve thought, what is the kind of thought which it necessarily involves. Note that it has been stated above that sense-perception is an awareness of something which is not thought. Namely, nature is not thought. But this is a different question, namely that the fact of sense-perception has a factor which is not thought. I call this factor ‘sense-awareness.’ Accoringly the doctrine that natural science is exclusively concerned with homogeneous thoughts about nature does not immediately carry with it the conclusion that natural science is not concerned with sense-awareness.

However, I do assert this further statement; namely, that though natural science is concerned with nature which is the terminus of sense-perception, it is not concerned with the sense-awareness itself.

I repeat the main line of this argument, and expand it in certain directions.

Thought about nature is different from the sense-perception of nature. Hence the fact of sense-perception has an ingredient or factor which is not thought. I call this ingredient sense-awareness. It is indifferent to my argument whether sense-perception has or has not thought as another ingredient. If sense-perception does not involve thought, then sense-awareness and sense-perception are identical. But the something perceived is perceived as an entity which is the terminus of the sense-awareness, something which for thought is beyond the fact of that sense-awareness. Also, the something perceived certainly does not contain other sense-awarenesses which are different from the sense-awareness which is an ingredient in that perception. Accordingly nature as disclosed in sense-perception is self-contained as against sense-awareness, in addition to being self-contained as against thought. I will also express this self-containedness of nature by saying that nature is closed to mind.

This closure of nature does not carry with it any metaphysical doctrine of the disjunction of nature and mind. It means that in sense-perception nature is disclosed as a complex of entities whose mutual relations are expressible in thought without reference to mind, that is, without reference either to sense-awareness or to thought. Furthermore, I do not wish to be understood as implying that sense-awareness and thought are the only activities which are to be ascribed to mind. Also I am not denying that there are relations of natural entities to mind or minds other than being the termini of the sense-awarenesses of minds. Accordingly I will extend the meaning of the terms ‘homogeneous thoughts’ and ‘heterogeneous thoughts’ which have already been introduced. We are thinking ‘homogeneously’ about nature when we are thinking about it without thinking about thought or about sense-awareness, and we are thinking ‘heterogeneously’ about nature when we are thinking about it in conjunction with thinking either about thought or about sense-awareness or about both.

I also take the homogeneity of thought about nature as excluding any reference to moral or aesthetic values whose apprehension is vivid in proportion to self-conscious activity. The values of nature are perhaps the key to the metaphysical synthesis of existence. But such a synthesis is exactly what I am not attempting. I am concerned exclusively with the generalisations of widest scope which can be effected respecting that which is known to us as the direct deliverance of sense-awareness.

When we speak of nature as a complex of related entities, the ‘complex’ is fact as an entity for thought, to whose bare individuality is ascribed the property of embracing in its complexity the natural entities. It is our business to analyse this conception and in the course of the analysis space and time should appear. Evidently the relations holding between natural entities are themselves natural entities, namely they are also factors of fact, there for sense-awareness. Accordingly the structure of the natural complex can never be completed in thought, just as the factors of fact can never be exhausted in sense-awareness. Unexhaustiveness is an essential character of our knowledge of nature. Also nature does not exhaust the matter for thought, namely there are thoughts which would not occur in any homogeneous thinking about nature.

The question as to whether sense-perception involves thought is largely verbal. If sense-perception involves a cognition of individuality abstracted from the actual position of the entity as a factor in fact, then it undoubtedly does involve thought. But if it is conceived as sense-awareness of a factor in fact competent to evoke emotion and purposeful action without further cognition, then it does not involve thought. In such a case the terminus of the sense-awareness is something for mind, but nothing for thought. The sense-perception of some lower forms of life may be conjectured to approximate to this character habitually. Also occasionally our own sense-perception in moments when thought-activity has been lulled to quiescence is not far off the attainment of this ideal limit.

Plato and Aristotle found Greek thought preoccupied with the quest for the simple substances in terms of which the course of events could be expressed. We may formulate this state of mind in the question, What is nature made of? The answers which their genius gave to this question, and more particularly the concepts which underlay the terms in which they framed their answers, have determined the unquestioned presuppositions as to time, space and matter which have reigned in science.

In Plato the forms of thought are more fluid than in Aristotle, and therefore, as I venture to think, the more valuable. Their importance consists in the evidence they yield of cultivated thought about nature before it had been forced into a uniform mould by the long tradition of scientific philosophy. For example in the Timaeus there is a presupposition, somewhat vaguely expressed, of a distinction between the general becoming of nature and the measurable time of nature. In a later lecture I have to distinguish between what I call the passage of nature and particular time-systems which exhibit certain characteristics of that passage. I will not go so far as to claim Plato in direct support of this doctrine, but I do think that the sections of the Timaeus which deal with time become clearer if my distinction is admitted.

This is however a digression. I am now concerned with the origin of the scientific doctrine of matter in Greek thought. In the Timaeus Plato asserts that nature is made of fire and earth with air and water as intermediate between them, so that ‘as fire is to air so is air to water, and as air is to water so is water to earth.’ He also suggests a molecular hypothesis for these four elements. In this hypothesis everything depends on the shape of the atoms; for earth it is cubical and for fire it is pyramidal. To-day physicists are again discussing the structure of the atom, and its shape is no slight factor in that structure. Plato’s guesses read much more fantastically than does Aristotle’s systematic analysis; but in some ways they are more valuable. The main outline of his ideas is comparable with that of modern science. It embodies concepts which any theory of natural philosophy must retain and in some sense must explain. Aristotle asked the fundamental question, What do we mean by ‘substance’? Here the reaction between his philosophy and his logic worked very unfortunately. In his logic, the fundamental type of affirmative proposition is the attribution of a predicate to a subject. Accordingly, amid the many current uses of the term ‘substance’ which he analyses, he emphasises its meaning as ‘the ultimate substratum which is no longer predicated of anything else.’

Matter, in its modern scientific sense, is a return to the Ionian effort to find in space and time some stuff which composes nature. It has a more refined signification than the early guesses at earth and water by reason of a certain vague association with the Aristotelian idea of substance.

Earth, water, air, fire, and matter, and finally ether are related in direct succession so far as concerns their postulated characters of ultimate substrata of nature. They bear witness to the undying vitality of Greek philosophy in its search for the ultimate entities which are the factors of the fact disclosed in sense-awareness. This search is the origin of science.

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