108. Whitehead Lectures

In April I gave the “Whitehead Lectures” at Harvard. This is a pair of  public lectures organized by the Philosophy Department. I’ve now written them up, and this post is a home for them.

Lecture 1: “Limits of Sentience”

Lecture 2: “Boundaries of Consideration”

Alfred North Whitehead was a mathematician-philosopher who taught at Harvard in the 1920s and 1930s. He is famous for his work with Bertrand Russell on mathematical logic – Principia Mathematica, 1910-1913 – and also for the speculative ideas that gave rise to what is now called “process philosophy.” In my lectures, I made more connections to William James, from an even earlier Harvard generation, than to Whitehead. The lectures are not historical, though. The first one is about the evolution of felt experience and its distribution in animals today. The second is about some moral or ethical questions arising from the first. It discusses this principle:

Sentience Principle: All and only sentient beings have interests worthy of moral consideration.

(“Sentience” I understand as the capacity for felt experience – the terminologies are all over the place here.)

The text of the first lecture is pretty close to the talk as it was given, working from a recording. In the case of the second, I expanded some passages and added some material, to make use of ideas that arose in the discussions after the lectures. I indicate in the text where the additions are, and whose ideas I made use of. The second one is now a bit longer than a one-hour lecture could be (and I am also surprised that I got through as much as I did in the first lecture). I’ll continue to tinker with these, especially the second, but will leave these versions online as well.

Both lectures were influenced by discussions and talks at the American Philosophical Association conference, in San Francisco, the previous weekend. I flew into SF for that meeting before going on to Harvard. Remarkably, there were at least six talks at the conference bearing directly on the topics of the Whiteheads. Several are cited in the texts here – a talk by Nicolas Delon on agency and moral consideration, one by David Peña-Guzmán about animals seeking out psychotropic drugs – along with ideas from discussions after the talks with Kristin Andrews, Geoffrey Lee. Discussion of these topics was nearly non-stop (thanks also to Lori Gruen, Hayley Clatterbuck, and Robert Long). My own talk in SF was a critical commentary on the book Reality+ by David Chalmers (no, we are not living inside a computer simulation). I arrived at Harvard with the beginning of a cold – not Covid – that soon had my voice fraying at the edges. I had several other events at Harvard that week, and by the end of the second lecture I could hardly speak. I had just enough left for the superlative dinner party on the final night.

I am very grateful to the Harvard Philosophy Department for inviting me to visit and give these lectures.



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