International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Adventures of Ideas

by Alfred North Whitehead

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

This is one of three books that Whitehead wrote “to express a way of understanding the nature of things” [vii]. The central thesis of the book is that social changes result from the confrontational interaction between forces of compulsion and those of aspiration and affirmed beliefs. The book is a classic on a whole range of ideas intrinsic to human civilization from a European perspective. Whitehead says that the goal of his inquiry is to demonstrate those factors in Western civilization which jointly constitute a new element in the history of culture.


Part I of the book is Sociological: It begins with a history of the human soul, from Greek and Hebrew thought to Christian and modern views. It discourses on how philosophy, law and religion influenced society. It refers to human sacrifice, slavery, and other brutalities of the past. It reminds us that “the history of ideas is a history of mistakes. But through all mistakes it is also the history of the gradual purification of conduct” [25].


Next, Whitehead passes on to the humanitarian ideal, discussing the feudal system, Machiavelli, modern philosophy and the industrial revolution. He points out that Plato’s notion of “the ideal relations between men based upon the conception of the intrinsic possibilities of human character entered into human consciousness in every variety of specialization” [42]. In three chapters, aspects of freedom, passage from force to persuasion, and foresight are considered. Everywhere, ideas emerging from human interactions are brought to light. Whitehead explains how “Ideas arise as explanatory of customs and they end by founding novel methods and novel institutions” [100].


Part II is Cosmological: It deals with laws of nature, cosmologies, as well as science and philosophy. We read about how scientific ideas influenced European culture. Whitehead recognizes the extra-European roots of Western civilization: Mesopotamia, Crete, Phoenicia, India, and China. He points out that without unquestioning faith in the rule of law, “the enterprise of science is foolish, hopeless” [135]. This is followed by discussions of science and philosophy, regarded as “different aspects of one great enterprise of the human mind” [140]. The idea of a new re-formation is introduced, where “we may agree as to the qualitative aspects of religious facts … while disagreeing in various explanatory formulation” [161].


Part III is Philosophical: It talks about objects and subjects, phases of time, the grouping of occasions, appearance and reality, and the philosophic method. Here the duality of the universe is mentioned: “it is both transient and eternal.” Whitehead writes that “the whole Universe is the advancing assemblage of (these) processes” [197]; that “the distinction between ‘appearance and reality’  is grounded upon the process of self-formation of each actual occasion;” that “perishing is the initiation of becoming” [210].


Part IV, on Civilization, has insightful reflections on the constituents of civilization. We read that “the civilization of a society requires the virtue of Truth, Beauty, Adventure and Art [283].” Whitehead concludes the book with the thought that “At the heart of the nature of things, there is always the dream of youth and the harvest of tragedy. The suffering attains its end in a Harmony of Harmonies” [296].