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 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.”