Why/How to Read A.N Whitehead

Whitehead is an intimidating figure in the history of philosophy. He is obscure, and his influence, where there is any, appears trivial and esoteric. Few people are aware that Whitehead was a philosopher. His most well known work with Russell, the Principia Mathematica, firmly cemented his reputation as mathematician. Furthermore, the failure of that work lead many to dismiss Whitehead entirely, even though Whitehead’s mathematical career has little to do with his philosophy. Dubbed “The Philosophy of Organism,” Whitehead attempted to do away with the notion of substance in philosophy, formulating a system of organic philosophy which would finally give process its proper place in philosophy, rather than offer mere lip-service to Heraclitus. Whitehead’s problem is somewhat deeper than that though. He really sets to respond to a problem he coins “The Bifurcation of Nature,” the demolition of substance being merely one thing necessary for the abolition of the Bifurcation.

This is the splitting of the world into primary and secondary qualities. That is to say, qualities which are inherently in objects, such as figure or molecular structure, and features which are inherently subjective, like color. The latter, in much of metaphysics, does not exist without someone to view them. Color literally drains out of the world, and our own experience becomes less real than what we have posited from our experience. Humans are irrevocably cut off from the world. The bifurcation leads to a host of other philosophical problems, like the mind-body problem, idealism, scientism, among others. Whitehead is a radical empiricist, and he seeks to explain every factor in experience, leaving nothing untouched.

“Philosophy destroys its usefulness when it indulges in brilliant feats of explaining away. It is then trespassing with the wrong equipment upon the field of particular sciences. Its ultimate appeal is to the general consciousness of what in practice we experience. Whatever thread of presupposition characterizes social expression throughout the various epochs of rational society must find its place in philosophic theory. Speculative boldness must be balanced by complete humility before logic, and before fact.It is a disease of philosophy when it is neither bold nor humble, but merely a reflection of the temperamental presuppositions of exceptional personalities” (Process and Reality 17).

Whitehead refuses to explain away anything. Philosophy must explain without explaining away, and the bifurcation is at the root of all explaining away. Whitehead, then, is at his core an anti-positivist, yet a unique one. Whitehead does not seek to do away with science; in fact, his philosophy is rather pro-science. His problem is with scientism, or what he called “scientific materialism.” An example of this is when someone concludes that conscious experience does not exist because it is not accounted for by scientific models. These models are in turn built off of conscious experience. Scientific materialism commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in that, upon building abstractions based on concrete experience, it asserts the abstractions to be concrete and thus undermines itself. This fallacy can only occur in a bifurcated world, in which subjective experience is entirely torn from the objective and vice versa. Whitehead does not make polemics against science, but rather politely, and with a bit of English humor, explains the problem and provides a possible solution. The solution however, as Isabelle Stengers frequently notes, must not butcher the problem in the process!

How do we prevent the splitting of the world into an inescapable dualism? That is the question Whitehead seeks to answer, and the answer requires twisting philosophy in delightful waysmaking metaphysics speak of what it typically fails toof change, experience, the body the ultimate relativity of all viewpoints, and many more. Whitehead leaves no stone unturned in his quest to purge philosophy of the twin maladies of substance and dualism. In this journey, he takes everyone from Descartes to Kant and turns them right-side up, finding arguments for experiential causality in Hume and arguments against dualism in Descartes. The adventure of Whiteheadian metaphysics ends with a system which, while based entirely on radical empiricism, does not fall into materialism on one hand or transcendental idealism and subjectivism on the other. He avoids anthropocentrism and builds a flat ontology where everything from space dust to living beings take an active part in creation.

Putting all this aside, the personal appeal of Whitehead for me is that he is the first philosopher who caused a complete change in my worldview. I had been an idealist for quite some time and had taken a passing interest in Whitehead. It was around two p.m. in the morning, and I was struggling desperately to get through one of his discussions of Hume and Kant in Process and Reality when it all snapped together. I nearly shouted “By God, he’s right; causality is a part of experience!” Whitehead’s ingenious arguments about causality, perception, and experience in general completely shifted the way I viewed the world, and I was not even expecting it to happen. Whitehead did not win me over through tricks, rhetoric, and polemics, but by simple and polite discussion. There is no obscurity of method or a hidden agenda; indeed there is hardly ever a hint of antagonism or of dramaturgy in Whitehead’s writing. He is plain and to the point, bumbling along in a somewhat pedantic and academic tone and saying the most profound things left and right without blinking. Moreover, Whitehead never self-aggrandizes his work – quite the opposite. Whitehead is humble from the beginning, constantly reinforcing the incompleteness of his, and indeed, any philosophical scheme for sounding the true depths of reality. He never proclaims an end of philosophy, or of anything, for doing so would be antithetical to the nature of his philosophy, which deals with understanding the ceaseless production of novelty. His tone is not that of a moralizer or a prophet, but simply that of an enthusiastic and sincere teacher wishing to share his knowledge. Whitehead is a good philosopher because he simply does philosophy rather than seeking something beyond it; he is a true lover of wisdom.

Difficulties in Reading


The largest barrier to Whitehead is probably the vocabulary. Very few terms used by Whitehead retain their original meaning, and if they do, they retain the original meaning only as a special case of a wider phenomenon. The term “feeling” is a good example of this happening. If one is not careful, a page filled with seemingly familiar words can become nigh-incomprehensible. The fastest way to grasp vocabulary is to act as if each technical term you encounter in Whitehead is something entirely new. Forget any previous idea you had of it, and try and figure out what Whitehead means by it. It is also essential to go through with a glossary of Whitehead terms such as those in this excellent book. Many of the words in Process and Reality do not make sense until you see how they fit into the larger scheme, but a glossary can help you start to piece together the main ideas. By far the most important idea to understand in Whitehead is the concept of “prehension.” Once you understand how prehensions work, you have a solid base upon which to build your knowledge of Whitehead. Understanding what eternal objects and the “primordial nature of God” is is also key. Keep in mind that the word “God” in Whitehead is a technical term too, not some transcendent entity brought in to bring together what cannot be brought together.


Whitehead, rather than suffering from a vagueness of terminology or description, suffers from an overabundance of detail. This is a blessing and a curse. Whitehead is nothing if not explicit, but the nuance of his investigations can be overwhelming. Compounded with the above vocabulary, it can be easy to get brain-fried if one is not careful. This can also be frustrating, as Whitehead can seem to pontificate about things whose importance is not quite clear. Take things slowly: Whitehead thought long and hard about each discussion in his writings; he would not have put these thoughts in his books if he did not think they were important. When Whitehead begins listing the characteristics of something, be sure to pay close attention and make sure you really understand what is being said. If you are unable to piece things together, do not stress over it, but move on and come back to it latereventually it will make sense.


This leads into the final difficulty: the structure. This is both a blessing and a curse. Process and Reality is a labyrinthine book, and Whitehead’s philosophy eludes a linear explanation. Unlike philosophers such as Hegel, where there is a definite step-by-step progression, Whitehead’s philosophy is much more like a web. This is good in that Whitehead can circle around and explain things multiple times, shedding new light on them each time. The downside is that, well, he circles around and explains things multiple times, having to shed new light on them each time. It is very difficult to get a foothold and penetrate, for there is not really a good place to start with Process and Reality.

In order to get around this, I suggest that you don’t start with Process and Reality. Instead, by getting a preliminary idea of the important ideas in Whitehead’s philosophy in his less systematic texts, approaching his magnum opus will be much easier. I suggest this order.

  • The excellent chapter of Adventures of Ideas entitled “Objects and Subjects.” This may be one of the best introductions to the key ideas of Whitehead despite it being in the middle of a book. It can be read with a glossary and without the context of the rest of the book. I recommend finding a PDF of the book rather than buying as the chapter is only 15 pages.
  • After this, reading chapter 1 of Process and Reality may be a good idea, as he lays out many of the goals of his philosophy. It is highly accessible and requires no advanced knowledge to read.
  • The book Modes of Thought can be found online here.  This is an excellent survey of Whitehead’s ideas, and with the knowledge provided by the above chapter, it should hopefully seem more than just a collection of platitudes. It is where I began, and while it was interesting, the subtlety of the concepts introduced in here required me to revisit it after reading Process and Reality. The concept of importance is actually foundational to his philosophy, though I did not notice it until rereading. This was his last work, and one of his best. Furthermore, it is quite short!
  • If it interests you, Science and the Modern World is an introduction to his earlier thought with some more direction as to the applicability of his philosophy. It should be noted, however, that his philosophy is significantly altered from this point on.
  • Afterwards, I recommend trying to read Process and Reality armed with your glossary. If you find yourself getting bogged down and confused, there are several secondary texts that can help you. I personally used A Key to Process and Reality, though I would actually recommend Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead, for it provides a close reading of Whitehead’s entire corpus.
  • This can be read before or after the previous entry, but whenever you choose, return to Adventures of Ideas. This is Whitehead’s mature work, written after Process and Reality and extends many of the discussions of that book, as well as developing a philosophy of history.

Whitehead’s other books are not nearly as gargantuan and intimidating as Process and Reality. With this list, you can be eased in to his vocabulary and style. In his less systematic works, he is a much better writer, and his personality and humor shines through the rigorous language. The most difficult parts of Whitehead can hopefully be avoided or softened by this strategy. Once you are able to speak Whiteheadese, and it all starts to snap into focus, it will be a pleasure to read and think with Whitehead.


The Critique of Overstatement

My good friend A.W suggested that I provide a critique of a passage of Bernstein as it offers several entry points into the key claims of idealists. It should be noted that this article is still pending his review and feedback, in case I have made naive and misinformed characterization of the arguments therein, and thus may be subject to future editing. I will be building a lot off of my previous article about what I coined “The Idealist Trap,” but shall quote the relevant parts so that cross-reading is unnecessary.

The quote, in its entirety, is as follows:

“The Concept, when it has developed into a concrete existence that is itself free, is nothing other than the “I,” or pure self-consciousness, but the “I” is first this pure self-related unity.” —Hegel, Science of Logic

[Bernstein:] This sentence basically means the following: What he is claiming here is that the driving idea is that nothing can be of significance in my mind unless I can put it into functional conversation with everything else in my mind (call that the Holism requirement), hence the fundamental structures and principles of mind that Kant calls Categories and Hegel calls the Concept are functions of unity. So the unity of the Self and the unity of the Concept are the same, but since the work of unifying is the condition for anything being recognizable by the Human mind at all, then the unity of the subject is responsible for the unity of the world, or rather the world comes to appear as a world at all only if it can appear as in accord with the functions providing for the unity and freedom of subjectivity.

This is the principle of idealism (the unity of self = unity of concept = unity of the world). The principle of idealism simply states that we can have a world at all, and to represent the world to ourselves, only through conceptual unification where establishing such conceptual unification simultaneously yields the unity of the Self with itself. The world necessarily appears as my world. In generating the unity of itself with itself the Self is determining itself, it is acting in a free way, not following from without.

For Plato there is a unity to the world, but it is not the unity in my mind. First it’s the unity of the Ideas that maybe I can internalize to order my mind to get in accordance with, but for Hegel it’s the freedom of self-determining subjectivity itself that generates categorial unity and in so doing it is unifying itself with the world. Making the world determinate presupposes the self-determining act of Reason (that’s the principle of Idealism restated and the entire structure of the Logic). This is all about ‘The space of Reason is the space of freedom”, and therefore just seems to be an objective Idealist claim. This is all about the mind securing itself, and in securing itself it secures the world, and that turns out to be not reductive or idealist.”

Immediate Self-Reflexivity

Now, let’s break this down, starting with the bit by Hegel about the “I.” I want to make a pedantic claim, one that is almost meaningless outside the context of this discussion, but one that I think is nonetheless important; in fact, you might want to just skip this section entirely. It is of little to no practical interest, and is almost a technicality. In fact, it is over a statement that I do not even disagree with at face value. Now, the German Idealists, from my experience of them, have much interest in this “I.” The “I” seems to be presupposed in all claims, an absolute that we can never do without. How can it ever be false for me to say that “I am aware that I am aware?” (recall the cogito). I’m no Buddhist self-denier; I believe that we have a sense of self, and we definitely exist. Shoes are not doing our thinking for us. What is important is that we must always conclude that we did the thinking after-the-fact. It is only through the understanding of the actual world, and the understanding of its self-organization, that we can certainly conclude ourselves to be actors.

What is really going on in the statement “I am aware that I am aware” is the idea that there is an awareness (in this case, myself) which is self-aware. This seems all well and good, but we need to be very carefully examine what is meant by each word.

Generally, what we mean when we say we are aware of an awareness is that we have some awarenesssay, the awareness that we are riding a bikeand then a higher-order second awareness. We start thinking about “this awareness of riding a bike.” When we turn our attention elsewhere, the awareness of bike riding does not go away, lest we fall off the bike. We have a higher order awareness moving about. This is sometimes called an “attention network.”  If there are two awarenesses, my point stands. We have one awareness, we can call it ourselves, aware of another awareness. Further, in order to have this higher-order awareness, there must be a causal order to the arising of awareness. First I am aware of something, and then I am aware of my awareness. This passes it from an absolute claim to a (admittedly extremely solid and unlikely to change anytime soon) relative claim about the actual world, the directly immediate past awareness.

The key problem here is, if we are aware of our awareness with the same awareness, this is a claim which is as absurd to me as saying you can kick and, with this same kick, kick your kick. Or, if you prefer a general case, do an action x and have action x, in the same action, do x to the x. We are being aware and with this same being aware, being aware of our being aware. This leads to some rather absurd conclusions:

  1. Things can both happen to themselves, yet at the same time not happen to themselves.
  2. We have to admit contemporaneous causation, which essentially throws the entire notion of contemporaneousness out the window. In fact, it becomes difficult to even talk about a difference between past and present, as causal chains would begin to loop into each other indefinitely.

Now, people are welcome to accept that this is possible, and indeed, Hegelians seem to do something like this in the Force and Understanding chapter of the Phenomenology, but it seems to me that it leads down a path that radically violates basic ideas about the world. We can restrict this self-reflexivity to consciousness, but this is unsatisfying to me. Why should consciousness be so special? We can maintain subjectivity, freedom, et cetera without making consciousness into something so counterintuitive.

The last trick here is to try and say that, “I” am always the one positing this. I cannot deny that the thoughts came from me. Indeed, I cannot practically, but I cannot claim the thoughts did come from me unless we accept this immediate self-reflection. I cannot claim I have done something until it has been done. What has been done *has been* and is in the past. The claim about awareness thus becomes a claim not about the claimer, but about the immediate past. We are always forced to discover this “I” in retrospect, after it has finished. Where we go from this sort of blindness in regards to what is contemporaneous is a subject for another time, but there is certainly room to maneuver, though it requires making some interesting meta-philosophical moves, some of which will be discussed below. The point is to get to a radical empiricist epistemology which does not collapse in the face of mere concepts.

To summarize, consciousness and experience is, as Kant discovered, a constructive process, but it is constantly constructing. Our standpoint is never from the constructed, but the being-constructed and constructing. The self, and indeed all enduring objects, are always complex series of constructive events stretched over space and time. Here’s what Whitehead has to say on the matter:

” ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ is wrongly translated, ‘I think, therefore I am’. It is never bare thought or bare existence that we are aware of. I find myself as essentially a unity of emotions, enjoyments, hopes, fears, regrets, valuations of alternatives, decisions—all of them subjective reactions to the environment as active in my nature. My unity—which is Descartes’ ‘I am’—is my process of shaping this welter of material into a consistent pattern of feelings. The individual enjoyment is what I am in my role of a natural activity, as I shape the activities of the environment into a new creation, which is myself at this moment; and yet, as being myself, it is a continuation of the antecedent world. If we stress the role of the environment, this process is causation. If we stress the role of my immediate pattern of active enjoyment, this process is self-creation. If we stress the role of the conceptual anticipation of the future whose existence is a necessity in the nature of the present, this process is the teleological aim at some ideal in the future. This aim, however, is not really beyond the present process. For the aim at the future is an enjoyment in the present. It thus effectively conditions the immediate self-creation of the new creature. (Modes of Thought Lecture 8).”

It’s important to not be bogged down in the turn of phrase that Whitehead has to adopt simply to speak like a normal human being. He is forced to say “I shape” by the peculiarity of the language, but that the I is shaping. We are this enjoyment and creation. Ignoring the nuance of what is truly being said here would leave Whitehead equally guilty.

Lastly, I believe Nietzsche puts to rest any other objections that could be made to this argument:

“16. …When I analyze the process that is expressed in the sentence, ‘I think,’ I find a whole series of daring assertions, the argumentative proof of which would be difficult, perhaps impossible: for instance, that it is I who think, that there must necessarily be something that thinks, that thinking is an activity and operation on the part of a being who is thought of as a cause, that there is an ‘ego,’ and finally, that it is already determined what is to be designated by thinking—that I KNOW what thinking is. For if I had not already decided within myself what it is, by what standard could I determine whether that which is just happening is not perhaps ‘willing’ or ‘feeling’? In short, the assertion ‘I think,’ assumes that I COMPARE my state at the present moment with other states of myself which I know, in order to determine what it is; on account of this retrospective connection with further ‘knowledge,’ it has, at any rate, no immediate certainty for me.”—In place of the “immediate certainty” in which the people may believe in the special case, the philosopher thus finds a series of metaphysical questions presented to him, veritable conscience questions of the intellect, to wit: “Whence did I get the notion of ‘thinking’? Why do I believe in cause and effect? What gives me the right to speak of an ‘ego,’ and even of an ‘ego’ as cause, and finally of an ‘ego’ as cause of thought?” He who ventures to answer these metaphysical questions at once by an appeal to a sort of INTUITIVE perception, like the person who says, “I think, and know that this, at least, is true, actual, and certain”—will encounter a smile and two notes of interrogation in a philosopher nowadays. “Sir,” the philosopher will perhaps give him to understand, “it is improbable that you are not mistaken, but why should it be the truth?”

17. With regard to the superstitions of logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small, terse fact, which is unwillingly recognized by these credulous minds—namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish; so that it is a PERVERSION of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.” ONE thinks; but that this “one” is precisely the famous old “ego,” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an “immediate certainty.” After all, one has even gone too far with this “one thinks”—even the “one” contains an INTERPRETATION of the process, and does not belong to the process itself. One infers here according to the usual grammatical formula—”To think is an activity; every activity requires an agency that is active; consequently”… It was pretty much on the same lines that the older atomism sought, besides the operating “power,” the material particle wherein it resides and out of which it operates—the atom. More rigorous minds, however, learnt at last to get along without this “earth-residuum,” and perhaps some day we shall accustom ourselves, even from the logician’s point of view, to get along without the little “one” (to which the worthy old “ego” has refined itself)” (BGE Chapter 5).

Importance Redux

Bernstein then begins to speak:

“What he is claiming here is that the driving idea is that nothing can be of significance in my mind unless I can put it into functional conversation with everything else in my mind (call that the Holism requirement), hence the fundamental structures and principles of mind that Kant calls Categories and Hegel calls the Concept are functions of unity.”

Bernstein is not entirely wrong, but what he describes is only a specific instance of the gradation of importance. Importance is a prerequisite to the formation of concepts, something precognitive and more fundamental. What Bernstein appears to be saying is that something must be made into a concept to become important and relevant to us. The exact opposite is the case. Something is first important/relevant and then may be conceptualized.

“Importance is a generic notion which has been obscured by the overwhelming prominence of a few of its innumerable species. The terms ‘morality’, ‘logic’, ‘religion’, ‘art’, have each of them been claimed as exhausting the whole meaning of importance. Each of them denotes a subordinate species. But the genus stretches beyond any finite group of species. There are perspectives of the universe to which morality is irrelevant, to which logic is irrelevant, to which religion is irrelevant, to which art is irrelevant. By this false limitation the activity expressing the ultimate aim infused into the process of nature has been trivialized into the guardianship of mores, or of rules of thought, or of mystic sentiment, or of aesthetic enjoyment. No one of these specializations exhausts the final unity of purpose in the world” (Modes of Thought Lecture 1).

This idea of importance is deeply tied to attention. If I am walking through the woods at night and there is a sudden flash of white light that I do not notice, it has failed to become relevant. Something may become briefly important, yet then quickly become unimportant. Humans, being conscious creatures, are prone to conceptualizing and bringing things into holistic schemes whenever anything is important, but It’s worth noting though that animals certainly appear to have an idea of importance. Cats, dogs, horses, and even bacteria all organize and react to their environment based on the experiential relevance of the different parts of our environment.

Importance is able to act as its own criteria of success. If importance really is required for conceptualization, but must first be conceptualized, there is a dependency loop that cannot be resolved. If it is rather like digestion, something precognitive yet required for cognition, then we are free to step out of the swamp of concepts into the aeroplane of attention. Importance is impossible to adequately cognize, as it is fundamentally emotional and aesthetic; we may have our reasons for feeling things to be important, but any sufficient inquiry will reveal that we merely feel them to be important. There can be no other explanation for this which will not enter into either performative contradiction or infinite regress. When we speculate and create concepts, we do not need to see if we can “trust” them. We may give them a full body search for further importance, or turn them away.

What is so damning about the notion of importance is that, once acknowledged, it covers all our concepts the sticky gel of affectivity. Concepts become tainted with a layer of emotion. Bernstein is right that things must enter into a holistic relationship, but he is wrong that this activity. If concepts must be important to be conceptualized in us, then they are coated gently with emotion and become feelings like any other. Now, I’d like to quote Steven Shaviro’s essay Pulses of Emotion at length as it provides a better explanation of where this goes than I am able. While he is mostly discussing Whitehead in relation to Kant, there is much relevance to the topic at hand.

“An act of feeling is an encounter – a contingent event, an opening to the outside– rather than an intrinsic, predetermined relationship. And feeling changes whatever it encounters, even in the act of “conforming” to it. That is why feeling is irreducible to cognition. It isn’t anything that we already know. The problem with cognitive theories of mind, and with hermeneutical modes of interpretation, is that they reduce the unknown to the already-known, the already-determined. These theories assume that my not-knowing is only a contingency for myself, that ignorance is a particular state that I am in; while they imagine that the object I am seeking to know is in itself already perfectly determinate, if only I could come to know it. They thereby elide “experience as a constructive functioning,” and restrict their attention to that which has already been experienced and constructed. They only get half the picture; they trace the vector backwards into the past, but not forwards into the future. They grasp the actual, but miss the potential, the yet-to-be. They appreciate “conformity of feeling,” but ignore deviation and novelty. They analyze whatever has already been felt, selected, and determined; but they miss the very process of selection and determination, which is feeling itself…

All this might sound like the sheerest romantic blather, the sort of naive protest of Life against Intellect, and Feeling against Thought, that decades of modernist critical theory, and postmodernist deconstruction, have taught us to distrust. But I want to insist that it is, rather, a rigorous expression of Whitehead’s “critique of pure feeling,” and of his conversion of Kant from transcendental idealism to transcendental empiricism. The process of this conversion is twofold. First, Whitehead recasts Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic,” so that the intuition of space and time is “not productive of the ordered world, but derivative from it” (1929/1978,72). And second, Whitehead extends the scope of the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” so that it also includes all those operations – like relations of causality – that Kant assigned to the “Transcendental Logic.” This means that, far from exalting anything like a sentimental cult of spontaneous feeling, or a Romantic theory of the creative imagination, Whitehead eliminates Kant’s notion of spontaneity altogether. For Kant, “our spontaneity of cognition,” or understanding, “is our ability to think the object of sensible intuition” (1996, 106-107), which is something entirely separate from the intuition itself. Whitehead rejects this dualism; he refers all experience, thought included, to a process of being-affected, a process located within what Kant calls the receptivity of sensible intuition. 17 Action, then, cannot be opposed to passive reception, in the way that traditional metaphysics opposes form to matter, or mind to body, or essence to accident. It is rather that activity, no less than passivity, is a dimension of receptivity itself. Every experience, every feeling, is at one and the same time an “inheritance” from the past and a fresh creation. And both of these dimensions are contained within an open affectivity. “The separation of the emotional experience from the presentational intuition,” a separation that Kant presupposes, and that is necessary for cognition, is in fact quite rare, since it is only “a high abstraction of thought” (1929/1978, 162-163). More generally, there is a continuum from primordial, entirely “conformal feelings,” to later, or higher, stages of “supplementary feeling.” In conformal feeling, “the how of feeling reproduces what is felt,” so that it “merely transforms the objective content into subjective feelings.” Supplemental feelings, to the contrary, actively involve “the subjective appropriation of the objective data” (164-165). That is to say, supplemental feelings may alter the data, or wish to alter the data, or deny the data, or compare and contrast the given data with other (remembered or imagined) data, or self-reflexively respond to the first, conformal responses to the data – and so on, almost ad infinitum.

But all of these are still forms of receptivity, still ways of feeling the data. There is no point at which we pass from receptivity to spontaneity, from relational response to pure originality, or from emotion to “clear and distinct” cognition. Even the most complex and reflexive modes of thought are still instances of supplemental feeling. As such, they continue to “involve essential compatibility” with the initial conformal feelings from which they arose, so that “the process exhibits an inevitable continuity of functioning” (Shaviro 15-17).

What is happening here is largely an explanation of Whitehead’s reversal of Kant, merely describing the intended effects. This is important for understanding the important part which comes next:

“If feeling, rather than cognition, is the basis of all experience, and if “apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness”(167), then the only way of organizing and ordering this experience must be an immanent one, from within subjective feeling itself. We know that, in fact, experience is not as chaotic as it would have to be if Hume’s skeptical speculations were correct. Our experience always displays an immanent order; if anything, in fact, it has too much order. No Rimbaudian “dérèglement de tous les sens” is ever enough to disrupt it. Most traditional metaphysics is concerned with grounding the order of experience in “clear and distinct” cognition: as if, were it not for philosophy’s strong guiding hand, everything would immediately break down. [bold mine] But Whitehead knows that such fears are baseless. Protecting rational order is not the problem. The real difficulty is how to account for the order, or the “essential compatibility,”that continues to organize and regulate experience, no matter what we do to shake it up, and even in the absence of cognition. In other words, Whitehead is concerned with what today we would call “emergent order” or “self-organization.” In rejecting Kant’s “Transcendental Logic” as the source of this order, Whitehead is left only with his revised version of the “Transcendental Aesthetic.” Nothing else can provide an immanent principle, or criterion, for order within the boundaries of mere feeling” (Shaviro 17).

What is important to realize is that this sticky emotional importance is not the swamp which traps philosophy. We are able to continue here by the method of speculative philosophy, as described by Whitehead:

“The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.”

We can step outside of the cage of concepts and bring them to heel under the condition of importance. This is a pragmatic judgment of sorts, but unless we wish to deny the emotional foundation of all experience, aesthetics simply becomes a more fundamental notion than the othersone that they must answer to. In fact, our concepts and thoughts already are judged by how important they are found to be. No cognizing would be done if there was nothing interested about doing it. It is not that men are drawn to truth, for it is certainly something always behind emotion:

“Whitehead’s immanent criterion for order can only be an aesthetic one. Truth and understanding are not adequate to the task: for feeling is more basic than cognition, and “it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true” (1929/1978, 259; 1933/1967, 244). Indeed, “in itself,and apart from other factors, there seems to be no special importance about the truth-relation” (1933/1967, 265). These “other factors” that make truth “interesting” are, precisely, non-cognitive feelings. Judgments of truth – or, as Whitehead prefers to call them, “propositions” or “theories” – are only important when they are felt, and to the extent that they are felt. In asserting this, Whitehead is very much a Jamesian pragmatist. The pragmatic test for truth is the interest that it sustains; “the primary function of theories is as a lure for feeling, thereby providing immediacy of enjoyment and purpose” (1929/1978, 184). Truth is finally a matter, not of empirical verification, but of “enjoyment and purpose,” or (to use Whitehead’s more frequent term) “satisfaction.” That is why “Beauty is a wider, and more fundamental, notion than Truth” (1933/1967, 265).”

[Footnote]: It is important to point out, once again, that this means “not a relativity of truth, but, on the contrary, a truth of the relative.” James’ and Whitehead’s pragmatism is not a slipshod relativism, but rather a claim about the situatedness of truth. A truth that is not “important,” or not strongly felt, does not thereby cease to be true; and a false proposition doesn’t become true, merely by virtue of being invested with intense feeling or great aesthetic appeal. An unimportant truth is just that: unimportant. But it may become important, if it is invested by feeling. And when a false proposition operates effectively as a “lure,” so that it is invested with great feeling, one result may be the arousal of an “appetition” that works towards changing the world in order to make the proposition true. This is the very basis of change and Creative Advance…”

It can be said that we are “speaking with concepts” and being contradictory here, but when we put importance in its proper place, thought does not become an entity which, like a spoiled child, grows out of control and pulls itself by its bootstraps to the incredible heights of dialectics, but rather becomes an imaginative tool which can declare what is important and speculate as to what that importance might-be. Reason may be interrogated, and if it is able to direct us to something we find important, then it has succeeded; if not, we may forget about it. It is a mistake to try to put reason on its own ground, for it is merely denying its inherent emotional base, as the very act of searching reveals. As Whitehead allegedly said of the Hegelians, they are guilty of overstatement, both of the abilities of reason and its scope. Just because reason is emotive, and does not discover truly absolute truths, does not mean we must throw civilization out the window. A philosophy which begins from aesthetics may still develop an ethics, a philosophy of history, and a coherent metaphysics, as Adventures of Ideas and Process and Reality show. All that we must remember is that life first and foremost “lies below this grade of mentality. Life is the enjoyment of emotion, derived from the past and aimed at the future. It is the enjoyment of emotion which was then, which is now, and which will be then” (Modes of Thought Lecture 8).

In short:

  1. Thought, bodily feelings, etc. must have some aesthetic affective capacity in order for us to think and feel them. They must be “important.”
  2. This importance is prior and requisite to thoughts, a prerequisite for the generation of concepts. This ’emotional’ factor allows and guides our interest.
  3. from 1 and 2, as affectivity is prior aesthetics must be first philosophy
  4. Therefore we must conduct a critique of pure feeling with a radical empiricist aesthetic criterion à la William James and Whitehead.

The World

“The world necessarily appears as my world…”

This is the claim of Bernstein which I find the least interesting. I don’t wish to build a rigorous argument to refute it, as I’m mostly indifferent to the claim. Instead, I’ll simply put forth the first objections that come to mind.

The first is that, while important objects are important for us, we are not quite limited to merely limited to getting things as they are important to us. Importance always wants to wander, our discernments disclose relations and new entities to us, and these relations are not primarily for us. When a dog barks at something, something important for-it is partially disclosed to us. There are twinges of subjectivity always left, but the actual world seems to constantly disclose things that are beyond us, important only to other objects. People are interested in different professionsones you know exist but will never know about. What it seems to me is that a reversal is in order. I necessarily appear to be a part of the world, a world of many creative entities, some of which I may have mutual interest with, and others with which I have not. Each entity attests to an actual world which it is a part of, and the world to its actual entities. What is grasped by thought is not thereby converted entirely into thought, and defending this would require another article, but I do not mean to refute, merely to highlight some possible avenues of escape from the claim. The thought of William James provides an excellent “escape attempt” in my mind.


The relevant parts of the quote have, as far as I can tell, been addressed. If we must attach some degree of emotive importance to each and every feature of experience, then we have no other choice than to make aesthetics first philosophy. This does not mean we must never rise above mere aesthetics, or never develop a rational scheme. It means we must rethink what it means to do philosophy. As Whitehead says in the final lecture of Modes of Thought:

“The use of philosophy is to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system. It reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace. If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken. But the purpose of philosophy is to rationalize mysticism: not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated.”

If the pragmatic use of beauty transforms me into a mystic, then I wear the title of mystic with pride, for what else is philosophy if not the plunging of “depths as yet unspoken?”

Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism and the Idealist Trap

Whitehead’s method of deriving his system may seem somewhat obscured to the reader at first. In many sections of Process and Reality, he prefers to merely set down his rules rather than talk about how these rules have been derived. This can be frustrating for many readers, myself included, who find themselves having to accept atomism, God, relationalism, and a myriad of other claims seemingly without justification to understand Whitehead. Absolute Idealists, for example, accuse Whitehead of not being able to self-ground and actually give a full account of experience. As Whitehead is not always clear on these matters, either not having had time to respond to such criticisms, or not finding them worthwhile, this article will attempt to explain as well as speculate a possible answer.

Radical Empiricism

As has been noted elsewhere, Whitehead is a radical empiricist in the vein of William James, though he also takes from Bergson. Radical empiricism holds that we do experience relation between objects, causality, etc. directly, in an attempt to undermine the Humean-Kantian conception of empiricism that had to hold that these must be imposed by the subject. Rather than asking what our minds must be like to experience, Whitehead essentially asks what the world must be like for us to experience it. Whitehead’s anti-Kantian account of experience will have to wait for a future article. If Whitehead can justify radical empiricism, he may continue with his project without fear of attack.

But the mere positing of radical empiricism seems to spring the correlationist-idealist trap. “Whitehead is using thought! He has no reason to trust thought, and thus if he cannot provide something akin to a Hegelian phenomenology of thought, he is helpless. As pure experience cannot self-reflect and develop like thought, the building of a self-necessary system is impossible and Whitehead may be consigned to the dustbin. If reason is employed, then we must be given reason to trust reason.”

It’s important here to note the extreme disconnect that is drawn between thought and the rest of our experience by the idealist. Reason has hermetically sealed itself off from the rest of the world, as if forgetting what gave it life and where it comes from. For an absolute idealist, thought must lift itself by its bootstraps in order to justify itself and place itself into the world. In order to justify us being things in the world, we must blindfold ourselves to it and find our way back out through the development of concepts. Perhaps Whitehead saw this as not worth responding to because he rejects this methodological dualism out of hand along with the bifurcation of nature. If reason, experience, passion, and the world are not separate to begin with, one flowing into the other seamlessly, this problem is a non-problem. But justifying this seems to require reason, and thus the regress continues.

Escaping the Trap

Where Whitehead seems to begin with his place himself behind both thought and pure experience into the perspective of attention. Let’s cut everything out of the picture, even the subject, and simply pay attention to attention. When attention discerns something, everything else is oriented around the point of attention. The point of attention may be anything: some object outside of us, an emotion, or a thought, or a prick of pain in the foot. The field of attention is a point of view with relative focus, but it does not necessarily include within it some subject viewing. All that is present in the point of view is merely a duration of feeling with measured importance Now we seem to be assuming much here, but attention appears to be prerequisite to any accusations against it. In order to think and posit a counterclaim, I must draw an argument/thought into my attention. The most ready objection is that attention is itself a thought/concept and thus falls into the idealist trap.

The counter to this is that if attention, or its concept, is required for conceptualization. We end up in a situation akin to saying that, until cooking is invented, we are unable to pull carrots from the ground. If we cannot conceptualize without attention, and attention is a concept, then we will always be caught in a sort of dependency loop. If, like digestion, attention is something precognitive requisite to its own cognizing, then we are safe to climb from the swamp of thought to the aeroplane of attention and begin our escape from methodological dualism.

The second line of idealist defense is that while attention may be precognitive, anything we can say about it and what it says must involve thought, and thus we trigger the trap. But attention is its own ground of validity, and thought must answer to it, not attention to thought. Now that attention is decidedly precognitive, thought is relegated to the realm of representation, and it need not ask whether it can be trusted. A representational scheme of thought is successful if it is able to successfully direct attention to some feature disclosed in experience. For example, divisibility as attention is able to focus more or less specifically on what it is attentive of. All of these claims, using thought, are now able to be justified on precognitive grounds, as the claims are not being made and justified the perspective of thought, but are being presented to attention. If a thought indicates some possible element of experience, attention does not need to ask “can I trust it?” and can merely discover for itself. If it fails to find what thought indicates in experience, then the thought may be dismissed.  The “true method of discovery” may be revealed now:

“The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation” (Process and Reality 5).

Thought is hobbled and unable to strike back, for to do so would be to undermine itself, if it has admitted attention to be a requisite precognition. In fact, thought is not even a distinct kind of feeling for attention, merely one kind among many. Radical empiricism, combined with Bergsonian direct realism, may be established from this foothold, avoiding the pitfalls of “natural consciousness.” Thought is relegated to being a speculative and communicative tool, and one that is limited. It must always appeal to the facts disclosed in attention. When we speak and formulate principles, we are merely putting forth symbolic representations that we admit cannot sound the true depths of experience.


What is disclosed to us is not true or false, but important. Attention is always to something with relative importance or relevance to attention. While truth may be relevant and importantfor example, when one observes a scientific experimentit is quite the opposite when one sits down to watch a play, walks down the street, or hugs their child. What is not true in the strict sense is often a matter of the utmost importance and something that can attract much interest. We can learn much from examining the way the half-truths and fuzzy instincts convey vivid information from our environment. The philosopher’s disdain for all which cannot be “knowledge” has ironically caused a poverty thereof. I do not mean to be a romantic, that all that is necessary is to simply hearken to beauty, but we must understand the emotional tinge to all that is, even the calculations of reason. We are not attracted to concepts not because they are true, but because we find them important. If there is concern for truth, it is always that, concern. We value truth precisely because we find it important, and importance cannot be cognized.

Importance is in a sense a pragmatic gesture, but it is not utilitarian or asking about the “use” of something. Importance in experience is more than that. Importance is just the quality of an experience that makes it relevant to attention, what allows it to be discerned in the first place. If we are attentive, more important facts may be disclosed. Saying that something is “important” does not necessarily grant it some permanent status above others, it is merely what is able to be noticed, and what is found interesting. It may become entirely irrelevant in one moment, replaced by something previously thought irrelevant, perhaps because something new and interesting was pointed out.

Importance is impossible to adequately cognize. Importance is fundamentally emotional and aesthetic; we may have our reasons for feeling things to be important, but any sufficient inquiry will reveal that we merely feel things to be important. There can be no other explanation for this which will not enter into either performative contradiction or infinite regress. When we speculate and create concepts, we do not need to see if we can “trust” them. There is merely the simple test to see if they can refer to something important enough for attention to notice it. To that end is where Whitehead is pointedtowards the understanding of the importance of things and the expansion of our attention so that what was always before us can be discovered:

“The use of philosophy is to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system. It reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace. If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken. But the purpose of philosophy is to rationalize mysticism: not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated.”

–Alfred Whitehead

Relations, Realism, Nature, and the Goal of Whitehead’s philosophy

I’m writing this post to clear up a few ideas in Whitehead that may not have been clear in previous posts, as well as common misunderstandings that arose often in arguments with a certain Hegelian friend of mine who happened to help design this website. The problems deal more specifically with the Shaviro-inspired speculative realist interpretation of Whitehead this blog happens to like. The most common misunderstandings that arise in discussing Whitehead have to do with his relationalism, his realism, his conception of nature, and his goal/method. Working through these misunderstandings provide an excellent tour of what could be termed organic realism, so rather than being a defense against criticisms, I’m merely seeking to clarify what is already stated.

Relations without Relata?

Certain readers might have noticed in my post on actual entities that they appear to be composed entirely of prehensions, a type of relation. It at first might seem that this leads to an infinite regress; each feeling is of another feeling which is itself a relation. Furthermore, I made the mistake of saying that an actual entity only exists in terms of its relations, which is only superficially true.

Actual entities escape infinite regress because each feeling or relation is not reducible to its relata. A feeling is not a bracketing, but a vectoring. It is not merely a negation or addition, like a simple thing saying “I’m not this!” or “I’m that!” Each prehension is not a passive reception of data, but rather an actual act that performs operations on its datum to make itself into a real definite fact, which itself can be felt. Its datum likewise is already a definite feeling, not reducible merely to what is felt. There would be infinite regress if the world which an actual entity becomes of was not already a settled, definite fact, and the concrescence was feeling other concrescences, but this is not the case.

Another unfortunate thing about that article on actual entities was making a comparison to Hegel’s something-or-other logic. There’s a comparison to be made here definitely, but the similarities here are only skin deep. Where Hegel’s logic is a negatory act, grossly oversimplified as: “The something is not the other, the other is not the something, the non-being of the other is the being of the something,” Whitehead’s relations are primarily positive inclusions. They’re not dialectical, they can be completely indifferent to each other, complementary, and they don’t contradict in the Hegelian manner. If there is contradiction, it arises during the concrescence of an entity, and it is always eliminated by the final satisfaction. Negative prehensions which exclude objects are always secondary, something that happens to remove incompatibilities in feelings so that they can be integrated. This is opposed to a Hegelian “labor of the negative.”

The actual entity at first has a conformal flooding of feelings from its actual world, a positive event. “I am all this,” the actual entity says, “the individualization of the universe.” The rush of feelings from the world around it, in order to attain the unity they aim at, must be simplified, integrated, valuated, compared, contrasted and only occasionally negated in order to create a satisfaction. This  process of concrescence adds a new definite fact into the world, which itself must be brought into a unity with the rest. In this manner, there is a constant rhythm of integration.

Rather than an entity merely popping out of nothing to feel the settled world, the many facts of the settle world reach out for integration, and what Whitehead terms the actual entity as “subject” emerges. The various alterations made to be feeling do not really happen because of some hidden factor in the concrescence, rather, they are a simple consequence of the fact that the feelings are seeking unity in the subject. If a feeling can’t be unified, it will alter, simplify, or be discarded. It cannot be overstated that the subject is always arising out of the world, rather than the world from the subject, and that the feelings are not aimed at a subject, but rather, they aim themselves.

Hopefully it can be seen from this that the actual entity, while each feeling is relational in character, it is not a reducible things. Each feeling is a unique expression of its datum/relata. Furthermore, each actual entity is not reducible merely to its feelings in an analogous manner.


Whitehead’s realism is a peculiar mix of William James and Henri Bergson. It is anti-representational. Rather than us ever dealing with representations or “mere appearance,” of objects, we deal with parts of objects directly. Rather than seeing a mental representation of an apple which can err, we are actually seeing a real part of the apple. There is a partial identification of cause with effect; what I feel of the apple is “vectored” into me by my feeling of it and becomes a real part of my constitution. Subject and object interpenetrate, but they also withdraw from each other.

For example, when I look at my friend’s face, I really do see their face, and if they look back, they really do see mine. We interpenetrate, but we are not unified. I still have my own thoughts, and my friend has their own. We can even speculate as to what the other might be thinking from the expression of our face, but we can misinterpret each other. I may think my friend is happy from his expression, but he is in fact, merely faking a smile. Perhaps if I was more attentive, I might have discerned some factor I missed that would reveal his true feelings. My senses do not lie to me, rather, error arises because of both the impossibility of feeling the object in its entirety, and because not all of the information has been weaseled out of what I sense.

There is one more factor here, the fact that each actual entity feels all the others in a unique manner with a unique subjective form. These subjective forms are not false appearances, but rather, really how one actual entity enters into another.

Lets suppose two people are examining an object, and one is viewing it in a manner that creates an optical illusion. While everyone else would see the object as red, the optical illusion presents the object as being green to those who are under it. While Whitehead does not discuss this directly, I hold that the object really is green to the people under the optical illusion. It is not a matter of illusion at all, it is the real way in which that object is entering into their constitution. After all, If the object was a button, and I, aware that the person was under an optical illusion, told them to push the green-colored button, they really would push it, and they would not be incorrect. If I told them to push the red button, by contrast, they would rightfully be confused, for there is no red button for them.

They could of course, weasel information out of the object. If they examined the light wavelengths and discovered that the button was giving off red, not green light, then they would be able to determine some factor other than the light was causing the object to be green. This factor could be in their eyes, their brain, or something else entirely.

Consider an example of when our senses conflict, the famous example of a stick partially dipped into water. It appears that our senses are conflicting. The stick appears to bend below the water, but if we feel it with our hand, it seems straight. Neither sense is lying to you, or even really conflicting. The real information that can be ferreted out of the visual sensation is that “the water is bending the light from the stick.” This is not immediately apparent, but further experience, touching the stick, will disclose what I might have failed to notice in vision previously. The error, Whitehead would say, is always arising when we are engaging in symbolic reference. More on this in a future article.

The Bifurcation of Nature

This brings us nicely into the next topic, something Whitehead terms “the bifurcation of nature.” This is the division of nature into secondary and primary qualities. The former are typically considered to be things like color, odor, and other sense-data. We consider that these would vanish without any conscious experiencing subject. Primary qualities, by contrast are inherent to the object. Things like the shape of an object that most people consider to exist independently of the observer.

While this may seem quite reasonable, Whitehead rejects this distinction entirely. Color is not something painted onto on object by the subject onto a colorless world, but something actually unique to the object, and forming a part of its constitution. Light is not reducible to merely photons, Whitehead claims. In fact, these physical abstractions like light waves are always that to Whitehead, mere abstractions from our actual experience. To assert, as scientific materialism often does, that color is merely a result of the frequency of light, is a textbook case of “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” This is when we create an abstraction from empirical evidence, in order to model or explain, and then assert that this abstraction we have built is more real than what it is abstracting from.

Some people often try to say that, since your brain is “merely chemicals” that all your actions are not free, and that your life is just a meaningless chemical reaction. They commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. What does it mean to be a chemical reaction though? Only your direct experience can tell you this. This might just be me, but it appears that being a chemical reaction means a whole damn lot. In fact, the only way we got these chemical examinations of the brain is through empirical experience. To retroactively reject what our empirical experience tells us, of a rich and vivid, and irreducible life, is to undermine itself. The bifurcation of nature leads the sciences, which Whitehead greatly respects, to having to “explain away” things like consciousness when it’s abstractions can’t explain them. What the sciences could benefit from is to be more empirical, is all Whitehead is saying. If science is having a difficulty in explaining consciousness, a definite element of our experience, it should not try to “explain it away” and dismiss it as a mere illusion, but actually seek to understand the processes behind it while understanding that, like color, it is not reducible to its abstraction.

The particular light frequency that causes us to see red is red itself, at least in how it enters into our world. The eternal object (Whitehead’s term for potentialities or forms) of red is a factor in the constitution of the entities making up the light. The light has a color to itself, but it will always express itself uniquely to all the other entities. Again, this uniqueness of presentation is not a false error, but rather, the real way that the object is entering into subjects. To read about how this unique presentation, the “subjective form,” emerges in detail look here.

This doctrine seems somewhat bizarre, but if a realist account is to be given, not an inch of ground can be ceded to subjectivism. The admission that the color of experience is arising purely because of the subject, and that it would vanish without anyone to see it, is a slippery slope into total subjectivity, in which objects literally do not have any properties without conscious observers. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant were aware of this, and collapsed the bifurcation in the direction of the subject. Whitehead rejects the bifurcation entirely. For him, it is always emerging because of a failure to really take all of experience into account.

The Goal of the Philosophy of Organism

Whitehead’s method, and his goal as a result, is not a neutral one. Whitehead has a problem he wants to solve, the bifurcation of nature. He already has decided from the outset that such a bifurcation is false. I for one, need no proof of its falsehood. While he does argue against it, his goal is not to refute but rather to describe a system which can overcome it without having to “explain away” parts of our experience, or having to give up the status of the sciences. Whitehead is a pre-critical philosopher in this respect. Given that this is false, what must be true?

Whitehead aims for “full disclosure” of experience. This is not in the sense of revealing some hidden knowledge or seeking revelation, but rather the humble declaration of what has always been under our noses. Whitehead is seeking awareness of all the elements of experience, in such a way that not one piece is discarded or disparaged as “lesser” or “irrational” or “illusory.” This is why the theme of concern takes such a key role in his philosophical works. Whitehead wants philosophy, above all else, to have the goal of simply making people aware, not of some grand truth or mystical wisdom, but of what has always been with them without their noticing.

The Philosophy of Organism Part 4: Creativity and The Phases of Concrescence

We are almost at the point in Whitehead’s philosophy where we can begin to move into the world as we know ita world of rocks, trees, birds, and humans. We have set out the primary formative elements (excluding creativity, which will be explained here), and we understand how it is that actual entities relate to each other. The last thing left to be understood on the microcosmic level is simply this: “How do these concrescences  actually concresce?”

This will be the longest part of this series yetperhaps the longest part period, as Whitehead is very rigorousand all of the previously discussed concepts will come into play. Thankfully, the best way to understand the previously discussed elements of Whitehead’s philosophy is to finally see them in action. In a way, the process of understanding how concrescence happens is similar to how concrescence itself happens. You probably will have a somewhat vague, indefinite grasp of the discussed elements, understanding them in a very rudimentary way. Then you start to see how they come together. At first it seems difficult as you’re not entirely certain what each thing means, but as you see them play off of each other and relate, they become more definite, your misunderstandings eliminated. Finally, at the same moment you reach a definite understanding of the elements involved, you will reach a definite understanding of the phases of concrescence, just as when the feelings of an actual entity become entirely definite, its concrescence is satisfied.

This is going to be a bit of a bumpy ride. There is a lot to cover in just one post; the jargon can become nauseating, and sometimes Whitehead is pedantic in the way that only a British Mathematician can be. I’ve attempted to introduce concrete examples to go alongside the highly abstract, almost algebraic examples that Whitehead provides to alleviate this. As a last reassurance, keep in mind that once we are done with this, it is all downhill from here. When we begin to speak of Nexūs and societies, we finally enter into the macrocosmic world that we inhabit, and things become much, much more intuitive. But until then, buckle up and put on your thinking caps.


The final formative element of Whitehead’s system is creativity, the absolute of his system that is simply given. It is the principle of novelty, the becoming itself. It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain the why of creativity. Whitehead himself is only able to shrug and say that this is simply how things are. There is constant change in the world, and we can’t explain that. Metaphysicians from Parmenides to Spinoza have had givens like “being” or “substance.” Spinoza says that his substance is merely “causa sui.” There is no further explanation of it. In Whitehead’s system, the question “why is there creativity?” is simply a reformulation of “why is there something rather than nothing?” Creativity is simply the brute fact that there is a becoming to begin with.

Creativity is, sadly, one of the vaguer aspects of Whitehead’s system and one that he seemed to have changed his mind on over the course of his career. The exact nature and interpretation of creativity is a debate among Whitehead scholars to this day, and as such, I’m not going to go into too much depth. I’ll be offering some small amount of interpretation and will quote at length. Hopefully, creativity can be understood enough that the rest of the system is at least comprehensible. I encourage readers to do their own research about the topic if they have further interest.

Whitehead, on page 171 of Adventures of Ideas offers a formulation of creativity that leads nicely into the topic of the phases of concrescence. He uses terms like “initial phase” and “primary phase” which we will soon be discussing.

“The initial situation includes a factor of activity, which is the reason for the origin of that occasion of experience. This factor of activity is what I have called “Creativity” The initial situation with its creativity can be termed the initial phase of the new occasion. It can equally well be termed the “actual world” relative to that occasion. It has a certain unity of its own, expressive of its capacity of providing the objects requisite for a new occasion, and also expressive of its conjoint activity whereby it is essentially the primary phase of a new occasion. It can thus be termed a “real potentiality” The “potentiality” refers to the passive capacity, the term “real” refers to the creative activity…”

Once an actual occasion is satisfied, it perishes. From where comes the next actual entity that replaces it? The answer Whitehead gives is creativity. Whitehead scholar André Cloots offers this explanation:

Whitehead… conceives of creativity not as “a” but as “the” activity of transcendence, permeating the whole of reality, transcending what is and yet carried by it, leading to ever new becoming. Creativity is nothing more, but nothing less either, than “this factor of activity:” “this factor of activity; (included in the initial situation) which is the reason for the origin of that occasion of experience” (Adventures 179). “The point to remember is that the fact that each individual occasion is transcended by the creative urge, belongs to the essential constitution of each such occasion. It is not an accident which is irrelevant to the completed constitution of any such occasion” (Adventures 193). “[T]he processes of the past, in their perishing, are themselves energizing as the complex origin of each novel occasion” (Adventures 276). In Modes of Thought Whitehead states this again: “The whole antecedent world conspires to produce a new occasion” (164).

Creativity does not have some ulterior motive, as doing so would violate the ontological principle. As such, it must be explained in terms of actual entities. Whitehead’s explanation in PR is rather terse and obscure, but he seems to explain this principle of novelty as a sort of rhythm. The many disjunctive entities enter into concrescence, a novel togetherness. It is an “inescapable fact” for Whitehead that there cannot be a “many” of things without them entering into a unity, a “one.” Indeed, how could there be a many without the one and vice versa? Through the phases of concrescence, a new entity definite entity emerges out of the antecedent world. However, in this concrescence, all that is achieved is a mere addition to the many. There is a new entity, and the process begins anew. This behavior is the ultimate metaphysical fact, as there is no actual entity which fails to meet this description. With this in mind, let’s examine this process whereby the many become one in detail.

The Phases of Concrescence

Whitehead says that “The process of concrescence is divisible into an initial stage of many feelings… subsequent phases of more complex feelings integrating the earlier simpler feelings, up to the satisfaction which is one complex unity of feeling” (Key 36). A key feature of this process, and one that can be difficult to get your head around, is that Whitehead insists it does not take place in physical time. This is immediately counterintuitive. How on earth could there be time if the actual coming together of an actual entity is atemporal?

Whitehead explains this by reversing the relationship. Physical time is not some container in which actual entities emerge, but rather that time is a consequence of this emergence. Once again, it’s best to let him speak for himself:

“The actual entity is the enjoyment of a certain quantum of physical time, but the genetic process is not the temporal succession… each phase in the genetic process presupposes the entire quantum, and so does each feeling in each phase. The subjective unity dominating the process forbids the the division of that extensive quantum which originates with the primary phase of subjective aim” (Ibid.).

In this fashion, physical time is describing certain features of the growth of entities, but not how those features themselves grow. “Concrescence is not in time, but time is in concrescence.”

Furthermore, we come to see that the prehensions making up entities are merely abstractions. Each prehension is merely its subject viewed from some perspective of objectification. The real actuality is the sum of all prehensions in a subjective unity that are coming together into concrete unity.  Whitehead says that we can discover a prehension by taking a component of the objective datum of a satisfaction (the completed actual entity) and comparing it with a subjective form (remember, that is how an entity is felt) of a satisfaction. Through this comparison, a component of the subjective form can be discovered with direct relevance to the datum. In this way, the prehension is located (it may be helpful to refer to part one of this series, which has a helpful diagram). Whitehead admits that this is a merely “intellectual” analysis and that the division of prehensions is to some extent arbitrary. Whether or not this is satisfying (pun intended) is up to the reader.

The Initial Phase

Now it is possible to get into the analysis of the phases proper. Whitehead makes a distinction into three distinct phases. There is an initial phase, followed by two supplemental phases, each with two sub-phases. Whitehead does not divide the third phase, but the Key recommends splitting the final supplemental phase into two sub-phasesthe origination of comparative feelingsand the comparison of those comparative feelings (complex comparative feelings).

(image taken from the Google Books preview of the Key.)

The initial phase of concrescence, the one of conformal feelings. This is the primary stage in which the actual world enters into the novel entity through physical feelings, forming the basis for its individuality. This is simply the principle that “every ‘being’ is a potential for a ‘becoming.'” The first phase is simply the reception of the actual world as a possibility for feeling. From this multiplicity of physical feelings, all the more complex feelings arise in the later stages by their integration with each other and their integration with conceptual feelings. This is how one gets from mere causal experience to complex thoughts.

The feelings that constitute the datum are reenacted by the physical feelings constituting the novel entity. This is their ‘vector’ character. There is a partial identification of cause with effect, the cause is integrated into and becomes a part of its effect. This is the manner in which creativity, while transcending the world, is conditioned by the actuality present in the world. It is both partially free from and partially dependent on the world. Thus, these are the initial “conformal feelings” as the immediate present conforms to the past. The objectively immortal past world is transformed into the subjective feelings of the new entity.

Three Categoreal Obligations

Following the key, “categoreal obligations” will be introduced as they become relevant. “Categoreal obligations” are the name for the laws which the various phases conform to. They are similar to Kant’s categories, though instead of merely structuring conscious experience, they structure the entire world. It must be remembered that experience is not limited to conscious minds in The Philosophy of Organism, but extends throughout the entire world. In this way, the categories of Whitehead lay down not merely the conditions of the possibility of experience, but the conditions for the possibility of worlds.

That being said, the three categories relevant now are as follows (they can be found on 26-28 of PR):

“Category I: The Category of Subjective Unity. The many feelings which belong to an incomplete phase in the process of an actual entity, though unintegrated by reason of the incompleteness of the phase, are compatible for integration by reason of the unity of their subject. “

This should be fairly self-explanatory. This simply the conflicting many being compatible for integration into harmonious and determinate one.

“Category II: The Category of Objective Identity. There can be no duplication of any element in the objective datum of the ‘satisfaction’ of an actual entity, so far as concerns the function of that element in the ‘satisfaction.’

Here as always, the term ‘satisfaction’ means the one complex fully determinate feeling which is the completed phase in the process. This category expresses that each element has one self-consistent function, however complex. Logic is the general analysis of self-consistency.”

The key to this category is in the  the final two sentences. One object has one role; it may not be duplicated.

“Category III: The Category of Objective Diversity. There can be no ‘coalescence’ of diverse elements in the objective datum of an actual entity, so far as concerns the functions of those elements in that satisfaction,

‘Coalescence’ here means the notion of diverse elements exercising an absolute identity of function, devoid of the contrasts inherent in their diversities… In other words, in a real complex unity each particular component imposes its own particularity on its status. No entity can have an abstract status in a real unity. Its status must be such that only it can fill and only that actuality can supply.”

All that is being said here is simply that diverse elements cannot both be merely abstracted to function. They enter into a contrast, and thus each diverse element exercises its function in regards to that particular complex unity that is its subject. The element is merely a key to the particular lock of the subject. WARNING: A “contrast” counterintuitively means “unity” in Whitehead’s terminology; remembering this will avoid much confusion down the road.

An Illustration

Whitehead illustrates the categories with a rather abstract example, claiming that “The importance of these categories can only be understood by considering each actual world in the light of a ‘medium’ leading up to the concrescence of the actual entity in question.” An abridged example is provided below:

Imagine an actual entity called A which feels other actual entities called B, C, and D. These latter entities are thus in the actual world of A. C and D are in the actual world of B, and thus B feels them. D also lies in the actual world of C, and thus C feels D. Here’s where things start getting complicated, so hold on tight. We shift perspective back to A. When A takes B as an initial datum, it is also presented with C and D by the mediation of B, as B is feeling C and D. The same thing happens in C, except now A is presented with a mediated version of D when it feels C. A receives D in three ways. It directly feels D, and also is presented with the meditations of B and C. Whitehead says that, in reality, A would be receiving D both directly and by mediation with all other entities in the actual world which they share. For the sake of simplicity, we will stick to this four-entity world.

Whitehead phrases the situation like this (italics mine):

“There are thus three sources of feeling, D Direct, D in its nexus with C, and D in its nexus with B. Thus in the basic phase of A’s concrescence there arise three prehensions of the datum D.” (Key 44)

Following the first category, these feelings enter into subjective unity, and negative prehensions are produced. D in direct feeling is not completely felt but is objectified, but inconsistencies between the mediated forms of D are eliminated by negative prehensions. D gets filtered by its mediation through other entities. It may be helpful to consider an analogy to a more worldly situation, though this should not be extended too far. Consider how when you are facing north in a room only the north wall of the room is visible to you. If you change your orientation (your relation to other objects in the world) you are able to see different parts of the room. As D is self-consistent necessarily, inconsistencies arise from prehending the subjective forms of the other entities’ prehensions of D.

Whitehead, in an interesting move, says that the negative prehensions which eliminate the inconsistencies also posses their own subjective forms which are integrated into the process. As he puts it, “A feeling bears on itself the scars of its birth” (Key 45). Because of this, what the actual entity has excluded from itself may become an important part of it on its subsequent adventures, and is thus recorded in the process.

The first category, as we said, dealt with the fact that there is a subjective unity in this example to begin with. The fact that there is an integration is described by the category of objective identity, the second obligation. As the same entity cannot be felt twice when all is said and done, the inconsistent feelings must be reconciled and integrated through negative prehension until there is one feeling of that object with a unique subjective form.

The third category’s application is somewhat obscure. It appears to obligate that these diverse feelings obtain a definite role/function with a real definite status to a real definite reality. Whitehead’s explanation is below, though interpreting it is, as has been said before, somewhat difficult:

“The third category is concerned with the antithesis to oneness, namely, diversity. An actual entity is not merely one; it is also definitely complex. But, to be definitely complex is to include definite diverse elements in definite ways. The category of objective diversity expresses the inexorable condition— that a complex unity must provide for each of its components a real diversity of status, with a reality which bears the same sense as its own reality and is peculiar to itself. In other words, a real unity cannot provide sham diversities of status for its diverse components” (PR 227).

Phase II: The Conceptual Phase

Phase one resolves now, and we move on to phase II, in which conceptual feelings (feelings of eternal objects) occur. The origination of physical feelings is the physical pole of an actual entity, and the origination of conceptual feelings is the mental pole. Every actual entity has both physical and mental poles, from God to space dust. This is not necessarily panpsychist, as consciousness is not present at all stages of reality, but it is quite close. Whitehead insists that the physical world cannot be properly understood without the complex world of mental operations. These are the conceptual feelings and the hybrid feelings which integrate the physical and the conceptual.

Phase I, the physical inheritance, is now accompanied by a conceptual reaction. Category I has demanded that the physical feelings be compatible for integration into one feeling, but in order for these feelings to become definite, the subjective forms must determine first through the origination conceptual feelings. The subjective forms of these conceptual feelings are valuations. Valuation can be valuation up or valuation down and constitutes the subjective forms of conceptual feelings. There are two sub-phases involved in this, conceptual reproduction and conceptual reversion, represented by circle b and circle b’ respectively. We have to go on a bit of a digression in order to explain these before we continue.

Two More Categories

These two sub-phases correspond to two new categoreal obligations:

Category IV: The Category of Conceptual Valuation. From each physical feeling there is the derivation of a purely conceptual feeling whose datum is the eternal object determinant of the definiteness of the actual entity, or of the nexus, physically felt.”

This should be self explanatory. Every physical feeling is followed by a conceptual feeling of a corresponding eternal object. The eternal object is recognized as being immanent in the constitution of the actual entity and then is “pried out” and recognized in a transcendental manner; this is what arrow x represents. When I see something blue in the world, I physically feel that blue entity and also have a conceptual feeling of “blue,” or “blueness” if you prefer. My feeling of the blue object is circle a on the diagram, and my feeling of “blue” is circle b.

“Category V: The Category of Conceptual Reversion. There is secondary origination of conceptual feelings with data which are partially identical with, and partially diverse from, the eternal objects forming the data in the first phase of the mental pole. The diversity is a relevant diversity determined by the subjective aim.

Note that category (iv) concerns conceptual reproduction of physical feeling, and category (v) concerns conceptual diversity from physical feeling.”

This confusingly phrased category is actually quite simple. It is what allows for novelty to enter the world and for “relevant alternatives” to be conceptually prehended. Conceptual reversion is the feeling of eternal objects that are related/relevant to the eternal object felt in the previous category. This is what allows for someone to see two shades of blue and imagine a shade that is in between. This is circle b’ on the diagram. Eternal objects have order and graded relevance to each other through God’s conceptual feeling of them. A temporal actual entity obtains this through a “hybrid” conceptual feeling. A hybrid physical feeling is essentially a feeling of another actual entity by one of that entities conceptual feelings. Whitehead claims that there are two types of hybrid feelings: those that feel conceptual feelings of temporal actual entities and those that feel God’s conceptual feelings. For our current discussion, the latter are the most relevant.

Hybrid feelings of God are key to both subjective aim and conceptual reversion:

[In the primary phase there] is a hybrid physical feeling of God, in respect to God’s conceptual feeling which is immediately relevant to the universe ‘given’ for that concrescence. There is then, according to the Category of Conceptual Valuation, i.e., Categoreal Obligation IV, a derived conceptual feeling which reproduces for the subject the data and valuation of God’s conceptual feeling. This conceptual feeling is the initial conceptual aim referred to in the preceding statement.

The initial aim is obtained by a kind of reversion, but notice that the category of reversion is in fact superfluous. It can be explained entirely in terms of God and Category IV. It is merely the conceptual prehension of a hybrid feeling of God in the original primary phase, which is physical. In this way, Hume’s assertion that all concepts are arising out of physical experience arise. It is useful however as it emphasizes the idea of relevance, how the positive prehensions of God are those which are compatible with, or have an identity with, the physical feelings transmitted in from the physical world.

Finishing up Phase II: Valuation

After that necessary digression, we can finally explain valuation. There are physical feelings that must acquire determinate subjective forms. In order for this to happen, it’s necessary to bring in eternal objects through conceptual feelings, which originate in the ways we just specified. These conceptual feelings possess their own subjective forms. The subjective form of a conceptual feeling is “valuation.” Whitehead gives valuations three characteristics paraphrased below:

  1. A valuation is dependent on the other feelings in the phase where it originates.
  2. The valuation determines the status the eternal object has ingressing into subsequent feeling.
  3. The valuation values up or down to determine the intensive importance of the datum eternal object by the subjective form of subsequent feeling. In this manner, the importance of the datum eternal object is enhanced or attenuated.

Essentially the valuation changes how important an eternal object is to the actual entity, valuing up or down from the initial feelings it is derived from.

Even More Categoreal Obligations

This discussion brings us to two more categories, listed below. Category VI has been left out; it will be discussed in the next article on the nexus. Remember, a “contrast” is a unity of feelings. In the subsequent stages, feelings will begin to be grouped together into “contrasts” as they are integrated, until the final integration and satisfaction.

“Category VII: The Category of Subjective Harmony. The valuations of conceptual feelings are mutually determined by the adaptation of those feelings to be contrasted elements congruent with the subjective aim.

Category (i) and category (vii) jointly express a pre-established harmony in the process of concrescence of any one subject. Category (i) has to do with data felt, and category (vii) with the subjective forms of the conceptual feelings. This pre-established harmony is an outcome of the fact that no prehension can be considered in abstraction from its subject, although it originates in the process creative of its subject.”

The second paragraph is merely a complex way of saying that these categories both express the fact that the concrescence eventually reaches a unity, the satisfaction.

“Category VIII The Category of Subjective Intensity. The subjective aim, whereby there is a origination of conceptual feeling, is at intensity of feeling (α) in the immediate subject, and (β) in the relevant future.

This double aim – at the immediate present and the relevant future – is less divided than appears on the surface. For the determination of the relevant future, and the anticipatory feeling respecting provision for its grade of intensity, are elements affecting the immediate complex of feeling. The greater part of morality hinges on the determination or relevance in the future. The relevant future consists of those elements in the anticipated future which are felt with effective intensity by the present subject by reason of the real potentiality for them to be derived from itself.”

Whitehead claims here that a subjective aim, initially obtained from God, always aims at intensity of feeling in the immediate subject and in the relevant future. He does not view these as conflicting, as the anticipatory feelings of the possible future influence the intensity of feeling in the subject. As such, a balance will be sought. “Balanced complexity is the outcome of this final category of subjective aim” (Key 53). Complexity is simply the realization of contrasts and the contrasts of contrasts, while balance is “the absence of attenuations due to the elimination of contrasts which some elements in the pattern would introduce and other elements inhibit” (Ibid.).

By category I, and the two categories introduced here, it becomes clear that the origination of feelings is governed by “the subjective imposition of aptitude for final synthesis.” These are the categories for the possibility of a creature that is truly causa sui. These are the categories for the possibility of creativity and self-determination. As Whitehead notes:

“…The actual entity, in a state of process during which it is not fully determinate, determines its own ultimate definiteness” (Key 52).

Whitehead claims that this is how moral responsibility emerges, conditioned by the limits of data and the limits of the categoreal conditions.  In order for there to be a high degree of autonomy though, there must be many reversions being made so that the entity is able to bring new things into the world independently, which is the role of Category VIII.

Contrasts of reversions are produced for fulfilling the aesthetic ideal. They urge towards realizing as many eternal objects as possible under limit of the conditions of contrast. These conditions of contrast are the demand for balance; the demand that the realization of an eternal object eliminates potential contrasts of other realized eternal objects. By category IV, eternal objects are valuated so as to produce the most favorable balance in the present subject, the balance that will produce the most intense integral feeling. These reversions are also what allows for anticipation of the future. The feeling of eternal objects in the present, and the reversion, allows for the consideration of alternate possiblities, both of how things are, and of how things could be.

To summarize phase II, it should be said that physical feelings in phase I give rise to conceptual feelings, which in turn give rise to conceptual feelings that are reversions. These reversions emerge from a hybrid feeling of God in the first phase. The reversions emerge as a bid for complexity, allowing relevant alternatives to be considered, and for new contrasts of feelings. These conceptual feelings obtain a subjective form by their valuation, which is made in order to obtain a balance that allows for the greatest intensity of feeling. The obtaining of subjective form in the conceptual feelings allows for the completion of the subjective forms of the basic physical feelings originating in phase I.

Phase III: Simple Comparative Feelings

With the two types of basic feelingsconceptual feelings and simple physical feelingscomplete, they now enter into a simple comparative feelings, which compare or hold in contrast physical and conceptual feelings. These are special kinds of physical feeling. Typically, the simple physical feeling is compared with the conceptual counterparts that emerged in reaction to it. Circle c in figure 2 represents a simple physical feeling and bracket y the datum of the feeling. These feelings are also called “integrated datum” or “integral comparative feelings.”

There are two types of these feelings: physical purposes and propositional feelings. While the former are terminal and end in the third phase, the latter are lures for further feeling and thus go on to a fourth sub-phase before satisfaction is reached. We’re almost done here.

Physical Purposes

The physical purpose is the simple integration of the actual fact of the physical feeling with the abstract possibility represented by the conceptual feeling. According to whether or not the conceptual feeling was valuated up or down, the physical feeling is more or less compatible respectively. If it is incompatible, then the physical feeling will lose importance, and tend to not be reproduced in subsequent occasions/entities.

It can be seen that the conceptual feelings are playing a dual role yet again. They are involved in the origination and development of subjective aim of the entity, but also through determining the importance physical purposes. In this way, they determine the creative advance beyond the entity into new entities, and the conceptual feelings truly become purposes through this integration with the physical feelings.

This explanation provides imagination as the origin of self-determination. The actual world flows into the subject with its own strength, and must be re-enacted by the new subject in a mere conformation. But there is more than just conformation:

“The subjective valuation is the work of novel conceptual feeling; and in proportion to its importance, acquired in complex processes of integration and reintegration, this autonomous conceptual element modifies the subjective forms throughout the whole range of feeling in that concrescence and thereby guides the integrations” (Key 57).

Physical purposes, when integrated merely with their conceptual counterparts, have little in the way of autonomous energy. These are physical feelings of the first species. The second species occurs when a conceptual feeling and a reverted conceptual feeling are paired with their relevant physical feelings. It is from these kind of purposes that low-level freedom is able to emerge in significant levels. A conceptual reversion with a relatively high valuation, a more complex physical purpose, emerges:

“There is now the physical feeling as valued by its integration with the primary conceptual feeling, the integration with the contrasted secondary conceptual feeling, the heightening of the scale of subjective intensity by the introduction of conceptual contrast, and the concentration of this heightened intensity upon the reverted feeling in virtue of its being the novel factor introducing the contrast” (PR 279).

Now, the conceptual reversion will enter into future entities as a physical feeling, and the pattern of the original feeling appears as the datum in the reverted conceptual feeling. This causes a chain of alternating contrasts. As long as these reversions continue to reintegrate, they will swap places like this in each new entity and gain in intensity. Whitehead claims that this is the origin of “vibration” in the physical sciences. Rhythm and vibration arise from the conditions of for intensity and stability.

Propositional Feelings

Propositions arise in a similar manner to physical purposes via an integration of a physical feeling with a conceptual feeling. However, the objective datum of this kind of feeling is a proposition. These are heavily linked with eternal objects. However, whereas an eternal objects are abstracted from all actual entities, only found by their potential to enter into any actual entity while not being bound to particular actualities, a proposition is referent to actual entities in a definite fashion. An eternal object “tells no tales about it’s ingressions.” A proposition gives us tales that might be told of some particular entities. They are true or false according to some reason, and that reason, in accordance with the ontological principle, must be one or more actual entities.

An eternal object thus cannot be true or false, but a proposition takes the indeterminateness of an eternal object and at the same timeabstracts certain actual entities. It is an entity in its own right, a complex abstraction of actual entities constituting it, and an eternal object entering into it. It is true or false depending on the constitution of the abstracted entities, but tells no tale about itself. An equal sign can only tell you something when you put numbers on either side, and indeterminate “equality” can never be true or false. The proposition in a sense adds a question mark to the eternal object and applies it to particular actual entities.

Again, like a physical purpose, a propositional feeling emerges from a physical feeling of an actual entity or a nexus (group) of actual entities. The conceptual feeling’s datum is, like in the physical purpose, an eternal object. The integrated actual entities become the logical subjects of the proposition. The eternal object is restricted to these particular logical subjects. It may be restricted to referring to any of the entities in the set provided or it may refer to the entirety of the set. (True or False) = True, but (True A and False) = False. The eternal object of the conceptual feeling forms the predicative pattern which the logical subjects singled out by the physical feeling. The actual entities become abstracted from their role in the world in a propositional feeling, instead being reduced to bare, abstract multiplicities, becoming “food for a possibility.” The sheer matters of fact are translated into a potentials for the realization of a predicative pattern. In short, a propositional feeling applies an eternal object to a set of actual entities considered in abstract and uses this integrated feeling to locate a proposition to feel.

However, the proposition does exist independent of the feeler briefly. The truth or falsehood of a proposition is not determinable by the proposition itself, but only by a feeler, a “prehending subject.” The proposition is located in the actual world of any actual entity who includes the logical subjects of the proposition in its world. When this occurs, the proposition is able to function as an element in the “lure for feeling” of that entity. It follows that in any given actual entity’s world there are an indefinite number of propositions, as there is an indefinite number of actual entities and eternal objects. Not all propositions will enter into feeling though. The only propositions that will be felt will be those whose corresponding eternal object has not been eliminated at the end of phase two. Then, the propositional feeling will occur, as the actual entity has admitted it into its concrescence.

If a proposition is true, that is, it conforms to the world, then it merely emphasizes some fact in the world. There may be accession or diminution of emotion. Telling you that this article was written at 4 o’clock is unlikely to produce any great emotional response in you. But a non-conformal proposition, while “false,” is not inherently evil. Fact is synthesized with potential alternatives, and this can be creative or destructive. Whitehead emphasizes that the non-conformal is a novelty whereas the world-conformal is not, as a non-conformal proposition puts old forms into new functions. Whitehead has an interesting attitude here, believing that merely viewing propositions as matters for judgment has been disastrous. Rather, propositions should be considered for what they possess and where they might take us. He goes so far as to say that “In the real world, it is more important that a proposition be interesting than it be true” (Key 64).

Judgment, he says, is a rare occurrence in the world, as is consciousness. No audience upon hearing “To be or not to be…” does any judging about the truth of the statement, but rather submits to the aesthetic pleasure in following the lure for feeling. Whitehead is somewhat similar to Deleuze in that he values new ways of looking at things for their own sake. He abhors any philosophy that would seek to stifle the freedom of ideas that we all posses. The proof that Whitehead is correct in this way of thinking is that it is impossible to act merely on the basis of how things are, rather, action is always an attempt to make something in the world that is non-conformal conformal. Saying “we should lower crime rates” already involves the consideration of the (non-conformal) proposition that crime rates are low. Our feeling gives us desire, and our discovery of its falsehood moves us to action.

Phase IV: Complex Comparative Feelings

This (sub)phase is the final stage before the satisfaction. The complex comparative feelings are represented by circle D. Bracket Z represents the datum for these feelings. This is the stage where intellectual feelings and consciousness emerge. Here, the “theory” of the proposition gets checked with reality. The propositional feelings are compared and enter into a contrast with some nexus of actual entities. What might be is contrasted with what there is in fact. Whitehead calls this the “affirmation-negation” contrast.

Whitehead makes an interesting claim that consciousness is rising out of experience. This is in direct opposition to Kant. While in Kant’s system the world arises out of the transcendental subject, the reverse is true for Whitehead. His argument for it, if correct, undermines almost the entirety of post-Kantian idealist philosophy and has been criminally overlooked, but that will wait for the discussion of what Whitehead terms “causal efficacy.”

The Satisfaction

We now come to the end of the concrescence. One big, final, determinate feeling. The many datum of the primary phase finally come together with a complex subjective form. All incompatibility and indeterminacy has been purged and evaporated. The satisfaction has a definite “yes or no” link to each entity in the universe. But in this achievement of definiteness, the process ends, and thus the actual entity “never really is.”

Each satisfaction may have different levels of “order” or “disorder,” which promote intensity or lack of intensity respectively. This definite feeling, relatively intense or otherwise, now passes on as a “given” objective datum for entities. It becomes objectively immortal as soon as it “perishes” by becoming a part of the constitution of a creative advance beyond itself. Thus, the process repeats itself, with the new entity now passing on from being self-creator to being part-creator of the world.

“In its self-creation the actual entity is guided by its ideal of itself as individual satisfaction and as transcendent creator” (Key 71).

This completes the microcosmic level of Whitehead’s philosophy, and if you’ve made it this far, things get much easier from here on out. We can now enter into the complex world of enduring objects that we see in our day-to-day lives. It is there where Whitehead’s philosophy gains a definite relevance to our lives and can help us think about everything from atoms and cells to friendships and human societies.



The Philosophy of Organism Part 3: Whitehead’s God and Process Theology

The topic of God in Whitehead’s philosophy is so big and complex that it demands a post all to itself, as it may have to be revisited at some point in the future as new parts of the philosophy become relevant. As such, it has been given it’s own article that may be expanded upon later, either for reference as new concepts emerge, or if my understanding of the matter happens to change. It would be helpful to keep in mind the words of Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Firstly, It should be very clear to readers that Whitehead’s God is not a bearded man in the clouds, nor is he a vengeful pagan idol. To let the man speak for himself:

“It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operates by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present” (Process and Reality 343).

God was one of the parts of Whitehead’s philosophy that can be the most difficult to understand and to swallow. Those of you who are not religious may already be getting cold feet. My advice, which may seem a bit against your sensibilities, is this: understand first, then ask your questions. To understand his unique idea of God, and to question it if you so desire, one has to understand that, and it’s very, very difficult to understand how God operates and is justified by Whitehead without simply letting him take you along and show you, which may take many, many pages. In short until you’re certain you grasp what Whitehead is on about, roll with it and see where it takes us. It is the supreme exemplification of Whitehead’s principles that it is difficult to understand how each part of it works until you see how it functions with the other parts, and God is no different.

God’s Primordial Nature

The Key to Process and reality suggests that the simplest way to introduce the concept of God is to simply apply the ontological principle to the realm of eternal objects. So first, recall the ontological principle:

“Every condition to which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance, has its reason either in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence or in the character of the caracter of the subject which is in process of concrescence… so that to search for reasons means to search for one or more actual entities” (Key 17).

Because of this, Whitehead declares that things cannot float into existence from nothing.  Everything has to be somewhere, so, the potentiality of the universe (the eternal objects) also has to all be somewhere. This is a non temporal actual-entity which is the mediation between the the eternal objects and the actual entities: God. Attentive readers likely noticed that there was something missing in the discussion of eternal objects:

“The endeavor to understand eternal objects in complete abstraction from the actual world results in reducing them to mere differentiated nonentities” (Key 26).

To avoid this, the “relevance” of eternal objects in each creative instant, their relation to each other, their diversity, pattern, and nature must already be realized conceptually in what is termed god’s “primordial nature.” Without this, the eternal objects are isolated and vanish from existence, and potentiality becomes impossible. To prevent this God in his primordial nature prehends all eternal objects. The primordial nature is then present in other actual entities as they move towards their own complete prehension of eternal objects. While the eternal objects guide how each prehension is made, the primordial nature is generating the relevance of each eternal object in the actual entity and determining how each eternal object comes into the actual entity to begin with.

The primordial nature is thus present in some respect in every concrescing entity, and is realized in the completion of each actual entity. To quote Whitehead:

“[The primordial nature of God] is the unconditioned actuality of conceptual feeling at the base of things; so that, by reason of this primordial actuality, there is an order in the relevance of eternal objects to the process of creation. He is the actual entity in virtue of which the entire multiplicity of eternal objects obtains its graded relevance to each stage of concrescence. Apart from God, there could be no relevant novelty” (Key 26-27).

Only through his valuation of each eternal object is there any order in the world. If there could be no agent of comparison for eternal objects, there would be pure chaos. There could be no potentiality, as there would be no logical manner in which the eternal enters into the temporal without his valuations of each eternal object. This agency must come from an actual entity, namely God.

Subjective Aim and the Consequent Nature

God plays a critical role in the determining of each concrescing subject’s subjective aim. This is not the subjective form, which is how a feeling is realized, but an aim which acts as a sort of lure for feelings. The subjective aim is a vision provided to an entity of what it might be. The primordial nature of God sets up each actual entity with a subjective aim through providing the basis of the valuation of eternal objects. This end is the one most in line with bringing about an intensity of feeling (as this brings things to more definiteness). The entity’s becoming is kickstarted at this moment, and it’s becoming is it’s being. The aim provided by God may be altered by the concrescing subject, being simplified or corrupted, but this is to be decided by the entity, which is now provided with the means of going about it’s own concrescence in an orderly manner.

“God is the principle of concretion; namely, he is that actual entity from which each temporal concrescence receives that initial aim from which its self-causation starts” (Key 28-29).

There is nothing forcing an actual entity to comply with the subjective aim. It is the lord of its own concrescence, and presides over it as subject. God merely provides an image of a potentiality, and the entity may accept it or alter it. This is a bit of needless anthropomorphizing of actual entities, but the point should be clear.
Remember that the specific subjective aim provided by god arises naturally. It is not conjured from nowhere, it is merely God’s own valuation from the perspective of the entity in question, like subjective forms of other datum. Remember, each entity is prehending every other entity in some manner or another, so there is nothing special about prehending god. In fact, according to Whitehead, you’re doing it at every moment.God also enters into every entity through his consequent nature. As each generation of entities passes out of existence and gives birth to new entities, they are no longer actual, so in order that the objective immortality doctrine be preserved, the consequent nature of god prehends each satisfaction and brings it into itself, preserving it relative to the actual entity which it generated and allowing for it to be carried onwards and have efficacy in the world.

“Through his valuations of the world as saved in his consequent nature he exhibits ‘the judgement of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved'[PR 525]” (Key 227).


There are certain terms, like valuation, which are difficult to grasp and explain in this context, and to explain them. It is very difficult to actually understand them outside of the context of the phases of concrescence, which is the subject of the next article. Unfortunately, without God in mind, it is difficult to understand things like subjective aim. The next article can be approached arm with the concept of God, and by seeing his operations in action, the unfamiliar concepts will snap into an incredible clarity that can only be described as a moment of epiphany. Until then, be content with this piece from the Key for summary:

“In his primordial nature God prehends the infinite realm of possibilities; in his consequent nature he prehends the actualities of the world; his superjective nature is a result of weaving his consequent prehensions upon his primordial vision.”



The Philosophy of Organism Part 2: Eternal Objects and Their Relation to Actual Entities

The formative elements of the Philosophy of Organism are eternal objects, God, and creativity. The interaction between these formative elements is what produces the actual entities previously discussed, hence their designation as formative.

The next few blog posts will deal entirely with these formative elements and then can move on to the actual macrocosmic universe and offer descriptions of things we perceive on a daily basis. Today, we’ll be sticking to eternal objects.

Eternal objects are a Platonic concept, similar in function and role to the forms. Examples of eternal objects are colors, geometric forms, abstract concepts, etc. These demonstrate an important distinction made by Whitehead to what is real and what is actual. Whitehead believes that eternal objects are real. This does not mean they are floating around in Platonic heaven or you can go out into the wilderness and find yourself a number. Actual things “exist” concretely (trees, rocks, etc). What is actual is what is composed of actual entities; they are determinate. But eternal objects are real as potentialities. In fact, they are potentiality.

The Satisfaction and Development of Actual Entities

It’s necessary to elucidate somewhat on the nature of actual entities here to properly understand eternal objects. To quote Whitehead:

“An actual entity is a process in the course of which many operations with incomplete subjective unity terminate in a completed unity of operation, termed the satisfaction. The actual entity terminates in one complex feeling involving a completely determinate bond with every item in the universe, the bond being either positive or negative prehension. This termination is termed the ‘satisfaction’ of the actual entity. (Key 14)”

The actual entity here is the movement of indeterminacy towards complete determinacy, an integration of feelings guided by the subjective forms of feeling. Gradually an actual entity becomes completely determinate, either by excluding objects (negative prehension) or including them in itself (positive prehension). Through subjective forms, novelty is added into the feelings. It then passes into what Whitehead terms “objective immortality,” where the past of an actual entity is carried into the future by those that succeed it. The satisfaction is the final cause moving the subject, and no process can be abstracted from it. The feelings move towards integration in the satisfaction they generate, and it is only there that they gain ultimate definiteness. This definiteness is what allows for “objective immortality” and is why they cannot be abstracted from each other.

For example, the past versions of a person’s self are carried into the present. Nothing lasts, but nothing is lost. While a person changes, their past does not fully escape them. But at every moment they are transcending themselves; the past is prehended by the present and superseded at each moment, intervening in processes other than itself as it moves towards new satisfaction and itself passes on.

This self-transcendence is the character of what are termed “objects,” a satisfied process. To Whitehead, “It is the one general metaphysical character of all entities of all sorts that they function as objects (Key 15),” that is, being involved in other concrescences. This is what allows for there to be solidarity and continuity in the universe, that all entities have objective character. Actual entities become beings, but as Whitehead notes: “It belongs to the nature of every being that it is a potential for every becoming.”

Actual entities are Subjects that preside over their own becoming, but they are also superjects, atomic creatures that exercise this objective immortality and transcend themselves by acting creatively. It is at all times a subject that experiences and a superject with objective character, the collection of experience. Whitehead notes that whenever the words subject or superject are seen, they cannot be thought of separately, but considered as subject-superject. The subject is the actual entity as a mirror, the superject as a window, but each actual entity is both mirror and window. To summarize:

“The philosophy of organism presupposes a datum which is met with feelings, and progressively attains the unity of a subject… the satisfaction is the ‘superject’ rather than the ‘substance’ or the ‘subject.’ It closes up the entity; and yet is the superject adding its character to the creativity whereby there is a becoming of entities superseding the one in question. This satisfaction is the attainment of something individual to the entity in question. It cannot be construed as a component contributing to its own concrescence; it is the ultimate fact, individual to the entity.

Eternal Objects

In the whole of the above, eternal objects were underlying the entire structure. If, as Whitehead’s ontological principle proclaims, nothing can come from nothing, and that everything that arises must come from something else, how can there possibly be potentiality and novelty?

The answer is eternal objects; these are not actual, but they are real. They relate to actual entities through conceptual feelings, which are like physical feelings but in relation to an eternal object instead of another actual entity. Actualities exemplify the ingression, or participation to use a Platonic term, of these potentialities:

“The things which are temporal [actual entities] arise by their participation in the things which are eternal [eternal objects] ”

“The functioning of an eternal object in the self-creation of an actual entity is the ‘ingression’ of the eternal object in the actual entity. An eternal object can be described only in terms of its potentiality for ‘ingression’ into the becoming of actual entities…(Key 21)”

What is meant by ‘ingression’ is the way in which the potential that is an eternal object is realized in an actual entity, contributing to that entity’s definiteness. For example: the eternal object of circle ingresses into a circle you draw, as the drawn circle realizes the potentiality for there to be circles in a definite manner. It is not called into being but brought from mere indeterminate potentiality to a determinate actuality.

“An eternal object in abstraction from any one particular actuality is a potentiality for ingression into actual entities. (Key 22)”

The existence of these potentialities is what allows for novelty to exist at all and for truly new occasions to emerge from what already exists. Objects do not merely have physical prehensions; they also have conceptual prehensions, which are prehensions of which the datum of the prehension is an eternal object. It may help to refer back to the diagram in the first part of this series and replace the actual entity with an eternal object. A key difference, though, is that to Whitehead, all actual entities must relate with a causal feeling to all other actual entitiesno matter how smallwhereas these potentialities may be dismissed or excluded entirely from an actuality. They never love their ‘accent’ of potentiality, as Whitehead puts it. The physical relations of actual entities are always governed by these eternal objects. Each prehension of other entities ‘carries’ a part of the entity to become a part of another, and eternal objects are key in this ‘carrying.’

“The philosophy of organism does not hold that the ‘particular existents’ [i.e, actual entities] are prehended apart from universals [i.e., eternal objects]; on the contrary it holds that they are prehended by the mediation of universals. (Key 24)”

A simple physical feeling, in which one actual entity positively prehends another actual entity as its intial datum, involves a ‘reproduction’ of a part of the intial datum (the objective datum) as a subjective form in the object that is prehending. Eternal objects enter into this as they help determine the definiteness of the objective datum (of the ‘effect’), and eternal objects also determine the definiteness of the subjective form (of the ’cause’). To quote:

“When there is re-enaction there is one eternal object with two-way functioning, namely as a partial determinant of the objective datum, and as partial determinant of the subjective form. In this two-way role, the eternal object is functioning relationally between the initial data on the one hand and the concrescent subject on the other. (Key 25)”

The eternal object ingresses into the actual entity by making it definite, offering the potentiality for definiteness, and in this way it is involved in both the objective datum and the subjective form. Its participation or ingression in the objective form gives it the definiteness necessary to be felt and be objectified (keep the principle of relativity below in mind here) in other entities. Its ingression into the subjective form is what allows for novel feeling to be made by providing itself as a potentiality and for the objectively immortal past to be synthesized with the present.

“…The potentiality for being an element in a real concrescence of many entities into one actuality is the one general metaphysical character attaching to all entities… (Process and Reality 22)”

The eternal objects thus give order to feelings and allow for there to be new actual entities. This allows for what Whitehead terms a “becoming of continuity” instead of a paradoxical “continuity of becoming.” The eternal object is what allows for this solidarity and unity of relation of objects. Being involved on both sides of any feeling, “The solidarity of the universe is based on the relational functioning of eternal objects. (Key 25)”


Eternal objects can be a bit hard to swallow. How can these be? Clever readers might notice that there are a few problems with how eternal objects function in the system with the principles as given. To explain eternal objects, Whitehead introduces a fascinating and creative concept of God, which at first seems inelegant and shoehorned but is in fact the supreme exemplification of the principles that have been described. The next article will deal entirely with Whitehead’s conception of God.

The Philosophy of Organism Part 1: Actual Entities

“Life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the Universe.” -Alfred North Whitehead

Edit: Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section!

I’m going to take a break from my regular writing to write a bit about a fascinating yet underappreciated philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. He co-authored Principia Mathematica together with Bertrand Russel and then went on to become a metaphysician of astounding quality, pioneering a field of speculative philosophy known as “process metaphysics.” His personal philosophical system was dubbed “The Philosophy of Organism.”

Process metaphysics is the inversion of “substance metaphysics,” which for the uninitiated is the view that the world is made up primarily of static substances. The primary features of an object in a substance metaphysics are the substances which compose it, whereas in a process-metaphysics such as Whitehead’s, the role of each entity is thought of in how it is becoming, or how it plays a role in becoming. Action becomes everything.

The primary books I’ll be working from are “Process and Reality” by Whitehead himself and the key to the aforementioned book by Donald W. Sherburne. If not otherwise specified, all information and quotation comes from these two books.

We will begin with a (very) quick rundown of some of the most fundamental parts of Whitehead’s metaphysical system and hopefully build up to the highest levels of abstraction. Now without further ado, let’s begin.

Actual Entities

Whitehead’s system is atomistic, in the vein of Democritus. His system has ultimate, individual parts which cannot be further divided: atoms. The atoms of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism are called “Actual Entities.” Whitehead’s ontological principle states that:

…Every condition to which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance has its reason… in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence… (Process and Reality 24)

What this essentially means is that the ultimate reason for any thing ultimately comes down to one or more actual entities, and thus anything that exerts influence on the world must be an actual entity or take part in one. A concrescence is for now best defined as a term for a process. Now examine his “principle of relativity”:

…The potentiality for being an element in a real concrescence of many entities into one actuality is the one general metaphysical character attaching to all entities… (Process and Reality 22).

Taken together, these two principles assert not only that all things ultimately composed actual entities, but all things only exist insofar as they are able to take part in a process. This means that all actual entities exist primarily in the way that they function in a process.

In understanding what an actual entity itself is, it can be helpful to compare with Leibniz’s Monadology. To Leibnitz, all entities were ultimately “windowless monads” which did not actually interact but were in a pre-established harmony, to quote The Monadology:

An apple falls on Alice’s head, apparently causing the experience of pain in her mind. In fact, the apple does not cause the pain—the pain is caused by some previous state of Alice’s mind. If Alice then seems to shake her hand in anger, it is not actually her mind that causes this, but some previous state of her hand.

This counterintuitive system of monads was the subject of much ridicule, but Whitehead turns this it its head. While Leibnitz’s monads are windowless and do not interact at all, Whitehead’s actual entities are all-window; they interact with everything in some way shape or form and only exist insofar as they are able to interact.


Physical Feelings

According to Whitehead, one of the most basic ways in which actual entities interact is through what are termed simple physical feelings, diagrammed below. A simple physical feeling is a type of prehension, and actual entities are the sum of all their prehensions. Specifically, a physical feeling is a “positive” prehension. Each prehension consists of a subject that is prehending, the datum which is prehended, and the subjective form which is the way in which the datum is prehended. This is diagrammed below (taken from the key):


In this diagram, B is the subject and A is the “initial datum.” Both are actual entities, and the sections of each pie are their prehensions. N is the prehension of A that is objectified (becomes a part of) by B by way of the feeling X. N here is called the “objective datum.” This movement represented by the vector moving from N to X. What is happening is that X is making N a part of its subject B. At the same time, negative prehensions – represented by the other pairs of letters – are eliminating parts of B from the feeling. This gives the initial datum N a subjective form, a sort of perspective, in the feeling X which objectifies it in B. If you are familiar with Hegel, it may be helpful to think of his concept of “Something” and “Other” as it is very similar to what is at play here(Ignore this, the similarity is almost completely superficial upon further reflection, and is in fact diametrically opposed to a Hegelian understanding of objects. See here for why) The following quote may shine a bit more light on the exact nature of these feelings:

“A simple physical feeling is an act of causation. The actual entity which is the initial datum [A] is the ’cause,’ the simple physical feeling [X] is the ‘effect,’ and the subject [B] entertaining the simple physical feeling is the actual entity conditioned by the effect. This ‘conditioned’ actual entity [b] will also be called the ‘effect.’ All complex causal action can be reduced to a complex of such primary components. Therefore simple physical feelings will also be called ‘causal’ feelings (Key 11).

The object in this case is acting on the subject. The objective datum N is actually reaching out and being objectified in the feeling X, not being reached out for by X. Let’s bring this away from such abstraction and use an example from experience. Looking at different parts of your screen, you are beholding the same initial datum at all times, namely the screen. However, you are feeling different objective datum depending on which part you are viewing. The subjective form, how you perceive this objective datum, arises due to the ‘ingression’ of what Whitehead terms ‘eternal objects,’ which will be explained in the next post which will specifically deal with them. They are quite similar, however, to Plato’s forms.

Actual entities showcase some of the idiosyncratic features of Whitehead’s terminology. There is a difference between “real” and “actual” to Whitehead, and he uses the term “feeling” for something that seems to lack any sort of feeling in the usual sense. He even goes so far as to term actual entities “drops of experience.” He does not mean that all actual entities literally have “experience” in the way that you and I do. Experience is truly a kind of technical term, as is feeling, meant to emphasize how actual entities objectify each other. The heavy abstraction and complex interaction of these moments of experience eventually produces the conscious. In a way, the objects truly do ‘experience’ each other; in their feelings, they reenact an aspect of the object within themselves.

This also highlights another difficulty of Whitehead: his system is not easily presented in a linear fashion. If I explain Eternal objects here, it becomes necessary to explain what God is to Whitehead, and things continue tangentially from there. This is not helped by the fact that the actual beings that we perceive are not actual entities, but “nexūs” (plural of nexus) or societies of actual entities. All of these terms will be explained in future posts, but in order to focus on Actual Entities thoroughly, they have to be passed over. Certain concepts will be retread in future posts as they are given new context and clarity by the elucidation of new concepts. Until then, you’ll have to be content with just “drops of experience.”