Who’s Afraid of Whitehead? Not us!
For whatever reason, I’ve been having several correspondences lately that are tons of fun and perhaps worth posting, with identifying info removed. Here’s a bit from a recent letter in which I confess there’s no reason to be scared of Whitehead, and give a plan of attack for reading him. I spent forever dreading ‘Process and Reality’ cause I heard how unreadable it is. Not at all! With two simple steps, and a few caveats, its actually a rather readable tome (ok, for its length and genre) . . .
Here’s what I said in the letter:
‘ I think a lot of people get really scared of Whitehead, and I was told by many people he’s impossible to attack, so I did a TON of secondary reading and then read some minor texts as
introductions before going through ‘Process and Reality’.
But I’ve gotta say, P&R isn’t that bad at all! In fact, so long as you know some basic vocab going in, its actually pretty straightforward, though it does have a ‘spiral’ structure that is frustrating to say the least (though I see his reasoning for it). But my gut instinct would be, why avoid Whitehead?
Here’s how you tackle him. Quickly learn his key terms (ie: actual occasions, eternal objects, prehension, negative prehension, feeling, and a small handful of others) from a secondary source [a good one is Sherburne’s ‘A Key to Process and Reality’]. This will avoid confusion later. Then go to one of the works he wrote in preparation for P&R, “The Concept of Nature.” Its a short three lecture presentation he gave as he was preparing to write P&R, and its the best introduction possible.
From there, you need nothing more to dive into P&R. Whitehead doesn’t use any specialized mathematics [or science, for tha tmatter!], the dreaded ‘mereoloy’ chapter is skippable, and doesnt’ come till the very end, and the rest of it, while he invents some strange terminologies, requires only basic knowledge of some standard philosophical sources (Descartes, Locke, Kant, Greeks, occasional Leibniz), the sort you can get in any standard undergrad course.
But the prose is suprisingly clear, if anything, kind of talky! I wouldn’t at all be intimidated by Whitehead, its that crazy terminology he invents that scares people off, but he’s actually an easy read when it comes to writing sentences and all. Much easier to read than a Haberman or Derrida!’
Now, this all isn’t to say I did it in one bout of reading, I had to stop a few times and pick up another book for a bit, then return. But most long philosophical books require this. I did chug ‘Logic of Worlds’ in a quasi-manic way as soon as the translation came out, but I dunno how good of an idea that was anyway, but most of the big ones I find at least you can go about 1-2 weeks reading them till you need to switch it up a bit . . .