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Quotes of the day: Alfred North Whitehead

Published Saturday, February 14, 2015 @ 8:46 PM EST
Feb 14 2015

Alfred North Whitehead, OM FRS (February 15, 1861 - December 30, 1947) was an English mathematician and philosopher. He is best known as the defining figure of the philosophical school known as process philosophy, which today has found application to a wide variety of disciplines, including ecology, theology, education, physics, biology, economics, and psychology, among other areas. (Click here for full Wikipedia article)


A general definition of civilization: a civilized society is exhibiting the five qualities of truth, beauty, adventure, art, peace.

All the world over and at all times there have been practical men, absorbed in 'irreducible and stubborn facts': all the world over and at all times there have been men of philosophic temperament, who have been absorbed in the weaving of general principles.

Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment in recognition of the pattern.

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilisation of knowledge.

Error is the price we pay for progress.

Every intellectual revolution which has ever stirred humanity into greatness has been a passionate protest against inert ideas.

Every simplification is an oversimplification.

For successful education there must always be a certain freshness in the knowledge dealt with. It must be either new in itself or invested with some novelty of application to the new world of new times.

I have always noticed that deeply and truly religious persons are fond of a joke, and I am suspicious of those who aren’t.

Ideas won't keep. Something must be done about them.

Identification of rhythm as the casual counterpart of life; wherever there is some life, only perceptible to us when the analogies are sufficiently close.

If we like to assume the rise of language as a given fact, then it is not going too far to say that the souls of men are the gift from language to mankind. The account of the sixth day should be written: He gave them speech, and they became souls.

In formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of a defeat; but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress towards victory.

In the inescapable flux, there is something that abides; in the overwhelming permanence, there is an element that escapes into flux.

Intelligence is quickness to apprehend as distinct from ability, which is capacity to act wisely on the thing apprehended.

Intolerance is the besetting sin of moral fervor.

It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties.

It is the first step in sociological wisdom, to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur...

It must be admitted that there is a degree of instability which is inconsistent with civilization. But, on the whole, the great ages have been unstable ages.

It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.

Knowledge does not keep any better than fish. You may be dealing with knowledge of the old species, with some old truth; but somehow it must come to the students, as it were, just drawn out of the sea and with the freshness of its immediate importance.

Life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the Universe.

Life is complex in its expression, involving more than percipience, namely desire, emotion, will, and feeling.

Ninety percent of our lives is governed by emotion. Our brains merely register and act upon what is telegraphed to them by our bodily experience. Intellect is to emotion as our clothes are to our bodies; we could not very well have civilized life without clothes, but we would be in a poor way if we had only clothes without bodies.

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development.

Seek simplicity, and distrust it.

Systems, scientific and philosophic, come and go. Each method of limited understanding is at length exhausted. In its prime each system is a triumphant success: in its decay it is an obstructive nuisance.

The absolute pacifist is a bad citizen; times come when force must be used to uphold right, justice and ideals.

The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts.

The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order.

The chief danger to philosophy is narrowness in the selection of evidence.

The chief error in philosophy is overstatement.

The deepest definition of youth is life as yet untouched by tragedy.

The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention.

The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, "Seek simplicity and distrust it."

The human body is an instrument for the production of art in the life of the human soul.

The learned tradition is not concerned with truth, but with the learned adjustment of learned statements of antecedent learned people.

The major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur.

The mentality of mankind and the language of mankind created each other.

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

The science of pure mathematics, in its modern developments, may claim to be the most original creation of the human spirit.

The worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honorable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed.

There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.

There is a quality of life which lies always beyond the mere fact of life; and when we include the quality in the fact, there is still omitted the quality of the quality.

We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest.

We cannot think first and act afterwards. From the moment of birth we are immersed in action and can only fitfully guide it by taking thought.

We think in generalities, but we live in detail. To make the past live, we must perceive it in detail in addition to thinking of it in generalities.

What is morality in any given time or place? It is what the majority then and there happen to like, and immorality is what they dislike.

What the learned world tends to offer is one second-hand scrap of information illustrating ideas derived from another second-hand scrap of information. The second-handedness of the learned world is the secret of its mediocrity.

Whether or no it be for the general good, life is robbery. It is at this point that with life morals become acute. The robber requires justification.

Without adventure, civilization is in full decay.


(Also born on February 15: Susan B. Anthony and Matt Groening.)

Categories: Alfred North Whitehead, Quotes of the day


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