The importance of importance. Reflexions on Whitehead

Last year, I had to do a quick trip to Buenos Aires for labour issues. As I walked the cramped streets with their imposing buildings and small paintings of blue sky, I realized I had forgotten to bring with me a book to read on the bus on the way back. It turns out that despite living 56 km from Buenos Aires, the trip back often becomes really slow and tedious because of the heavy traffic that comes and goes from the city. That is why, with a bit of luck, while I was doing some errands, I found a small library crammed with books. Since I did not have much time, I went directly to the philosophy section and, rather quickly, toured with my eyes the titles. I took a used book, with its leaves of a yellowish colour, with pages doing faint efforts for holding together, like little girls confronting to a powerful twister. The edges were crumbling with every touch. A frail book would not survive long time. I decided to buy it. I kept it in my briefcase and I continued my work activity.

Already in the bus, I took the delicate book. The cover was about to come off, and while I was passing its leaves accidentally I tore one. Such was the condition of extreme delicacy that had the book. I came to doubt if someone could possibly read it in the future once more.

The book in question turned out to be a Spanish translation of “Modes of Thought” by Alfred North Whitehead, a compilation of lectures given by the author. The material taken for this essay comes from the lectures at the College in Wellesley, Massachusetts during the course of 1937-38.

As I passed the prologue, it really caught my attention the first chapter of the book, entitled “The Importance”. As the words and sentences were passing by, the more I sank into the worn book forgetting what was happening around me. So much so that the time flew with the wind and brought me back to reality when the bus arrived to La Plata city, where I live. It was a two hours trip. Passengers were angered because of the delay. I was happy to have had two hours for reading. Unexpected pleasures of the jammed world.

The first thing that Whitehead does in the writing, is a critique of the systematization of philosophy, that is, the attempts from the philosophers to frame their thoughts and ideas into an organic and stable whole, thus creating a system. According to the author, the weakness of systematization lies in the necessary attitude of the philosopher on the presuppositions of his thought: the philosopher starts with some certain notions, which absolutely cannot doubt, and from which he constructs his building of reflexions. The observation it is common sense: no one can construct a building going downward. At best, we can worry about running a good foundations work. But our real interest will be in reaching height. The main concepts of the system are those most worthy of hours of thought. But the assumptions, on which those thoughts rely, should be taken as plausible. The explicit from the system is underpinned peacefully in the implicit. The implicit, meanwhile, comes from a cultural legacy. Philosophers who create systems are inheritors of the previous culture to them.

The author is not pleased with the idea that philosophy may be stifled by limited thoughts, since to make a system would imply the limitation of the capacity to question, of inquiry and scope of philosophical reflexions to a particular group of primary ideas. Plainly, systematic thinking would be the forgetting of the most obvious questions, of the common-sense and pure intuitions of human being. The longing for erudition comes here as a replacement to the search of truth.

If philosophy drowns in systematic thinking, sometimes so connatural to philosophers, where is then the philosophy? Whitehead’s response is immediate: in collecting. The man collects notions of broad generality and looks for expanding his mind to the universal, to the complete understanding of the world. There resides, according to the author, the very essence of civilization.

But what is the meaning of collecting notions of broad generality? The result of collecting is already a philosophical thought? Collect is to have possession of the truth? Is it even the beginning of the search for truth? Now is the time that appears in this matter the concept of importance.

In intellectual life, man seeks to attain the absolute truth of something. In the intellectual life of the philosopher, he aims to achieve the absolute truth of everything. But to understand everything, he must collect the notions which are necessary for that purpose. After all, the collection is a selection. I distinguish the important from the trivial, the superficial from the fundamental, and the inherent of wisdom from the futile and pointless. I make a separation, a division. I discard and cast aside. Now, how did this happen? How could I have found something more important instead of something else? Who told me this is more important, and that is not sufficient or necessary? Could I be wrong in the selection?

The selection comes because of two reasons: the world seems to be infinite regarding it is full of facts, and man is finite and cannot comprehend the infinity and the multiplicity of events that orbit around him. The selection is required for anyone to undertake the path of knowledge. We also include another element in the consideration of the importance: freedom of exercising the selection.

Such is the relationship between the importance, the selection and free will that we could reformulate the thinking of Descartes: I select, and then I think. By directing the light of understanding to an issue or particular fact, I exercise freely the act of intellection and also the act of selecting what is important to highlight from the issue of what is not relevant. Thus, the first act of intellection is followed by an act of selection. The importance given to one aspect of the matter requires free will in terms of active willingness to go in search of the object and, after receiving it, to dissect the parts and to discard what is not of vital necessity. Sometimes in this selection procedure, are caused the errors that affect the results of thought. The human spirit must be cultivated in an appropriate manner of selection and collection, to give importance to what really deserves our attention at the time and in the aspect in question.

Analysing the sentence “to what really deserves”, we cannot stop asking what is really deserves our attention and selection in accordance to the importance. What is the way to discover what is truly valid for our attention? Hence, we should, with Whitehead, distinguish two types of importance: one based on the unity of the universe, and the other in the particularity of detail.

Consider that sometimes man is curious about certain things. But such curiosity compared with other issues may prove not to be “such important”. Thus, we would be talking about something that draws our attention momentarily. That is, the man gives importance to a detail fleetingly. This, by the author, has more to do with interest. The importance has a closer connection with the unit, with the whole.

According to the author, the selection of the important response to a gradation of values to which man gives hierarchy. Consequently, the importance is due to the perspective from which the world is considered. This has some degree of certainty: the men act according to their interests, which are not always corresponding with which others have. Those interests respond to valuations, and these valuations imply a grant of importance. Nevertheless, it should not be confused that this is about a daily level of human life. For the philosopher, which is the one who emerges from the everyday for viewing in the normality what is new and revealing, to rise to higher planes of existence, the gradation of interest seeks to respond to the intrinsic structure of the essence of things and the world. That is, the philosopher rather than using a gradation of importance, wants to discover what is important according to the essence of the world. Hence the motivation for the adventure of knowledge: to leave aside the legacies built by the previous times, without diminishing its findings and approaches to truth, and to delve the knowledge of the essence of the cosmos. The discovery of truth is nothing but the discovery of what is important. The error, falsehood, inadequate, the appearances and shadows that surround human existence are obstacles, impediments and, therefore, barriers that man naturally desires to overcome. No man wants to live into the error and if, in fact, he lives in the error, is no more than by ignorance and inaction of spirit. Will remain in the heart of each one to question what we have done in order to approach the truth.

But even so, remains the question about what is the importance, what makes something important. Somehow, in the selection we execute, we are saying that of the infinity of facts there are some that are important, and they are for to serve the purpose of seeking the truth of all. That is, in the finite we selected as most important, somehow is contained the infinite that we seek to understand. Henceforth, the selection of what is important is important, redundantly. If we do not select what makes an adequate and proper search of the absolute truth of things, then we are moving away from what will be its very essence.

And if we believe that absolute truth of all can only be the same thing, the identical to itself without contradictions, then we must say that what is important is also the same thing identical to itself. That is, we cannot give value to importance’s scales due to perspectives, and this because the perspectives are relative to time and mode. The only absolute truth can never be relative. The only way that truth could be relative is in relation to the subject that apprehends it. But that does not make the truth different in other subjects who also apprehend it. Therein remains the importance of selecting the important thing: the more successful is the selection, the better our future approach to truth.

The fluctuations of human wisdom are the fluctuations of the spirit which seeks the ultimate knowledge of things. Some thinkers distract from the important, others remind us of this. Some facts distract from the important, others remind us of this. Whitehead has had on my reading, the ability to question about what is important in itself. What I want to say is, when I got home after the trip to Buenos Aires, I began to wonder why I gave importance to this book. Why I gave importance and read it on the bus, being able to sleep and rest for two hours? How much importance do I granted to the importance that I wanted to publish an article about the importance? I have freely selected the book, I wrote this article freely. But if it were not a primal intuition that told me that it is important to discuss the importance, perhaps I never would have been interested or concerned about this. Maybe human history without concern for the important things would never have found the path of knowledge. Maybe everything would have been in darkness, in ignorance and routine movements to the finiteness of existence.

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About nikoiaconis

I'm a teacher of philosophy and theology, a music composer of soundtracks for films and an amateur photographer and filmmaker. Since the 14 years old, I've studied philosophy and theology as an autodidact. When I was 21 years old, I completed my career as a teacher of those subjects. My primary subjects of philosophy are history, art, ethics and politics, but usually I study differents aspects from other areas of the discipline.
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One Response to The importance of importance. Reflexions on Whitehead

  1. cmintrieri says:

    All philosophers have different “modes of thought”. These thoughts bring followers of their words. Berkley said there is no such thing as material substance. Everything exisits in the mind.
    You really don’t touch anything, only your mind does. Hume and Schopenhaur had differnt modes of thought. Who is right? No one is if you are objective. Either read them all or follow the modes of thought you believe in. But, just because you believe in something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, does it?

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