On Whitehead’s Sociological Theory in “Adventures of Ideas”

Whitehead’s goal is these pages to elucidate the concept of civilization. He operates under the assumption that human civilization has profound cosmological significance. The fact that civilized beings have emerged in the course of the evolution of the universe tells us something important about the nature and perhaps even the purpose of that universe. His hypothesis is that the rise of human civilization exemplifies the effective lure of ideas in the adventure of cosmogenesis. While the issue of novel ideas into practical consequences may be slow, the upward adventure of life on Earth testifies to their power. 

He begins by reminding his readers that history is not just a collection of facts. Were we to be presented with the bare facts, devoid of any theoretical interpretation, we would have merely sound vibrations and the motion of colored shapes (3). History is a story told in the present, often to serve as material for the formation of our own self-understanding. Our imaginations of history are inseparable from our metaphysical and cosmological presuppositions. 

Whitehead claims that the study of history reveals a general dichotomy, that between senseless, often violent, compulsion and consciously formulated aspiration. People “are driven by their thoughts as well as by the molecules in their bodies, by intelligence and by senseless forces” (46). Whitehead lists environmental conditions and the brute necessities of technological production (e.g., the socially transformative effects of coal, steam, electricity, and oil) among the senseless forces, and Axial religion and democratic humanitarianism as examples of intelligent aspiration (7).  

While Whitehead was himself a progressive (he was involved in the women’s rights and educational reform movements of his day), he cautions against the impetuous insistence upon imposing new ideas in the wrong season. Sometimes in the rush to implement social improvements, attendant complexities are ignored, and the attempt to remove an evil ends up releasing further evils (20). “A great idea is not to be conceived as merely waiting for enough good [people] to carry it into practical effect…The ideal in the background is promoting the gradual growth of the requisite communal customs, adequate to sustain the load of its exemplification” (21). Ideals may be well-intentioned, but given the complexities of both nature and culture (and the complex interplay and continual overlap between them), the actual effects of their implementation often far outrun their conscious intent.

Whitehead dwells on the institutions of human sacrifice and slavery, long accepted among supposedly civilized peoples, as examples of the power of inherited instinctive behaviors to override higher ideals. “Freedom” was almost a meaningless notion for earlier societies, such as the Egyptian or Babylonian (49). Whitehead tasks philosophy with seeking to consciously entertain and articulate those ultimate intuitions, obscured by habitual customs, that nonetheless guide human beings toward civilized order, that is, toward a world wherein the persuasion of free beings has emerged victorious over coercive force as the prime agent of history (25). Whitehead offers an updated rendering of Plato’s suggestion in the Republic—that the ideal state would be run by philosopher-kings: “today, in an age of democracy, the kings are plain citizens pursuing their various avocations. There can be no successful democratic society till general education conveys a philosophic outlook” (98). 

Such a philosophical outlook would marshal wisdom as a “modifying agency” upon the two streams that feed into our consciousness, that is, inherited instincts/routines and intellectual ferment/spontaneity (47). Wisdom functions to coalesce these streams into some self-determining (i.e., free) and holistic judgment. Wise decision-making is limited by the limitations of our consciousness: “We do not initiate thought by an effort of self-consciousness. We find ourselves thinking, just as we find ourselves breathing and enjoying the sunset.” Nonetheless, few are willing to deny the role of knowledge and freedom in human life, though admittedly they tend to come in brief and unexpected flashes. Civilization advances, if it does, because wisdom kindles these flashes so as to melt and make malleable inherited customs and to light the way toward juster futures. 

Whitehead sees little evidence that humanity’s inborn mental capacities have increased during the historical period. Rather, he points to “the outfit which the environment provides for the service of thought,” that is, to the impact of various media technologies (e.g., literary and mathematical symbolisms, communication methods, etc.). The downside is that technologically mediated intelligence is liable to get locked into its favored abstractions, “[dismissing] the baffling aspects of things” in favor of the certainty provided by logical system. “Wisdom,” Whitehead suggests, “is persistent pursuit of the deeper understanding, ever confronting intellectual system with the importance of its omissions…The folly of intelligent people, clear-headed and narrow-visioned, has precipitated many catastrophes” (47-48).

Writing in the early 20th century, Whitehead thought that the economic sphere constituted the “most massive problem of human relationships” (62). He maintains high hopes for commerce, since ideally “it is the great example of intercourse in the way of persuasion,” while “war, slavery, and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force” (83). But difficulties stand in the way of realizing the ideal. Whitehead discusses the invention of corporate personhood, which he believes totally undermined classical liberal political philosophy, wherein freedom belonged to individual human beings, rather than to fictional corporate entities. He also discusses the hazy notion of private property, which with the expansion of monopolistic corporate rule and competitive market dynamics has come to signify little more than “the will of the stronger” (63). But Whitehead admits that the classical liberal idea of “absolute individuals with absolute rights” is both metaphysically and politically inadequate: “The human being is inseparable from its environment in each occasion of its existence.” Whitehead’s process-relational understanding of reality has it that individuals, while they constitute real loci of aesthetic and moral value, are nonetheless emergent from their social relations; similarly, societies are shaped by the mutual transactions of their members. The emergence of individuals from their social relations means that custom forms the instinctive basis of our behavior. But determination by custom is not total, as individuals are also free to emphasize novel intuitions of alternative courses of action, and to consciously agree to mutually beneficial contractual transactions with one another, thus allowing for the possibility of a genuinely free marketplace. In the end, “nothing is effective except massively coordinated inheritance. Sporadic spontaneity is composed of flashes mutually thwarting each other. Ideas have to be sustained, disentangled, diffused, and coordinated with the background. Finally they pass into exemplification in action” (64). Thus, much work remains to be done to translate the ideal of freedom into the economic domain.

Whitehead traces the rise of the ideal of freedom in the history of human societies. Once a negligible fancy, it has gradually become the founding value of democratic nation-states. But Whitehead warns us against conceiving of freedom in purely cultural terms, as freedom of thought and speech, of the press, or of religious practice; that is, it is shortsighted to conceive of restraints on our freedom as stemming merely from the conflicting desires of other human beings. It is not our fellow human beings, but the “massive habits of physical nature” that constrain our freedom and set the scene for our suffering: “birth and death, heat, cold, hunger, separation, disease…all bring their quota to imprison the souls of women and of men” (66). Political philosopher William Connolly’s book The Fragility of Things (2013) begins by recounting the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake in 1755, which provides as striking an example as we could ask for of what Whitehead means. Connolly describes how the senseless shock of this terrible natural disaster fed into the emergent Enlightenment mentality represented by Voltaire, who in his satirical book Candide ridiculed both traditional religious consolations as well as Leibniz’s conception that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. In Connolly’s terms, the event exemplifies the way “the human estate is both imbricated with and periodically over-matched by a cosmos composed of multiple, interacting force fields moving at different speeds” (7). But rather than adopting an atheistic position in light of nature’s vicissitudes and the fragility of human life, Whitehead affirms the role of Ideas in history, believing that we can directly intuit an eternal Good beyond all changing circumstances. Without such ideal intuitions to stir the soul toward higher life, he sees no reason why civilized beings should have come to exist in the first place.

Whitehead then turns to critique the socioeconomic consequences of the Malthusian doctrine and the attendant Darwinian notion of “the survival of the fittest,” which he believes are at best an over-simplification and, at worst, when compared with the recent facts of European history, demonstrably false. The doctrine naturalizes the inequalities of capitalist society, with “the fortunate few, and…the semi-destitute many,” forcing us to abandon “hope of improving the social system by a humane adjustment of social…conditions” (73). Connolly goes into more detail regarding the continued effect of these doctrines in his discussion of neoliberalism, which is an ideology seeking to use state power to inject market dynamics into all domains of human life (21). The assumption is that the self-organizing dynamics of the market will result in the best of all possible worlds. Neoliberalism is thus a kind of capitalist Panglossianism (6) (Pangloss, remember, is Voltaire’s caricature of Leibniz).

Though Whitehead emphasizes the selective agency required for the evolution of civilization out of raw nature, he rejects the prevalent dichotomy between humanity and nature. “Mankind is that factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of Nature” (78). He goes on to claim that life itself is about more than mere survival, as living beings are constantly playing offense, groping toward novelty and expansion of their powers. In the human sphere, it follows that “a policy of sociological defense is doomed to failure” (81). “In a live civilization, there is always an element of unrest. For sensitiveness to ideas means curiosity, adventure, change” (83).

[The Imaginative Generalization of Evolutionary Theory] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

The Imaginative Generalization of Evolutionary Theory

“In the most literal sense the lapse of time is the renovation of the world with ideas…[The universe is] passing with a slowness, inconceivable in our measures of time, to new creative conditions, amid which the physical world, as we at present know it, will be represented by a ripple barely to be distinguished from non-entity.” -Whitehead114


The main outlines of the doctrine of evolution, on Whitehead’s reading, must be “[absorbed]…as the guiding methodology of all branches of science.”115 Grasping the transdisciplinary significance of evolution requires the “negative capability” mentioned earlier, a willingness to consign oneself to the speculative risks Whitehead’s philosophy of organism has proposed for thinking. Because all our knowledge depends upon abstraction, the point is not to avoid it but to do it gently, such that our knowing leaves the concrete life of the world unharmed and intact. Whitehead’s contribution to the philosophical integration of the special sciences and their abstract domains of relevance is derived from what he calls his method of “imaginative generalization.” Metaphysics is the imaginative attempt to express in language the most general features of experience, and therefore, of nature. Every special science devises its own instruments: the instrument of metaphysics, the science of sciences, is language.116 Like physics, metaphysics should be undertaken as an experimental practice, only the experiments are to be performed on language itself. “The success of the imaginative experiment,” according to Whitehead, “is always to be tested by the applicability of its results beyond the restricted locus from which it originated.”117

In the case of the connection between evolutionary theory and the new physics, Whitehead’s experiment is to imaginatively generalize Darwin’s specialized concepts of variability, reproduction, and inheritance, such that evolution comes to describe the activity of self-organizing entities at every scale of nature, no longer just the biological. In this sense, as was mentioned earlier, biology becomes the study of the evolution of the larger organisms, while physics becomes the study of the evolution of the smaller organisms.118 “I am…a thoroughgoing evolutionist,” says Whitehead,

…Millions of years ago our earth began to cool off and forms of life began in their simplest aspects. Where did they come from? They must have existed in potentiality in the most minute particles, first of this fiery, and later of this watery and earthy planet.119

Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 demonstrates that “mass [is] the name for a quantity of energy considered in relation to some of its dynamic effects”; this leads, according to Whitehead, to the displacement of matter by energy as the most fundamental concept in physics. But what is energy other than

the name for the quantitative aspect of a structure of happenings…[a structure] that depends on the notion of the functioning of an organism?120

That is, if energetic activity is to be understood in its full concreteness, and not just as mathematical functions in an abstract equation, then some reference must also be made to the mental functions of the self-realizing but prehensively interrelated creatures of the actual world (i.e., to purposeful organisms in an ecology). Whitehead explains:

Evolution, on the materialistic theory, is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of the external relations between portions of matter…There is nothing to evolve…There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive…[and] there is material [or energy]…which endures. On the organic theory, the only endurances are structures of activity, and the structures are evolved [units of emergent value].121

After Whitehead’s imaginative generalization, evolution by the reproductive inheritance of variations under selective pressure becomes evolution by the rhythmic propagation, or vibratory reiteration, of actual occasions along historically organized routes, whereby a specific occasion’s conformal physical prehensions of past actualities (=the cause of structural inheritance) become synthesized with its novel conceptual prehensions of future possibilities (=the source of structural variation) into some enduring pattern of experiential value. In other words,

There is a rhythm of process whereby creation produces natural pulsation, each pulsation forming a natural unit of historic fact.122

These processes of evolutive concrescence “repeat themselves to the crack of doom in the creative advance from creature to creature.”123 Whereas in the Darwinian version of the theory, a pre-existent environment of inert material in empty space is considered to be the sole source of selective pressure, in the Whiteheadian version, organisms are understood to be co-creators of their own environments.124 Also, whereas in the Darwinian theory the competitive struggle for existence is considered the primary engine of evolution, in the Whiteheadian version, cooperative interaction becomes the essential factor for long-term survival. Wherever resilient ecosystems are found, whether at the atomic, biotic, or anthropic level, it is evident that their success is a result of an association of organisms “providing for each other a favorable environment.”125 Whitehead offers a descriptive example of the evolution of atomic ecologies:

Thus just as the members of the same species mutually favor each other, so do members of associated species. We find the rudimentary fact of association in the existence of the two species, electrons and hydrogen nuclei. The simplicity of the dual association, and the apparent absence of competition from other antagonistic species accounts for the massive endurance which we find among them.126

In the image of the cosmos constructed by the philosophy of organism, evolution comes to refer not only to the process of biological speciation in the earthly mesocosm, but also to wider micro- and macrocosmic ecologies of individualizing energetic activity. Evolution, in its most general outlines, is a theory relevant to the entire scope of cosmic history. Just as Copernicus’ heliocentric theory threw Earth into motion, thereby turning the medieval world upside-down, under the new requirements of the evolutionary theory, the sturdy mechanistic cosmos of modernity has been turned inside-out, revealing an organic cosmogenesis creatively advancing through emergent stages of organization. Cosmogenesis, resting on the infinite potential of literally nothing (i.e., the quantum vacuum), has since its eruption been rushing toward more and more complex forms of realization over the course of billions of years.

Cosmic evolution began with the “primordial Flaring Forth,” after which the earliest generation of primate organisms emerged out of the “cosmic fecundity” of the quantum vacuum.127 In Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, this fecundity finds its place as the ultimate principle of his metaphysical scheme: Creativity. Creativity is “universal throughout actuality,” such that it eternally pervades creation to infect each and every one of its creatures with sparks of potentiality.128 As the geologian Thomas Berry and the physicist Brian Swimme suggest,

Though the originating power gave birth to the universe fifteen billion years ago, this realm of power is not simply located there at that point in time, but is rather a condition of every moment of the universe, past, present, and future.129

In Whitehead’s scheme, even God is creaturely, and therefore conditioned by the power Creativity. As discussed in the last section, Creativity is also conditioned or concretized in turn by God’s all-embracing valuation of the multiplicity of potentialities, thereby providing each finite organism with erotic lures encouraging the sort of harmonious functioning that has lead to the stages of enduring societal organization characteristic of the universe.130

Whitehead’s organic primates–or, speaking metaphysically, actual occasions–cannot be understood in isolation; like all biological creatures on Earth, with both their ecological relations in the present and their evolutionary relations in the past, primate organisms are bound together as co-creators in a multiform cosmogenetic community, all of which emerged from one original unfathomably powerful energy-event. “At the base of the serene tropical rainforest,” write Berry and Swimme,

sits this cosmic hurricane. At the base of the seaweed’s column of time is the trillion-degree blast that begins everything. All that exists in the universe traces back to this exotic, ungraspable seed event, a microcosmic grain, a reality layered with the power to fling a hundred billion galaxies through vast chasms in a flight that has lasted fifteen billion years. The nature of the universe today and of every being in existence is integrally related to the nature of this primordial Flaring Forth.131

The primitive beings which first emerged from the Flaring Forth have come since Whitehead’s day to be known by the standard model of particle physics as the muon and tau leptons, along with the charm, strange, top, and bottom quarks, collectively called the fermions.132 These fundamental organisms have mostly evolved, or decayed, since the Big Bang into the more familiar electrons, protons, and neutrons which make up (as organelles, so to speak) the larger atomic organisms of the periodic table of elements. Left out of this picture are the bosons, or force carriers, like gluons, photons, and the as yet undetected graviton. In Whitehead’s organic terms, bosons and fermions can be described according to the two types of vibration, “vibratory locomotion” and “vibratory organic deformation.”133 Organic deformation describes the wave-like aspect of primate organisms (i.e., their continuous transition, or duration, of realized pattern, as felt from within), while locomotion describes the particle-like aspect (i.e., their discontinuous epochal realizations, as felt from without).

The entire genus of atoms did not appear all at once. Prior to the assistance of the higher-level activity of stars (i.e., the process of stellar nucleosynthesis), no elemental organisms heavier than hydrogen and helium were able to stabilize out of lower-level energetic activities. But before stars could emerge, hydrogen and helium had to collect into huge swirling clouds, which became galaxies.134 At the center of these early galaxies there emerged black holes (whose gravity was so intense not even light could escape), further securing the next stage of evolutionary complexity. According to astrophysicist Caleb Scharf, the influence of “energy feedback” from these early black holes played a crucial role in forming the stars and planets making up the universe we know today.135 Star formation was first catalyzed as a result of the rapid revolution of the black holes at the center of galaxies, which generated gravitational density waves that “shocked clouds of hydrogen and helium to condense rapidly into thousands of stars at a time.”136 Had this rapid process of star formation continued unabated, the raw hydrogen and helium gas of most of the galaxies in the universe would long ago have become far too hot to form any new stars.137 Fortunately, the energy feedback effects of supermassive black holes has kept star formation in check. In effect, the eating habits of black holes allow them to act as cosmic thermostats, “making sure the porridge of intergalactic matter is not to hot and not too cold.”138 Black holes have played a fundamental role in the evolutionary adventure that gave rise to our present cosmic ecology.139 According to Scharf,

The fact that there are any galaxies like the Milky Way in the universe at this cosmic time is intimately linked with the opposing processes of gravitational agglomeration of matter and the disruptive energy blasting from matter-swallowing black holes. Too much black hole activity and there would be little new star formation, and the production of heavy elements would cease. Too little black hole activity, and environments might be overly full of young and exploding stars–or too little stirred up to produce anything.140

Galaxies and black holes can be understood as analogous to massive cellular systems, where the regulative role of the black hole is akin to that of the central nucleus of a cell. Like all other organisms, galaxies appear to have a finite life-span, beyond which they can no longer produce new stars. The nested feedback loops at work to secure the self-organizing dynamics of a biological cell are obviously far more complex and adaptive than the simpler feedback exhibited by black holes; but nonetheless, the general analogy seems to hold.


114 Whitehead, Religion in the Making (Edinburg: Cambridge University Press, 1926/2011), 100, 144.

115 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 101.

116 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 11.

117 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 5.

118 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

119 Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, 277.

120 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 96.

121 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 101.

122 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 88.

123 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 228.

124 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 105.

125 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 104.

126 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 104-105.

127 Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (San Francisco: Harper, 1992/1994), 21.

128 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.

129 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 17.

130 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 244.

131 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 21.

132 Lederman, The God Particle, 62.

133 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 121-125.

134 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 34.

135 Caleb Scharf, Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos (New York: Scientific American, 2012), 210.

136 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 34.

137 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 202.

138 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 143.

139 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 164.

140 Schwarf, Gravity’s Engines, 204.

Robert N. Bellah: The Big History of Religion in Human Evolution.

I just returned from a lecture by the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah. He was invited to speak about his book Religion in Human Evolution (2011) by the Dominican University of California. The University has just started a program in Big History, which concerns not only the study of human culture (east, west, and indigenous), but the history of life on earth and of matter and energy in the universe. Bellah spoke to an audience of perhaps 400 people not primarily about religion, but about science. Bellah’s lecture might be best characterized as a “biological sermon” (as one attendee suggested). He began by establishing the common ground of evolution. Most educated people, he said, can agree on the basic scientific story of evolution. We human beings all descend from a common ancestor. At one time, tens of thousands of years ago, we were an endangered species.  A few thousand of us inhabited the African sub-continent. A few million years before that, we were primates, swinging in the trees of a pangean jungle. Before that, we were reptiles; before that amphibians; before that fish, and before that plants, photosynthesizing bacteria, cells, amino acids, molecules, elements, particles, photons.  If we trace our genealogy back far enough, we come to the beginning of the universe itself. Everything that exists now was implied in the initial moment of creation. All of it enfolded.

Our human existence–and the human, I think Bellah would say, is that being who knows it exists–is no less significant than the big bang. Cosmos and Anthropos are metaphysically basic. The universe, as we know it, cannot but be human; of course, the human with all of its religion and culture, is no less natural than the seagull or the stellar nebula. Anthropos (and Logos) is written into the universe from the beginning. That which is most human in us is most cosmic in the universe. Stars, carbon atoms, and cells are intelligent actors in and producers of this world, alike in kind to Christ, even if not alike in power.