Whitehead contends in Process and Reality that propositions are “hybrid entities” which act as “lures for feeling.” The famous co-author of Principia Mathematica scolds the traditional conventions of logic and epistemology for failing to appreciate the dynamic role of propositions. For “Propositional feelings are not, in their simplest examples, con¬scious [intellectual] feelings.” He writes: “The fact that propositions were first considered in connection with logic, and the moralistic preference for true propositions, have obscured the rôle of propositions in the actual world. Logicians only discuss the judgment of propositions. Indeed some philosophers fail to distinguish propositions from judgments; and most logicians consider propositions as merely appendages to judgments. The result is that false propositions have fared badly, thrown into the dust-heap, neglected. But in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. The importance of truth is, that it adds to interest. The doctrine here maintained is that judgment-feelings form only one subdivision of propositional feelings; and arise from the special sort of integration of propositional feelings with other feelings” (PR, 259, emphasis added).

Earlier in the Essay Whitehead notes, “The conception of propositions as merely material for judgments is fatal to any understanding of their rôle in the universe. In that purely logical aspect, non-conformal propositions are merely wrong, and therefore worse than useless. But in their primary rôle, they pave the way along which the world advances into novelty. Error is the price which we pay for progress” (PR, 187). Whitehead’s metaphysical treatment of propositional feelings, developed through his philosophy of organism, is non-cognitivist.

My question is two-fold: What is the actual telos of a proposition? Should it be centered on logical consistency and truth-value or the formalizing structures of interpretative matrices? Whitehead had a long career subscribing to the former, but eventually came around to the latter.

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    I know next to nothing about Whitehead, yet am intrigued by the question. But I can't make out a clear distinction between "logical consistency and truth value" and "formalizing structures of interpretive matrices." How are these mutually exclusive? I don't see that they can be separated or that propositions can even "survive" without both, to some degree. Unless you are talking about "truth value" in some strictly Vienna Circle sense, it seems more a matter of emphasis. It is like pointing out that mathematics is incapable of irony. Apologies if I am simply missing the point. Oct 22, 2015 at 18:15

3 Answers 3


First, this is a great question.

Second, I agree with Whiteheads later formulation - a proposition has to be interesting for it to hold our attention. Truth overlaps with this, but is clearly not synonymous. When Keats was affirming that Truth is Beauty & Beauty Truth - it appears he is contradicting this - but he was asserting as much and more. For in his time Truth had exceeded Beauty - the wonders of the enlightenment and the light of philosophy had shrivelled Beauty - he wished people could see that Beauty was at least the equal of Truth, and he dared for more.

Some mathematicians, I do not know if Whitehead would approve, say a proposition is 'morally' true. They are, it appears, to be asserting a judgement. Underlying it is the feeling, if it isn't - it should be. Another way of looking at this: if an idea is interesting, how can we make it come true. An example: prime numbers look like they could be made into prime knots. This way you're tying geometry to number, and tying two different notions of primality together. This is interesting (at least to mathematicians). For one is not merely making one the mere reflection of the other, but also putting two different ontologies of mathematics in dialogue - sparking off new conversations and charting new territories.

It is quite clear that there are many, many truths in mathematics that are not vacuous, not trivial but are not interesting. Being merely true is not enough in the aesthetics and practise of mathematics. Being merely true is akin to a merely clever proof signifying nothing other than virtousity. Like a man who can play the violin with his feet.

When we examine the proposition 'Grass is green' we examine it in a denuded context. The proposition does not attain its full form. It is always framed by our educated subjectvity which positions it for the expected reading.


The great sin of which philosophy and science partake far too often, for Whitehead (throughout Science and the Modern World, anyway) is "Misplaced Concreteness". There is nothing wrong with models of reality, as long as they are seen as models, and remain contestable. But all models are models, and beneath any set of stable models there is 'organism' which remains uncaptured.

The basic problem beneath your question is that Boolean truth is a model, extracted out of an organic context of interest and consequence. It is important to respect the science of logic, which works on this abstraction, because it is through such abstraction that much of our communication is possible. But only considering propositions in the terms of formal logic and not in terms of real aspects of mind that grab hold of them and use them, imagines the model is concrete, and ultimately reaches a cliff, over which lies either confusion or meaninglessness.

This is the model that becomes Kuhn's model of revolution in science (by getting gutted of its Idealism) and it is better stated in Kuhn's terms.

One cannot simply abandon the process of normal work, making sense in the active paradigm, prematurely, or you will lose your community, who are your sanity test. But we always need to see the paradigm as a structure and not as the whole content of truth. Otherwise, when it fails, and new paradigms are needed or when alternative, potentially much better, paradigms drift by, you have nothing to compare them to in any objective way. (The Romantic/Post-modern in me insists I add "Besides missing out on the ultimate purpose of making sense, which is to have understanding.")

So your answer is a guarded 'both and neither'.


My question is two-fold: What is the actual telos of a proposition?

Propositions have no goal per se, unless you consider them as independant willing agents. People use propositions to achieve some goals just like any tool. If someone change its goal, the way she use the tool may also change.

Should it be centered on logical consistency and truth-value or the formalizing structures of interpretative matrices?

What do you want to do with your logical discourse? For example, you may use constructivist logic to produce a software whom validity is proven, hopefully making it bugfree.

  • Hello, I would appreciate comments on my answer which would help me to improve it, since according to the notation system it was judged unhelpful. Jul 11, 2013 at 7:47
  • Not down voter, but maybe you could explain or develop a bit further why you might be recommending your solution
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jul 12, 2013 at 15:02
  • It is no longer alien to philosophy to consider propositions independent willing agents. Daniel Dennett, a pretty hefty skeptic, believes in memes, (and now, provisionally, in 'coallitions of neurons' that may respond to propositions at odds with the goals of the hierarchical sanity structure in which they are embedded, which almost gives him a psychoanalytic basis.)
    – user9166
    Oct 21, 2015 at 15:52
  • Well, not being alien to philosophy isn't a guarantee of consistency. As Cicero already used to say "there is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it." Now for the ontological statute of propositions, it's really a matter of arbitrary axioms. Whether propositions do have autonomous existence would only have interest if it may have an impact on its relations to agents, doesn't it? Nov 16, 2015 at 15:06

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