(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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Actual Entities and Occasions

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Flux and Permanence

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

The Primacy of Feeling

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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,...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

A Metaphysics of Theism

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 634 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 424 words.)