Alfred North Whitehead: And the Three Components of Knowledge

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.