Whitehead’s Speculative Philosophy: Speculum of Experience

Let’s face it Whitehead is important in so many ways we still have not caught up with his basic philosophical heritage. Even if I disagree with his Idealism, I still have much to learn from his philosophical approach to speculation. Time and time again I return to his simple and definitive statement and definition of Speculative Philosophy:

“Speculative Philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted. By this notion of interpretation’ I mean that everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme. Thus the philosophical scheme should be coherent, logical, and, in respect to its interpretation, applicable and adequate. Here ‘applicable’ means that some items of experience are thus interpretable, and ‘adequate’ means that there are no items incapable of such interpretation.”

– Alfred North Whitehead, In Defense of Speculative Philosophy

I think the key words above is ‘interpretable’, ‘applicable’, and ‘adequate’. Hermes as the tutelary divinity of speech, writing, and eloquence was the giver of the gift of interpretation: the hermetic art. The idea of Hermeneutics goes back at least to Aristotle, but it is simply the art of interpretation. Translators have long been aware of the difficulties of capturing the ideas as expressed in one language to the mechanics of another language. But there are difficulties even within the same language, since we all use words in a slightly different way; we have different associations and connotations, etc.

Speculative philosophy is often associated with speculum, mirror, was a common name for philosophical enquiries dealing in a conjectural rather than inferential way with the larger generalities of human life, nature, history, or reality in Anglo-American philosophy from the early nineteenth century, when Hegel’s influence began to be felt in England, well until the second of third decade of the last century. The term ‘speculative’ derives from the latin speculari, to look around, specula, vantage point, but the link with speculum, mirror, has been the more common since late antiquity, designating a form of knowledge of God in which mind and matter are seen as mirroring God (Ebbersmeyer 1995).

In his Process and Reality Whitehead rejects a number of what he terms ‘habits of thought’, of which the distrust of speculative philosophy is premier (PR xiii). In that same book he devotes a chapter to defining speculative philosophy as ‘a method productive of important knowledge’ (PR 3). As part of this he felt that a speculative philosophy must be coherent. There are two aspects to what he meant by coherent.

First, was the demand of coherence imposed on philosophical thought means that the basic ideas in terms of which the system is developed presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless. This does not mean that they should be definable in terms of each other, but rather that they are mutually relevant to the point where isolation of one of them leads to the loss of meaning of all of them. They clarify, correct and enhance each other’s meaning; you can’t have one without the other. Of course Whitehead also believed that they should be such as not to be capable of abstraction from one another as well. It was in this that Whitehead felt that philosophy was akin to poetry. The point being that there is no fixed point of origin, no beginning point; we begin or start with a multiplicity of terms which between them entertain the possibility of understanding concrete experience.

Second, the bare fact of it being the case that metaphysical understanding proceeds coherently, or else not, points to the ontological corollary that no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the universe. One could say that the whole point of Whitehead’s speculative philosophy is to explicate this truth. He felt that his speculative philosophy expressed the truth of reality’s traits by both spelling them out and illustrating them within a speculative manner.

Whitehead also endorsed the principle that a logical inconsistency can only indicate an antecedent error. All speculative philosophies must be logical and consistent. That binds him to the curve of reason and its long history.

Another trait of speculative philosophy is that it must start with common experience then move beyond it without creating any breaks or ruptures within this experience. He affirmed that generality was an intrinsic feature of experience, and that it is interpretable. We can think about experience – as such. Speculative philosophy as conceived by Whitehead frames the necessary and absoluteness of general ideas that have to do with everything that might happen or be, and situates itself as the heir to the throne of everyday understanding – common sense – and reigns supreme by natural verdict.

Whitehead’s speculative philosophy is the heir of natural philosophy and natural history.

9 thoughts on “Whitehead’s Speculative Philosophy: Speculum of Experience

      • Yea, Brandom with his objective idealism and the turn towards deontological approaches is definitely worth studying. His Hegelianism inclusive of the Sellarsian inferentialism is important. I know Ray Brassier is attuned to his thought with that need for differentiating conceptual idealism from his own conceptual rationalism. The idea of the ‘cut’, etc. Been rereading Brassier’s Concepts and Objects and must admit he makes a strong case against what he perceives as the irrationalism of Latour as Sophist. Fascinating series of videos …. Brandom is slow reading but has a great ability to articulate in the video….


  1. Brandom is definitely overlooked. His sort of Hegelianism is the “least offensive” to those who are all out materialists – but what interests me the most is the cross-over between that sort of Hegelian idealism/realism, and contemporary “speculative idealism.” It is the latter that Brassier’s current thinking seems to be nearing: through Hegel, through Plato, through naturalism, through pragmatism, through Sellars, and so on (and I should emphasize that the Plato/naturalism re-connection is just brilliant). If there is one figure in addition to Whitehead that speculative philosophers must “work through” today – or encounter, or engage and appropriate in some way – it is Hegel. There is no doubt in my mind about that.


    • as an “all out materialist” I’m keeping an eye on Adrian Johnston and hoping that he will move away from Lacan and lack to see a world of Lingis-like excesses, Brandom focuses too much (not unlike Dewey) on making things come together as One, making things reason-able, for my taste/experience (seems more like prescription than description) and here I prefer folks like Annemarie Mol and John Law who understand how bricolaged/kluged-together we are and so are into investigating the working out of multiple ontologies (forms/styles of life, mangles of practices, if you prefer), and Rorty’s kuhnian reading of Davidson on metaphors. This would of course be “mere” anthropology to one of a heideggerian bent for Language/Being but if that means working in the field of folks like Tim Ingold and Paul Rabinow than count me as an mere-ologist.


      • Yes, Johnston’s work on Zizek has been fascinating. The others I’m not as versant in, but sound like they are all moving in differing zones of ontological awareness of the problematique of post-Kantian heritage. I think pluralism is a key point here. I think Deleuze was moving toward pluralism = monism in his own univocal vision. A strange twist on an old paradigm.


  2. Pingback: Brandom and Brassier: Hegel Redivivus | noir realism

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