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The central aim in Alfred North Whitehead’s chief work, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, is to replace the traditional philosophy of substance with a philosophy of organism. The author’s thesis is that only a philosophy of organism can provide clarification of a universe in which process, dynamic actualization, interdependence, and creativity are disclosed as the primary data of immediate experience.

Although Whitehead expresses some far-reaching reservations regarding traditional modes of thought, he formulates his philosophy of organism through a dialogue with the great logicians, scientists, metaphysicians, and theologians of the past. He finds the thought of Greek philosopher Plato more decisive than that of German philosopher Immanuel Kant; he considers Henri Bergson more suggestive than Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; he contends that John Locke was closer to a philosophy of organism than René Descartes; and he is ready to choose Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over Aristotle. Western philosophy is defined by the author as a series of footnotes to Plato. Some of these footnotes he wishes to salvage and reformulate; others he is quite happy to see deleted. Of all the philosophical giants in the Western tradition, Kant is the least cordially received. The author makes it clear that his philosophy of organism constitutes a recurrence to pre-Kantian modes of thought. According to Whitehead, the “Copernican revolution” of Kant was not as revolutionary as many of his followers maintained it to be. Whitehead’s philosophy is a speculative philosophy formulated into a coherent and logical system of general concepts that are intended to provide the categorial interpretation for any and all elements of human experience.

Descriptive Generalization

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In examining the methodological foundations of Whitehead’s system, we find first a procedure of descriptive generalization and second an epistemology that expresses both a rational and an empirical side. Philosophical method involves generalization, in which there is a movement from the concrete particular to the universal. This generalization is based on description rather than deduction. Whitehead considers it to be a mistake that deduction, the primary method of mathematics, has intermittently become the touchstone for philosophical inquiry. Deduction is for the author an auxiliary mode of verification that should never be given primacy in philosophical methodology. Applied in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, this method of descriptive generalization takes the form of a description of dynamic process rather than of static structure. Morphological description is replaced by description of dynamic life processes.

Whitehead’s epistemology contains both rational and empirical elements. The rational criterion is coherence and logical consistency; the empirical criterion is applicability and adequacy. A philosophical system must be coherent and logical. No entity can be conceived in abstraction from all other entities, nor can an entity be understood as long as its relation to other entities is not specified according to logical rules. However, knowledge also demands an empirical justification. Categories must be applicable and adequate. They are applicable when they describe all related experience as exhibiting the same texture. They are adequate when they include all possible experience in their conceptual vision. Whitehead was deeply concerned to maintain an experiential basis for his philosophy: “The elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought.” Philosophy should aim at generalization, but it should not overreach its mark and lose itself in abstractions that are not grounded in experience. One of the chief errors in philosophy, contends the author, is the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” This fallacy results when an abstraction becomes an exemplification of the system and replaces the concrete entity of which it is an abstraction. The success of philosophy, continues the author, is commensurate with the degree to which it avoids this fallacy.

The Four Categories

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Through the implementation of his method of descriptive generalization, Whitehead derives a categorial scheme that sets forth the governing concepts of his philosophy of organism. His categories are classified according to a fourfold schematic division: (1) the category of the ultimate; (2) categories of existence; (3) categories of explanation; and (4) categorial obligations.

The category of the ultimate is creativity. Creativity is the universal of universals, the ultimate metaphysical principle that underlies all things without exception. Every fact of the universe is in some way or another an exemplification of creativity. Even God is subordinate to the category of the ultimate. As the ultimate metaphysical principle, creativity is also the principle of novelty. It provides the reason for the emergence of the new. In its application to the novel situation, of which it is the origination, creativity expresses itself as the “creative advance.”

The categories of existence are eight in number: (1) actual entities; (2) prehensions; (3) nexs (plural of nexus); (4) subjective forms; (5) eternal objects; (6) propositions; (7) multiplicities; and (8) contrasts. Actual entities, which replace the traditional concept of particular substances, are the final facts of the universe; they are the real things of which the world is made up. Prehensions are the concrete facts of relatedness, exhibiting a “vector character,” involving emotion, purpose, valuation, and causation. A nexus is a particular fact of togetherness of actual entities. Subjective form is the determining or defining quality of private matters of fact. Eternal objects are the pure potentials by reason of which facts are defined in their subjective forms. Propositions render meaningful the distinction between truth and falsehood; as abstract potentialities, they are suggestions about the concrete particularity of actual entities. Multiplicities indicate the disjunctions of diverse entities. Contrasts indicate the mode of synthesis that occurs in a prehension or a concrete fact of relatedness. Along with these eight categories of existence, Whitehead delineates twenty-seven categories of explanation and nine categorial obligations.

Actual entities, which constitute Whitehead’s first category of existence, are the building blocks of his organismic universe. Here the philosophy of organism inverts Baruch Spinoza. For Spinoza actual entities, as particulars, are inferior modes; only the Infinite Substance is ultimately real. In the philosophy of organism, actual entities are the ultimate facts. These actual entities are in a process of “perpetual perishing,” but as they perish, they are somehow taken up in the creative advance, pass into other actual entities through the operation of prehension, and achieve objective immortality. This interpretation of a universe of flux in which actual entities come to be and pass away must be understood, according to Whitehead, as simply an expansion of a sentence in Plato’s Timaeos (last period dialogue, 360-347 b.c.e.; Timaeus, 1793), “However, that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason is always in the process of becoming and perishing and never really is.” The universe, as it is immediately disclosed, is a universe of becoming, flux, and perishing. The category of actual entities has universal applicability. It applies to nonliving matter as well as to all instances of life. It applies to the being of humanity as well as to the being of God.

Actual Entities and Occasions

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A significant implication of this doctrine is that God, for Whitehead, is not outside the system. He is within the reach and range of the categories. However, God is differentiated from all other actual entities in that he is not occasioned by anything. Thus, all actual entities other than God are also occasions. God is an actual entity but not an actual occasion. Every actual occasion exhibits a dipolar structure consisting of a physical pole and a mental pole. By reason of its physical pole, the actual occasion prehends other actual occasions; by reason of its mental pole, a prehension of eternal objects is made possible. In this description of the bipolar structure of actual occasions, the author formulates an alternative to the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. God also exhibits a dipolar structure. He possesses two natures—a primordial nature and a consequent nature. His primordial nature, which consists of an envisagement of all the eternal objects and an appetition for their actualization, corresponds to the mental pole of actual occasions. His consequent nature, which is the consequence of the reaction of the world upon God, corresponds to the physical pole of actual occasions.

Actual occasions are grouped into societies or nexs through the operation of prehension. A prehension, according to the eleventh category of explanation, consists of three factors: (1) the subject that is prehending; (2) the datum that is prehended; and (3) the subjective form that designates the manner in which the subject prehends its datum. A nexus, according to the fourteenth category of explanation, “is a set of actual entities in the unity of the relatedness constituted by their prehensions of each other.” By reason of their physical poles, actual occasions can prehend each other and form societies or nexs. There results an organismic coinherence in which every event in the universe is a factor in every other event. All things ultimately inhere in each other. There are no isolated events. For Whitehead the universe is an interdependent universe in which all parts are interrelated. The analogy of the organism replaces the analogy of the machine. Not only, however, do actual occasions prehend each other by reason of their physical poles; they also prehend eternal objects by reason of their mental poles.

Eternal objects are permanent and immutable principles of determination, clearly reminiscent of the eternal forms or ideas in the philosophy of Plato. An eternal object is a pure potential that, in itself, remains neutral to any particular fact of ingression in the temporal order. There are no new eternal objects. They are fixed in the timeless primordial vision of God. However, each eternal object is a potentiality in the history of actual occasions. An actual occasion prehends an eternal object and thus the object becomes realized in time and space. Ingression refers to the particular mode in which the potentiality of an eternal object is realized in a particular entity, contributing to the structure and definition of that actual entity. Eternal objects contribute the necessary structure that keeps the organismic process from dissolving into an indeterminate and discontinuous succession. Process does not contradict structure in Whitehead’s analysis. Process and structure are interdependent concepts.

Actual occasions, and the societies that they form, are in a process of growing together until they reach a final phase which is called “satisfaction.” This process of growing together, in which new prehensions constantly take place, is designated by the author as “concrescence.” “In a process of concrescence, there is a succession of phases in which new prehensions arise by integration of prehensions in antecedent phases. . . . The process continues until all prehensions are components in the one determinate integral satisfaction.” Each actual occasion as it is objectified in the process of concrescence exhibits a claim upon the future. The future is in some sense constitutive of the being of every actual occasion. Whitehead expresses this when he describes an actual occasion as a “subject-superject.” Every occasion is at once the subject experiencing and the superject of this experience; it is the present experiential datum, but it is also the future result or the aim of its present experience. This aim or future project is called the “subjective aim,” which controls the becoming of the actual occasion and lures it to its final satisfaction.

All becoming thus occurs within a spatiotemporal continuum, in which all entities experience the bite of time. Each event in the universe is qualified by the past, present, and future. Although actual occasions perish, they enter into the internal constitution of other actual occasions, in which they become objectified. Every present fact of the universe is thus constituted by all antecedent phases. So also is every present fact constituted by its potentialities for future realization by its subjective aim. An actual entity is that which it can become. “That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its being’ is constituted by its becoming.’ This is the principle of process.’”

Flux and Permanence

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That all things flow is the one ultimate generalization around which Whitehead develops his whole system. This doctrine of a fluent, becoming universe, remarks the author, was already suggested in the unsystematized insights of Hebrew literature (particularly the Psalms), as well as in the early beginnings of Greek philosophy (particularly Heraclitus). Coupled with this doctrine of flux, however, is a competing notion: the permanence of all things. These two notions, contends the author, constitute the complete problem of metaphysics.

Whitehead does not intend to reject the doctrine of permanence, but rather seeks to adapt it to his ultimate generalization that all things flow. This adaptation is expressed in two implicatory principles of his system: his doctrine of self-constituting identity and his doctrine of cosmic order. In his nine categorial obligations, the author formulates the category of objective identity, which asserts the essential self-identity of every actual entity as an individual constituent in the universe. Each actual entity is a cell with an atomic unity. In the process of concrescence, actual entities grow together but they do not sacrifice their atomic unity. They retain their self-identity and thus give expression to a life of their own. Viewing the organismic process from the side of the cellular and atomic units that comprise it, we need to acknowledge a self-constituting individuality that indicates a permanence within the flow of all things. As there is objective self-identity in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, so also is there preestablished harmony or universal cosmic order. The latter aspect of the universe is indicated in the author’s seventh category of obligation, the category of subjective harmony. The process of concrescence exhibits a preestablished harmony in which all prehensions are viewed as being contributive to a stable cosmic order, informed by the eternal objects and directed by the subjective aim. Thus does the doctrine of permanence receive another expression in Whitehead’s system.

Whitehead’s elaboration of the notion of preestablished harmony has some interesting implications for his position on the nature of evil. Although he does not formulate an explicit theodicy, he veers in the direction of a Leibnizian resolution to the problem. Novelty is not to be identified with creativity. The emergence of novelty in the organismic process may inhibit and delay the creative advance and thus provide the condition for the rise of evil. Evil constitutes a real fact in Whitehead’s universe. Spinoza’s attempt to explain away evil as an illusion arising from our finite, modal point of view is thus rejected. When the creative advance attains its final phase or its satisfaction, the universe is the better off for the fact of evil. The satisfaction or the final phase is richer in content by reason of the particular cosmic disharmonies. All inhibiting novelties are somehow contributive to a greater good. In the creative advance of the world, particular evil facts are finally transcended.

The Primacy of Feeling

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Whitehead’s philosophy of organism occupies a unique position in the history of philosophy in that it makes the sentient quality of experience decisive. His theory of prehension and his doctrine of the creative advance are governed by a notion of the pervasiveness of feeling. In the final analysis, prehension involves an objectification of feelings, and the creative advance is a process in which these feelings are integrated in an exemplification of harmony. “In the place of the Hegelian hierarchy of categories of thought, the philosophy of organism finds a hierarchy of categories of feeling.” This accent on the sentient quality of experience by Whitehead has both epistemological and metaphysical implications. It entails, first of all, a rejection of the subject-object dichotomy as the foundation for knowledge. Most traditional varieties of philosophy, claims the author, give priority to the intellect and the understanding. In such a view, the knowing subject is the primary datum and the philosophical task becomes a demonstration of the validity of propositions about the objects encountered by the subject. It was particularly in the Cartesian tradition that this subject-object form of statement became normative.

In Whitehead’s philosophy of organism the subject is an emergent datum, rather than the foundational datum. The complex of feelings constitutes the primitive datum. The primitive element is sympathy, or feeling in another and feeling conformally with another. Intellect and consciousness arise only in the higher phases of concrescence. The universe is initially disclosed as a system of “vector feelings.” This primacy of feeling is made explicit in Whitehead’s doctrine of “presentational immediacy.” In its immediate presentment, the world is received as a complex of feelings. Primitive experience must thus properly be understood in terms of sense-reception rather than sense-perception. In sense-reception, the interconnections of feelings are simultaneously disclosed. There is thus an internal bond between presentational immediacy and causal efficacy. Both David Hume and Immanuel Kant, in giving priority to the conscious subject, were unable to grasp this point. The sense-perception of the subject was for them the primary fact, and any apprehension of causation was somehow to be elicited from this primary fact

In the philosophy of organism, which gives primacy to sentient experience, causal relations are disclosed on the level of feelings. They are directly felt on a pretheoretical or precognitive level of experience. The types of feeling are indefinite and depend upon the complexity of the data that the feeling integrates. There are, however, three primary types of feeling that are constitutive of all more complex patterns: (1) physical feelings, (2) conceptual feelings, and (3) transmuted feelings. Physical feelings arise from the physical pole of the actual entity and have for their initial datum another actual entity. Conceptual feelings arise from the mental pole and have for their datum an eternal object. Transmuted feelings are akin to physical feelings in that they proceed from the physical pole, but their objective datum is a nexus of actual entities rather than a single entity. The creative advance integrates these various types of feeling in its progression toward satisfaction. This integration proceeds in such a manner that the earlier phases of feelings become components of later and more complex feelings. Thus, in each phase there is an emergence of novelty. This goes on until the final phase is reached, which is the complex satisfaction in which all earlier phases of feelings are taken up as formative constituents of a final and coordinated whole.

A Metaphysics of Theism

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The categories of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism receive their final exemplification in his metaphysics of theism. The doctrine of God completes Whitehead’s system. In formulating his metaphysics of theism, he has no intention of submitting rationally demonstrative proofs for the existence of God; rather, he intends to provide a theoretic system that clarifies the immediate facts of religious experience. The touchstone of religious experience is love. The author finds the most decisive expression of this religious attitude in the Galilean origin of Christianity. The theism suggested in this Galilean origin must be contrasted, on one hand, with the theism of Aristotle, in which God is the unmoved mover who exhibits no concern for his creation and, on the other hand, with the theism of medieval theology, which, according to the author, gave to God the attributes that belonged exclusively to Caesar. Whitehead’s intention is thus to formulate a theistic view that arises from a religious experience in which love is the governing datum.

In Whitehead’s philosophy, this God of love is not to be treated as an exception to the categories and the metaphysical principles that they enunciate. God is the chief exemplification of the metaphysical system. In this role of chief exemplar, his nature can be viewed from two perspectives: as primordial and as consequent. As primordial, God is unlimited or infinite potentiality. He is a unity and plenum of conceptual feelings, in abstraction from any physical feelings, and hence lacks the fullness of actuality. God as primordial is deficient in actuality. As a unity of conceptual feelings and operations, he is a free creative act. He is in no way deflected by the particular occasions that constitute the actual world. The actual world presupposes the primordial nature, but the primordial nature does not presuppose the actual world. All that the primordial nature presupposes is the general and abstract character of creativity, of which it is the chief exemplification. As unlimited potentiality, the primordial nature includes the eternal objects and accounts for the order in their relevance to the process of creation. So also God in his primordial nature is the lure for feeling or the “object of desire.” He provides the condition for each subjective aim and draws the process to its final satisfaction.

Coupled with God’s primordial nature is his consequent nature. His consequent nature is derivative. It expresses the reaction of the world upon God. The consequent nature is thus, in part, subject to the process of actualization in the actual world. Because of his consequent nature, God can share in the fullness of physical feelings of the actual world as these physical feelings become objectified in God. God shares with every actual occasion and every nexus its actual world. God is conditioned by the world. His nature is consequent upon the creative advance of actual occasions in the process of concrescence. The primordial nature is free, complete, eternal, actually deficient, and unconscious. The consequent nature is determined, incomplete, everlasting, fully actual, and conscious.

Because of his consequent nature, God establishes a providential relation to the world. His providential love is expressed through a tender care that nothing be lost. He saves everything in the world and preserves it in his own life. God’s providence also manifests itself in the workings of divine wisdom. Through his infinite wisdom, he puts to use even that which in the temporal world would be considered mere wreckage. The consequent nature thus makes possible a continuing point of contact and a reciprocal relation between God and the world. The events in the temporal world are transformed through God’s love and wisdom, and his love and wisdom then pass back into the world. God thus receives his final definition as the great companion—the fellow sufferer who understands.


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Additional Reading

Berthrong, John H. Concerning Creativity: A Comparison of Chu Hsi, Whitehead, and Neville. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Berthrong employs the philosophies of Neville and Chu Hsi to offer a useful criticism of Whitehead’s notions on God, world, and their relatedness.

Jones, Judith A. Intensity: An Essay in Whiteheadian Ontology. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998. Jones offers an exacting analysis of Whitehead’s metaphysical system. Aimed at graduate-level readers who are familiar with Whitehead’s work.

Kraus, Elizabeth M. The Metaphysics of Experience: A Companion to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. 2d ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998. An excellent guide to Whitehead’s Process and Reality.

Kuntz, Paul Grimely. Alfred North Whitehead. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A clearly written and brief volume that provides an introduction to Alfred North Whitehead’s thought.

Lowe, Victor. Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work. Vol. 1, 1861-1910. Vol. 2, 1910-1947. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. The fullest available account of Whitehead’s life is found in these volumes. The first covers his life through his tenure at Cambridge. The second and more recent volume chronicles his life in London and at Harvard until his death. Lowe was a student of Whitehead and is an eminent authority on his work.

Lowe, Victor. Understanding Whitehead. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962. A collection of papers on Whitehead’s thought in a volume aimed at the reader with little or no prior acquaintance with Whitehead’s philosophy. Lowe tries to show what Whitehead’s philosophy is about and why it is unique.

Rapp, Friedrich, and Reiner Wiehl. Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Creativity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. This book takes a critical look at Whitehead’s metaphysics. The authors see Whitehead’s speculative philosophy as going far beyond anything considered in contemporary analytic philosophy.

Ross, Stephen David. Perspective in Whitehead’s Metaphysics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983. By elevating the role of perspective in Whitehead’s thought, Ross attempts to eliminate many of the difficulties in Whitehead’s philosophical system.

Russell, Bertrand. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1872-1914. Boston: Little Brown, 1951. Valuable for its account of the writing of Principia Mathematica, even though it is related from Russell’s somewhat biased point of view.

Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. 1941. 2d ed. New York: Tudor, 1951. A collection of critical essays on Whitehead that includes Whitehead’s autobiographical sketch and Lowe’s insightful essay “The Development of Whitehead’s Philosophy.” Contains a complete bibliography of Whitehead’s works.

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