Friday, April 11, 2014

Notes from Accent on Form by Whyte

It took me forever to find a book at the local university library on Form. What I found is Accent on Form by this Lancelot Law Whyte (written 1954). He was a Scottish philosopher, physicist, engineer, entrepreneur, etc. involved in various projects throughout the 20th century. Sort of an enigmatic type figure, said to have fought for the resistance in WWII and worked with Einstein in 1930. Anyway he thought Form was pretty much the most important name in all physics and philosophy. Here are some notes from his book which more or less agree with concerns raised here:
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But Form is still an ambiguous and fertile conception, capable of meaning almost anything. It is pregnant with untold possibilities, for confusion if mishandled, and for new clarity when we can find the way. Form is the dark horse.
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To be more exact, the twentieth century has not yet given to the concept of Form its own standard of precision, and it may be necessary to do this before other ideas such as Organism, Mind, and Unconscious Mind can also be made as precise as we would like.
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But I believe that the idea of Form, suitably clarified and strengthened, will go far to achieve these aims and will transform many pressing problems, scientific, philosophical, aesthetic, and moral.
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What has “form” meant in the past, and what is the best meaning we can give it today?
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A complete answer would amount to a history of thought, for in one sense everything possesses form. In some contexts the Greek words Eidos, Schema, and Morphe, and the Latin word Forma, which are often translated as “form” mean no less than “the qualities which make anything what it is.”
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Around 1250 we find Thomas Aquinas regarding forma as the essential quality or determining principle of every individual thing.
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This is the final step (20th century): The “form,” in the new sense of the underlying structural pattern, is more important than its material components, which lack individuality. . .
Thus the twentieth-century idea of structure amounts to this. If one magnifies anything enough one reaches a characteristic structural pattern which is fundamental for the understanding of the properties of a thing. In every situation it is the ultimate structural pattern, rather than the individual material constituents and their supposed properties, which matters. The implication is that to understand anything one must penetrate sufficiently deeply toward this ultimate pattern. It is almost as though the pattern determined the properties of its constituents, rather than the other way around.
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Understanding means rational insight into the simple relationship between things.
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I believe that each of us is a changing form in a universe of forms . . .
Everything in this universe bears some relation to our own nature . . .
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I am suggesting that an important blind spot of the present time is the failure to recognize the significance of form as a key to the understanding of natural process. In the ancient and medieval worlds form—in a vague sense—was recognized by many thinkers as being of the highest significance.
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Since about 1925 the word “pattern” has become fashionable in many branches of science. Yet one might almost say that the word has come in because the idea is still missing. No one knows exactly what is meant by “pattern”!
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Some years ago I met a distinguished biologist, a man with a high reputation for original thought. In his presence someone used the phrase “the problem of form,” and I heard him mutter sarcastically: “What is the problem of form anyway?”
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The issue is this: when are scientists to think analytically in terms of the smallest parts they can find, and when formally (in the very old and new sense) in terms of changing forms and patterns they actually observe? For they never see or photograph a single particle on the spot . . .
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The task of science is not merely to identify the changing structural pattern in everything, but to see it as simple. Science starts with an assumption which is always present, thought it may be unconscious, may be forgotten, and may sometimes even be denied: There exists a simple order in nature; a simple way of representing experience is possible; the task of science is to discover it. The true aim of science is to discover a simple theory which is necessary and sufficient to cover the facts, when they have been purified of traditional prejudices.
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The latest and most powerful physical theory (quantum mechanics) appears simple to a certain highly mathematical kind of mind, but its baroque elegance is a smoke screen which conceals some rather shabby patches. Once a theory with classical simplicity and elegance has appeared, the claim that quantum mechanics satisfies the sense for simplicity will be forgotten.
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Here is another voice: “The facts are as they are and can never be made less complex.” I do not remember who it was that displayed this innocent failure to understand what the Western mind has learned by hard effort during the last hundred years: that everything that we at first naively regard as “given facts” are actually interpretations biased by the organic situation of the human brains, by traditional conceptions, and by the recent experiences of the individual. Science does not begin with facts; one of its tasks is to uncover the facts by removing misconceptions.
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If these suggestions are correct [holistic] physics must shortly shift its emphasis from single material particles possessing masses, charges, etc. to the changing shapes of complex structures. Indeed, this is already happening. Schrodinger has suggested that the philosopher of the past would say that the modern atoms consists of no stuff at all, but all is shape. . . . The old king Atomism with particle properties, has lost its authority; the new king, Structure with formal properties, has not yet been acclaimed.
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Hitherto scientific thought has regarded change as fundamentally reducible to the relative motions of entities. In the future it may be necessary to revise this interpretation, or to generalize it, and to regard change as changes of form.

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