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From Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses [Canada] 1999, 28:1.  Online version has only been stylistically reformatted here.

Whitehead's Intellectual Adventure

Lewis S. Ford

In the preface to Adventures of Ideas (1933), Whitehead recognized that his title has at least two meanings: “One meaning is the effect of certain ideas in promoting the slow drift of mankind towards civilization . . . . The other meaning is the author's adventure in forming a speculative scheme of ideas which shall be explanatory of the historical adventure” (Whitehead 1933: vii). Here I shall recount Whitehead's own adventure of ideas, especially the way in which he gradually worked out his concept of God in stages. First, however, I must dwell on a particular idiosyncrasy which reveals a lot about his adventuresome spirit. That peculiarity also helps us enormously to keep track of this process of creative speculation.

It has been said that a good author must be prepared to be bored by his own ideas. Whitehead was never willing to go over and over the same old stuff. Ideas are like fish, he said, they don't keep. He realized that it is more important that propositions be interesting than that they be true, although he added that truth was a major factor in making them interesting. Nevertheless he was by temperament a speculative philosopher, constructing new ways of thinking about things, rather than a critical philosopher making sure that speculation does not get out of bounds. Without prior speculation the critic has nothing to work with.

As a result he was always seeking new ideas, and bored with old ones. He was frustrated by the process of adjusting everything to keep it all consistent. Finally he became unwilling to revise what he had already written. Thus, in at least two of his books, passages in one part are not consistent with what he had already been written in another part.

For example, the later Whitehead espoused the epochal theory of time. According to this theory time comes in “epochal” or discrete droplets of experience. Time, in one of its aspects, has discontinuous features. Another aspect of time is continuous, being infinitely divisible. But continuous time gives rise to instants as the end result of infinite division. Whitehead had grave doubts as to the meaningfulness of any activity at an instant. The calculus is simply a way of papering over the problem, for it treats a very short temporal spanas short as you likeas if it were an instant.

The theory of epochal time first makes its appearance in Science and the Modern World (1967 [1925]), and most commentators interpret this book as a whole in terms of the epochal theory. It is seen as a precursor, somewhat out of focus, to his magnum opus, Process and Reality (1977 [1929]). Yet most of the book presupposes a continuous theory of events. Events can be of any size; they are infinitely divisible, whereas epochal occasions are atomic, and cannot be reduced any further without the loss of actuality.

In the preface Whitehead explains that Science and the Modern World consists in the main of the eight Lowell lectures he had delivered in February 1925. “These lectures with some slight expansion . . . are here printed as delivered” (Whitehead 1967: viii), together with some additional chapters. It is possible to determine that slight expansion. The striking feature was that all additions pertain to epochal time, strongly suggesting that when Whitehead gave the original lectures, he did not yet have the epochal theory in mind, and that we are wrong in interpreting these lectures as if “events” meant the “epochal occasions” of later theory.

Usually we assume that a book by a single author should be interpreted in terms of the whole, that the book constitutes a single unified context of meaning. Here, however, it makes better sense to read the original lecture as constituting one context of meaning, and the additional chapters as providing another context of meaning. As it turns out, the original lectures sketch out a metaphysics appropriate to the philosophy of nature Whitehead had developed in his earlier books such as The Concept of Nature and Principles of Natural Knowledge. They are much closer to them than to the later Process and Reality.

From the initial reception of Science and the Modern World, Whitehead thought that he had “gotten away with” the strategy of combining different texts in the same book, and so resolved to do likewise in the very ambitious and complex enterprise of Process and Reality. In any case, it is possible to analyze the text into 13 different strata, each of which develops the implications of some new unanticipated insight. Whitehead seems to be very partial to the reception of new ideas, willing to revise his conceptuality quite extensively in the light of these ideas, but very impatient with the humdrum tasks of organizing his texts for publication. He would not proofread; as a result there are over 600 typographical errors in the original edition.

His usual strategy for retaining earlier material is to write an insertion designed to persuade the reader to interpret that material according to some fresh insight. While each stratum is quite consistent within itself, inconsistencies and anomalies between the various strata abound.

This idiosyncratic procedure (which he abandoned in later books) had the result of making Process and Reality an unnecessarily difficult book to understand. This may be why serious Whitehead interpretation could not get underway until some 30 years later when William A. Christian (1959) concentrated his interpretation on the perfected system of the latter stages of Process and Reality, ignoring the rest. Ivor Leclerc (1958), in what is still probably the best introduction to Whitehead's philosophy, also concentrated on this final position.

While Process and Reality has shortcomings as a treatise, it provides a rich source of clues for anyone wishing to trace out the play of ideas Whitehead developed in its construction. In a way it is a dialectic of ideas; yet whereas Hegel always knew where he was heading, and only had to create as many obstacles along the way as possible, Whitehead had no idea where his inquiry would take him. There is an amazing growth from the rather simple and impoverished metaphysic of the Lowell Lectures to the final stages of Process and Reality—due chiefly to Whitehead's relentless self-criticism and willingness to revise (conceptually, if not compositionally) his own achievements along the way.

The theory of epochal time opens up the possibility of exploring another dimension of reality besides the being of events. Being is not something static, but includes the dynamism of change and growth. Such is the “process” of events, which are sort of dynamic beings. But the “process” which occasions undergo is considerably more radical. It is not simply becoming in the sense that the leaf becomes, or turns into red, but in the sense of bringing something into being which hitherto had no being.

Though Whitehead does not call it so, we may call this a theory of creation. Granted, it is very different from the traditional understanding of creation. It is not one transcendent, eternal, divine act ex nihilo, but a series of many immanent, temporal acts of self-creation out of past actualities. Nevertheless, each process of actualization is creative of new being.

Whitehead came to this notion of self-creation gradually. The first step was taken as early as 1898. As a young mathematician and lecturer in Trinity College, Cambridge, he searched seven years in vain for an adequate concept of God. Those available to him were all flawed in that they assumed God created the world. Traditional views of creation posit a God behind this world, which is like the theory of a causal nature behind nature as it appears to us. Later Whitehead criticized “the bifurcation of nature” into a causal nature giving rise to an apparent nature. Both are forms of dualism. Moreover, such a creation requires divine omnipotence, which precludes human freedom, unless we can presume upon the goodness of God. Whitehead argues that divine goodness should not depend upon accidents of divine will.

Giving up all hope of finding an adequate concept of God, he was initially drawn to atheism. Bertrand Russell collaborated closely with Whitehead from 1898 to 1910 on Principia Mathematica, and reports that they agreed on matters religious. Russell thinks the experience of World War I and the loss of so many young men, former students of his, as well as his own son Eric, had a lot to do with Whitehead's turning back to religion. But he did not find an adequate concept of God, or one he could at least refine, until 1925. The Lowell Lectures avoid the topic, even announcing at one point that it was not something he was prepared to discuss (Whitehead 1967: 92f.), yet the additional material includes a chapter on God. God is conceived as a cosmic order (or orderer) which structures the basic parameters of reality. The important point is that such a God is not the world's creator.

Initially Whitehead conceived of the world as a multiplicity of events of any magnitude whatsoever. Since any spatio-temporal expanse qualified as a event, dinner last night or the third world war were perfectly good events. Not all events have the minimum unity we assign to actuality. Finding no criterion within the concept of event to qualify as actual, Whitehead could see no reason for stopping short of the whole. He thus conceived actuality in a monistic fashion, in terms of an underlying substantial activity. Then individual events were its derivative modes. God is not this underlying activity, but one of its attributes.

The reconception of some events as epochal occasions allowed Whitehead to view the occasions as actual, rendering creativity (as the substantial activity was now called) one of the formative elements of actual occasions. “Creativity” may have come from “creative activity” to signify the activity of an occasion in achieving its own being. Each occasion individualizes its own creativity as its immediate subjectivity. Once being is achieved, the occasion is objectively available for prehension by others.

“Creativity,” by the way, seems to have been coined by Whitehead. There is only one other attestation to the word, in the mid-1920s, before his Religion in the Making (1996 [1926]). Other neologisms, such as “prehension” and “concrescence,” have much older attestations, even going back to the 1640s. These two terms deserve recognition and definition. “Prehension,” coined from conscious ap-prehension, means any taking account of things, abstracting from consciousness and subjectivity. Such a general concept can serve as the converse of causation. If B prehends A, then A causally influences B. Any occasion prehends all its causal factors, and integrates them in the process of becoming a new being. This integration is called “concrescence,” the “growing together” of these prehensions into one concrete being.

In place of an underlying activity with its attributes and modes, Whitehead now proposed a basic category of actual occasions and their three formative elements: creativity, God, and the forms, called eternal objects. Two were actual: actual occasions and God. Two were non-temporal: God and the eternal objects. Whereas creativity was both non-actual and temporal, God was contrastingly actual and non-temporal.

In effect this pluralized the underlying activity, giving each occasion its own creativity. The individual occasion thus has two sides, the creative act and its outcome. Whitehead recognized that this meant some sort of theory of self-creation: “But there are not two actual entities, the creativity and the creature. There is only one entity which is the self-creating creature” (1996: 102). Although he was not then prepared to show how this is possible, the idea of self-creation was a beacon for further inquiry. How could he make this concept intelligible?

He got off to a bad start by assuming that there must first be a being to initiate the process of its own creation. If so, he proposed, there must first be a datum from which the concrescence proceeded. Concrescence is the growing together of the many prehensions to produce a concrete actuality. This early theory is only clearly evident here and there (e.g., Whitehead 1977: 150, 210), but it underlies most of part 2 of Process and Reality.

The datum is the objective counterpart for the subject. It provides the being for the subject in terms of which the subject could concresce. But the origination of the datum became increasingly problematic, so Whitehead replaced that theory with a more comprehensive theory of concrescence, one that took over the functions for the formation of the datum as well.

Concrescence thus is streamlined. Two acts of unification were replaced by a single act, as was required by Whitehead's new understanding of epochal becoming. Now there can be only one act of becoming for any occasion. This means that the occasion lacks any unified being during concrescence (Whitehead 1929: 69). It prehends the many beings of the past, but these are not unified until its completion. Becoming is then seen to contrast with being, and to be productive of being. Becoming is not therefore nothing, but another mode of reality besides being. In fact, becoming is ontologically prior to being, since being (as unity) only exists as the outcome of becoming.

Part 3 of Process and Reality details this revised theory of concrescence. Now another problem arises: how can we account for the obvious unity of the self during concrescence? Whitehead tries out many different strategies, provisionally settling on two factors. First, he devises a set of categorical conditions governing the process of concrescence. These are transcendental conditions for all possible experience, but, unlike in Kant, these are also the necessary conditions for actualization.

By themselves, however, these conditions do not account for the particularity of subjectivity. The second factor he considers is aim. Subjects are motivated by purpose, and this could be applicable to subjects still coming into being, to situations in which there was not yet a single subject. The many feelings in such a situation could share the same goal towards which they strive. Where that aim comes from, however, remains quite obscure.

The next step involves a slight detour. Whitehead endorsed Hume's principle that all ideas are derived from sensations. In his context this means that all conceptual feelings must be derived from prehensions of past actualities. This by itself does not allow for novelty, for the new cannot be derived from the old. Without novelty, there can be no evolution of order in the universe, an evolution which Whitehead thinks should include the evolution of matter as well as life. At first he proposes reversion, a process which permits possibilities cognate to possibilities derived from the past to become part of an occasion's life. This, however, does not account for the ontological grounding of these new possibilities, or unrealized forms (which for Whitehead were uncreated and hence eternal). In the end, he argues, unrealized forms must be located in God as the conceptual realization of all such forms.

(Placing all these forms in God rendered reversion superfluous, which Whitehead later recognized by noting that “the Category of reversion is then abolished” [Whitehead 1977: 250]. Many readers are perplexed by this statement, since reversion is still used in the rest of that chapter and the next. But these sections were retained in their original state, while the paragraph about abolition was inserted afterwards.)

At any rate, novelty, or at least the potentiality for novelty, is a universal feature of actual occasions. Without a capacity for novelty among the most primitive of occasions there can be no evolution of matter, unless we suppose that evolution can happen by mere chance. (This is the fundamental reason why Whitehead adopts a broader definition of mentality than most, for mentality is the capacity to be influenced by possibilities, and therefore a fortiori by novel possibilities.) Every occasion must be able to receive some novelty in the form of some unrealized form.

If this were possible, it might help to explain the origin of the occasion's subjectivity. Aim had been conceived as something various feelings shared. Another possibility, which Whitehead now explored, was reconceiving aim as a single conceptual feeling which might then influence all the other feelings. Where does this feeling of subjective aim come from? Not from past actualities, for the purpose of the aim was to unify all these past causal influences. He proposed to derive it from riches of God's entertainment of all possibilities whatsoever.

This means that each occasion derives from God the individual telos in terms of which it seeks to unify all factors inherited from the past. No past actuality alone can be the source of the aim, nor can any provide its novelty, nor can all actualities together supply the aim, for they are precisely what needs to be unified.

This subjective aim, once informed by the creativity of the occasion, is an embryonic focus for the subjective unity of concrescence. It is a dynamic unity in constant process of modification. It shares this aim with all the other feelings so that they together seek a common integration.

God's provision of subjective aim also helps to explain the nature of God's influence on the world. Whitehead endorses Plato's idea of divine persuasion. God does not impose any structure upon the world, but seeks to persuade each creature to create itself. Concrescence is self-creation out of the many past actualities; by means of a creative possibility the occasion can modify during its process of actualization.

Traditional notions of omnipotence are subject to the problem of evil: if God is all-powerful and all-good, why is there so much evil in the world? The world as we find it is also partially ordered. How can there be such partial order from the welter of independent occasions? This problem of good, we find, seeks a transcendent explanation in terms of a cosmic orderer acting by divine persuasion.

All the texts we have discussed about the conceptual realization of the eternal forms and the provision of subjective aim appear to be insertions after Whitehead had completed the first draft of Process and Reality, which included all but two chapters of part 4 and the final chapter (Ford 1993). Thus we would expect these to be fresh ideas which Whitehead just then discovered. But there is a major problem. The idea of divine conceptual realization was already present in Religion in the Making. There God's vision is described as a “synthesis of omniscience” which “determines every possibility of value” (Whitehead 1996: 153). Why does this thought enter Process and Reality so late, and then only by way of insertion?

Perhaps we could explain this in terms of a contrast between the differing purposes of the two books with respect to the nature of God. The first concerns rationalized religion; the second, natural or purely philosophical theology. Rationalized religion, particularly if it focusses upon a specific tradition such as the Christian one, is reflection upon that tradition in terms of its compatibility with a particular metaphysical scheme. Even though Christianity constitutes the context in which he sees religion in Chapter 4 of Religion in the Making, Whitehead is not committed exclusively to one tradition. His intention, at least, is to mediate between two extremes: God as the impersonal cosmic order and God as personal Creator (Whitehead 1996: 150).

The metaphysical system sketched in Chapter 3 holds that there are three formative elements: God, creativity and the forms. These were constitutive of every actuality. He intended God as a formative element to be the basis for either major alternative. God as a formative element is abstract and could be expressed either impersonally or personally. The metaphysics should make it possible for God to be personal, but only a rationalized religion could be justified in claiming that God is really personal. Since Whitehead did not (yet) have a rational argument that could show that God is personal, Chapter 4 cannot belong to natural theology. (Only when God is reconceived as temporal could God be personal.)

In this situation Whitehead found he could not introduce notions dependent upon God's being personal until he found some warrant for doing so within a strict philosophical theology. Yet the notion of a divine conceptual realization, which becomes the key for his solution to the problem of the ontological status of unrealized eternal forms, is already present in Religion in the Making: “Actual fact always means fusion into one perceptivity. God is one such conceptual fusion, embracing the concept of all such possibilities graded in harmonious, relative subordination” (Whitehead 1996: 157). “Thus the nature of God is the complete conceptual realization of the realm of ideal forms” (Whitehead 1996: 154).

I think Whitehead sensed an unresolved tension between God conceived as a formative element immanent in all things and God conceived as an actual individual. This may have led him, in Process and Reality, to postpone any constructive discussion of God until he had completed his cosmology. He provisionally adopted the strategy he had used in Religion in the Making. First he worked up the general metaphysical scheme, then he provided an account of rationalized religion compatible with that scheme. Thus Process and Reality is in the main “an Essay in Cosmology” (Whitehead, 1977: iii), to which he planned to append a discussion of rationalized religion. This seems indicated by the paragraph he wrote to introduce such rationalized religion, which concludes: “Any cogency of argument entirely depends upon elucidation of somewhat exceptional elements in our conscious experiencethose elements which may roughly be classed together as religious and moral intuitions” (Whitehead 1977: 343)

Ironically, when Whitehead came to write the final chapter of Process and Reality, he was able to do so in a straightforward metaphysical argument which need not depend on any special premises from rationalized religion. This is as it should be, if coherence is such that the fundamental metaphysical principles require each other.

This strategy of completing his cosmology before turning to theology allowed Whitehead to postpone saying anything specific about God until the end. But it probably was these unresolved tensions that reinforced the strategy of postponement, for then he did not have to commit himself to any particular view until he was sure of how to proceed.

As a formative element, the immanence and influence of God on occasions would be quite unproblematic. The problem arises with the specific nature of God and the role God must perform in the world. God is the only formative element that is also actual. This is no minor point, for God must be actual in order to be different from the eternal forms, which are also nontemporal. Moreover, God is “an antecedent ground for the entry of the ideal forms into the definite process of the temporal world” (Whitehead 1996: 152). In what sense is this different from the eternal forms as ordered into a realm? If Whitehead were now to appeal to “the synthesis of omniscience” which “determines every possibility of value” (Whitehead 1996: 153) as “the complete conceptual realization of the realm of ideal forms” (Whitehead 1996: 154), this would presuppose that God is an individual actuality.

If God is an actual individual, however, the question of how God could influence the actualities of the world arises. We have to consider this question as it appeared to Whitehead, then, before he had devised the notion of hybrid prehension. There seem to be only three ways God could be related to the world: creation, ingression and prehension. The traditional way is for God to create the world, but that is not an option for Whitehead. Ingression is the way forms are ingredient in actualities, but that applies solely to possibilities, not to other actualities.

That leaves only prehension, but at this stage he recognized only (pure) physical prehension as the means of being affected by another actuality. (There were also conceptual prehensions of forms, but these were all derivative from physical prehensions.) A physical prehension has another past determinate actual occasion as its datum. He did not apply the notion of prehension to God as datum, particularly when he did not yet consider God to be an instance of concrescence, let alone have physical feelings. All such solutions would be ad hoc. These problems could be solved only after Whitehead was firmly committed to conceiving of God as individual.

Religion in the Making poses difficulties by claiming that God is both a formative element and actual. The notion of God as an actual entity is profoundly ambiguous, for all other actual entities are individual actual occasions. Yet the divine formative element is also an “actual but non-temporal entity” (Whitehead 1996: 90). Whitehead hoped that both personal and impersonal visions of God could have the same metaphysical basis. This does not work in the end, because the notion of God as personal presupposes that God is a distinct actual individual, and this conflicts with the notion of an abstract formative element which is a component of all actual individuals. This tension, and the problems with how a divine individual could influence the world may held explain why he postponed claiming that God is an individual as long as he could.

In the meantime he worked out his cosmology using the notions of actual occasion and actual entity interchangeably, even though he had already recognized that there must be a necessary difference between God and occasions (Whitehead 1996: 152f., 1929: 110). He was engaged in metaphysics, and so intended the principles he devised to be requirements for all actuality, and so for all actual entities. That God would exemplify the principles was a given, right from the start (Ford 1984: 313), but how God would exemplify these principles, whether as an individual or as a formative element or as both, was not worked out. After his theory of God was more fully worked out, he saw that some of his formulations about actuality, particularly the later categoreal conditions (Whitehead 1977: 244-80) would not apply in the divine case, and so he inserted the stipulated difference between actual entity and actual occasion (Whitehead 1977: 88, 110). He does not, however, develop the difference in specific detail.

So far I have not mentioned what is perhaps the best known feature of Whitehead's theism, namely, the notion that God is temporal as well as eternal. All of the above was worked out before Whitehead proposed his process theism. Up to this point he was a traditional theist insisting that God was purely non-temporal. The transition to process theism, however, was fairly straightforward given the conceptuality he had worked out by then. The actual occasions were all conceived to have both physical feelings of past actualities and conceptual feelings of forms. But God was conceived to have only conceptual feelings. All that was needed was to experiment with the possibility that God might also have physical feelings.

If God were to have physical feelings of actual occasions, these would depend on those occasions for their content. Then God's experience would be a function of the ongoing of the world, and would be increased by its temporal advance. Although this is a fairly direct inference in terms of Whitehead's developing philosophy, it was rarely taken in the entire history of theism. The traditional ideas of divine perfection and completeness entailed divine immutability, and this seemed to exclude any growth in God, even with respect to experience.

The way was prepared for making this advance by the way in which Whitehead had reflected on the implications of divine non-temporality. Traditionally the issue was obscured by the Western acceptance of the biblical image of God. Whitehead accepted God's non-temporality, but saw that it did not necessarily entail subjectivity. Later investigations into the nature of concrescent becoming convinced him that subjectivity was inherently temporal: the present immediacy of becoming, contrasted with the past objectivity of being. Thus, if God was conceived as a timeless concrescence ordering all the forms, this non-temporality was considered to abstract from temporality and subjectivity.

There was a definite tension between non-temporality and actuality, for God was above all actual (so as not to be confused with the forms). All other actualities were concretely determinate. If actuality is generalized as requiring physical feeling, then “the primordial actuality” (as God had been conceived) could be relativized into simply “the primordial nature” which by itself is “deficiently actual” (Whitehead 1977: 343). Then the whole structure of definite possibilities, which Whitehead had hitherto construed as actual, shows itself to be abstract, requiring further supplementation. This supplementation was readily available in the form of divine physical prehensions of actual occasions. Thus, God's concrete actualization means that God's experience must be temporal as dependent upon the contingencies of the world.

Traditional omniscience is the omniscience of a perfectly complete being, whose knowledge must be immutable regardless of what this entails for the world. Knowledge is either dependent upon the knower or the known, or it is not knowledge. Immutable knowledge makes it ultimately dependent upon the knower, for even if the knower does not cause the known, the known must be determinate to be known. If the divine known future is already determinate, then there can be no freedom to determine it. Process omniscience, on the other hand, is perfectly contoured to the nature of what is being known, the actual as actual, and the possible as possible. It does not seek to know the possible as if it were already actual. It requires a revision of absolute immutability, although it can affirm that God is in all necessary aspects immutable. This requires a new conception of perfection, for it is the perfection of becoming rather than the perfection of being.

Divine temporality is an added powerful reason for affirming God as individual; and if an as individual, then also personal. A person is a dynamic, responsive source of value. God can be a source of value without being responsive, but responsiveness depends upon the capacity to be influenced by temporal actuality and the ability to propose aims in the light of that experience.

Whitehead pioneered a process, temporalistic theism. Many people reading Process and Reality assume that he had this idea in mind from the start, and that it is the only concept Whitehead employs in the book. Denis Hurtubise has demonstrated the falsity of this assumption (Hurtubise n.d.). By means of the clues provided by compositional analysis, we can now trace the different stages of this intellectual adventure. Whitehead became a process theist through the intellectual endeavour of constructing that book; he did not start out one.


Christian, William A. 1959 An Interpretation of Whitehead's Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ford, Lewis S. 1984 The Emergence of Whitehead's Metaphysics. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ford, Lewis S. 1993 “The riddle of Religion in the Making. “ Process Studies 22: 42-50.

Hurtubise, Denis n.d. Relire Whitehead. Concepts de Dieu dans Process and Reality. Quebec: Les Presses de l'Université Laval, forthcoming.

Leclerc, Ivor 1958 Whitehead's Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Whitehead, Alfred North 1933 Adventures of Ideas. New York: Macmillan.

1967 [1925] Science and the Modern World. New York: Free Press.

1977 [1929] Process and Reality. New York: Free Press.

1996 [1926] Religion in the Making. New York: Fordham University Press.

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