WHITEHEAD AND ENVIRONMENTAL
Pete A. Y. Gunter
What have poets or painters had to say about the land from Robert Frost to John Denver, from William Wordsworth to the Duino Elegies? The possibilities are endless—by which is meant, the educational possibilities.
There exists, and is intended to exist, more to this learning process than educational possibilities as these are usually Philosophers have often taken the rap for their scientific errors. Aristotle thought that the brain was an organ used to lubricate the eyes. Hegel embarrassed philosophy in the early nineteenth century by insisting that earth, air, fire, and water are really the basic elements from which oxygen, iron, and the rest of the periodic table of the elements are derived, and by proclaiming that life can exist in the universe only on earth (Inwood, 1980, p. 15). In the words of John N. Findlay, “the fixed stars [are] for him a mere backcloth to the central stage on which we are the supreme performers” (1970, pp. xviii, xxi). The American philosopher and mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce once admitted, ruefully, that metaphysicians do get it right—after the fact, and if they pay sufficient attention to the science of their times (1877, p. 75). Unfortunately, some do not seem to have paid sufficient attention.
Citing a philosopher, therefore, who was both well up on the sciences of his time and even, on important points, ahead of his time is a pleasure. The philosopher is Alfred North Whitehead. The points on which he scored involve several basic sciences, including scientific ecology. From Science and the Modern World through his last major work, Modes of Thought, he describes a world in which dynamism, interconnection, and interdependence prevail throughout. His description applies to everything from the social structure of an atom to the intricate social relationships of human societies. His entire philosophy of nature is “ecological.” It should come as no surprise, therefore, that he found this active sustaining interdependence to be clearly present in what we would now call plant growth associations and ecosystems.
Along with his grasp of ecological principles, Whitehead maintained that the organisms which make up the world, from the lowest to the highest, have value. He thus provides a basis not only for understanding scientific ecology but also for our belief in the value of nature. The basic reason for Whitehead’s belief is simple, though it is developed by him with complex subtlety. All organisms feel, not just human beings and a few other higher organisms. These