Environmental lawyer, philosopher, and fellow Whitehead enthusiast Tam Hunt and I started an email exchange a few weeks ago after I stumbled upon his interview with the physicist Carol Rovelli. Our emails grew into a pretty extensive conversation on all things Whitehead, which I am sharing below. We discuss the importance of Whitehead’s ideas for a future ecological civilization, his philosophy of time (including critiques of Einstein), the role of God and eternal  objects in his cosmology, and more. 


Tam: Why is Whitehead relevant today, to both the layperson, and in physics and the philosophy of physics?

Matt: Whitehead was one of the first initiates into the new cosmological story that, with any luck, will help us build an ecological civilization in the coming decades. The advances in philosophy of nature and discoveries in natural science that occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries (e.g., Schelling, Humboldt, Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, Bergson, Whitehead, et al.) were even more revolutionary than those made by Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton in the 16th and 17th centuries.

If we take a Whiteheadian lens on the contemporary natural sciences, it becomes clear that 21st century people are living in an entirely new world, a self-organizing cosmogenesis that is nothing like the mechanical clockwork universe imagined by 17th century scientists. The problem is, hardly anybody—laypeople or physicists—realizes that we are living in this new universe! We are so mesmerized by the old mechanical model of Nature and by the technological toys it has allowed us to invent and surround ourselves with that we’ve lost touch with the nonhuman world that is literally dying for us to remember it.

Tam: Would you describe yourself as a Whiteheadian traditionalist? Or are there any aspects of Whitehead’s system that you would change?

Matt: I think Whitehead understood metaphysics as an open-ended project, so I engage with his work in the spirit of a co-inquirer. I would describe myself as a Whiteheadian, but there are plenty of ways that I diverge from “traditional” readings of Whitehead. If something in his scheme of abstractions doesn’t fit with my own experience and understanding, I first interrogate his writing more deeply just to be sure I am not misinterpreting him. But once I’m satisfied that I am not misunderstanding, I am perfectly willing to adjust his scheme accordingly. For example, his concept of God’s function in the universe is, by Whitehead’s own admission, incomplete. In my dissertation, I took some liberties in re-interpreting the process God in more pluralistic terms, such that each cosmic epoch has its own divine occasion, with certain characteristics being inherited by subsequent epochs.   

Tam: Who do you regard as the most helpful intellectual descendants/students of Whitehead, thinkers who can both help us understand what the heck Whitehead meant in his sometimes opaque prose, or thinkers who have helpfully extended Whitehead’s system?

Matt: John Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin should be mentioned first. They have and continue to contribute tremendously to Whitehead’s legacy, and to helping us make sense of his sometimes difficult ideas. I have not spent much time myself with Charles Hartshorne’s work, but he has also been very influential. More recently, thinkers as diverse as Catherine Keller, Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and William Connolly have taken up Whitehead’s work and applied it in illuminating and important ways to, e.g., mystical theology, geopolitics, and the sociology of science. The philosopher Peter Sjöstedt-H has also done some fascinating work on the relevance of Whitehead’s philosophy to the interpretation of psychedelic experience.

Tam: Whitehead’s process philosophy is so named because it focuses on process, a succession of states, as the central feature of reality. Yet there are some aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy that are largely and perhaps wholly outside of time, such as “eternal objects” that are akin to Plato’s forms. How would you (succinctly) describe the nature of time in Whitehead’s philosophy in relation to the time of human experience?

Matt: I’ll be as succinct as I can be, but this is a complicated question! Whitehead was one of a number of early 20th century thinkers (including William James, Edmund Husserl, and Henri Bergson) who zeroed in on time, process, or becoming as a crucial nexus point that might help reconnect human experience with the natural world known to science. Whitehead was not influenced by Husserl so far as I know, but he was certainly an inheritor of James’ radical empiricism and Bergson’s vitalism. But he did not inherit from them uncritically. I hope it is not an unfair summary of his criticisms to simply say that he rejected James’ nominalism and Bergson’s anti-intellectualism. That said, he inherited enough from Bergson that he would likely be uncomfortable with your characterization of process as “a succession of states,” since such a characterization may fall prey to what Bergson called the “cinematographic” tendency of the intellect, whereby the continuous flow of time is broken into discrete states, instants, or still frames that are then supposed to generate a sort of cartoon illusion of movement in the flip book of our conscious experience.

Like Bergson, Whitehead entirely rejected the materialistic idea of “Nature at an instant.” This idea is as central to Newton’s absolutist view of space and time as it is to Einstein’s relativistic conception of space-time. Whitehead follows James and Bergson in denying that it has any reality whatsoever. It is a mere abstraction used for convenience in the measurements and equations of physical models. Concrete time cannot be captured by such models because it always has duration. All attempts to measure duration necessarily erase what is essential to it. Duration is pure succession, in Bergson’s terms, which is to say that it is a continuous transformation and not merely a series of translated spatial states.

The point here is not to give up measuring and calculating. Science can go on doing what science does. Following Bergson, Whitehead simply wanted to remind scientists that they should avoid committing his famous “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” by never forgetting that the measurements made by clocks, though convenient for physical models and for the coordination of civilized life, falsely spatialize the flow of temporality.

All that said, Whitehead had more hope than Bergson that the scientific intellect could be reformed so as not to falsify the creative becoming of Nature in its abstract models. His notoriously complex metaphysical system, the so-called “philosophy of organism,” is the result of his effort. I can understand why you would characterize Whitehead’s view of process as “a succession of states,” since he does in fact articulate an “atomic” or “epochal” theory of time, whereby a historical route of atomic “actual occasions” or “drops of experience” constitutes the continuous flow or stream of our consciousness. These occasions “arise and perish” in Whitehead’s terms and are not simply identical to the unbroken flow of conscious time, nor are they static instants. Whitehead thus challenged Bergson’s idea, mentioned above, of duration as “pure succession,” since the duration of Whitehead’s actual occasions is not pure but a mixture of spatial and temporal (as well as eternal, as we will see) ingredients. Whitehead asks us to imagine two distinct types of process: the first is “transition” (roughly equivalent to Bergson’s “duration”), which is the continuous time of our conscious experience, and the second is “concrescence,” which is the epochal or punctuated becoming of actual occasions.

Concrescence is Whitehead’s neologism for what occurs within each drop or occasion of experience as it arises and perishes. Whereas transition provides an empirical account of what we experience in consciousness, concrescence is a speculative idea that is supposed to provide an explanation of the metaphysical conditions necessary for conscious experience. In other words, concrescence is Whitehead’s account of what is going on under the hood of consciousness.

It is in concrescence that Whitehead’s “eternal objects” come into play. They are the “forms of definiteness” or “pure potentials” that constitute the character of what each occasion experiences. Eternal objects can be mathematical or sensual in nature (e.g., circularity, twoness, a particular shade of redness, and saltiness are all examples of eternal objects). Whitehead tells us that they are required for our experience of Nature and not emergent from it. So far, they sound identical to Plato’s forms, but Whitehead actually inverts Plato’s theory of forms. While for Plato, eternal forms are the preeminent realities while physical creatures are derivative copies or pale imitations, for Whitehead, eternal objects are “deficient in actuality” and depend entirely on the decisions of actual occasions to make any difference in the world.

Tam: Can we achieve an improved version of Whitehead by eliminating eternal objects, as some thinkers have aspired to do? Or does the whole edifice fall apart if we remove this concept from Whitehead?

Matt: There have been several attempts to eliminate eternal objects from Whitehead’s process-relational ontology. In my opinion, the two most interesting recent examples are Ralph Pred’s Onflow (2005) and Mark Hansen’s Feed-Forward (2015). Along with eliminating eternal objects, they also try to eliminate Whitehead’s concept of God. Let me clearly state that these are both excellent philosophical works worthy of close study by all Whiteheadians and by anyone interested in the deepest questions we can ask about human consciousness and the technological environment we find ourselves increasingly embedded within.

And let me state just as clearly that Whitehead’s process-relational ontology falls into incoherence as soon as eternal objects and God are removed. Eternal objects and actual occasions are the magnetic poles powering the explanatory dynamo that is Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. I’ve argued at length elsewhere that those who attempt to do without eternal objects (perhaps because they believe they have no place in a supposedly “processual” ontology) while still deploying Whitehead’s other categories only end up re-inventing the wheel and calling it something else. It’s like trying to break a magnet to remove the negative pole: you just end up with a new negative pole at the broken end. I have no problem whatsoever with thinkers who want to develop their own process ontology, but if they want to build on Whitehead’s work, it just doesn’t make sense to talk about actual occasions without eternal objects.

Tam: You stated that actual occasions (Whitehead’s atoms of actuality) are “not states or static instants,” but isn’t it the case that the passage of time in Whitehead’s system is indeed a series of actual occasions, at every level of reality, which are states but not static instants (I didn’t invoke any static features in my question)? This is the shared character of Whitehead’s concrescence, “perpetual perishing,” the “creative advance” and more generally Whitehead’s strong emphasis on becoming [PR, xiv, 22]. As such, shouldn’t we characterize the passage of time in Whitehead’s system as a result of a series of instants or snapshots, at every locus of the universe, which are always changing, but still instantiating as “actual” in an eternal oscillation between actuality and potentiality?

Matt: I don’t think it is Whitehead’s intention to say that the passage of time is a series of instants or snapshots. Such instantaneity can be approached via mathematical abstraction, but actual passage or creative advance is a process that moves from occasion to occasion in a network of relations, not a series of point-instants on a graph. Actual occasions are just that: occasions, or in Bergson’s terms, durations. I don’t see how a static instant could be experiential. Whitehead’s actual occasions of experience each exist “stretched out” in a sort of sublime tension, what James called a “specious present,” wherein the already actualized past is inherited and subjectively synthesized with potential futures. An actual occasion’s final phase of becoming is called its “satisfaction,” which is the decisive moment wherein the occasion collapses the field of potentials into a unique form of actualization. This actualization is the achievement of a novel experience of value, “novel” in that with the becoming and perishing of each actual occasion a perspective on the universe is achieved that has never existed before. This perspective, once perished, becomes “objectively immortal” and is taken up by subsequently concrescing actual occasions. This arising and perishing of actual occasions forms what Whitehead calls a historic route or “society,” and it is at this level that what we consciously experience as the flow of time emerges. I do like your characterization of this process as an “eternal oscillation between actuality and potentiality,” but I don’t think the occasional beats composing the oscillation are instantaneous. 

Tam: Building on our agreement that the passage of time may be characterized as an oscillation between actuality and potentiality, an instant in modern physics can have some minimum duration, such as the Planck time (5.4×10^-44 s), in the same way that energy or space can have a minimum quantity (this is the “quantum” in quantum mechanics). So is time for Whitehead not built as a nested hierarchy of these minimum instants, with each actual occasion constituting an instant or multiple thereof, and the universe built from the set of all actual occasions concrescing in each phase of the creative advance into novelty [PR 29 “The ancient doctrine that ‘no one crosses the same river twice’ is extended”]? Whitehead does posit non-temporal aspects of each concrescence, as you point out, but each concrescence itself is temporal through and through, right? So I think we’re generally saying the same thing?

Matt: There is a lot here to unpack. I would want to distinguish the physics of Planck time and Planck space from Whitehead’s metaphysics of actual occasions and their extensive connection. Whitehead would want us to tread very lightly in identifying his actual occasions with quantum events, since it may very well be the case that the latter are a special case of the former. Regarding the notion of the universe as a “set of all actual occasions,” we also need to be careful. In their brilliant text The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism (2017), Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein are careful to distinguish between two approaches to logically formalizing our thinking about such matters. While Whitehead did often use the term “set” in his writing about collections of occasions or of eternal objects, this should not mislead us into a “set theoretical” way of thinking about the relations among actual occasions and eternal objects. Instead, Auxier and Herstein point to what has come to be called “category theory” as an alternative, and more Whiteheadian, way of thinking about the extensive relations among occasions, particularly when we try to think the cosmic socius as a whole. In short, while set theory focuses on abstract collections of entities and membership in groups, category theory allows us to think in terms of functions and relations, and in terms of the topological transformation of wholes and parts (i.e., mereotopology). Auxier and Herstein argue that category theory, as a form of spatial or topological reasoning, has a more empirical or experiential character, thus granting it deeper relevance in questions of ontology. So instead of thinking of all actual occasions as though they existed side-by-side as members of the set called “universe” advancing along some universal timeline, we must think of the cosmic socius of occasions as a complex network of open-ended activities, all internally related but also differentiated along multiple timelines. It is difficult if not impossible for our 3-dimensional imagination to picture a topological network of activities wherein each node or occasion is both a whole in itself, prehending the whole universe in its concrescence, and a part within the concrescence of other occasions. This is the sort of situation that category theory can formalize mathematically.

Concrescence is neither wholly eternal nor wholly temporal. It is an amphibious concept meant to account for the way potentiality becomes actual. Concrescence is Whitehead’s explanation for how potentials achieve actualization through the portal of a sort of temporal eternity or eternal moment, the creative repetition or oscillation of which is responsible for generating the spatial and temporal world as we normally experience it. It is also important to remember that the universe as a whole is, in Whitehead’s terms, an “essential incompleteness,” as it is never finished or fully present but always advancing into novelty. To capture this, I sometimes expand and reform Einstein’s space-time “fabric” analogy by saying that space-time is always fraying and needs to be continually re-woven with each concrescence.

Tam: Isn’t Whitehead’s system in key ways in opposition to Einstein’s notion of spacetime? Isn’t this a key point of the “process” in process philosophy, that we need to accept the very real passage of time? Reconciling the experienced passage of time with the “block universe” and combined “space-time” of Einstein’s physics is, of course, a large outstanding problem with modern physics. One reason I find Whitehead’s approach appealing is that it presents a way out of this conundrum that Einsteinian physics has gotten us into.

Matt: Whitehead accepted Einstein’s extension of some of the formulae related to electromagnetism to the concept of gravity. As a scientific theory, he was not disputing the usefulness of Einstein’s space-time model. His dispute with Einstein concerned the latter’s metaphysical interpretation of said model. Whitehead was concerned not only about the reduced status of time in Einstein’s eternal vision of the cosmos, but with the possibility of measurement in a space that, according to Einstein, was heterogeneous as a result of being warped by contingently arrayed mass. Accurate measurement requires rigid rulers. Unless we know in advance where all the mass in the universe is, we cannot be sure how our ruler (or its equivalent, light rays) may be bending in any attempted measurement, particularly if we are talking about astronomical distances. Problem is, we cannot know in advance how mass is arrayed in the cosmos since that would require measurement. We are stuck, as Whitehead puts it, having to know everything before we can know anything. As part of his attempt to articulate precisely why he disagreed with Einstein, Whitehead produced his own tensor equations that did not rely on the idea of “curved” space but that nonetheless made equivalent empirical predictions as Einstein’s model (i.e., Whitehead’s formulae make the same predictions about Mercury’s perihelion, etc., and its variables could be easily modified to fit with any new observations resulting from more sensitive instruments).

As for time, Whitehead was in agreement with Bergson (who debated Einstein on this issue in 1922) that Einstein’s metaphysical interpretation of relativity mistook the abstract units of mechanical clock-time for the ontology of temporality. But unlike Bergson, who sometimes seems to have imagined that some universal flow of time underlies everything, Whitehead was perfectly clear that relativity theory destroys the idea of global simultaneity or universal time. Contra Einstein, he argued that time was perfectly real and not an illusion, but it is real only in a local sense related to unique historical routes of actual occasions of experience. So the Whiteheadian universe includes many distinct (more or less overlapping) time-systems. For this reason, I sometimes refer to a Whiteheadian pluriverse instead of calling it a universe.

Tam: Can you elaborate on why you think that Whitehead’s system would become incoherent without the inclusion of eternal objects?

Matt: Without eternal objects, there would no longer be any potential ingredient in the passage of Nature. The past and the future would become ontologically indistinguishable. Everything would already be actualized and there’d be no room for genuine creativity. All process would become locked in habit and repetition. Further, eternal objects are part of what allows actual occasions to be individual creatures rather than being indiscriminately merged together with every other occasion. Whitehead does view actual occasions as “internally related” and thus in some sense each occasion is dependent on every other occasion to be what it is, but it is the mediating role played by eternal objects in characterizing the “how” of experience that allows actual occasions to decide on unique subjective interpretations of the world rather than just directly inheriting the world as it is objectively given. Occasions can consider possible alternatives by ingressing novel eternal objects, thus inviting new potentials into settled actuality. Finally, eternal objects are what allow us to recognize and identify stable entities in what is otherwise a world of flux. What is it that you recognize in a friend or loved one as their distinct personality or character, something that sticks with them through many years of life despite other changes to their appearance?

Tam: You suggest that without eternal objects the past and future could not be distinguished. But if we eliminate eternal objects and ingression from Whitehead’s ontology we are left with actual entities and Creativity (as a general principle of potentiality or novelty [PR 21 “’Creativity’ is the principle of novelty”]). Isn’t concresence of actual entities, the sum of which is the creative advance into novelty, in addition to Creativity as the principle of potentiality becoming actual in each actual occasion, enough to provide all of these aspects of our experienced reality: 1) the experienced passage of time; 2) a physical passage of time more generally; 3) novelty; 4) a clear arrow of time that distinguishes between past and present?  

Matt: No, I don’t think so. To fully answer this question, I need to bring in Whitehead’s concept of God again. If we eliminate the notion of ingressing eternal objects and God from Whitehead’s ontology, preserving only prehending actual occasions and Creativity, I am no longer sure what we could possibly mean by “concrescence.” God’s function in Whitehead’s ontology is to provide relevance to each occasion as it concresces out of Creativity. Without this mediating or filtering role, each occasion would be overwhelmed by the sheer infinity of potentials available for actualization in any given moment. God is Whitehead’s principle of limitation or concretion, and the graded hierarchy of eternal objects is Whitehead’s way of describing how infinite possibility is made relevant to each finite occasion’s experience. Further, it is precisely through the contrast granted by contact with eternity in each concrescence that an experience of passage arises. Without the contrast, without the punctuation of process by eternality, time would be experientially undetectable.

Tam: Why can’t physical prehensions of surrounding actual entities, in each moment of the creative advance, be sufficient for limiting the “infinity of potentials available for actualization”? I’ve suggested this kind of notion in my work on the mind-body problem, inspired by Whitehead, and it is based on the uncontroversial notion that actual entities can only include in each instantiation information that they can receive within the duration of each concrescence, limiting the actual entities that form each set of data available to the new concrescing entity. Under this framework, each actual entity is still an ordering of Creativity, an actualization of pure potentiality, but there is no need to posit what seem like more religious notions of God or eternal objects beyond the pure potentiality of Creativity.

Matt: Whitehead did not include a concept of God in his metaphysical scheme for religious reasons. His God is a concept to be reflected upon and not a personal being to be worshipped (though of course God may become this secondarily for those who fully inhabit and live into his cosmology). Noting this up front is important, as it allows us (hopefully) to just focus on the philosophical issues at stake without dragging in all the emotional controversies associated with the battle between religious belief and secularity, etc. Whitehead specifically says in Process & Reality that he wants to “secularize the concept of God” and that this is one of the most important tasks for modern philosophy.

That said, it  may be possible to account for the provision of relevance to each concrescing occasion of experience in the way that you suggest, via the physical prehension of past actualities in its environment. But then we are left with another problem, which is how to account for the novelty added by each occasion. If there is just physical prehension of the actualized past and no conceptual prehension of potentia (i.e., eternal objects), what prevents actual occasions from just repeating the experiences of the past ad infinitum? The question is not just about the relevance of each newly concrescing occasion to its inherited past, but the relevance of this past to potential futures. The provision of this relevance is necessary for a concrescence to decide how to actualize the potential value it is incubating. Even if we eliminate the role of God and eternal objects in determining the relevance of a concrescent occasion to its past, we still have to account for the determination of the relevant possibilities open to that occasion given its past. While the realm of actuality is finite, the realm of potential is infinite. So again, actual occasions would seem to need a little divine help here to avoid being overwhelmed by unlimited creative potential.

Tam: Various thinkers have tried to “naturalize” Whitehead by removing eternal objects, God or other aspects of his system that seem to some to be out of place or unnecessary. Donald Sherburne, one of the editors of the standard corrected edition of Process and Reality, and a serious Whitehead scholar, has proposed “Whitehead without God.” You are clear so far in rejecting attempts to eliminate eternal objects or God from Whitehead’s system, but what about substituting Creativity for more non-religious notions of God like Source/Brahman/akasha, as thinkers like Huston Smith have argued (see, e.g., the great debate between Griffin and Smith in the book-length dialogue Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology)? Under this amendment to Whitehead’s system, we retain Whitehead’s Creativity as the Ultimate and we can call it Source/Brahman, etc., as well as Creativity, since it is the ontological ground of being in Whitehead’s system. But we can eliminate God in its primordial nature (which is comprised of the set of all eternal objects), while retaining God in its consequent nature, as the high/highest level of a nested hierarchy of concrescing actual entities.

Matt: I am fine with folks coming up with whatever cosmological scheme they feel best captures the reality of their experience and understanding. But I don’t think we are talking about Whitehead’s scheme anymore if we remove God. Creativity is Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, while God is said to be the first creature of Creativity. God’s function here is to limit the unlimited. So strictly speaking, Creativity is not the ground of Whitehead’s ontology; rather, the primordial nature of God, as the principle of concretion or limitation, provides this ground. Creativity itself is a groundless abyss of pure potential, more a fountain than a foundation.

Tam: In terms of the discussion about mathematical discovery vs. invention, this is as you point out a longstanding debate. Many thinkers have taken the view that it is invention, which means that mathematical and similar truths are based on concepts that we create in our minds and manipulate to find new insights. So twoness, to use your example, is in this view an invented generality based on the observation that many things in our experienced world can be enumerated and compared, and in doing so given labels. A human 100,000 or more years ago probably realized that using her fingers to keep track of things in the real world was useful and then eventually gave labels to each numbered finger and by extension items in the real world labeled similarly. In this evolutionary approach to the development of language and mathematics there is no need to posit discovery of eternal objects in a realm only accessible to human reason. We also have good evidence that other animals have basic concepts of number; crows, for example, can count at least as high as three, with specialized cells in the brain, similar to how primates like us count. Are crows discovering transcendent mathematical truths or only using their evolved brains to create useful tools mapped on to their experienced worlds?

Matt: Whitehead’s eternal objects are not sequestered in a realm accessible only to human reason. They were ingredients in the creative advance of Nature long before humans showed up. Indeed, Whitehead tells us, “in the most literal sense the lapse of time is the renovation of the world with ideas” (Religion in the Making, 100). In Whitehead’s view, human reason does not even begin to comprehend the full breadth of the realm of ideal possibilities from out of which it has emerged and toward which it is passing.

Whitehead does not deny that other humans and animals exist on a cognitive spectrum, with some animals possessing very basic conceptions of number. In Modes of Thought, he describes watching a mother squirrel remove her young ones from a nest that had grown too small. She becomes distressed when she sees her children outside the cramped setting of the nest for the first time, running back and forth to make sure she hadn’t left anyone behind. This is because, according to Whitehead, she had only an indefinite or vague sense of how many children she had. She had no definite sense of number, in other words. Perhaps crows, clever as they are, have the ability to count higher than squirrels. Granting the cognitive continuum here, Whitehead still points to the advance achieved by humans, likely due to language: “Mankind enjoys a vision of the function of form within fact, and of the issue of value from this interplay. That day in the history of mankind when the vague appreciation of multitude was transformed into the exact observation of number, human beings made a long stride in the comprehension of that interweaving of form necessary for the higher life which is the disclosure of the good” (Modes of Thought, 77). So while eternal objects were ingredients in the evolutionary process long before humans showed up on the scene, our linguistic capacities do indeed grant us more definite conceptions of their distinct forms and mathematical relations. But our symbolic languages do not invent mathematical relations, they discover and express them.

Tam: In terms of your suggestion that it is eternal objects that allow us to identify loved ones over time, I don’t understand what you mean so can you elaborate on this further? Isn’t the constancy of their person and your recognition of that person the same as any changing pattern in nature in terms of steady change over time but with a general commonality over time (in Buddhist thought, this notion is a “continuant” as described in the Milindapanha)? Or are you suggesting there is some eternal essence that each individual enjoys that is an eternal object?

Matt: Whitehead wanted to give some explanation for how it is that in a world of process we nonetheless are able to recognize and identify definite characters or entities. We are out at sea and glimpse a whale just before it dives under the surface. A moment later, it explodes into the air. “There it is again,” we say. A simple enough observation, but Whitehead finds it metaphysically perplexing. Why are we justified in saying it is the same whale? I am not certain of the exact physiological details here, but scientists tell us that after some number of years every single atom in our body is replaced. Despite this complete material renewal, we are still somehow justified in claiming a sense of stable identity. Our matter changes, but our form endures. Whitehead talks about societies of actual occasions with “personal order,” and here he does not just mean the persistent identities of human persons but the persistent “serially ordered” identity of everything from rocks and trees to whales and skyscrapers. The serial personal order of a human being or a whale is constituted by especially intimately related historical routes of actual occasions of experience that repeatedly and collectively ingress a complex constellation of eternal objects. This unique constellation of eternal objects grants an individual human or whale its definite character or personality, experienced from within and recognized by others as in some sense a consistent identity despite its continual passage. Whitehead does not accept substantial notions of identity (“no thinker thinks twice,” he reminds us in Process & Reality), so he is forced to invent a processual account of this continuity, and the ingression of definite possibilities through historical routes of socially ordered actual occasions is how he attempts to pull it off.

Tam: But can’t a society of actual entities, as you and Whitehead discuss, accomplish this continuity over time (but always changing in each moment) without eternal objects? More generally, isn’t this kind of continuity over time what Whitehead means by “enduring objects” (which are different from eternal objects and are societies with “personal order”) [PR p. 34, 109]?

Matt: Whitehead is pretty clear, it seems to me, that what defines a society of actual occasions as an enduring object with personal order (personally ordered societies are a special case of enduring objects) is the complex constellation of eternal objects that these occasions repeatedly ingress through a historical route of genetic inheritance. The common form of any society of occasions, including personally ordered societies, is provided by the inherited constellation of eternal objects that sustains its definite characteristics.       

Tam: More specifically, what does it mean to you that “saltiness,” an example you provide of eternal objects, is an eternal something that exists in a different realm than our manifest world? Aren’t these features of reality far more likely to be biologically evolved features of our universe that arose out of the specific conditions found on our planet? I personally have a hard time with positing such features of human reality and of reality more generally as unchanging “eternal objects”?

Matt: Saltiness is probably a complex eternal object, rather than a simple one that cannot be further decomposed. So it is not the best example to convince you of the metaphysical role of eternal objects. Mathematical objects almost certainly provide the strongest case for the necessity of something like Plato’s forms. You’ll never find “twoness” anywhere in the physical world. You’ll find endless examples of twoness participating in the physical world: two birds, two stones, two people, two fingers, two very different objects that you decide to group together for whatever reason, etc. But the idea of “twoness” itself is not captured by any of these specific instances. Where does it come from? Nominalists would say twoness, like other mathematical ideas, is just a name whose meaning derives from the conventional use of an arbitrarily invented symbol. But in my experience the majority of mathematicians, including Whitehead, would strongly contest this notion and claim that the history of mathematics is full of genuine discoveries that cannot be reduced to invented symbolisms. Yes, mathematicians need symbols to express their ideas, but there is more to the mathematical patterns and relations they discover than just these symbols.

A complex eternal object like saltiness is dependent upon the crystalization of sodium chloride molecules and the evolution of sensory organs and many other factors in order to ingress. Whitehead isn’t denying the importance and indeed the priority of these factors, but he was unable to conceive of a coherent metaphysical scheme that didn’t do justice to the realm of potentiality alongside that of actuality. “Coherence” for Whitehead means that neither potentiality nor actuality can be understood in isolation from the other.

Tam: How do we help spread a wider interest and understanding of Whitehead’s ideas? Are there any attempts to spread his ideas through, for example, primary school education (at a kid-friendly level)?

Matt: This is a really important question. I believe that the most developed effort on this front is coming from the Pando Populus organization, which emerged from the huge International Whitehead Conference held in Claremont, CA back in 2015 called “Toward an Ecological Civilization.” Most of their work is focused locally in Los Angeles at this point, but they also have plans aiming at a more global impact and already have a foothold in China (where there are something like 30 graduate programs devoted to Whitehead’s ideas).

I don’t know of any attempts to bring his ideas into primary school classrooms, but that sounds like a great idea! I would even be happy with just the story of philosophy and its most basic questions being taught in primary school. Whitehead’s panpsychist outlook is only a philosophically refined and attenuated form of animism, so it may already be common sense to most kids. That it is animate is an obvious fact about the world for childhood consciousness (and for most of our species’ 200,000+ year history: the disenchanted mechanistic view is only a few hundred years old). Kids have a much more intuitive grasp of basic metaphysical questions. Unfortunately, our innate curiosity about the hidden causes of everyday facts (“But why?”) is beaten out of us pretty early on by impatient adults. Bringing philosophy into primary school classrooms would really just be about encouraging the wonder and curiosity that is already everpresent in childhood. Sharing the best historical articulations of the Big Questions so that they take root in the imaginations of children might help shape them into more intellectually flexible adults who are capable of avoiding ideological fixation in the face of an overwhelmingly complex world.

Whitehead’s Ontology of Organism

“Lo! keen-eyed towering science, As from tall peaks the modern overlooking, Successive absolute fiats issuing. Yet again, lo!, the soul, above all science,…For it the entire star-myriads roll through the sky…For it the partial to the permanent flowing, For it the real to the ideal tends. For it the mystic evolution…” -Walt Whitman60

“Everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.” – Jorge Luis Borges61

From Whitehead’s perspective, a successful cosmological scheme should aim to exhibit itself “as adequate for the interpretation of…the complex texture of civilized thought.”62 To this end, the cosmologist’s central motivation must be

to construct a system of ideas which brings the aesthetic, moral, and religious interests into relation with those concepts of the world which have their origin in natural science.63

Already an important difference can be marked between contemporary scientific cosmology and Whitehead’s more philosophical (and cosmotheandric) approach to cosmologizing. Following his metaphysical turn in the late 1920s, Whitehead sought nothing less than the integration of our artistic, religious, and scientific intuitions into one general scheme of thought. The typical aim of the modern scientific cosmologist, even when they claim to be pursuing a “grand unifying theory,” or “theory of everything,” is obviously far less integral in scope: only the empirico-mathematical features of the physical world are given systematic treatment, while everything else, no matter its importance to civilized human life, is, at best, bracketed as irrelevant, and at worst, explained away as illusory. The specialized operational/instrumental methods of contemporary scientific cosmology have allowed it to precisely measure and carefully dissect much of the known world, but the materialistic ontology providing its imaginative background has lead it to “exclude itself from relevance to the ordinary stubborn facts of daily life.”64 For example, average law-abiding citizens must go about their day under the assumption that they bear some responsibility for their actions, despite the fact that materialistic interpretations of neuroscience leave no room in the brain for anything remotely resembling consciousness, much less free will. Scientific materialism leaves us in the impossible position of having to deny in theory what we are unable but to affirm in practice.

Whitehead had little doubt that the technological applications of modern science would continue to transform civilization. Technologically speaking, science is only becoming more intensely relevant to daily life. Indeed, the technological applications of science have come to dominate not only human life, but the entire earth community. It cannot be denied that the increase in physical power which has resulted from rapid technoscientific advance has afforded civilization the opportunity for social betterment; but it has also brought us perilously close to destroying ourselves.65

“It may be,” says Whitehead,

that civilization will never recover from the bad climate which enveloped the introduction of machinery…The world is now faced with a self-evolving system, which it cannot stop.66

As was discussed earlier, modern technoscience has excelled at transforming and controlling what it has not adequately understood and cannot morally or aesthetically appreciate. The scientistic presupposition that “matter in motion is the one concrete reality in nature,” such that “aesthetic values form an…irrelevant addition,” has proven itself to be an error of disastrous proportions.67 It is precisely this materialistic ontology and its accompanying instrumentalist epistemology that Whitehead’s cosmological scheme endeavors to re-imagine. Instead of pursuing science in abstraction from the values of earthly life, Whitehead’s cosmology seeks to replace the traditional scientific conception of mechanism, along with the traditional religious conception of deism, with a novel conception of organism. With mechanistic substance as its foundational concept, modern science’s bifurcation of nature into objective natural facts and subjective human values is inevitable. With a conception of organic process as his starting point, Whitehead is able to articulate a cosmology whose details elucidate, rather than eliminate, the common sense values of civilized life, such as moral responsibility, aesthetic appetition, and veritable knowledge (or goodness, beauty, and truth, respectively).

“If nature really is bifurcated,” argues another of Whitehead’s contemporary interpreters, Bruno Latour,

no living organism would be possible, since being an organism means being the sort of thing whose primary [physical] and secondary [psychical] qualities–if they exist–are endlessly blurred.68

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism rejects the bifurcation of such qualities, as well as any type of arbitrary ontological dualism. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that the widespread acceptance of dualism during the modern period implies that, as an abstract scheme, it can prove elucidatory of the texture of experience in some instances. Whitehead criticizes Descartes’ mind/matter dualism for its incoherence due to excessive abstraction, but adds that “[his] system obviously says something that is true.”69 Whitehead appropriates much from the modern natural philosophical tradition, all the while keeping in mind that “the chief error in philosophy is overstatement.”70 By way of his method of imaginative generalization, Whitehead is lead to experimentally construct71 an alternative cosmological scheme that is ultimately rooted in creative process, rather than static substance, and whose fundamental categories are actual occasions, prehensions, and eternal objects, rather than minds, representations, and matter. The dualistic Cartesian problematic is not thereby eliminated or explained away; rather, it is transformed.72 The relationship between actual occasions and eternal objects is no longer one of duality, where neither kind of entity requires the other in order to exist, but of polarity, such that the being of eternal objects cannot be grasped in abstraction from the becoming of actual occasions, or vice versa. Whitehead avoids the modern bifurcation of nature (which restricts experiential value only to the human sphere and relegates everything non-human to the status of “vacuous actuality”73) by recognizing that every organic occasion or ecosystem of occasions–whether it be an electron, a bacterial colony, a sequoia, a bottle-nosed dolphin, a human civilization, a star, or stellar society (a galaxy)–is constituted by both a physical pole inheriting the feelings of realized actual facts and a mental pole anticipatory of realizable eternal possibilities.

As for the special significance of the human sphere, the conscious mental pole of “high grade” organisms like Homo sapiens is said to be so advanced in degree that it appears also to become different in kind. Whitehead is able to preserve what is elucidatory in the binary theocosmic or cosmoanthropic formulations of reality while at the same time jettisoning the substantialist ontology that would draw them back into the modern bifurcation dissecting the living body of the cosmos straight down the middle.74 The philosophy of organism avoids having to invoke incoherent accounts of the emergence of mind from matter, or value from vacuity, by recognizing that conscious human experience is only a special case of a more general, or cosmic, mode of experience. For Whitehead, to exist at all is already to experience, and to experience is to value:

Realization is…in itself the attainment of value…Aesthetic attainment is interwoven [with] the texture of realization.75

While the orthodox materialistic natural philosophy begins by assuming the two independently existing substances, mind and matter–where material objects are modified by external relations of locomotion, and mental subjects are modified by internal (or private) cogitations representative of external (or public) objects–Whitehead’s philosophy of organism begins with “the analysis of process as the realization of events disposed in an interlocked community.”76 Actual occasions, as the final realities of which the universe is composed, are self-creating buds of experience, each one uniquely itself even while it remains internally related to every other occasion in the creative community of the universe. Occasions are interrelated by way of the pattern of eternal objects characterizing for each of them the qualitative aspects of the other occasions in their community. Eternal objects “interpret [occasions], each to the other,”77 such that they come to find themselves related to one another in an extended space-time continuum according to certain invariant geometric principles,78 principles which are explored in a subsequent section in the context of a discussion of Whitehead’s philosophical critique of Einstein’s relativity theory.

“The solidarity of the universe,” writes Whitehead, “is based on the relational functioning of eternal objects.”79 As relational entities, eternal objects cannot themselves cause actual occasions, they can only characterize the how of prehension. “[Eternal objects] are adverbial, rather than substantive,” according to Whiteheadian interpreter Steven Shaviro, in that “they determine and express how actual [occasions] relate to one another, take one another up, and ‘enter into each others’ consitutions.’”80 Each actual occasion is, in this sense, nothing but the multiplicity of prehensions of other occasions (as characterized adverbially by eternal objects) which it unifies. But in another sense, as a self-unifying creature, an occasion not only prehends and reiterates the realized spatiotemporal pattern of the settled past, it adds a new value (itself) to the ongoing evolution of the universe. Whitehead coined the term concrescence to refer to the “production of novel togetherness” resulting from the completed satisfaction of each occasion of experience.81 By way of concrescence, a particular actual occasion’s many prehensions of other occasions becomes one, thereby adding one more realized unity of experience to the ongoing creative advance of the cosmic community: “The many become one, and are increased by one.”82

It is important not to think of prehension resulting in an actual occasion “having” experience of other occasions, as though an occasion were “the unchanging subject of change.”83 This would inevitably lead back to the classical, bifurcated conception of mental subjects qualified by their private representations of supposedly public material objects. “If this be granted,” argues Whitehead, “there is no escape from solipsism.”84 It was only by arbitrary recourse to the goodness of an omnipotent God that Descartes was able to re-establish any meaningful epistemic connection between ideas in the soul and matters of fact in nature. For the philosophy of organism, an actual occasion is not a pre-existent subject qualified by its representations of ready-made objects; rather, an occasion is better characterized as a dipolar “subject-superject.”85 The “subject” phase of a concrescing occasion emerges from the prehensions of antecedent occasions which it unifies, while in the “superject” phase the occasion, having attained satisfaction as a unified drop of distinctly patterned experience, immediately perishes into “objective immortality,” such that it can be prehended by subsequently concrescing actual occasions. Whitehead expresses the perpetual perishing of subjectivity into objective immortality in terms of his “principle of relativity,” such that “it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming.’”86

Actual occasions, then, are describable in two ways, as “being” and as “becoming.” These ontological designations are not independent, since, according to Whitehead’s correlative “principle of process,” an occasion’s “being” arises from its “becoming”: “how an actual [occasion] becomes constitutes what that actual [occasion] is.”87 The description of an occasion according to its genetic “becoming” provides an account of the occasion’s own subjective aim (=its final cause), while the description according to its extensive “being” provides an account of its superjective effect as prehended by other occasions beyond itself (=its efficient cause).

By conceiving of the basic constituents of the world as unified prehensive processes of causal inheritance and conceptual anticipation, rather than static, isolated substances qualified by accidental predicates, Whitehead is able to preserve the unique identity of each individual organism without at the same time so exaggerating their separateness that continuity with the larger ecosystem of other organisms is broken.

Thus far, my account of the fundamentals of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism has been rather abstract, which is to say purely metaphysical; but before moving on to further explicate its implications in the context of contemporary physical theory, it may be helpful to examine exactly what role abstraction itself plays in Whitehead’s cosmological scheme.

“In any occasion of cognition,” says Whitehead,

that which is known is an actual occasion of experience, as diversified by reference to a realm of entities which transcend that immediate occasion in that they have analogous or different connections with other occasions of experience.88

Whitehead here makes reference to the realm of “eternal objects,” or “pure potentials,” which contribute to the definiteness of actual occasions without themselves being reducible to the experience of any particular occasion, since “eternal objects are the same for all actual [occasions].”89 Many contemporary thinkers, laden with the nominalistic presuppositions of the modern age, come to Whitehead’s metaphysics expecting everything to be explained according to immanent process alone. They are surprised by his introduction of the hierarchy of eternal objects, not to mention the divinity envisaging it, both of which can at first seem to be rather ad hoc additions to his cosmology. Whitehead introduces them, however, with the aim of maintaining the overall coherence of his scheme. He writes:

It is the foundation of the metaphysical position which I am maintaining that the understanding of actuality requires a reference to ideality. The two realms are intrinsically inherent in the total metaphysical situation.90

Once again displaying his allegiances both to mathematical physics and to poetry, Whitehead recognizes that “the interfusion of events” constituting cosmogenesis participates in eternity as much as time, being infected as much by the values of actual nature as by the ghostly traces of “colors, sounds, scents, [and] geometrical characters…required for nature and…not emergent from it.”91 Only actuality has value, but in order for “actual value” to find its metaphysical definition, some reference to the adjacent possibilities provided by ideality is necessary. Each actual occasion of experience realizes itself as a complex unity of valued patterning; this patterning displays itself as a subjective harmonization of the prehended superjective values achieved in the occasion in question’s causal past. The experiential achievement of some more or less complex unity of patterning is only felt as valuable to the occasion which realizes it because this occasion simultaneously feels, via the divinely envisaged gradation of the infinite set of eternal objects as they are relevant to its unique situation, those definite possibilities which remain abstract because unrealized in its concrescence. In other words, a drop of experience

is decisive in proportion to the importance (for it) of its untrue propositions: their relevance to the [occasion] cannot be dissociated from what the [occasion] is in itself by way of achievement.92

Each occasion becomes what it is by not being what it isn’t. Whitehead is able to avoid a dualism between actuality and ideality by showing how the realization of definite concrete values requires the ingression of what “is not” alongside the prehension of “what is.” In this sense, the prehension of actuality and the ingression of possibility cannot be defined in isolation.93 Each must require the other if a coherent account of both the solidarity and the separability of the universe is to be articulated. Eternal objects have a “twofold role,” in that they both relate occasions to each other (allowing the creative many to become the one created universe) and unify occasions for themselves (allowing the one universe to become many again). The open-ended creative advance of the actual universe in this way depends on both conjunction and disjunction, both unification and differentiation.94

Having crowned creativity “the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact,” Whitehead needed to account for the unique character of more mundane matters of fact (i.e., finite actual occasions). How is the infinite creativity conditioning the universe to be canalized into the decisive prehensions and relevant evaluations characterizing the concrescence of each of its unique, finite creatures? To answer this question, Whitehead was lead to bring forth a novel concept of divinity. The only difference between God and every other actual occasion is that divine experience appears to occur in the reverse direction to that of finite experiences, such that God’s mental pole is primary while God’s physical pole is consequent.95 God’s mental pole is described as the primordial creature of creativity, the first act of unfettered conceptual valuation responsible for ordering the realm of eternal objects. God is thus simultaneously a creature of Creativity and, by its persuasive influence on the decisions of finite actual occasions, a condition limiting the otherwise chaotic potency of Creativity.

By reason of this complete valuation, the objectification of God in each derivate actual [occasion] results in a graduation of the relevance of eternal objects to the concrescent occasion in question…Apart from God, eternal objects unrealized in the actual world would be relatively non-existent for the concrescence in question.96

God, as the “primordial superject of creativity,” is the first fact giving any definite face to the otherwise impersonal creative advance. God’s primordial nature assures that every finite occasion of experience subsequent to God’s initial act of envisagement includes in its physical prehension of the actual world a conceptual prehension of the realm of possibilities as relevant to it. In this way, those abstract potentials remaining as yet unrealized in a particular occasion’s actual world nonetheless find their definite relation to that occasion and its world without having to float into their situation from nowhere.97 According to Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” “the general potentiality of the universe must be somewhere…this ‘somewhere’ is the non-temporal actual entity”: God.98

As was already mentioned, God is a dipolar actual occasion like every other, “finding [itself] in the double role of [agent] and [patient] in a common world.”99 God’s primordial envisagement of eternal objects occurs in abstraction from finite actual occasions; it is accomplished by God alone. As such, the primordial aspect of God’s nature remains deficient in actuality. While the abstract order of creation depends upon God’s agential “adjustment of the togetherness of eternal objects,” the concrete values of creation depend upon the “infinite patience” of God’s consequent pole, God’s “tender care that nothing be lost.”100 God experienced in full concreteness (i.e., as a living, cosmic personality) is not the distant unmoved mover or all-powerful creator of traditional religious metaphysics, but the poet and lover of the world, “the fellow-sufferer who understands.”101 Whitehead’s imaginative description of God has more in common with the intermediary World-Soul of Plato’s Timaeus than it does with the “wholly transcendent” Jehovah of Newton’s Scholium, “creating out of nothing [by fiat] an accidental universe.”102 I continue the comparison between Whitehead’s God and Plato’s World-Soul in the final section of this essay. The next section concerns the relevance of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to evolution, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories, each in turn.

Footnotes

60 Whitman, “Song of the Universal,” in Leaves of Grass (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 1892/2004), 380.

61 “Happiness,” transl. by Stephen Kessler, in Borges: Selected Poems (New York: Penguin, 1999), 441.

62 Whitehead, Process and Reality, xi.

63 Whitehead, Process and Reality, xii.

64 Whitehead, Process and Reality, xiii.

65 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 182-183.

66 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 181, 183.

67 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 182.

68 Bruno Latour, Foreword to Thinking With Whitehead, xiii.

69 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 6.

70 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 7.

71 His method is experimental in that it redesigns the philosophical instrument of language “in the same way that, in physical science, pre-existing appliances are redesigned” (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 11).

72 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 108.

73 The bifurcation may be thus anthropocentric, or it may, when pressed, become biocentric, such that it restricts value to the biological sphere, thereby denying it to the physical or cosmic as such.

74 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 132.

75 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 89-90.

76 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 138.

77 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 137.

78 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 145.

79 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 137.

80 Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009), 37; quoting Whitehead, Process and Reality, 148-149.

81 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

82 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

83 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29.

84 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 137.

85 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29.

86 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 22.

87 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.

88 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 142-143.

89 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.

90 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 143.

91 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

92 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 143.

93 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 189.

94 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

95 Or perhaps it is finite experience that appears backwards?

96 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

97 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 32.

98 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 46.

99 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 315.

100 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.

101 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346, 351.

102 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 95.

Graham Harman has jumped in offering his own response to my recent comment directed at Levi Bryant regarding his interpretation of Whitehead.

The core issue, for Harman, is whether Whitehead’s position is ultimately reducible to some form of relationism, wherein an actual occasion is no more than the sum of its prehensions, or whether Whitehead’s accounts of an occasion’s self-creation and self-enjoyment are enough to preserve some sort of individual withdrawal, thereby allowing genuine novelty to erupt in the course of cosmogenesis. Without such withdrawal, says Harman, there could be no change at all, much less novelty, since each actual occasion would always already be related to every other actual occasion. Without points of rupture in the continuum of relations, nothing new, nothing different, could ever emerge. Harman writes:

Change obviously occurs, and in my view Whitehead has a surprisingly difficult time accounting for it, despite the common impression that he is a philosopher of process and change (he is actually a remorseless philosopher of static instants, just like Heidegger– another philosopher who is wrongly viewed as a thinker of time). You can’t just say “of course Whitehead knows that things change,” and then hypostatize that awareness by positing concepts such as “concrescence” and “enjoyment” and dodging the question of whether they are prehensional or something more than prehensional (both of which lead to severe problems for Whitehead).

I’m honestly not sure what Harman is getting at by saying Whitehead is a remorseless philosopher of static instants. As far as I’m aware, Whitehead is a process philosopher, such that the relational flux of the cosmic nexūs is the foreground of his cosmology. His understanding of the universe of classical physics is similar to Bergson’s: physical science had become increasingly adept at spatializing time, allowing it to view nature denuded of value, quality, and duration. This lead to all sorts of metaphysical paradoxes, the results of badly analyzed composites and abstract bifurcations.

On the other hand, Whitehead was unwilling to follow Bergson’s anti-intellectualism. Picking up where Bergson left off (with his important critique of the philosophical tradition’s habit of backgrounding fluency in favor of the clear and distinct stasis of abstract categories like “extension”), Whitehead employs his own form of intellectual intuition to further differentiate fluency into two kinds (PR, 210):

1) concrescence (=”the real internal constitution of a particular existent”; i.e., the individual final causes of the universe), and 2) transition (=the perishing of a particular existent’s process, thereby “constituting that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existences elicited by repetitions of process”; i.e., the transfer of inherited efficient causes through the universe). The continuity of the universe is preserved by the process of transition, while the withdrawal of individual occasions, and therefore the potential for novelty, is preserved by the process of concrescence. Unlike transition, concrescence is not simply prehensional. “Each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates. No two occasions can have identical actual worlds” (210). Concrescence is the process by which any given actual occasion prehends the many occasions of its extensive continuum into some new definite form of unity (=achievement of subjective value) to be added to the ongoing advance of nature.

This differentiation between concrescence and transition allows Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, despite its generally processual orientation, to remain nonetheless explicitly atomic. This comes through clearly enough in Process and Reality, where Whitehead writes: “the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism” (35). He is lead to this conclusion largely as a result of the discoveries of quantum and relativity theories concerning the nature of time. 20th century science was forced to reject two ideas that had long provided its metaphysical first principles: 1) the idea of nature at an instant, and 2) the idea that the universe had a single continuous time flow.

On this point, Whitehead writes (35):

“There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming. The actual occasions are the creatures which become, and they constitute a continuously extensive world. In other words, extensiveness becomes, but ‘becoming’ is not itself extensive.”

He concludes, as I quoted above, that atomic discontinuity is an ultimate metaphysical truth. The continuously extensive world with its universal relationality he considers an accident, not a metaphysical necessity: “continuity is a special condition arising from the society of creatures which constitute our immediate epoch” (36). The advance of nature involves an inheritance of rhythmic pattern from one concrescent occasion to the next. Between occasional beats, intervals are opened up, leaving room for improvisation.

Let me just add that, while I’ve obviously been influenced a tremendous amount by attempting to think with Whitehead, I realize that he is not infallible. My disagreement with Harman’s and Bryant’s critique is not a result of my wanting to protect a sacred cow from blasphemers; it is rather a result of wanting to be clear about the specifics of the metaphysical scheme that Whitehead has left us. I’m all for finding flaws and hacking the system to make improvements and to keep it relevant. But in this particular case, I just don’t think it is at all fair to Whitehead’s scheme to claim he reduces individuals to the flux. It seems like a simple mistake to me, easy enough to correct with a moderately careful reading his texts. Perhaps there is something deeper to the critique that Harman and Bryant are leveling, but they seem to have aimed it poorly; at least, I haven’t felt the force of the blow yet…

P.S.- Aside from Process and Reality, another good place to turn for Whitehead’s account of “forms of unity” and the relationship between the two kinds of fluency is chapter 5 of Modes of Thought, “Forms of Process.”

 

Re-posting my comment to Bryant’s recent criticism of Whitehead and process-relational thought below:

Levi,
I’m not so sure treating an actual occasion as a “bundle of prehensions” is at all faithful to Whitehead’s scheme. Maybe you arguing that some other aspect of his thought forces him into an inconsistency on this point? If that’s not what you’re suggesting, then I fail to understand how an actual occasion’s process of concrescence–which Whitehead insists is self-created and transcends the whole of the past universe in a moment of private self-enjoyment–could be reduced to a “bundle of prehensions.” Don’t forget Whitehead’s formula of Creativity: “the many become one, and are increased by one.” It seems to me you’re selectively ignoring Whitehead’s emphasis on the distinct and novel oneness produced by each occasion’s concrescence.

I think Bryant is making the same mistake about Whitehead that Harman makes. See my earlier post in response to Harman.

The aim of this essay is to read the nature poetry of William Wordsworth in light of the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, such that the epistemological and cosmological implications of the former are brought more fully into philosophical view. According to Victor Lowe, it is probable that no other man, save Plato, shaped the imaginative background of Whitehead’s outlook quite as profoundly as Wordsworth.1 This influence makes the task of this short essay far easier, since so much of what Whitehead labored to give clear conceptual expression to in his own work was originally awakened in him by the feeling for the universe that vibrates off the pages of Wordsworth’s poetry. In this sense, the task of this essay is the opposite of Whitehead’s: to translate the basic outlines of his philosophical scheme back into the cosmic visions and archetypal visitations expressed in Wordsworth’s verse.

One of the defining characteristics of Romantic literature is its exaltation of the figure of the philosopher-poet, the one who unveils the way in which, as Keats put it, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”2 The famous friendship and intimate artistic collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth provides an example of two minds who, while considered alone are great in their own right, considered together as a single mutually formed and imaginatively alloyed soul surely surpass the genius of any claimant of the title philosopher-poet to come before or after. According to Owen Barfield, the friendship of Coleridge and Wordsworth both “exemplified the contrast” and “deepened the affinity” between the poles of imagination, namely, self )–( world, or again, spirit )–( nature.3 Reconciling these two imaginative forces in one person is all but impossible, since “the finite activity of poetry, like every other motion, still requires a predominance, however slight, of the one pole over the other.”4 Coleridge had a more philosophical bent, tending toward reverential reflection upon the high station of spirit, while Wordsworth was easily charmed by the every day and more sensitive to the living depths of the natural world. Though Coleridge proved himself on occasion capable of penning the sublimest poetry, it could be said that, as a result of his philosophical tutelage, Wordsworth became the greatest of his poetic achievements. Indeed, Whitehead writes of Coleridge that, despite being influential in his own day, when considering “those elements of the thought of the past which stand for all time…[he] is only important by his influence on Wordsworth.”5

Wordsworth is perhaps the most esteemed nature poet in the history of the English language. For Whitehead, he is the chief exemplar of the Romantic reaction against the abstract mechanistic picture of nature fostered by the scientific materialism of the 17th and 18th centuries. He cites the famous line, “We murder to dissect” with qualified approval, agreeing with Wordsworth that “the important facts of nature elude the scientific method” even while he, a mathematical physicist as well as a philosopher, believes the specialized abstractions of natural science need not necessarily leave nature lifeless.6 Science can and should be reformed. Mechanistic science of the sort championed by the likes of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Laplace commits the fatal sin of bifurcating nature, isolating its objective mathematizable aspects by pealing away its sensual and moral layers, layers which found their home in a soul now entirely sealed off from the outside world. Concerning the ethereal hues of a sunset, the sweet fragrance of a primrose, or the melodies of a thrush the poets are all mistaken: from the point of view of scientific materialism, nature is “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.”7 Contrary to the general thrust of natural science since its birth in the 17th century, Whitehead’s cosmological scheme is an attempt to systematize Wordsworth’s emphatic witness to the fact that “nature cannot be divorced from its aesthetic values, and that these values arise from the culmination…of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts.”8 In the jargon of his metaphysics, Whitehead saw in Wordsworth’s poetry “a feeling for nature as exhibiting entwined prehensive unities, each suffused with modal presences of others.”9 Hidden within this one short cryptic sentence are the major categories animating Whitehead’s entire cosmological system, including “actual occasions,” “eternal objects,” “internal relations,” and “concrescence.”

Before moving on to unpack Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, it is important to note that his allegiance to Wordsworth and the Romantic reaction is not at all to say that he has sided with subjectivism or idealism over the objectivity of science. The danger in aligning oneself against the mathematical abstractions of mechanistic science is that one rushes too quickly to adopt the opposite extreme, elevating personal emotion and individual will to such unwarranted heights that the entirety of the visible universe is made to seem a private projection, a mere appearance dependent upon the constructive activity of my mind. Wordsworth’s absorption in living nature–“an inmate of this active universe,”10 as he put it–all but inoculated him against this subjectivist over-reaction; but there are a few occasions when Wordsworth seems almost to become infected by other strains of the Romantic bloodstream, especially those emerging in the orbit of Kant’s transcendental idealism. Whitehead strongly positioned himself in opposition to Kantian, Fichtean, and Hegelian forms of idealism which can be read as attempting to derive the concrete and contingent existence of the universe from the abstract universal categories of thought.11 Not incidentally (considering the influence of Schelling on Wordsworth through the intermediary of Coleridge), the relationship of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is far more congenial, since unlike for Kant and Hegel, for Schelling “Nature is a priori.”12 Whitehead pithily suggests that his approach “aspires to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason.”13 In Kant’s first critique, experience is either translatable into conscious rational knowledge (Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas/representations” of geometrical space and time), or it is no experience at all. The vague but overriding feelings of nature’s creative rhythms and physical purposes always scintillating along the fractal horizons of consciousness are ignored in order to secure the certain knowledge of the rational, waking ego.14 The abyssal complexities of our aesthetic encounter with the sublime are left for the 3rd critique, the Critique of Judgment, but even here, where Kant’s powers reach their highest pitch, he pulls up short of the erotic receptivity that may have reconnected him with the animate intelligence of the cosmos. In book XI of The Prelude, as if speaking directly to Kant, Wordsworth pays homage to the “animation and…deeper sway” of nature’s soul while warning against the “narrow estimates of things” resulting from rational critique: “suffice it here/To hint that danger cannot but attend/Upon a Function rather proud to be/The enemy of falsehood, than the friend/Of truth, to sit in judgment than to feel.”15

While for Kant, “the world emerges from the subject,” for Whitehead, “the subject emerges from the world.”16 Whitehead’s conception of subjectivity is such that the order and meaning of our experience is originally given to us by the order and meaning of the surrounding actual universe. “[The subject] is not productive of the ordered world, but derivative from it.”17 Whitehead’s object-to-subject account of the formation of experience may seem too strict a rule for Wordsworth’s imaginative epistemology to obey, since for the latter the senses must be free to half-create and half perceive the world, as he suggests in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This reversal of the vector of experience may at times prove to be a true tension in the two men’s outlooks, a tension worth untangling if only to discover a deeper commonality.

It would be an unfair reading of Whitehead, based on his reaction to much of German idealism, to neglect the extent to which his epistemology is fully awake to the creative and participatory role of the imagination in evaluating and synthesizing the facts of the actually existing world. His criticisms of idealistic accounts of perception result primarily from the mistaken prioritization of a derivative mode of perception, “presentational immediacy” over the truly primitive mode, “causal efficacy.” Presentational immediacy is a highly advanced form of experience available to conscious human beings. Dominated by the eyes (“The most despotic of our senses”18), it gives us a certain degree of reflective distance from the causal flow of cosmic vectors of inter-bodily emotion. These vectors, felt through the more original mode of perception, causal efficacy, generate the “mysterious presence of surrounding things”19: for example, the “voluntary power instinct” of the brooding Cliff that made the young Wordsworth’s hands tremble while rowing back to shore in his stolen skiff.20 Without the enlivening passion of causal efficacy, presentational immediacy becomes a fallen mode of perception, detached and cut off from intimacy with nature, her inner life reduced to the external relations of dead objects floating in outer space. Without the reflective disinterest of presentational immediacy, causal efficacy would swallow up our consciousness into the “dim and undetermin’d sense/Of unknown modes of being” that haunted Wordsworth for days after he returned the skiff to its mooring-place.21 Whitehead describes a third, hybrid mode of perception called “symbolic reference,” which plays a role akin to the synthesizing imagination, able to skillfully interweave physical prehensions with mental conceptions in order to produce heightened forms of aesthetic enjoyment and moral appetition. In Whitehead’s jargon, mental conceptions are also prehensions, or feelings, but instead of feeling concrete matters of fact, they feel eternal objects, or abstract forms of possibility. Whereas causal efficacy is “the hand of the settled past in the formation of the present,” presentational immediacy is the “[projection which] exhibits the contemporary world in its spatial relations.”22 Through the mixed perceptual mode of symbolic reference, habits of imagination are gradually acquired which bring forth the taken for granted world of every day experience.23 It is the synthesizing activity of this mode that Wordsworth refers to when he writes of how “The mind of Man is fram’d even like the breath/And harmony of music. There is a dark/Invisible workmanship that reconciles/Discordant elements, and makes them move/In one society.”24 A skillful poet is able to consciously moderate the synthetic activity of symbolic reference, “to keep/In wholesome separation the two natures,/The one that feels [causal efficacy], the other that observes [presentational immediacy].”25

It would be a superficial reading of Wordsworth to ignore the degree to which he wavers in his assigning of precedence to either the mental or physical poles of experiential reality. Just a line below his statement in Tintern Abbey about the creative element in perception, he writes of being “well pleased to recognize/In nature and the language of the sense,/The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being.” He finds that his mind is not only necessarily tied to his sensual encounters with nature (as it is for Kant), but that the language of sense has birthed and raised to maturity even the purest of his ideas from out of the womb of nature herself. Elsewhere, Wordsworth writes of the way a mountain range “By influence habitual to the mind/…shapes/The measure and the prospect of the soul.”26 Further conforming to Whitehead’s object-to-subject reading of the vector of experience, he writes: “From nature doth emotion come, and moods/…are nature’s gift.”27 But it could still be asked: is Wordsworth speaking here in a psychological or in an ontological register?

Whitehead’s characterization of Wordsworth’s poetry as exhibiting a sensitivity to the interpenetrating “prehensive unities” of nature, “each suffused with modal presences of others,” is meant to classify him as an ontologically committed panpsychist. His poetry is overflowing with hymns to the Anima Mundi, with references to the “the Life/ of the great whole,” and to the way “every natural form, rock, fruit or flower/…Lay bedded in a quickening soul.”28 Even here, however, just as Wordsworth appears to fully confirm his cosmological orientation, the tension of the poles of spirit and nature begin vibrating, as if hovering in superposition. Does Wordsworth mean that all these natural forms lay bedded in his quickening soul? In the same lines from The Prelude cited above, he could be read as congratulating himself for rousing nature from her sleep: “To every natural form…/I gave a moral life, I saw them feel,/Or linked them to some feeling…/…all/That I beheld respired with inward meaning.”29 But just a few lines later, Wordsworth again reverses the vector of his experience back from the idealistic to the cosmological pole, finding his mind “as wakeful” to the changing face of nature “as waters are/To the sky’s motion,” becoming to her activity as “obedient as a lute/That waits upon the touches of the wind.”30 Perhaps Wordsworth’s tendency to waver on this issue betrays one of the key differences between a visionary poet, focused on capturing the vividness of each fading moment, and a systematic philosopher, focused on characterizing the ultimate generalities characterizing all experience.

Though it is beyond the scope of the present essay, many parallels could also be drawn between Whitehead’s conception of a dipolar divinity and Wordsworth’s visions of the World Soul, “the Imagination of the whole.” Briefly, like all other actual occasions, Whitehead’s God has two poles, an intellectual/mental and an emotional/physical. Unlike all other actual occasions, God’s primordial pole is intellectual rather than physical, consisting in an evaluative ordering of all eternal objects. This ordering serves to condition the unfolding of the universe by making relevant novelties available to the concrescence of each finite occasion of experience. These finite occasions are free to make their own decisions and evaluations, but these decisions are made amidst the set of possibilities provided by the wisdom of God. Through God’s consequent pole, the creative becoming of the physical world is taken back up into divine experience as through a loving embrace to be harmonized with God’s primordial nature. To quote Whitehead at length: “God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it; or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.”31 The everlasting pulsations of divine concrescence are the macrocosmic analogy of Wordsworth’s autobiographical journey from childhood paradise, through the impairment and on to the final restoration of Imagination. “From love, for here/Do we begin and end, all grandeur comes,/All truth and beauty, from pervading love,/That gone, we are as dust.”32

Footnotes

1 Understanding Whitehead (1962), 257.

2 “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819).

3 What Coleridge Thought (1971), 90.

4 WCT, 90.

5 Science and the Modern World (1925), 79.

6 SMW, 79-80.

7 SMW, 55.

8 SMW, 84.

9 SMW, 80.

10 The Prelude (1805/1970), 27.

11 Process and Reality (1929/1979), 89.

12 First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799/2004), 198. Nature here is natura naturans, the generative abyss from which all finite form arises and into which it dies; this is akin to Whitehead’s category of ultimate generality at the base of all actuality, Creativity.

13 PR, 172.

14 Modes of Thought (1938/1966), p. 74-75.

15 The Prelude, 209.

16 PR, 172.

17 PR, 113.

18 The Prelude, 210.

19 SMW, 80.

20 The Prelude, 12.

21 The Prelude, 12.

22 Symbolism (1927/1955), 50.

23 UW, 184.

24 The Prelude, 10.

25 The Prelude, 238.

26 The Prelude, 125.

27 The Prelude, 218.

28 The Prelude, 37.

29 The Prelude, 37. Italics are mine.

30 The Prelude, 37-38.

31 PR, 525.

32 The Prelude, 233.