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

Lecture and notes on Part I of Whitehead’s “Process & Reality”

This Fall at CIIS.edu, I’m teaching an online advanced seminar on Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process & Reality. Here are my reflections on Part I of Process & Reality, “The Speculative Scheme.”

Note that I discuss Richard Rorty’s conference presentation during a symposium on Whitehead at Stanford back in April 2006. Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway were there, too.

Notes on Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality

Part 1: The Speculative Scheme

Chapter 1: Speculative Philosophy

  • Whitehead needs to defend his speculative method as productive of important knowledge. He seeks to frame a “coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” His scheme of general ideas must be adequate and applicable to “everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought” (3).
  • “coherence” means no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the rest of the universe
  • “logical” means the system must be self-consistent and not self-contradictory
  • “necessary” means that the general ideas or categories must bear within themselves their own warrant of universality throughout all experience (4)
  • “There is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality.” Thus, for Whitehead, a rational interpretation always means a relational interpretation.
  • Whitehead admits that deficiencies of language plague metaphysics. Even his technically defined terms “remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap.”
  • The datum of speculative philosophy is the actual world, including ourselves.
  • “The elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought.”
  • We habitually observe by the method of difference,” meaning we notice only what changes, not what stays the same. This is why metaphysics is so difficult. Metaphysics is the search for that generic texture which remains the same throughout all experience. Whitehead says elsewhere that it takes a very unusual mind to undertake an analysis of the obvious. Such an analysis is precisely what metaphysics is. It is the search for what is so obvious we almost always fail to notice or mention it.
  • “We can never catch the world taking a holiday from the sway of metaphysical first principles.”
  • Whitehead says that “rigid empiricism” prevents metaphysics from discovering the “larger generalities.” For such discovery depends upon “the play of free imagination, controlled by requirements of coherence and logic” (5).
  • Whitehead articulates his aeroplane method of “imaginative rationalization.” This method allows further progress when the method of difference fails because it imaginatively supplies the differences which direct observation lacks. In other words, the metaphysician can observe everyday experience and think “this could have been otherwise,” and by imagining things other possibilities bring more of what is actually there into focus.
  • “The negative judgment is the peak of mentality,” which we see on display in thinkers like Hegel, who made an entire idealist method out of the power of negation.
  • “A system of philosophy is never refuted, it is only abandoned” for lack of interest.
  • Whitehead found it necessary to abandon the “subject-predicate mode of thought” because he does not believe it mirrors the basic structure of reality (this mode of thought is the basis of the substance-quality ontology) (7).
  • Philosophy is not deduction! Philosophy is thus misled by the example of mathematics and logic. Philosophy is the search for premises; it’s method is descriptive generalization. “Metaphysical categories are not dogmatic statements of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of the ultimate generalities” (8).
  • “The history of thought shows that false interpretations of observed facts enter into the records of the observation. Thus both theory, and received notions of fact, are in doubt.”
  • Productive thought is won either via poetic insight or via imaginative elaboration of schemes of thought.
  • “Progress is always transcendence of what is obvious.”
  • “Rationalism is an experimental adventure…in clarification of thought, progressive and never final, [such that] even partial success has importance” (9). This makes Whitehead’s method unlike Kant’s or Descartes’, for whom rationalism meant beginning with clear and distinct premises and working out what necessarily follows from them.
  • Every science makes use of instruments in its investigation. Philosophy’s instrument is language. Just as the physical sciences redesign existing instruments, philosophy often has to redesign language (11).
  • “Complete propositions cannot be captured by verbal language”: Whitehead is saying that propositions (we’ll define these in a moment) are ingredients in the becoming of the physical universe long before humans arrived on the scene to consciously reflect upon and attempt to linguistically articulate them.
  • What is found in practice must be part of the metaphysical scheme: we cannot ignore what in practice is presupposed.
  • Interpretation is an intrinsic part of experience.
  • “Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity” (15)
  • Philosophy finds its importance by fusing religion and science into one rational scheme of thought.
  • Religion is among the data of experience that philosophy must weave into its scheme.
  • “Scientific interest is a variant form of religious interest,” which is to say doing science presupposes that we have a faith in the order of nature. Why do scientists believe that the natural world is rational? This belief, according to Whitehead, is derived from religion. Thus, religion and science, far from being enemies, are entirely dependent upon one another.
  • “Religion deals with the formation of the experiencing subject, whereas science deals with the objects, which are that data forming the primary phase of this experience” (16)
  • “Philosophy destroys its usefulness when it indulges in brilliant feats of explaining away” (17).
  • “It is the part of the special sciences to modify common sense. Philosophy is the welding of imagination and common sense into a restraint upon specialists.”

Chapter 2: The Categoreal Scheme

  • Whitehead said that the generic notions he has constructed should reveal themselves as “inevitably presupposed in our reflective experience” (18).
  • He introduces four novel notions not found in the philosophical tradition: 1) actual entities, 2) prehensions, 3) nexus, and 4) the ontological principle
  • actual entities can be divided into some definite quota of prehensions
  • prehensions have a vector character, meaning they are referent to an external world; they involve emotion, purpose, valuation, and causality (unlike in mechanistic materialism, where causality is imagined to be a blind exchange of forces between particles, Whitehead re-imagines causality as the passage of feelings between entities via prehension). 
  • prehensions might have been actual entities if not for their incomplete partiality; they are subordinated by a subjective aim at further integration, which seeks to unify them into a subjective form which is the satisfaction of the completed subject.
  • nexūs are particular facts of togetherness or relatedness among actual entities (20)
  • Philosophy’s role is not to explain concreteness in terms of abstractness, but rather to explain the emergence of the more abstract things from the more concrete.
  • Facts are more than their forms, though form participates throughout fact. Facts are creatures, and creativity is ultimate behind all forms.
  • Whitehead introduces four types of categories: 1) category of the ultimate, 2) categories of existence, 3) categories of explanation, 4) categoreal obligations
  • “Creativity, Many, One are the ultimate notions required for and presupposed by the existence of any entity” (21); “one” = singularity; “many” = diversity; “creativity” = many become one
  • Concrescence: the production of novel togetherness; “the many become one and are increased by one”
  • Eight categories of existence: 1) actual entities/occasions, 2) prehensions, 3) nexūs (public facts), 4) subjective forms (private facts), 5) eternal objects/pure potentials, 6) propositions/impure potentials/theories, 7) multiplicities, 8) contrasts
    • Among these existents, actual entities and eternal objects stand out with “extreme finality” (22)
  • twenty-seven categories of explanation:
  • the actual world is a process: the process is the becoming of actual entities.
  • in the becoming of an entity, potential unity becomes real unity, a concrescence of many potentials into one novel actuality
  • all existents advance into novelty, except eternal objects: “there are no novel eternal objects”
  • “principle of relativity”: each being is a potential for every becoming
  • no two actual entities originate from the same universe; but eternal objects are the same for all actual entities.
  • “real potentiality”: conditioned modality of entities included in other entities; an entity can be integrated in many ways but is in fact implicated in only one way.
  • eternal objects are potentials for “ingression”; analysis of eternal objects discloses only other eternal objects.
  • an actual entity can be analyzed as a) objectified in the becoming of other entities (i.e., coordinate division) or b) according to its own internal constitution (i.e., genetic division)
  • “principle of process”: how an entity becomes constitutes what it is; its being is constituted by its becoming
  • an actual entity is a concrescence of prehensions; analysis of prehensions is “division”
  • triadic structure of prehension includes: a subject prehending, a datum which is prehended, and a subjective form which is how that subject prehends that datum (23)
  • two types of prehensions: positive prehensions (i.e., operative feelings) and negative prehensions (i.e., scars); the latter are inoperative in the progressive concrescence of a subject, but still “felt” in their absence.
  • there are many species of subjective forms: emotions, valuations, purposes, adversions, aversions, consciousness, etc.
  • a nexus is a constellation of actual entities that mutually prehend or objectify one another
  • a proposition is a potential for relatedness of actual entities into a nexus; the entities in question are the logical subjects and the eternal objects defining them are the predicates.
  • a multiplicity is a special logical notion
  • the complex unity of a datum is felt as a contrast, or a contrast of contrasts: “the synthesis of entities into a contrast produces a new existential type”; a proposition is a contrast.
  • “ontological principle”: process conforms to other occasions or to the subject in process of formation (i.e., efficient and final causation, respectively). “Actual entities are the only reasons.” Propositions are “lures for feeling” shaped by the subjective aim of the concrescing entity.
  • actual entities and eternal objects are the fundamental entities; all other entities express how these two types are in community with one another.
  • to “function” means to contribute to determining actual entities; self-identity of one entity cannot be abstracted from the community of diverse functionings of all entities. “Determination” requires definiteness (i.e., illustration via eternal objects) and position (relative status in a nexus).
  • “an entity is actual when it has significance for itself”
  • the becoming of an actual entity transforms incoherence into coherence, ceasing with its attainment
  • self-functioning is the real internal constitution of an actual entity, called the “subjective immediacy” of an entity
  • an actual entity functions in another actual entity by being objectified; an eternal object functions in an actual entity by being ingressed.
  • the final phase of concrescence creative of an actual entity is one complex, fully determinate feeling. “Satisfaction” is determinate with regard to its genesis, its objective character for entities in its future, and its prehensions of every item in its universe.
  • every element in the genetic process of an actual entity has a single consistent function in the final satisfaction.
  • concrescence unfolds in a series of phases whereby new prehensions arise by integrating their antecedents; negative prehensions contribute only their subjective forms, not their data.
  • nine categoreal obligations
  1. “subjective unity”: incompleteness of many feelings in early phase find compatibility when integrated by subject
  2. “objective identity”: no duplicate elements in satisfaction of an actual entity
  3. “objective diversity”: diverse elements cannot exercise identical functions
  4. “conceptual valuation”: conceptual feelings of eternal objects are derived from physical feelings of other entities or of a nexus
  5. “conceptual reversion”: the subjective aim can determine diverse conceptual feelings in a secondary phase of concrescence; conceptual valuation reproduces physical feelings, whereas conceptual reversion introduces divergence from physical feelings
  6. “transmutation”: a prehending subject can derive the same conceptual feeling from multiple physical feelings of other actual entities and transmute the datum of this conceptual feeling into a characteristic that defines the nexus containing those prehended entities; transmutation is akin to the attachment of a quality to a substance (Aristotle).
  7. “subjective harmony”: conceptual feelings are adapted to congruence with subjective aim; akin to “pre-established harmony” (Leibniz); “no prehension can be considered in abstraction from its subject, although it originates in the process creative of its subject”
  8. “subjective intensity”: a subjective aim aims at intensity of feeling in the immediate subject and in the relevant future; this feeling of the effective relevance of the present for the future is the basis of morality.
  9. “freedom and determination”: concrescence is internally determined and externally free; final decision of subject-superject is the reaction of the unity of the whole to its own internal determination; reaction can modify emotion, appreciation, purpose.
  • You cannot abstract the universe from any entity so as to consider it in isolation: “every entity pervades the whole world” (28).
  • “the actual world” is a nexus relative to the concrescence of each actual entity
  • becoming is a “principle of unrest” resident in every actuality
  • the notion of “vacuous actuality” haunts realistic philosophy; it assumes that an actuality could be devoid of subjective immediacy and still be actual. Whitehead’s organic realism repudiates this notion.
  • An actual entity is not an unchanging subject of change; it is subject and superject of its experience.
  • “no thinker thinks twice”; time is perpetual perishing whereby actualities lose subjective immediacy and perish into objective immortality (i.e., they attain their final cause, lose their unrest, and become an efficient cause that initiates a new round of concrescence)
  • actual entities are definite and complete, while eternal objects, propositions, and some complex contrasts are intrinsically indeterminate and indecisive.

Chapter 3: Some Derivative Notions

  • Strange as it may seem (in comparison to the Western philosophical and theological tradition), God is merely a derivative notion in Whitehead’s system!
  • God is the primordial created fact, the first creature of creativity, the unconditioned valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects (31)
    • derivate actual entities objectify God’s valuation and thereby experience a gradation in the relevance of eternal objects to their own concrescence
    • there is an additional ground of relevance for the ingression of eternal objects in derivate actual entities: namely, the eternal objects already ingressed into the past actual world
    • apart from God, unrealized eternal objects would be invisible to derivate actual entities: God’s primordial nature provides access to possibilities that transcend realized temporal matter of fact
    • there is also the consequent nature of God, discussed in Part V of Process and Reality
  • “Creativity” is akin to Aristotle’s prime matter, except it is not passively receptive of form or of external relations
    • it is activity conditioned by objective immortality of the actual world
    • it is without a character of its own: “highest generality at the base of all actuality”
  • “God,” like all actual entities, is a creature of creativity and a condition for creativity; unlike other creatures, God is always in concrescence and never perishes. God’s consequent nature is the reaction God receives from the world.
  • Why call this creature “God” when it is so different from orthodox theological notion?: “Because the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feelings derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that ‘subjective form’ of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim” (32).
  • God’s immanence in the world is “an urge toward the future based upon an appetite in the present” (e.g., physical feeling of thirst aims at conceptual feeling of quenching)
  • a “society” is an ordered nexus; some societies are ordered so as to appear as an enduring objects
    • in Whitehead’s process-relational ontology, an enduring object results from a common form of definiteness (a complex eternal object) ingressing into each included actual entity, such that the form is mutually imposed on each member and reproduced by their positive prehensions. There can be “genetic relations” holding members of such societies together.
    • a “serial ordering” of the members of a society produces “personal order,” where serial means any member genetically related to others in a linear mode of inheritance.
    • “societies are the [enduring] entities which enjoy adventures of change througout time and space” (35); so atoms are societies, as are stars and galaxies, tables and chairs, plants and animals, etc.
  • becoming as such does not have a unique serial order: time is plural; the creative advance of nature has no universal time line (a consequence of relativity theory in physics).
    • there is no continuity of becoming, despite the extensive continuity of the physical universe; rather, there is a becoming of continuity.
    • Whitehead articulates an atomic theory of becoming to explain how continuity is constructed. “Atomism does not exclude complexity and universal relativity” (36)
    • Whitehead suggests that his process atomism reconciles the particle/wave duality in quantum physics.
  • While he is often described as a panpsychist, Whitehead rejects the orthodox philosophical tradition which claims that the basic elements of experience are to be described in terms of consciousness, thought, and sense-perception. These are “unessential elements” in experience, and if they enter into experience at all it is only in the late, derivative phases of concrescence associated with very high grade actual occasions (e.g., those associated with complex animals).


4 responses to “Lecture and notes on Part I of Whitehead’s “Process & Reality””

  1. Panpsychism: a brief reply to Massimo Pigliucci – Footnotes2Plato Avatar

    […] that better describe and elucidate our experience of ourselves in nature. This is precisely what Whitehead attempts to do in Process & Reality and other […]

  2. Joseph Ratliff Avatar
    Joseph Ratliff

    Reblogged this on Quaerere Propter Vērum.

  3. trandmode Avatar

    in regards to “twenty seven categories of explanation”: a very unparsimonious, scholastic system; one has to hope that somewhere scattered in the remaining hundreds of pages, some justification can be found.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      “Seek simplicity, and distrust it.” -Whitehead

      Yes, most of PR is discussion and application (ie, justification) of the categories introduced in the first part.

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