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Posts Tagged ‘AN Whitehead’

Man is a truth-seeking creature.  How’s that for a statement of belief?  And it is a statement of belief ; for there is no proof of it.  And yet I have come across very few people who do not believe it, either explicitly or implicitly.  But what is Truth?  How often do we seriously consider that question?  For doesn’t it so often lead to a debate which has all the appearances of a mere fog of words?

So, one way or another, we tend to escape the fog and develop a handy argument which puts Truth into some kind of framework ; and from there we can explore further.  For me, such a handy framework came from one of my unofficial mentors, the physicist AN Whitehead.  He put it something like this:

When an individual regards an event or an object, he forms in his mind an Appearance of it.  This is how it appears to him.

If two people regard the same event, then each has his own Appearance of it.

If the two people cannot agree on what they have seen, then we have simply two Appearances to deal with.  But if they can agree, then they have reached a Truth about it.

For example, if two people see a small flock of birds fly by, they might each have the Appearance of  seven birds ; and since they agree on this figure, they are satisfied that they have discovered a Truth.

But suppose the flock is much greater in number?  One person might have the Appearance of fifty birds, and the other an Appearance of sixty.  Here, they have discovered no Truth ; each will say to the other, “My figure is true and yours is false.”

But, suppose the observers have doubts about what they have seen?  Then they might well agree on a compromise figure ; they might agree that there were fifty-five birds in the flock.  Thus, by negotiation, they have reached a Truth.

But note : this Truth of fifty-five birds is an opinion and not reality ; the truth has not told us how many birds were really there.  So, what is Reality?  Surely Reality is just itself, and not a matter of opinion ; and it is nonsense to ask whether it be true or false.

So, in this world wide and long, there are countless Appearances and many Truths.  But there is only one Reality – and we don’t know what that is.

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Nearly all my books (and I have quite a collection now) came from second-hand bookshops.  Why pay £20 for a volume of wise words when £1 will be enough?  Besides, there is something heart-warming about reading the very ink and turning the very pages that another has enjoyed ; something unifying about reading the margin-notes of others and maybe adding one’s two pennyworth to them.  And I draw  a comfort in knowing that a previous reader had been as equally puzzled by some of the author’s ideas as I am.  Concerned readers have always made their mark on a book, right from the earliest times, and for those reasons.  And, of course, one has the pleasure of passing the book on for others to impress a little of their spirit on to it.

One such book is a little paperback collection of essays by that great physicist and philosopher A N Whitehead.  It is titled Adventures of Ideas, and was published in 1932 if memory serves.  In many places it’s a rather heavy book, since Whitehead writes in that terse style so common in the period ; every sentence is loaded with meaning ; every word has a distinct and carefully calculated value.  A paragraph in such a book would warrant a chapter in any other place.  Reading such a book is like reading poetry ; indeed, the book shines with poetic diction.  It is a book to be savoured a page at a time at most.  But I mention this book because it happened to come to mind ; there are many, many more which can be easily got.

So, in my view, a book is not a thing merely to be read by its current owner but a joy to be participated by many.  And nor is a book a thing to be used only as a weapon.  There is no more ghastly a reader than the perpetual college student, who amasses books for the sole purpose of diving into for ‘references’ with which to smite his own readers and listeners ; the kind who imagines that all that he reads must be consciously remembered or, at least, stored on ice and kept hard and sharp and ready for battle.  For me the pleasure of reading lies in allowing the words to wash through my mind like a warm summer shower of ideas.  For me ideas are like those atoms of Leucippus, Democritus, et al ; their little hooks will cling to whatever they find congenial to my own ideas consciously held, modifying them as they accumulate.  Those that do not cling will drop gently into my unconscious, there to find homes if they can ; else they may perish without regret or rancour, or perhaps live in suspension, enjoying a ghostly existence free from all responsibilities.

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I have long been a collector of books from the second-hand shops ; and for nearly as long, I  lacked the leisure to settle down to read them.  It is some twenty years since I bought, and dipped into, a happy little book by the physicist AN Whitehead.  It is called Adventures of Ideas, published in 1932 or thereabouts.  It deals with the adventures of a physicist who at last (in retirement) can let his ideas go walkabouts.  But, of course, most of the ideas are not his own but those of thinkers who went before ; what he adds to those ideas is his own deep meditations on them.

“Hypocrisy,” he says,” is necessary to civilised living.”  Quite so.  Where would our peaceful co-existence be without the little fibs we tell each other – and which we also tell ourselves.  We habitually say things that are untrue, usually with the unspoken wish that they were true.  Thus we might say to Mr Jones, “What a fine job you made of your latest book,” while wishing that in fact he had.

But there are different levels of hypocrisy.  St Augustine of Hippo once said, “To become the person you want to be, you must begin by pretending to be that person.”  We can all see the truth of this ; we have all put it into practice.  How would we have learned to drive a car without first convincing ourselves (however tentatively) that we could do it.  And haven’t we all heard a teacher, of whatever stripe, urging us to think like a competent practitioner?  and behave like one?  In other words, we must begin by pretending.

So, if I wish to be a better person than I am, I pretend to be that better person ; in thought, word and deed.  But here’s the risk.  For a person is a big thing ; and to become a better person takes a longish time.  So the pretence must be maintained for a long time – until I have reached the better level I have aimed at.

And all the while I am talking myself up I am also making a learner’s mistakes.  I am always talking as if I were a better person, but also betraying the fact that I haven’t got there yet.  This is a more profound example of that hypocrisy which Whitehead says is so necessary to civilised life.  Are all people who seek to better themselves hypocrites?  Is hypocrisy really a simple case of professing one thing while practising another?

Surely it is the motivation of the person that matters.  If the person really seeks to be better, does he escape the charge of hypocrisy?  Perhaps.  But is mere motivation sufficient reason to escape the charge?  Surely there must be evidence of sincerity ; there must be evidence of progress.

The word hypocrite is a handy weapon with which to put an opponent down.  But, because it is also so powerful,  it must be used with care.  For, if it is used every time a person lapses in his behaviour, then his motivation will be quenched and he might well give up trying to better himself.

And, if the charge of hypocrisy is used merely to silence an opponent, are we not obliged to ask, “Who really is the hypocrite?  The accused?  or the accuser?”

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