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While reading Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, I found the following sentence (page 51):

It is only in a period, fortunate both in its opportunities for disengagement from the immediate pressure of circumstances, and in its eager curiosity, that the Age-Spirit can undertake any direct revision of those final abstractions which lie hidden in the more concrete concepts from which the serious thought of an age takes its start.

Is there more to this Age-Spirit in Whitehead’s philosophy than a metaphor? Does Whitehead see such a spirit as a reality guiding humanity?

My motivation for reading Whitehead is to look at some of Shimon Malin’s references in Nature Loves to Hide.

EDIT: I fixed the typo in the quote that Geoffrey Thomas found changing "takes is start" to takes its start".

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  • Just saw this popped up in the feed and wanted to note that if you have any further questions about Whitehead's philosophy I think this site would be a good place: footnotes2plato.com (the blogger, Matthew Segall, PhD, lectures about Whitehead). Jun 25, 2018 at 15:25
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    @YechiamWeiss Thank you. It looks interesting. I'm following it now. Jun 25, 2018 at 16:47

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This looks like a translation of the term zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) which is usually understood to be taken from Hegel, except that Hegel never used such a term. He did however use the term der Geist seiner zeit, the spirit of his times, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History.

History here should be distinguished from original history which is the basic, original matter of history; for example, eye-witness reports and also from reflective history which is the history given by historians. What he's concerned with is philosophical history, a history of the world as guided by spirit. It's probably inspired by the notion of world soul in Plato:

Much of the work is spent defining and characterising geist. It is similar to the culture of a people and is constantly reworking itself to keep up with changes in society as well as working to produce those changes through what Hegel called List der Vernuft, or the cunning of reason.

According to Hegel:

World history represents the development of the spirits consciousness of its own freedom and the consequent realisation of this freedom.

An investigation of the parallels between Hegel and Whitehead is reviewed here.

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  • +1 Based on your final link, I suspect Age-Spirit has ontological status for Hegel, but perhaps not for the "flat ontology" Whitehead supports. Malin spoke of something like this as well in Part Three of his book which is why he needed to considered Plotinus's philosophy. Feb 13, 2018 at 4:01
  • @Frank Hubeny: I suspect that you well may be right. I just looked at a review which claimed that Whitehead pleaded ignorance of Hegelian ontology. Feb 13, 2018 at 4:19
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This looks like a translation of the term zeitgeist the spirit of the age) which is usually understood to be taken from Hegel, except that Hegel never used such a term. He did however use the term der Geist seiner zeit, the spirit of his times, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History. History here should be distinguished from original history which is the basic, original matter of history; for example, eye-witness reports and also from reflective history which is the history given by historians. What he's concerned with is philosophical history, a history of the world as guided by spirit. It's probably inspired by the notion of world soul in Plato.

Much of the work is spent defining and characterising geist. It is similar to the culture of a people and is constantly reworking itself to keep up with changes in society as well as working to produce those changes through what Hegel called List der Vernuft, or the cunning of reason.

According to Hegel:

World history represents the development of the spirits consciousness of its own freedom and the consequent realisation

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  • Did you intend to post twice?
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 13, 2018 at 6:56
  • @obie 2.0: No, I didn't. I'm not sure what happened. Feb 13, 2018 at 16:02
  • I'd delete one. There's no reason for them both to be up.
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 13, 2018 at 16:12
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While the Zeitgeist may have been taken to be an objective entity by certain 19th-century and later philosophers, I doubt if Whitehead regarded it as such. In the quote it functions as a metaphor to convey a claim which has some plausibility. (Btw : change 'take is start' to 'takes its start', just a little typo.)

I think what Whitehead intends can be illustrated from the era of Newtonian discovery. Enough inquirers, professional and amateur, were free like Newton from the 'immediate pressure of circumstances' and were intellectually galvanised - made 'eagerly curious' - by a range of insights from Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Descartes. Newton was able to penetrate into the still widely prevailing assumptions of Aristotelian and Scholastic physics, see where they were wrong or inadequate and by revision come up with his own distinctive, powerful and fruitful concepts of inertia, force, mass and gravity.

This is the best sense I can make of Whitehead's observation. He seems here quite perceptive; I find nothing to disagree with.

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  • +1 Thank you for noticing the typo. I fixed it. Whitehead writes (page 25): "General climates of opinion persist for periods of about two to three generations....There are also shorter waves of thought, which play on the surface of the tidal movement." He seems to be describing what could be viewed as a holistic historical influence, but does not explicitly acknowledge it. So I agree this can be viewed as only metaphor for him. Feb 13, 2018 at 13:29
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We shouldn't over-stress the term "Age-Spirit." Whitehead uses the phrase only once in the book. I agree with Geoffrey Thomas, I doubt Whitehead meant this as a reference to Hegel; It seems more likely he is referencing Bergson's Matter and Memory, which starts with a discussion of Spirit.

In a lecture Whitehead gives shortly before the publication of SMW [Harvard Lecture 33; reading Bell's notes from the Harvard Lectures, p144] Whitehead mentions Bergson's notion of Spirit. He goes on to suggest we must distinguish different orderings, such as an Order of Nature, and something that goes beyond the order of nature, i.e. Spirit. Paraphrasing Bell's notes, Whitehead says that when we try to confine inquiry only to the order of nature, we get into trouble - we need sometimes to envisage what is beyond the order of nature, to attempt to grasp experience from a wider standpoint. The ability of a society to do this in turn shapes the kinds of communities that can emerge.

That seems consistent with the paragraph Frank Hubeny quoted: there are periods when communities gain a foothold on these "orderings beyond nature", and this shapes those communities and in turn is what he is characterizes as Age-Spirit.

However, that does not mean there is a spirit "guiding" humanity: that gives the impression of an unmoved mover. Whitehead rejects this and instead emphasizes the all-feeling nature of God and the togetherness and co-emergence of all things. So Whitehead may be using the hyphenate form Age-Spirit to remind us that he does not mean an absolute and ageless God. There is no all-powerful being outside of existence and guiding existence. Order exists and emerges.

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  • Good reference to Bergson. I can imagine they mutually influenced each other. Jun 24, 2018 at 13:42
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    Whitehead does draw on Bergson, an influence that has been discussed extensively in the literature. I don't know of any writings that indicate that Bergson read Whitehead, anyone else?
    – Jon Meyer
    Jun 25, 2018 at 19:54

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