Alfred North Whitehead: And the Three Components of Knowledge

Jeff CarreiraBlog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry4 Comments

This week I wanted to share a quote from the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead is the originator of what is commonly known as Process Theology. And many of his ideas follow closely in a line that was drawn earlier by William James and Charles Sanders Peirce. 

Whitehead in a series of lectures collectively titled The Concept of Nature writes about the three components of knowledge in ways very reminiscent of Peirce’s writings on signs. Whitehead says”

Thus there are three components in our knowledge of nature, namely, fact, factors, and entities. Fact is the undifferentiated terminus of sense-awareness; factors are termini of sense-awareness, differentiated as elements of fact; entities are factors in their function as the termini of thought. The entities thus spoken of are natural entities. Thought is wider than nature, so that there are entities for thought which are not natural entities.

Fact is the undifferentiated terminus of sense-awareness. This conception of a fact is essentially James conception of “pure experience.” It is the experience that you are having right now – the absolute totality of it – as it is – in all its diversity and chaos – without any distinctions being drawn – just the bare fact of this entire moment of experience as it is unadorned. That is Whitehead’s conception of Fact. James in his philosophy of Pure Expereince believed that reality itself was made up of these Fact – drops of undifferentiated reality as it appears to us before any distinctions are made. In fact he and his brother, the famous author Henry, used to inhale nitrious oxide to get a glimpses of pure expereince – or in Whitehead’s terminology, bare fact.

Factors are the termini of sense-awareness. The next step down from the bare Fact of this moment is the various factors of which the pure, comprehensive total experience of this moment is made up of. The chaotic diversity of fact that is the total experience of this moment can be broken down into numerous factors. These factors are no longer pure experience – they must now at the very least be an experience of the factor PLUS some experience of the rest of experience of the moment.  The wholeness of the Fact of this moment becomes divided into the many factors that make it up and implicit in the experience of every factor is some sense that it is part of a greater whole.

Entities are factors in their function as the termini of thought. When I think about something, the something of which I think is an entity. A factor of expereince has become and object of thought. Not all factors are objects of thought. Some factors may simply be parts of the reality of Fact that I notice, but do not think about at all. At the same time if I am thinking a thought, that thought will always end in – ie. be about – something and according to Whitehead that something should be called an entity.

Our knowledge of nature according to Whitehead is made up of Facts (Undifferentiated Whole Experience), Factors (Parts of Experience) and Entities (Objects of thought). For those of you that follow this blog you will notice that these three aspects are very similar to Charles Sanders Peirce’s conception of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness.

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Liesbeth Hoogeveen
Liesbeth Hoogeveen

Reading Hosinski’s book about Whitehead I found an example which I think for me clarified the blog. Looking at a rose, the first category would be, as Hosinski describes, ‘a collection of atoms, and an object of beauty, and something with a good smell and a symbol of someone’s love’, it is pure experience, it is all there; reading Jeff’s blog again, I saw that the second would be a choice between these, we look than as a scientist, a florist, a perfume maker or a lover. Jeff adds to this ‘implicit in the experience of every factor is some… Read more »

jim paradisi
jim paradisi

Reading what Whitehead says about these 3 components,fact,factors and entities reminds me of an experiance I had almost two years ago.I just got done cutting the grass,so I found a nice shady spot to cool off.Then I heard a little girl playing in the distance,then a car was driving by, and then I heard a lawn mower start up.In that moment it seemed like all those different things were coming from the same source.The fact was that I was hearing these separate items as one experiance,which led me to think about a nondual experiance.So I can see the fact was… Read more »

Liesbeth Hoogeveen
Liesbeth Hoogeveen

It is of course to simple what I have been saying, which became clear when I was reading further, but also in the following. Just now I heard Ken Wilber ( member tape) and describes in the first part of the tape creativity/spirituality according to Whitehead: he describes exactly what I wanted to understand, and in a few words: creative emergence is evolution, creativity is a component of spirit itself, it is spirit with qualities. It is creativity that goes all the way down to the big bang. Out of Spirit, out of emptiness, out of nothingness was blown the… Read more »

Liesbeth Hoogeveen
Liesbeth Hoogeveen

What I obviously missed when talking about Jeff’s blog is the importance Whitehead gives to relations, that is why Jeff points to Peirce (for example Peirce’ Thirdness: third is that which is what it is owing to things between which it mediates and which it brings into relation to each other. (A Guess at the Riddle’, CP 1.356, c. 1890). Relationships are internal (not imposed from outside) and essential in the ‘becoming’ of the moment. The parts of the organism and their relations to other parts and systems Whitehead is talking about are essential; the parts are completely dependent on… Read more »