“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

The Divine Function in Whitehead: Not Your Grandpa’s Occasionalism

In my last post in response Bob Woodard/Naught Thought‘s thoughts concerning the ontological fuzziness of process philosophy, I referred to Whitehead as an “occasionalist” without explaining exactly what I meant. After reading Steven Shaviro/The Pinicchio Theory‘s insightful commentary on the function of God in Whitehead’s cosmology, as well as Levi Bryant/Larval Subject‘s dismissive opinion that Whitehead is “a priori to be excluded” from consideration by academic philosophy (unless his concept of God can be shown to be superfluous to an otherwise coherent system), I felt I should say a bit more about how I’ve tried to integrate Whitehead’s open-ended panentheistic scheme into a livable image of the world.

Stengers’ suggests in Thinking With Whitehead that God is the keystone of his entire system. She also points out that he remained unsatisfied throughout his life with the adequacy of his own thinking concerning the nature of a divine function. When I attempt to “think with Whitehead,” I do not assume his system is fully consistent because I do not assume it is finally complete. His understanding of divinity was always a work in progress. It is open-ended, meant to be picked up and re-worked by students who already find theology somehow important, by those who already agree that contemplating divinity matters. A philosopher’s God-concept cannot be understood in isolation from his soul’s prehension of God. It is fine and well to argue against the incoherency of a particular God-concept, but no one can deny the historical efficacy, psychological and societal, of the spiritual experiences responsible for generating such concepts (and the movements and institutions associated with them). Atheists will deny that the appearance of something in the soul, called by it “God,” implies that this soul-content has any correlate in the real world. But they must acknowledge that, for the vast majority of so-called religious believers throughout the course of human history, God was not a conceptual hypothesis meant to explain the appearance of the world, but rather a living presence felt within themselves (psychologically) and between themselves and others (socially).

When Whitehead sets out to cosmologize, his first task is to correct for the bias produced by his own initial excess of subjectivity. He seeks to situate himself in a more general historical process, one which includes the whole history of human civilization, as well as the evolution of life and the formation of earth and larger universe. Objectivity, for Whitehead, doesn’t simply mean considering the world as it might exist in isolation from human consciousness; it means considering the conditions making possible a world where consciousness can come to be. These conditions are cosmogenic (not simply cognitive, as in Kant). Whitehead’s ontology is as concerned with objects as it is with subjects, and though his is a generative scheme, it gives temporal priority to neither. They are each to be understood as intellectually distinguishable poles in the unifying process of experiential realization. Objectivity doesn’t mean removing the position of the subject from the picture, but including it. If we are able to do so, what matters is not whether a subject comes to correctly represent the objective world, but whether subjectivity is able to respond to the objectifications of itself and the world constituting the creative passage of reality from one moment to the next. Truth is enacted, rather than known a priori or represented after the fact. The universe is a dramatic performance, a myth told by Reason to Necessity to persuade her to play by the rules.

To the extent that a concept functions to increase the intensity of subjectivity’s process of self- and world-objectification (=concrescence), that concept is of value to the universe’s ongoing adventure of ideas. Whitehead’s telos, which is neither wholly immanent or wholly transcendent, is Beauty. Its causal engine in the world is Eros, that which allows for the mutual penetration of every actual occasion (including God). Eros is also a sensible sign of world-transcendence, a moving image of an eternal God. Beauty is loved by actuality not only for what it is, but for what it means, even if this meaning remains sublime and so forever withdraws from comprehension.

In his response to Shaviro’s anti-occationalist defense of Whitehead, Graham Harman writes:

“The point is, prehension is always mediated by the eternal objects, and the eternal objects are in God. It’s hard to be more of an occasionalist than to say that God is the mediator of all relations and that entities exist only as occasions. It’s textbook occasionalism, in fact.”

I think Harman is leaving out some important elements of Whitehead’s admittedly obscure thinking on these matters. It would seem more appropriate to me for Harman to criticize this obscurity than to mischaracterize the struggle for coherence evident in a more charitable reading of Whitehead’s work. Whitehead always characterizes eternal objects as deficient in actuality, which is why they exist both virtually in God and actually as ingredients in the experiences of finite occasions. Outside the dipolar relation between God and the world, there are no definite ideas, no eternal objects. So yes, eternal objects do mediate prehension, but God’s prehension of finite actual occasions is as necessary for God’s as it is for each occasion’s concrescence. So unlike in traditional occasionalism, God is not just the cause of the world, God is also caused by the world. As Shaviro has argued, finite actual occasions are indeed in direct erotic contact with one another. I would only add that this mutual contact also always includes God.

This raises the question of why some philosophers, like Bryant, are lead to dismiss the concept of God as irrelevant to speculative metaphysics. So far as it goes, I’m willing to say I actually agree with him: God is not necessarily of interest if we are dealing with the pure possibilities and perfect generalities of absolute reality abstracted from concrete experience. Even Whitehead designates Creativity as the ultimate, making God its first non-temporal accident. God becomes important only when I begin to cosmologize–when I seek out participatory knowledge (i.e., wisdom) of the order and harmony of the actual world.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think faith has a crucial role to play in post-Cartesian philosophical speculation. I do not know for certain that the the Cosmos (as an ordered harmony) is real, since my Soul must first will this truth before it can become a live option for thought. The only reason metaphysical reflection has become necessary is that the Soul has lost efficacious contact with and so requires intellectual justification for its Cosmic existence. Before Homer put pen to parchment and parodied the gods, the Soul experienced no separation between the world’s logos (=meaning) and its existence (=factuality), and so it had no need of “religious beliefs.” Divinity lived and breathed amidst the creatures of earth and of heaven.

Horkheimer and Adorno from Dialectic of Enlightenment:

“In Homer, Zeus controls the daytime sky, Apollo guides the sun; Helios and Eos are already passing over into allegory. The gods detach themselves from substances to become their quintessence. From now on, being is split between logos–which, with the advance of philosophy, contracts to a monad, a mere reference point–and the mass of things and creatures in the external world. The single distinction between man’s own existence and reality swallows up all others. Without regard for differences, the world is made subject to man…The awakening subject is bought with the recognition of power as the principle of all relationships. In face of the unity of such reason the distinction between God and man is reduced to an irrelevance, as reason has steadfastly indicated since the earliest critique of Homer. In their mastery of nature, the creative God and the ordering mind are alike. Man’s likeness to God consists in sovereignty over existence, in the lordly gaze, in the command. Myth becomes enlightenment and nature mere objectivity. Human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted” (p. 5).

Whitehead’s panentheistic theology is meant to correct for the traditional religious view of God as sovereign and all-powerful. His ensouled cosmology is meant to correct the modern philosophical view that Man is separable from Nature. Power, for Whitehead, becomes persuasive because aesthetic, rather than coercive because mechanical. God does not reach in from beyond to design the world at will; nor does human consciousness.

Without a faith in the world’s ability to continue hanging together as a whole, the Soul has no reason but to affirm amoral chaos as the root of all things.



7 responses to “The Divine Function in Whitehead: Not Your Grandpa’s Occasionalism”

  1. Jason Hills Avatar


    I wish to extend a comment that you made, as it occurs prominently in the background pragmatic framework within Whitehead was writing.

    “Truth is enacted” because meaning is enacted, and truth is a subset of meaning. Only under abductive inference or logic is truth anything else. Logical truth is such only under the perspective of analysis, and we must not forget that such a perspective is logical first and existential only by hypothesis. There is no correspondence theory of truth in pragmatism.

    See Peirce’s “How to Make our Ideas Clear.”

    I mention this to add to your discussion, Matt, because I think the blogosphere discussion might not always be so careful about the distinction that is so important to pragmatism, of which Whitehead is a close cousin.

    On another point, Harman is in fact leaving out much Whitehead to make those claims about Whitehead and occassionalism. You’re right, and let me point one out that I’ve mentioend before.

    The “eternal objects” are analogous to Peircean “pure possibility” and invoke a scholastic realism of universals. That is, it is the view that universals are not just words that humans use to order their experience, which is nominalism and Peirce’s foe, but have being though not existence. (There are exactly three modalities of being for Peirce.) If the eternal objects are not real, have being, then we run into the British Empiricist or Lockean problem of asking what “dogness” is if we have only a general (generated) idea of it formed from a habit of recognizing impressions. Even Kant doesn’t sufficiently get us out of this problem.

    So, this is why eternal objects matter–they’re not supposed to be a mystery per their necessity. The logical implications seem messy and counter-intuitive because so much of the last few hundred years of philosophy has been nominalism, and even so-called “realism” is often crypto-nominalism. I am not saying that the solutions are easy or can be laid bare, but we should be aware of the problem, especially since obeissance to neuro-philosophical models makes it too easily to slide into a facilt nominalism. At this point, it should be obvious that I am not addressing you, Matt, but am adding to the conversation. Finally, Harman’s statement that the eternal objects are “in God” is just playing on an unanalyzed spatial metaphor that many readers will accept without thinking due to its conventionality. The “in-ness” is nto totally misguided as God has a special relation to the eternal objects as you discuss. I think Levi Bryant is right in the sense that we do not have to call this “God,” although the logical necessity of the “God-function” makes the term an apt choice … except that we live in even more atheistic times than Whitehead. Perhaps we forget that. And you are right, Matt, to connect God and participation, and it does not hurt to think about what Plato said about “participation” if one can hold oneself back from accusing Whitehead of being a Platonist, which I knwo that at least you can.

    I have posted a simplified, cleaned version of this at my blog.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for spelling out the problems of correspondance and universals a bit more. Part of the difficulty with nominalism seems to be that, if one favors realism, ideas have to be grounded in the world-process itself, not reduced to names generated by the human mind. This is part of the reason God is so important for Whitehead: God provides the matrix within which ideas find realization in the world independent of human minds. It follows that human ideation is not merely a construction, but participation in something cosmic/divine.

  2. astrotometry Avatar

    It’s a Chevy. Previously it was a Ford.

  3. Mark Crosby Avatar
    Mark Crosby

    Hi Matt (and Jason), I’m not an academic but have been interested in philosophy ever since reading Alan Watts’ THIS IS IT (40 years ago). My trinity of 20th-c philosophers is triangulated around Peirce, Santayana, and Deleuze (but I should really expand this to include, at least, Dewey, Whitehead & Serres). Given these conceptual personae, I’m somewhat sympathetic to theological thinking (despite having excommunicated the Holy Father at an early age 😉

    My point in commenting on this post is to note that this last sentence really feeds the critiques of Bryant & Harman:

    “Without a faith in the world’s ability to continue hanging together as a whole, the Soul has no reason but to affirm amoral chaos as the root of all things”.

    This is human, all too human, and it seems to be a concern of the Intellect rather than the Soul. The first problem is this “as a whole” (the lava lamp that Morton delights in whacking with the force of one hand clapping 😉 Humanity could be (mostly) wiped out in some gruesome plague over the next year, but the “world as a whole” (minus most of humanity) would continue to carry on. Another alternative is thermonuclear or other global meltdown, but even this would have little impact on “the world as a whole” (if we expand ‘world’ to mean cosmos).

    The second problem is that your statement implies that the animal faith you’re talking about is all-or-nothing. This is obviously not so. Many mornings I look at the news headlines and wonder how the planet will make it through the day, with all the stupidity underway, and it often takes until late afternoon before I can climb out of MY funk. (So, maybe this is the Soul, and not the Intellect ?) My point is that it’s not an all-or-nothing best-of-all-possible-worlds vs “amoral chaos” situation. I expect you know this, I’m just trying to warn how propositions such as the one I quote can easily feed so many OOO-ish critiques of process-relational thought, not to mention even less friendly eliminativist & accelerationist views.

    Here’s toward a pragamatic mix of scepticism and animal faith.. Mark

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks or your helpful comment, Mark. I agree, I am perhaps leaving myself vulnerable to critique with that statement. But I did not mean to imply that things necessarily hold together as a whole. This is not a Panglossian position. The perpetuation of a Cosmos is as contingent as the perpetuation of human civilization. They are achievements of value, and can only be maintained so long as the values underlying them continue to hold sway.

  4. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills


    You are right that “ideas have to be grounded on the world-process itself” and the importance of God qua “participation.” And yes, it is not merely a construction, but a participation, though in a Peircean way I would say it’s a semiosis that did not begin and end in the human mind.

    Also, Mark is right about the anthromorphic point, but I figure you just need more time to work on your articulation of points and decide if you want ot fight those battles.

  5. Speculative Philosophy and Incarnationalism in Whitehead and Meillassoux « Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] The Divine Function in Whitehead: Not Your Grandpa’s Occasionalism (footnotes2plato.com) […]

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