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But if the expositor had said,

'A college building in Green Park is commodious,'
the recipient would have received a proposition, but a
false one.

Language is usually ambiguous and it is rash to make
general assertions as to its meanings. But phrases which
commence with ' this ' or ' that J are usually demonstrative,
whereas phrases which commence with 'the' or 'a'
are often descriptive. In studying the theory of pro-
positional expression it is important to remember the
wide difference between the analogous modest words
'this' and 'that' on the one hand and 'a' and 'the'
on the other hand. The sentence

'The college building in Regent's Park is com-
modious '

means, according to the analysis first made by Bertrand
Russell, the proposition,

4 There is an entity which (i) is a college building in
Regent's Park and (ii) is commodious and (iii) is such


that any college building in Regent's Park is identical
with it.'

The descriptive character of the phrase ' The college
building in Regent's Park' is thus evident. Also the
proposition is denied by the denial of any one of its
three component clauses or by the denial of any
combination of the component clauses. If we had
substituted 'Green Park' for 'Regent's Park' a false
proposition would have resulted. Also the erection of a
second college in Regent's Park would make the pro-
position false, though in ordinary life common sense
would politely treat it as merely ambiguous.

' The Iliad ' for a classical scholar is usually a demon-
strative phrase ; for it demonstrates to him a well-known
poem. But for the majority of mankind the phrase is
descriptive, namely, it is synonymous with ' The poem
named "the Iliad".'

Names may be either demonstrative or descriptive
phrases. For example 'Homer' is for us a descriptive
phrase, namely, the word with some slight difference
in suggestiveness means 'The man who wrote the
Iliad.' '

This discussion illustrates that thought places before
itself bare objectives, entities as we call them, which
the thinking clothes by expressing their mutual rela-
tions. Sense-awareness discloses fact with factors which
are the entities for thought. The sggaratejijstinction of
an entity in thouglitJsjLOt^metaphyskal assertion^but
a^netholToTp^ expression

of individual propositions. Apart from entities there

could be no finite truths ; they are the means by which
the infinitude of irrelevance is kept out of thought.
\To sum up: the termini for thoughL.are entities^


primarily with_Jbare ^individuality, secondarily with
rogerties and relations ascribed to them m_the^ pro-
cedure of thought ; the termini for sens^-awareness are
factorsjn the fact of nature.^irimarily relala and_only
secondarily discriminated as distinct individualities.

No characteristic of nature which is immediately
posited for knowledge by sense-awareness can be
explained. It is impenetrable by thought, in the sense
that its peculiar essential character which enters into
experience by sense-awareness is for thought merely the
guardian of its individuality as a bare entity. Thus for
thought 'red' is merely a definite entity, though for
awareness ' red ' has the content of its individuality. The
transition from the 'red' of awareness to the 'red' of
thought is accompanied by a definite loss of content,
namely by the transition from the factor 'red' to the
entity 'red.' This loss in the transition to thought is
compensated by the fact that thought is communicable
whereas sense-awareness is incommunicable.

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 ter-
mini of tHoupit. 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.

When we speak of nature as a complex of related
entities, the 'complex' is fact as an entity for thought,
to whose bare individuality is ascribed the property of
embracing in its complexity the natural entities. It is
our business to analyse this conception and in the course
of the analysis space and time should appear. Evidently


ithe relations holding between natural entities are
/themselves natural entities, namely they are also factors
of fact, there for sense-awareness. Accordingly the
structure of the natural complex can never be com-
pleted in thought, just as the factors of fact can never
be exhausted in sense-awareness. Unexhaustiveness is
an essential character of our knowledge of nature. Also
nature does not exhaust the matter for thought, namely
there are thoughts which would not occur in any homo-
geneous thinking about nature.

The question as to whether sense-perception involves
thought is largely verbal. If sense-perception involves
a cognition of individuality abstracted from the actual
position of the entity as a factor in fact, then it un-
doubtedly does involve thought. But if it is conceived
as sense-awareness of a factor in fact competent to
evoke emotion and purposeful action without further
cognition, then it does not involve thought. In such a
case the terminus of the sense-awareness is something
for mind, but nothing for thought. The sense-perception
of some lower forms of life may be conjectured to
approximate to this character habitually. Also occasion-
ally our own sense-perception in moments when thought-
activity has been lulled to quiescence is not far off the
attainment of this ideal limit.

The process of discrimination in sense-awareness has
two distinct sides. There is the discrimination of fact
into parts, and the discrimination of any part of fact as
exhibiting relations to entities which are not parts of
fact though they are ingredients in it. Namely the
immediate fact for awareness is the whole occurrence
of nature. It is nature as an evenf^present for sense-
awareness, and essentially passing. There is no holding


nature still and looking at it. We cannot redouble our
efforts to improve our knowledge of the terminus of our
present sense-awareness; it is our subsequent oppor-
tunity in subsequent sense-awareness which gains the
benefit of our good resolution. Thus the ultimate fact
for sense-awareness is an event. This whole 1 event is
discriminated by us into partial events. We are aware
of an event which is our bodily life, of an event which is
the course of nature within this room, and of a vaguely
perceived aggregate of other partial events. This is the
discrimination in sense-awareness of fact into parts.

I shall use the term ' part ' in the arbitrarily limited
sense of an event which is part of the whole fact dis-
closed in awareness.

Sense-awareness also yields to us other factors in
nature which are not events. For example, sky-blue is
seen as situated in a certain event. This relation of
situation requires further discussion which is postponed
to a later lecture. My present point is that sky-blue is
found in nature with a definite implication in events,
but is not an event itself. Accordingly in addition to
events, there are other factors in nature directly dis-
closed to us in sense-awareness. The conception in
thought of all the factors in nature as distinct entities
with definite natural relations is what I have in another
place 1 called the ' diversification of nature.'

There is one general conclusion to be drawn from the
foregoing discussion. It is that the first task of a philo-
sophy of science should be some general classification of
the entities disclosed to us in sense-perception.

Among the examples of entities in addition to * events '
which we have used for the purpose of illustration are
1 Cf. Enquiry.


the buildings of Bedford College, Homer, and sky-blue.
Evidently these are very different sorts of things ; and it
is likely that statements which are made about one kind
of entity will not be true about other kinds. If human
thought proceeded with the orderly method which
abstract logic would suggest to it, we might go further
and say that a classification of natural entities should be
the first step in science itself. Perhaps you will be
inclined to reply that this classification has already been
effected, and that science is concerned with the ad-
ventures of material entities in space and time.

The history of the doctrine of matter has yet to be
written. It is the history of the influence of Greek
philosophy on science. That influence has issued in
one long misconception of the metaphysical status of
natural entities. The entity has been separated from the
factor which is the terminus of sense-awareness. It has
3ecome the substratum for that factor, and the factor

is been degraded into an attribute of the entity. In
this way a distinction has been imported into nature
which is in truth no distinction at all. A natural entity
s merely a factor of fact, considered in itself. Its dis-
connexion from the complex of fact is a mere abstraction.
It is not the substratum of the factor,

factor itself as bared in thought. Thus what is a mere
rocedure of mind in the translation of sense-awareness
nto discursive knowledge has been transmuted into a
undamental character of nature. In this way matter
as emerged as being the metaphysical substratum of

its properties, and the course of nature is interpreted

as the history of matter.

Plato and Aristotle found Greek thought preoccupied

with the quest for the simple substances in terms of


which the course of events could be expressed. We
may formulate this state of mind in the question, What
is nature made of? The answers which their genius
gave to this question, and more particularly the con-
cepts which underlay the terms in which they framed
their answers, have determined the unquestioned pre-
suppositions as to time, space and matter which have
reigned in science.

In Plato the forms of thought are more fluid than in
Aristotle, and therefore, as I venture to think, the more
valuable. Their importance consists in the evidence
they yield of cultivated thought about nature before it
had been forced into a uniform mould by the long
tradition of scientific philosophy. For example in the
Timaeus there is a presupposition, somewhat vaguely
expressed, of a distinction between the general becoming
of nature and the measurable time of nature. In a later
lecture I have to distinguish between what I call the
passage of nature and particular time-systems which
exhibit certain characteristics of that passage. I will not
go so far as to claim Plato in direct support of this
doctrine, but I do think that the sections of the Timaeus
which deal with time become clearer if my distinction
is admitted.

This is however a digression. I am now concerned
with the origin of the scientific doctrine of matter in
Greek thought. In the Timaeus Plato asserts that nature
is made of fire and earth with air and water as inter-
mediate between them, so that ' as fire is to air so is air
to water, and as air is to water so is water to earth.' He
also suggests a molecular hypothesis for these four
elements. In this hypothesis everything depends on the
shape of the atoms ; for earth it is cubical and for fire

W. N. 2


it is pyramidal. To-day physicists are again discussing

the structure of the atom, and its shape is no slight

factor in that structure. Plato's guesses read much more

fantastically than does Aristotle's systematic analysis;

but in some ways they are more valuable. The main

outline of his ideas is comparable with that of modern

science. It embodies concepts which any theory of

natural philosophy must retain and in some sense must

explain. Aristotle asked the fundamental question,

What do we mean by * substance'? Here the reaction

between his philosophy and his logic worked very

unfortunately. In his logic, the fundamental type of

affirmative proposition is the attribution of a predicate

Ito a subject. Accordingly, amid the many current uses

/of the term ' substance ' which he analyses, he emphasises

/ its meaning as ' the ultimate substratum which is no

I longer predicated of anything else.'

The unquestioned acceptance of the Aristotelian logic
has led to an ingrained tendency to postulate a sub-
stratum for whatever is disclosed in sense-awareness,
namely, to look below what we are aware of for the
substance in the sense of the * concrete thing.' This
is the origin of the modern scientific concept of matter
and of ether, namely they are the outcome of this
insistent habit of postulation.

Accordingly ether has been invented by modern
science as the substratum of the events which are
spread through space and time beyond the reach of
ordinary ponderable matter. Personally, I think that
predication is a muddled notion confusing many different
relations under a convenient common form of speech.
For example, I hold that the relation of green to a blade
of grass is entirely different from the relation of green


to the event which is the life history of that blade for
some short period, and is different from the relation
of the blade to that event. In a sense I call the
event the situation of the green, and in another sense
it is the situation of the blade. Thus in one sense the
blade is a character or property which can be predi-
cated of the situation, and in another sense the green
is a character or property of the same event which
is also its situation. In this way the predication of
properties veils radically different relations between

Accordingly * substance/ which is a correlative terml / <-
to 'predication/ shares in the ambiguity. If we are to" *\
look for substance anywhere, I should find it in events
which are in some sense the ultimate substance of

Matter, in its modern scientific sense, is a return to
the Ionian effort to find in space and time some stuff
which composes nature. It has a more refined signi-
fication than the early guesses at earth and water by
reason of a certain vague association with the Aristotelian
idea of substance.

Earth, water, air, fire, and matter, and finally ether
are related in direct succession so far as concerns their
postulated characters of ultimate substrata of nature.
They bear witness *to the undying vitality of Greek
philosophy in its search for the ultimate entities which
are the factors of the fact disclosed in sense-awareness.
This search is the origin of science.

The succession of ideas starting from the crude
guesses of the early Ionian thinkers and ending in the
nineteenth century ether reminds us that the scientific
doctrine of matter is really a hybrid through which

2 2


philosophy passed on its way to the refined Aristotelian
concept of substance and to which science returned as
it reacted against philosophic abstractions. Earth, fire,
and water in the Ionic philosophy and the shaped
elements in the Timaeus are comparable to the matter
and ether of modern scientific doctrine. But substance
represents the final philosophic concept of the sub-
stratum which underlies any attribute. Matter (in the
scientific sense) is already in space and time. Thus
matter represents the refusal to think away spatial and
temporal characteristics and to arrive at the bare con-
cept of an individual entity. It is this refusal which has
caused the muddle of importing the mere procedure of
thought into the fact of nature. The entity, bared of
all characteristics except those of space and time, has ac-
quired a physical status as the ultimate texture of nature ;
so that the course of nature is conceived as being merely
the fortunes of matter in its adventure through space.
/ Thus the origin of the doctrine of matter is the out-
Jcome of uncritical acceptance of space and time as
[external conditions for natural existence. By this I do
not mean that any doubt should be thrown on facts of
space and time as ingredients in nature. What I do
mean is 'the unconscious presupposition of space and
time as being that within which nature is set.' This is
exactly the sort of presupposition which tinges thought
in any reaction against the subtlety of philosophical
criticism. My theory of the formation of the scientific
doctrine of matter is that first philosophy illegitimately
transformed the bare entity, which is simply an ab-
straction necessary for the method of thought, into
the metaphysical substratum of these factors in nature
which in various senses are assigned to entities as their


attributes ; and that, as a second step, scientists (includ-
ing philosophers who were scientists) in conscious or
unconscious ignoration of philosophy presupposed this
substratum, qua substratum for attributes, as never-
theless in time and space.

This is surely a muddle. The whole being of substance
is as a substratum for attributes. Thus time and space
should be attributes of the substance. This they
palpably are not, if the matter be the substance of
nature, since it is impossible to express spatio-temporal
truths without having recourse to relations involving
relata other than bits of matter. I waive this point
however, and come to another. It is not the substance
which_isjn^ space, but the attributes^ What we find in
space are the red of the rose and the smell of the jasmin
and the noise of cannon. We have all told our dentis
where our toothache is. Thus space is not a relatio
between substances, but between attributes.

Thus even if you admit that the adherents of sub-
stance can be allowed to conceive substance as matter,
it is a fraud to slip substance into space on the plea
that space expresses relations between substances. On
the face of it space has nothing to do with substances,
but only with their attributes. What I mean is, that
if you choose as I think wrongly to construe our ex-
perience of nature as an awareness of the attributes of
substances, we are by this theory precluded from finding
any analogous direct relations between substances as
disclosed in our experience. What we do find are \
relations between the attributes of substances. Thus if \
matter is looked on as substance in space, the space in f
which it finds itself has very little to do with the space j
of our experience.


The above argument has been expressed in terms of
the relational theory of space. But if space be absolute
namely, if it have a being independent of things in it
the course of the argument is hardly changed. For
things in space must have a certain fundamental relation
to space which we will call occupation. Thus the ob-
jection that it is the attributes which are observed as
related to space, still holds.

The scientific doctrine of matter is held in conjunc-
tion with an absolute theory of time. The same argu-
ments apply to the relations between matter and time
as apply to the relations between space and matter.
There is however (in the current philosophy) a difference
in the connexions of space with matter from those of
time with matter, which I will proceed to explain.

Space is not merely an ordering of material entities
so that any one entity bears certain relations to other
material entities. The occupation of space impresses a
certain character on each material entity in itself. By
reason of its occupation of space matter has extension.
By reason of its extension each bit of matter is divisible
into parts, and each part is a numerically distinct
entity from every other such part. Accordingly it
would seem that every material entity is not really one
entity. It is an essential multiplicity of entities. There
seems to be no stopping this dissociation of matter into
multiplicities short of finding each ultimate entity
occupying one individual point. This essential multi-
plicity of material entities is certainly not what is meant
by science, nor does it correspond to anything disclosed
in sense-awareness. It is absolutely necessary that at
a certain stage in this dissociation of matter a halt should
be called, and that the material entities thus obtained


should be treated as units. The stage of arrest may be
arbitrary or may be set by the characteristics of nature ;
but all reasoning in science ultimately drops its space-
analysis and poses to itself the problem, * Here is one
material entity, what is happening to it as a unit
entity ?' Yet this material entity is still retaining its
extension, and as thus extended is a mere multiplicity.
Thus there is an essential atomic property in nature
which is independent of the dissociation of extension.
There is something which in itself is one, and which is
more than the logical aggregate of entities occupying
points within the volume which the unit occupies.
Indeed we may well be sceptical as to these ultimate
entities at points, and doubt whether there are any such
entities at all. They have the suspicious character that
we are driven to accept them by abstract logic and not
by observed fact.

Time (in the current philosophy) does not exert the
same disintegrating effect on matter which occupies it.
If matter occupies a duration of time, the whole matter
occupies every part of that duration. Thus the connexion
between matter and time differs from the connexion
between matter and space as expressed in current
scientific philosophy. There is obviously a greater
difficulty in conceiving time as the outcome of relations
between different bits of matter than there is in the
analogous conception of space. At an instant distinct
volumes of space are occupied by distinct bits of matter.
Accordingly there is so far no intrinsic difficulty in
conceiving that space is merely the resultant of relations
between the bits of matter. But in the one-dimensional
time the same bit of matter occupies different portions
of time. Accordingly time would have to be expressible


in terms of the relations of a bit of matter with itself.
My own view is a belief in the relational theory both of
space and of time, and of disbelief in the current form
of the relational theory of space which exhibits bits
.of matter as the relata for spatial relations. The true
relata are events. The distinction which I have just
pointed out between time and space in their connexion
with matter makes it evident that any assimilation of
time and space cannot proceed along the traditional line
of taking matter as a fundamental element in space -

The philosophy of nature took a wrong turn during
its development by Greek thought. This erroneous
presupposition is vague and fluid in Plato's Timaeus.
The general groundwork of the thought is still un-
committed and can be construed as merely lacking due
explanation and the guarding emphasis. But in
Aristotle's exposition the current conceptions were
hardened and made definite so as to produce a faulty
analysis of the relation between the matter and the form
of nature as disclosed in sense-awareness. In this phrase
the term * matter' is not used in its scientific sense.

I will conclude by guarding myself against a mis-
apprehension. It is evident that the current doctrine of
matter enshrines some fundamental law of nature. Any
simple illustration will exemplify what I mean. For
example, in a museum some specimen is locked securely
in a glass case. It stays there for years : it loses its colour,
and perhaps falls to pieces. But it is the same specimen ;
and the same chemical elements and the same quantities
of those elements are present within the case at the end
as were present at the beginning. Again the engineer
and the astronomer deal with the motions of real per-


manences in nature. Any theory of nature which for
one moment loses sight of these great basic facts of
experience is simply silly. But it is permissible to point
out that the scientific expression of these facts has be-
come entangled in a maze of doubtful metaphysics;
and that, when we remove the metaphysics and start
afresh on an unprejudiced survey of nature, a new light
is thrown on many fundamental concepts which domi-
nate science and guide the progress of research.


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Online LibraryAlfred North WhitebreadThe concept of nature → online text (page 2 of 15)