Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy, edited by Lewis S. Ford and George L. Kline, New York, Fordham University Press, 1983, 212-238. Author’s note: “An earlier version of this chapter appeared in The Southern Journal of Philosophy (7 [1969-70], 361-76); as published here it is substantially revised and enlarged.  I have profited greatly from critical comments by Milton Fisk, Lewis S. Ford, Charles Hartshorne, Victor Lowe, and Gene Reeves.” 

Joseph M. Hallman cites this article favorably in “The Mistake of Thomas Aquinas and the Trinity of A. N. Whitehead,” posted elsewhere on this site: “Garland’s convincing argument is that, although creativity is not an actual entity, it can be used as an explanation in spite of the ontological principle because it describes everything ultimately.”


The Ultimacy of Creativity

William J. Garland

University of the South




Whitehead’s concept of creativity is something of an enigma to most students of his metaphysics.  It is generally acknowledged that creativity is an important notion in the development of Whitehead’s thought.  However, there is widespread disagreement regarding its proper role in his mature metaphysical system.1  The problem of interpretation is intensified by the fact that Whitehead seems to waver in his own attitude toward the nature of creativity.  In Science and the Modern World he speaks of creativity as a “substantial activity” which is individualized into a multiplicity of “modes” (SMW 254, 255), each of which corresponds to a single actual entity.  This suggests that creativity is somehow more real than the actual entities into which it differentiates itself: it is a substance, whereas actual entities are merely its modes. Whitehead’s explicit comparison of creativity with Spinoza’s infinite substance, Deus sive Natura, lends additional plausibility to such an interpretation.Descriptions of creativity as “substantial” have disappeared altogether by Religion in the Making, but creativity still assumes a central role in the metaphysics of Chapter III.  It appears there as the first of three “formative elements” which enter into the composition of the actual temporal world (RM 90. Thus, Whitehead’s early philosophical works lead us to expect that creativity will occupy a pivotal place in a detailed statement of his metaphysical system.

Yet his treatment of creativity takes on a new perspective in Process and Reality, Whitehead’s magnum opus in the field of metaphysics.  Creativity retains much of its earlier importance: this is evident from the fact that it appears, along with the notions “one” and “many,” in the Category of the Ultimate which inaugurates his categoreal scheme.  Moreover, Whitehead repeatedly enunciates his earlier claim that a “creative advance into novelty” is the most fundamental feature of the universe (see, e.g., PR 340, 529).  Yet he also seems eager to dispel any impression that creativity is somehow more real than the actual entities are.  Although Whitehead calls creativity his “ultimate,” it does not have “final” or “eminent” reality in comparison with that of its “accidents,” the individual actual entities (PR 11). Instead, these “accidents” or “modes” become the “sheer actualities” of the universe, and it is only in virtue of its embodiment in actual entities that creativity has any actuality at all (PR 10).  Unlike Spinoza’s God, creativity is not a substance or an “entity” of any kind.3  Instead, it seems that “creativity” is simply Whitehead’s expression for that most general trait which all actual entities have in common.  As he tells us in the categoreal scheme, it is “the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact” (PR 31).  Because each actual entity is causa sui, each exhibits the same metaphysical character of being a particular instance of creative activity.  Accordingly, the ultimacy of creativity seems to coincide with the ultimacy of the act of “self-creation” by which each actual entity comes into existence (PR 130; d. AI 303).

These observations give rise to a significant question concerning Whitehead’s metaphysics.  If creativity is nothing more than a universal characteristic of actual entities, would it not be both possible and desirable to replace the term “creativity” with the expression “actual entities” in our most rigorous statements of Whitehead’s system?  Prima facie, such a move seems feasible, and it has been advocated by William Christian in his book and articles on Whitehead.  I shall examine Christian’s attempt to reduce creativity to actual entities and show why such a reduction is neither possible nor desirable.  Then I shall develop an alternative interpretation of creativity which incorporates it in a positive manner into Whitehead’s system.




Christian’s basic claim is that “creativity” is a “pre-systematic” term which, for all purposes of “systematic explanation,” is superseded by the “systematic” terms that Whitehead introduces in the Categories of Existence, Explanation, and Obligation.4  By a “systematic” term, Christian means a term which Whitehead uses to expound the metaphysical system that he outlines in his categoreal scheme and its derivative notions (PR, Part I, Chapters 2-3).  “Presystematic” or “non-systematic” terms are those that merely describe what Whitehead takes as the phenomenological data which his metaphysical system is designed to interpret and explain.This distinction implies that Whitehead’s metaphysics is contained within his “systematic” statements and their implications. Thus, we should avoid reference to “non-systematic” terms whenever we are giving a strict account of his philosophy.

Now, since “creativity” is, according to Christian, a non-systematic term, we cannot use it to explain any features of the universe.  It is neither a “category of explanation” nor an actual entity which can function as an ontological reason.6  Christian sees creativity as merely an unanalyzed notion drawn from common sense which itself must be elucidated in terms of systematic concepts.  Thus, he claims that “all that can be said about creativity can be put into systematic statements about the concrescences of actual entities.”7  If his claim is justified, then in principle we could eliminate the concept of creativity from Whitehead’s metaphysics.  “Creativity” could be regarded as merely a shorthand expression for the creative activities of specific actual entities.

Christian’s view implies that it is possible to translate statements about creativity into statements about individual actual entities without loss of meaning.  We must therefore analyze a typical translation to see whether the meaning of the original statement is preserved.  For instance, consider Christian’s own proposal to replace the statement “Creativity is unending” by the statement “There is an infinite and unending multiplicity of actual entities.”8

For several reasons, this translation fails to convey adequately Whitehead’s doctrine of the creative advance.9  First, Christian’s translation fails to suggest that there are any connective relationships among the actual entities which are the members of this multiplicity.  The requirement of an infinite and unending multiplicity of actual entities could be satisfied by a Leibnizian universe in which all actual entities exist in causal independence of one another.  In the light of this problem, we must amend Christian’s original translation to read, “There is an infinite and unending multiplicity of actual entities which are related through pretensions.”  Yet even this modified version is unsatisfactory.  In particular, it does not tell us that all the actual entities which make up this multiplicity cannot exist contemporaneously with one another.  As Whitehead himself points out, “A mere system of mutually prehensive occasions is compatible with the concept of a static timeless world.”10  Thus our amended translation does not express the fact that novel actual entities are always coming into being.  Yet this is dearly a fundamental claim in Whitehead’s doctrine of creativity (see, e.g., PR 31, 339-40).

Now, it could be contended that the term “unending” already includes the requirement of novelty.  On this interpretation, an “unending multiplicity of actual entities” would be one in which any given actual entity both supersedes other actual entities and is itself superseded by novel actual entities.  The problem here is that such an interpretation is implicitly ruled out by Christian’s principle of translation.  The concept of “supersession” is broader than the concept of “concrescence,” to which Christian insists that all translations be restricted (see n. 7).  To say that one actual entity is superseded by another is to say that there is a transition from the completion and perishing of the old one to the becoming of the new one.11  Yet the concept of “transition” cannot be expressed solely in terms of the concrescences of individual actual entities, as Christian himself points out in discussing Whitehead’s categoreal scheme.12

In view of these considerations, we must modify Christian’s original rule of translation in the following way.  We must change his claim to read, “Any statement about creativity can be translated without loss of meaning into a statement about the concrescences of actual entities and the transitions between actual entities.”  For example, “Creativity is unending” could be replaced by “There is an infinite multiplicity of actual entities such that each member of this multiplicity comes into being through a process of concrescence and then perishes so as to be superseded by and prehended by novel members.”  Such a translation would appear to express, however awkwardly, Whitehead’s doctrine of the ongoingness of time.13

Yet we may ask whether even this translation captures all that Whitehead intends to express in his doctrine of creativity.  Upon analysis, we find that it does tell us that individual actual entities engage in creative functionings.  Whitehead refers to the concrescence of an actual entity as an activity of “self-creation” (PR 130).  When the actual entity completes its experience and “perishes,” it passes into its function of what we may term “other-creation” (d. AI 248) vis-à-vis the actual entities which supersede it.  Thus, our translation conveys the doctrine that many different creative activities take place in the universe.  Yet if we restrict ourselves, a la Christian, to statements about multiplicities of actual entities, we cannot express Whitehead’s further claim that self-creation and other-creation are but two different exemplifications of a single principle (viz., creativity).  This is the point at which Christian’s project of translation must fail.

Consider one of Whitehead’s most comprehensive descriptions of the creative advance:  “The creativity for a creature [actual entity] becomes the creativity with the creature [actual entity], and thereby passes into another phase of itself. It is now the creativity for a new creature [actual entity].14 We could not translate this statement into a statement about individual actual entities without loss of meaning. Such a translation would necessarily sacrifice Whitehead’s implicit claim that there is one creative process which connects all actual entities with one another.15  In short, without the concept of creativity, we cannot express Whitehead’s doctrine of the unity of all creative action in the universe.  It is also awkward, though not impossible, to express his doctrine of the ongoingness of time.  Thus, we must reject Christian’s claim that all that can be said about creativity can be expressed in statements about actual entities.




So far, I have argued for a relatively weak claim. Without creativity, we cannot successfully express certain Whiteheadian doctrines, such as those of the unity of process and the ongoingness of time.  We cannot say all that we want to say (or all that Whitehead wanted to say) about these features of the universe if we restrict ourselves to the language of actual entities.  Now I shall develop a stronger and more fundamental claim: creativity can be used to explain or to account for these very features of the universe which it expresses.  Thus, to eliminate creativity would be to rob Whitehead’s system of some of its explanatory richness.

This claim gives rise to a significant question concerning methodology.  Do the rules of Whitehead’s system permit us to use creativity as an explanatory concept?  Let me briefly outline the case against using creativity in this way.  It is incorrect in principle to use creativity to explain any feature of the universe, regardless of how universal and necessary a feature it might be.  This is because Whitehead’s ontological principle explicitly rules out this type of explanation.  According to the ontological principle, only actual entities can serve as reasons for any feature of the world (see PR 36-37, quoted just below).  Since explanation is commonly thought to be the giving of reasons, it would follow that only actual entities can play a legitimate role in systematic explanations.  But creativity is not an actual entity, nor indeed an entity of any other kind; instead, Whitehead regularly refers to it as a “principle” (see PR 31-32). Thus, we are breaking the rules of Whitehead’s system whenever we attempt to explain anything about the world by appealing to creativity.  This is an argument which Christian accepts, and it undoubtedly accounts in part for his desire to eliminate creativity from Whitehead’s system.16

In order to evaluate this objection, we must briefly examine the meaning of the ontological principle.  Whitehead states it most precisely in the eighteenth Category of Explanation:

That 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 subject which is in process of concrescence.  This category of explanation is termed the “ontological principle.”  It could also be termed the “principle of efficient, and final, causation.”  This ontological principle means that actual entities are the only reasons; so that to search for a reason is to search for one or more actual entities [PR 36-37, Category of Explanation 18, in part].

Now, I take this to be essentially an empiricist principle.  Whitehead elsewhere describes actual entities as the “final facts” in the world (PR 28), and here he says that actual entities are the only reasons.  It follows that the only reasons for what happens are facts; all of our explanations must be grounded on the stubborn, irreducible facts of reality. Explanations given by citing principles are implicitly ruled out by the ontological principle.

That Whitehead is committed to the ontological principle is beyond serious question.  This is clear from the emphatic way in which he repeatedly states it in Process and Reality (see, e.g., PR 28, 64, 73 ).  It alone, among the Categories of Explanation, is singled out for special mention in the section immediately preceding the categoreal scheme in Part I, Chapter 2.  Yet it is not quite as clear what the scope of the ontological principle should be.  Does it rule out all possible explanations in terms of principles?  I shall argue that it does not; there is one, but only one, explanatory principle that lies beyond the scope of the ontological principle. This, I contend, is the principle of creativity.  Yet it cannot be said that Whitehead himself gives a clear and decisive statement in favor of my position on this topic.  Indeed, the textual evidence seems to favor Christian’s implicit claim that the scope of the ontological principle is unrestricted.  Nonetheless, I plan to develop systematic arguments for adopting my position and not Christian’s.  Here I am appealing to one of Christian’s own rules of interpretation: to ask what Whitehead’s principles permit is not the same as to ask what Whitehead thought, or explicitly stated, that they permit.17

It is my contention that Whitehead operates with an implicit distinction between two fundamentally different kinds of explanation.  The first kind is governed by the ontological principle, but the second kind is not.  The first kind is what I shall term “ordinary explanation”; it is explanation in which we cite specific actual entities as reasons.

There are two kinds of actual entities which we may cite in ordinary explanations—actual occasions and God.  Whitehead expresses the difference between citing actual occasions as reasons and citing God as a reason this way:

. . . the reasons for things are always to be found in the composite nature of definite actual entities—in the nature of God for reasons of the highest absoluteness, and in the nature of definite temporal actual entities for reasons which refer to a particular environment [PR 28].

Accordingly, I shall distinguish two types of ordinary explanations—“specific explanation” and “generic explanation.”  Actual occasions should be cited when we are giving specific explanations, while God’s primordial decision should be cited when we are giving generic explanations.18

For example, suppose the question is raised for Whitehead, “Why does a certain actual occasion (say A) have the particular, contingent characteristics that it does (say X, Y, and Z)?”  The proper reply would be to cite specific actual entities and to show precisely how they function to produce X, Y, and Z in A. These actual entities would be the actual entities in A’s causal past, God, and A itself, insofar as it serves as its “own cause” in virtue of its subjective aim.  This is how we would go about explaining, for example, why A has a great deal of conceptual originality.  We would show—to begin with the rough outlines of such an explanation—that A is a member of an entirely living nexus of some high-grade living society rather than being a member of some low-grade inorganic society.  Note that “specific explanation” will always take the form of citing certain specific causes for the characteristics in some “particular instance” of concrescence, such as A, and that it will obey the ontological principle.  Note also that specific explanation is a limited type of explanation.  It makes no attempt to account for the generic features that A shares with all other actual entities; it attempts only to account for those features wherein A differs from at least some other actual entities.

The second type of ordinary explanation I distinguish is “generic explanation.”  In generic explanations, we want to explain features which all actual entities have in common.  Here the proper reason to cite is God’s primordial decision. Whitehead says that God’s primordial nature “constitutes the metaphysical stability whereby the actual process exemplifies general principles of metaphysics, and attains the ends proper to specific types of emergent order” (PR 64).  For God’s “conceptual actuality at once exemplifies and establishes the categoreal conditions” (PR 522).  God accounts for the generic features shared by all actual entities.

For example, suppose the question is raised for Whitehead, “Why do all actual occasions obey the nine Categoreal Obligations in their processes of concrescence?”  The proper answer would be that God established these Categoreal Obligations in his primordial decision, and that every subsequent actual entity must be influenced by this decision (see PR 378).  In this way, God accounts for the “metaphysical stability” of the universe.

Now I want to claim that Whitehead implicitly recognizes another legitimate type of explanation, although he never explicitly claims to be doing so. This is the type I intend to call (I hope without begging the question) “ultimate explanation.”  It appeals to the principle of creativity and not to specific actual entities; as such, it goes beyond the scope of the ontological principle.  Perhaps a few examples will serve to clarify my meaning.

Suppose we are not simply asking for an account of the presence of certain specific features in some particular actual entity, and suppose we are not even asking for an account of the presence of certain generic features in all actual entities.  Instead, suppose we are looking for some explanation of some all-pervasive feature of reality.  For example, let us ask why it is that temporal ongoingness characterizes the universe.  To translate this question into Whitehead’s language, Why do new actual entities continually come into existence?

There, is a generic explanation which we could put forward in response to this question, one which preserves the ontological principle by referring to God.  We could appeal to God’s subjective aim for satisfaction, and then we could show how temporal process is necessary to fulfill that subjective aim. Christian himself constructs the beginnings of such an explanation.19

Yet this generic explanation might also give rise to further, more fundamental questions.  Why do God and the other actual entities aim at satisfaction?  Can we give a more ultimate reason for the everlastingness of process, one that accounts for process in God as well as for process in the finite actual entities?  Now I contend that we can provide such an ultimate explanation, and that we can do so by appealing to creativity.  The subjective aim of any actual entity, including God, is a particular manifestation of the creative drive in the universe toward the unification of diversity.  This unification, once achieved, results in the satisfaction of the entity in question.  Thus, God aims at satisfaction because he, like all other actual entities, is a particular instance of the principle of creativity.  A more detailed account of the ongoingness of time, but one which from the beginning avoids the appeal to God, will be provided in Section IV below.

Take another example.  Suppose we ask why there is causal relatedness in the world.  Why is it that the past influences the present?  To translate this question into Whitehead’s language, Why must each new actual entity prehend its predecessors? Here again we can give a generic explanation, one which appeals to God as the ground for the givenness of the past.  A new actual entity must prehend its predecessors because God prehends all past actual entities, and the new actual entity must prehend God at the beginning of its concrescence.20

But suppose we then raise a more fundamental question.  Why is it that any actual entity, including God, prehends other actual entities?  What is it about the universe that accounts for the presence of these bonds of relatedness that connect actual entities with one another?  I would claim that an ultimate explanation of relatedness can be given by appealing to creativity.  Actual entities prehend their predecessors because they are all linked together as the particular “creatures” of a single creative process.  A more detailed explanation of prehensive relatedness, but one which avoids the appeal to God, will also be provided in Section IV below.

I shall argue that ultimate explanations are both possible and meaningful within Whitehead’s system, but first we must consider certain restrictions that apply to the construction of such explanations.

First, all explanation, whether ultimate explanation or ordinary explanation, is inherently limited in that it presupposes that something is there to be explained (see PR 67-68; cf. SMW 256-58). Thus, the question of why there is anything at all has no legitimate answer for Whitehead; it should be ruled out from the beginning as a pseudo-question.

Second, no explanation can be given for the fact that creativity is Whitehead’s ultimate explanatory principle.  It just is, that is all.  In fact, this is part of what we mean when we say that it is his ultimate principle.  Here we see that there is also an upper limit to explanation.  Whitehead uses expressions such as “It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity” (PR 31, italics added) to indicate that our attempts at explanation must end here.  He also remarks at the end of the Category of the Ultimate, “The sole appeal is to intuition” (PR 32.22

Third, we should notice that ultimate explanation in terms of creativity is in certain respects a very limited type of explanation.  It must never serve as a facile substitute for ordinary explanation.  Instead, it should only be brought into play after we have exhausted all the specific and generic explanations at our disposal.  Thus, it would be illegitimate, for example, to appeal to creativity to account for the fact that a certain actual entity has certain contingent characteristics.  Here we must give a specific explanation, which is by far the most usual type of explanation in Whitehead’s system.  Thus, ultimate explanation by its very nature is appropriate only in rare cases, cases in which we are asking about the all-pervasive features of reality.

Let me now defend the legitimacy of ultimate explanations in terms of creativity.  My first argument is a straightforward appeal to Whitehead’s writings.  From time to time, Whitehead actually does appeal to creativity as the explanation for certain very general features of the universe.  For example, he refers to creativity as “the reason for the temporal character of the actual world” (RM 91 ).  In other passages he speaks of creativity as the reason both for the becoming of each new actual entity (concrescence)23 and for the supersession of one actual entity by others (transition).24  Either Whitehead is simply being careless in these passages or he is implicitly granting a legitimate explanatory role to creativity.  I opt for the second alternative in light of the more fundamental considerations which follow.

My second argument appeals to the place of creativity in the categoreal scheme.  Creativity is the fundamental principle set forth in Whitehead’s Category of the Ultimate, which precedes the other three types of categories.  Whitehead says that this initial category “expresses the general principle presupposed in the three more special categories” of existence, explanation, and obligation (PR 31, italics added).  This general principle is creativity, and it is a presupposition of all the more special principles. Thus the ontological principle, which is the methodological rule governing the categories of explanation and obligation, is logically subordinate to the principle of creativity.

Similar considerations will show us that creativity is presupposed by the concept of an actual entity. Creativity itself is not an entity, but it is one of the ultimate notions “involved in the meaning” of the term “entity” (PR 31, italics added).  There can be no entities, no existence, in abstraction from the creative process (see PR 321, 324); if we should deny this doctrine, Whitehead would accuse us of committing the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness” (see SMW 74-:77, 84-86).  Likewise, creativity is the notion of “highest generality at the base of actuality” (PR 47, italics added), even though it is not one of the specific actual entities which make up the realm of actuality.  Indeed, Whitehead sometimes refers to actual entities, God included, as the “creatures” produced by creativity in its never-ending thrust toward novelty (see, e.g., PR 47, 135).  All actual entities, he tells us, are “in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty” (PR 529).

My last two arguments cite the pragmatic or “heuristic” value of allowing a legitimate explanatory role to creativity.  It is my contention, to be illustrated in Section IV below, that ultimate explanations in terms of creativity can illuminate certain otherwise puzzling features of the universe. Appealing to creativity at certain crucial points helps us to make process more intelligible, and this, in the final analysis, is what Whitehead’s metaphysics is all about.25  For this reason, I would claim that ultimate explanations in terms of creativity are self-justifying; they do the job of explaining certain very general features of reality.

Finally, Whitehead’s system achieves greater coherence if we allow an explanatory role to creativity as well as to actual entities.  Here I am using the term “coherence” in Whitehead’s sense: it means that the fundamental concepts of a metaphysical system are so interrelated that they cannot be meaningfully separated from one another (see PR 5, 9).  Whitehead himself explicitly applies this doctrine of coherence to creativity and the actual entities:

But of course, there is no meaning to “creativity” apart from its “creatures,” and no meaning to “God” apart from the creativity and the “temporal creatures,” and no meaning to the temporal creatures apart from “creativity” and “God” [PR 344].

My analysis preserves this coherence in Whitehead’s system, whereas Christian’s analysis does not.  While he wants to reduce principles to entities, my distinctions allow us to see entities and principles in their proper relationship to one another.

Here I should make one point clear.  I am not claiming that creativity is somehow more real than actual entities are.  Although it is Whitehead’s ultimate principle, it must always be instantiated in specific actual entities; it has no independent reality of its own.  This is what I take to be Whitehead’s meaning when he says that creativity is actual only in virtue of its accidents, i.e., the actual entities (PR 10; d. PR 339).  Yet I would also assert the converse doctrine.  Actual entities cannot exist except as instances of creativity; they cannot be meaningfully separated from the ultimate metaphysical principle. Indeed, Whitehead explicitly asserts that “no entity can be divorced from the notion of creativity” (PR 324; d. PR 321-22).  Neither creativity nor actual entities can be reduced to one another.  Instead, taken together, they exemplify the metaphysical coherence that Whitehead values so highly.26

The major flaw in Christian’s analysis lies in his necessarily abortive attempt to bring creativity down to the same level as Whitehead’s specific entities and categories for the sake of systematic tidiness. Creativity plays a comprehensive role in Whitehead’s system which cannot be expressed as a function of the roles played by any of the more limited elements. Whitehead himself admits that it is ultimately impossible to define creativity or to explain it in terms of any more specific concepts (SMW 255; PR 30, 47).  We can know what creativity is only by imaginatively generalizing from our direct experience of creative energy in our own lives.  Hence, Whitehead remarks at the end of his discussion of the Category of the Ultimate, “The sole appeal is to intuition” (PR 32), which for him must be the final arbiter of philosophical questions.  Yet the fact that creativity cannot be specified or defined makes it no less important as the ultimate principle which binds together all that is specific and definable.





I shall now present a positive interpretation of creativity as Whitehead’s ultimate metaphysical principle, one which accounts for both the ongoingness of time and the connectedness which obtains in the universe.  This interpretation is designed to overcome the inadequacies of Christian’s reductive account by showing how creativity can play a legitimate explanatory role in Whitehead’s metaphysics.

The notion of process or flux is the basic intuition drawn from human experience which Whitehead intends to elucidate in his metaphysical system.  His constant aim in his writings is to “take time seriously.”27  In his systematic analysis of temporality, Whitehead distinguishes between two different kinds of process which take place in the universe (PR 320-23, 326-28).  One kind of flux is “concrescence” or “microscopic process,” which signifies the way in which a new actual entity comes into being.  During concrescence, the new actual entity constructs a determinate experience for itself out of the data it receives from the past.  The other type of fluency is “transition” or “macroscopic process.”  This term designates the movement from the completion of old actual entities to the coming-into-being of new ones.  By means of transition, the determinate actual entities of the past become the data for new processes of concrescence.  It is my contention that both concrescence and transition can be seen as complementary aspects of creativity, which is the ultimate principle behind all process.  If my claim here is justified, then there is indeed a way in which creativity can be used to explain both novelty and unity in the universe.

It is clear that Whitehead regards creativity as the ultimate principle behind concrescence. In his account of creativity in the Category of the Ultimate he says:

It is that ultimate principle by which the many the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively.  It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity.  [PR 31].

Now, concrescence is the growing together of many entities into a complex unity of experience, which is a new actual entity in its role as an immediate subject. This is clear from Whitehead’s remarks about concrescence in the second Category of Explanation (PR 33).  But creativity, as the principle of novelty (PR 31), serves as the ontological ground of this “production of novel togetherness,” which Whitehead singles out as “the ultimate notion embodied in the term ‘concrescence’” (PR 32).  Thus, one role of creativity is that of an “underlying activity of realisation” (SMW 102) which individualizes itself into many specific instances of creative action.  Each of these instances is the concrescence of a particular actual entity.  In this way, Whitehead’s concept of creativity faithfully reflects the sense of the Latin verb creare, “to bring forth, beget, produce” (PR 324).  The creative energy of the universe is constantly bringing forth new actual entities which synthesize in their own experience the many previous entities.

Yet I contend that creativity plays another role in Whitehead’s system in addition to its role as the ultimate ground of concrescence.  As well as being the principle behind all particular acts of self creation, creativity also serves as a receptacle for the products of these activities.  Creativity is not activity alone, but “the pure notion of the activity conditioned by the objective immortality of the actual world” (PR 46-47, italics added).28  In fact, it is the very function of actual entities, in their role as objectively immortal “superjects,” 29 to “constitute the shifting character of creativity” (PR 47; d. 129-30, 249, 344).  Thus, Whitehead’s doctrine that creativity characterizes actuality (PR 31) must be balanced against his doctrine that actuality characterizes creativity.30 Since it is completely indeterminate (“protean”) in itself (RM 92), creativity can act as a perfect receptacle for the determinate outcomes of all particular acts of becoming.  It cannot alter these past actual entities or impose its own features upon them, for it is free from all characteristics of its own. In this sense, we may compare creativity both with Plato’s Receptacle and with Aristotle’s prime matter.31  The main difference is that we cannot think of creativity as passively receiving the past; creativity is always a principle of activity (see PR 46-47, AI 230-3 I ) . Once it receives the completed superjects, it passes them on as data to be synthesized through new processes of concrescence. In receiving the past, it also provides the data for the present. Thus, creativity explains the transition from the completion of old actual entities to the becoming of new ones.32

Passages from Whitehead’s writings indicate that creativity is the principle behind the transition between actual entities as well as the principle behind the concrescence of actual entities. For example, he explicitly says:

The creativity in virtue of which any relative complete actual world is, by the nature of things, the datum for a new concrescence, is termed “transition” [PR 322].

It should be noted that transition is just as important an aspect of the creative process as is concrescence.  This point is sometimes overlooked because Whitehead discusses concrescence much more than he discusses transition.  Also, he sometimes uses non-technical expressions, such as “passing over” or “passing on,” to describe the transition phase of process:

The process of concrescence terminates with the attainment of a fully determinate “satisfaction”; and the creativity thereby passes over into the “given” primary phase for the concrescence of other actual entities [PR 130; d. PR 324].

Yet the absence of any detailed treatment of transition must not obscure its basic importance to Whitehead’s doctrine of temporal ongoingness. Transition processes must occur if we are to have any new processes of concrescence, for the past must be transcended in order for novel actual entities to arise.33  Thus, we cannot separate concrescence from transition in our full descriptions of the creative advance.  During concrescence, creativity is immanent in the particular actual entity which is then coming-into-being, while in transition the individual occasion is “transcended by the creativity which it qualifies” (PR 135).  Accordingly, there is a constant rhythm in the creative process as it swings back and forth between concrescence and transition.34

This reciprocation between the two phases of the creative process gives the ultimate explanation for the ongoingness of time promised in Section III.  In concrescence, creativity moves forward from an initially indeterminate phase containing a welter of unsynthesized data to a final determinate synthesis of these data (see PR 34, 38-39).  Whitehead speaks of this final synthesis as the “satisfaction” of the creative process on that occasion (PR 38, 39).  In transition, creativity receives the actual entities which have already achieved satisfaction and gives them to new actual entities as initial data which again demand unification.  Accordingly, a basic feature of the realm of actual entities is its radical incompletability.35  Individual actual entities achieve completeness as “microscopic” processes, but the universe as a whole (“macroscopically”) must always be regarded as “an incompletion in process of production” (PR 327).  Creativity, qua the principle behind transition, is constantly turning the product of one concrescence into a datum for the next one. Thus, the world of settled, determinate actual entities is always being transcended by new actual entities aiming at new satisfactions.  As Whitehead vividly puts it in Adventures of Ideas:

The creativity of the world is the throbbing emotion of the past hurling itself into a new transcendent fact.  It is the flying dart, of which Lucretius speaks, hurled beyond the bounds of the world [AI 227].

Whitehead’s doctrine of creativity constitutes an emphatic rejection of any ontological version of Occam’s razor.  As the principle of productivity, creativity is forever multiplying entities beyond all bounds of past necessity.

As Sherburne points out, the two-fold nature of the creative advance can be succinctly expressed in terms of “one” and “many,” the two notions that appear in the Category of the Ultimate along with creativity.36  In the concrescent phase of the creative process, the “many” entities in the universe at that moment become “one” through their synthesis in a new actual entity.  There is thereby an advance from “disjunctive diversity” to “conjunctive” unity (PR 31).  Yet the final product of concrescence is a new actual entity, which adds to the “many” entities from which this process began.  There is thereby a transition from conjunction to disjunction again.  Consequently, Whitehead’s ultimate description of the creative advance is necessarily a dual one: “The many [entities] become one [entity], and are increased by one [entity]” (PR 32).  The first clause of this statement expresses the concrescence from disjunction to conjunction, while the second clause expresses the transition from conjunction back to disjunction.  Since we now have another disjunction of “many” entities, the stage is set for the creative process to repeat its rhythmic cycle.  It is through this basic structural pattern that creativity drives the universe forward.

Let us now indicate how creativity can give us an ultimate explanation of the unity and relatedness in the world.  I claim that there are at least two senses in which creativity accounts for the unity of the universe.  First, it serves as the world’s “formal” principle of unity, in that each individual actual entity is ultimately describable as a concrete instance of self-creative activity (see PR 38, 321-22).  All actual entities share the common property of coming into existence through a process of concrescence.  They all exemplify the generic metaphysical characteristic of synthetic activity.  Accordingly, Whitehead says, “The process of creation is the form of unity of the universe” (AI 231).  Yet second, and most important, our preceding analysis shows that creativity is also the “material” as well as the “formal” principle of the world’s unity.37  It is not only the “universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact” (PR 31), but also “the ultimate behind all forms [i.e., universals], inexplicable by forms, and conditioned by its creatures” (PR 30).  In its role as the principle behind transition, creativity acts as a receptacle for all actual entities which have already attained satisfaction.  It also gives these past actual entities to each new actual entity as the initial data for its act of self-formation.  Creativity therefore links the past with the present as it urges the universe forward into the future.38  In this respect, we may fruitfully compare creativity with Spinoza’s one infinite subbstance.39  Like the God of Spinoza, Whitehead’s creativity is that ultimate principle through which the “obvious solidarity” of the world receives metaphysical elucidation (PR 10).40  All actual entities are related to their predecessors, as asserted in Whitehead’s “principle of relativity” (PR 33, 79-80), because there is but one creative process from which they all arise and to which they all make their final contributions.  In this way, we can give an ultimate account (as promised in Section III above) of the presence of bonds of prehensive relatedness in the universe.

We have shown that Whitehead’s principle of creativity can provide ultimate explanations for both the ongoingness of time and the prehensive relatedness of the world.  It should be noted that, if we combine these two accounts, we obtain an ultimate explanation of the two features of actual entities which permit them to function as reasons in ordinary explanations (see Section III above).  According to Whitehead’s ontological principle, an actual entity may function in an ordinary explanation in two and only two ways: either it may act as an efficient cause of the characteristics of the actual entity in question, or it may act as the final cause of these characteristics (see PR 36-37, discussed in Section III above).

Yet the principle of creativity provides an ultimate explanation for the presence of both efficient causality and final causality in the world.  There is efficient causality because creativity gives past actual entities to present ones in its role as the principle behind transition.  A new actual entity must therefore begin its concrescence by prehending all the previous actual entities in its actual world.  There is final causality because of the unceasing creative drive in the universe toward the unification of what is diverse.  This drive manifests itself in the subjective aim at satisfaction which is inherent in the concrescence of each actual entity (see PR 41-44, 228-29).  Efficient causality thus makes its appearance in processes of transition, while final causality makes its appearance in processes of concrescence (see PR 44, 320, 326-27, 423).  Yet creativity is the principle behind both transition and concrescence; it is the ultimate metaphysical ground of all process in the world.  Accordingly, creativity explains how it is that actual entities can exhibit the two types of causality which make it possible for them to be cited as reasons under the ontological principle.  This is perhaps the “ultimate” in ultimate explanations.





I conclude with some of my own speculations concerning the rationale behind Whitehead’s choice of creativity as the ultimate principle in his metaphysics.  Whitehead wants his metaphysical system to do justice to as many aspects of experience as possible.  Yet experience presents us with a basic contrast at the most general level.  On the one hand, it exhibits order and structure, which we can understand rationally.  On the other hand, it presents process and change, which we constantly live through but which defy our attempts to divest them of their mystery and irrationality.  By putting creativity into his Category of the Ultimate, Whitehead is able to acknowledge, on a very basic level, the presence of the mysterious, process-like features of existence.  He is also able to provide an account of the ultimate structural patterns through which process manifests itself (see Section IV above. Having made the decision to place creativity at the center of his metaphysics, he then goes on to set down tables of entities and ontological categories to deal with the more specific structural features of the world.

Unfortunately, this way of doing metaphysics has at least an expository disadvantage.  It gives Process and Reality the appearance of developing an abstract system of unfamiliar concepts which has little relevance to the rough-and-tumble realities of human existence.  Yet such an impression is readily dispelled when we recognize the fundamental importance of creativity in Whitehead’s metaphysical framework.  Over and against all entities, which form the determinate referents of rational thought, there stands a dynamic creative activity which by its very nature can never be captured in the static net of conceptual definition.  Although this activity works through entities to drive the universe forward, it can never be reduced to any set of these entities. Instead, they remain the “creatures” it produces in its never-ending thrust toward novelty-cum-relatedness.  Of course, it would be equally wrong-headed to reduce entities to inferior “modes” of creativity, à la Spinoza.  In the final analysis, we must say with Whitehead, “Process and individuality require each other” (MT 133; cf. MT 131).  Creativity is needed to bring entities into concrete existence, while entities are needed to give form and definiteness to the amorphous flux of creative activity.  Moreover, we need both factors in our metaphysics in order to account for both the rational structure and the non-rational process that we find in experience.  A major virtue of Whitehead is his stubborn refusal to submit to the philosopher’s temptation to stress one of these features of experience at the expense of the other.

Here we are brought back to Whitehead’s ideal of coherence in metaphysics.  I would claim that this methodological ideal has an ontological basis for Whitehead.  It directs us to construct our systems of thought so that they faithfully reflect the paradoxical unity of fundamental opposites in the world (see especially Part V of Process and Reality).  The coherence of our concepts must finally be grounded on the coherence of the ultimate features of reality, such as the features of structure (form) and process (flux) discussed above.41  Yet both kinds of coherence are greatly endangered by all attempts to eliminate creativity from Whitehead’s metaphysical system.  Creativity is neither a superfluous notion nor a “pre-systematic” concept reducible to systematic ones.  Rather, it embodies that “novel intuition,41 which lies at the heart of Whitehead’s process philosophy.


Legend of Abbreviations of Titles of Books

AI = Adventures of Ideas

CN = The Concept of Nature

PR = Process and Reality

RM = Religion in the Making

SMW = Science



1 For example, compare the diverse interpretations proposed by Ivor Leclerc in Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition (London: Allen and Unwin; New York: Macmillan, 1958; rpt., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975), William A. Christian in An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), Donald W. Sherburne in A Whiteheadian Aesthetic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), Victor Lowe in Understanding Whitehead (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962), John B. Cobb, Jr., in A Christian Natural Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965), and Edward Pols in Whitehead’s Metaphysics: A Critical Examination of PROCESS AND REALITY (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967).  Even more variety appears if we take into account the articles and discussions in which references to creativity occur.

2 See SMW 102-103, 181, 255.  Whitehead does not yet use the term “creativity” in Science and the Modern World, but it is clear that his notion of an underlying “substantial activity” is the notion which he calls “creativity” in Religion in the Making.

3 All “entities” must be specific instances of one of Whitehead’s eight Categories of Existence (see PR 31), and creativity does not fit into this classification. The fact that creativity is not an entity shows that it cannot be an eternal object, despite the insistence of A. H. Johnson to the contrary.  For Johnson’s views on this topic, and for his evidence that Whitehead raised no objections to these views, see his Whitehead’s Theory of Reality (Boston: Beacon, 1952; rpt., New York: Dover, 1962), pp. 69-72, 214-23, and “Whitehead as Teacher and Philosopher,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 29 (1969), 351-76.  An edited version of the latter essay appears in the present volume as “Some Conversations with Whitehead Concerning God and Creativity,” Chapter 1.

4 See William A. Christian, “The Concept of God as a Derivative Notion,” Process and Divinity: Philosophical Essays presented to Charles Hartshorne, edd. William L. Reese and Eugene Freeman (LaSalle,Ill.: Open Court, 1964), pp. 182-84. Christian first enunciates this claim in the nineteenth footnote of his “Some Uses of Reason,” The Relevance of Whitehead, ed. Ivor Leclerc (London: Allen and Unwin; New York: Macmillan, 1961), pp. 80-81.

5 “The Concept of God as a Derivative Notion,” loc. cit.  For a full account of this distinction, see Christian’s “Some Uses of Reason,” pp. 74-80, and “Whitehead’s Explanation of the Past,” Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, ed. George L. Kline (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963), pp. 97-98.  This latter article is reprinted from The Journal of Philosophy, 58 (1961), 534-43.

6 These points will be explained and elaborated in my discussion of Whitehead’s “ontological principle” in Section III.

7 “The Concept of God as a Derivative Notion,” pp. 183-84, italics added.  In another place, Christian says: “(Incidentally, the [ontological] principle clearly rules out creativity as an ontological ground. It calls for actual entities, and creativity is not an actual entity, nor indeed an entity of any other systematic kind.)”  (“Whitehead’s Explanation of the Past,” p. 98).

8 “Some Uses of Reason,” p. 80n19.  Similarly, Christian proposes that we replace Whitehead’s statement in Category of Explanation 25 about the objective character of the satisfaction “for the transcendent creativity” with an equivalent statement about its character “for those other actual entities which prehend it” (“The Concept of God as a Derivative Notion,” p. 183).

9 It seems safe to assume that this is the doctrine expressed by the statement “Creativity is unending.”  I cannot find a passage in which Whitehead explicitly says this, so presumably this statement has been invented by Christian to illustrate how any statement of this type could be translated.  Since the statement does express a significant doctrine in Whitehead’s thought, I shall concentrate my analysis upon it.

10 “Time,” from Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green, 1927); reprinted in The Interpretation of Science, ed. A. H. Johnson (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961), p. 242.  Subsequent page references to this article will refer to the latter source.

11 See PR 129-30, 320-23, 326-27. Cf. “Time,” The Interpretation of Science, pp. 240-43.

12 “The Concept of God as a Derivative Notion,” p. 185, and “Whitehead’s Explanation of the Past,” pp. 94-95.

13 We would have to add that the concept of perishing does not apply to God.  It is clear from the final chapter of Process and Reality that God is an actual entity which never perishes (see esp. pp. 524-32).  However, God is prehended by the finite actual entities (in his “superjective” nature) and is “superseded” by them in the sense that each finite actual entity transcends God in its own immediacy of becoming (see PR 135, 339).

14 RM 92.  Compare “Time,” p. 243: “The creativity for the creature has become the creativity with the creature, and the creature is thereby superseded.” For similar passages in Process and Reality, see pp. 31-32, 129-30, 249, 321-22, and 528-29.

15 See especially Whitehead’s discussion of “the creative process” in RM, Ch. III, sec. vii. Also see PR 347.

16 For Christian’s view of the proper relationship between creativity and the ontological principle, see An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, p. 278, and “Whitehead’s Explanation of the Past,” p. 98.

17 See “Whitehead’s Explanation of the Past,” p. 97.

18 It should be noted that specific and generic explanations are ordinary explanations within Whitehead’s system, although generic explanations are not “ordinary” ones in other contexts.  Indeed, some philosophers would regard an appeal to God to explain anything as quite extraordinary.

19 An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, pp. 277-79, 337-39.

20 In very rough outline, this is Christian’s answer to the question of how the past can influence the present.  See An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, pp. 319-30; “Whitehead’s Explanation of the Past,” pp. 93-101; “On Whitehead’s Explanation of Causality: A Reply,” International Philosophical Quarterly, 2 (1962), 323-28.

21 Here I agree with the point made by Cobb, A Christian Natural Theology, pp. 208-209.

22 On this point I agree with Lewis Ford’s remarks in “Whitehead’s Differences from Hartshorne,” Two Process Philosophers: Hartshorne’s Encounter with Whitehead, ed. Lewis S. Ford, AAR Studies in Religion, No. 5 (Tallahassee: American Academy of Religion, 1973), pp. 70-71.

23 See AI 230: “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.’” Cf. PR 32: “The ‘creative advance’ is the application of this ultimate principle of creativity to each novel situation which it originates.”  Italics added in both cases.

24 See PR 129, where Whitehead speaks of “the creativity whereby there is a becoming of entities superseding the one in question.”  Cf. “Time,” p. 243, where he refers to “the creativity, whereby there is supersession.”  Italics added in both cases.

25 See PR 317: “The elucidation of [the] meaning involved in the phrase ‘all things flow’, is one chief task of metaphysics.”

26 For two probing discussions of the intricate relationship between Whitehead’s Category of the Ultimate and the ontological principle, the principle of relativity, and the principle of process, see Archie Graham, “Metaphysical Principles and the Category of the Ultimate,” Process Studies, 7 (1977), 108-11, and David L. Schindler, “Whitehead’s Challenge to Thomism on the Problems of God: The Metaphysical Issues,” International Philosophical Quarterly, 19 (1979), 285-99.  I agree with Graham and Schindler when they argue for the coherence of Whitehead’s metaphysical categories.  However, I ascribe a greater importance and explanatory power to the principle of creativity than either Graham or Schindler is willing to allow.  My analysis treats creativity as Whitehead’s ultimate metaphysical principle, whereas their analyses do not.  Thus, I find them both guilty of the same sort of reductive account of creativity of which I have been accusing Christian.

27 “Time,” p. 240.

28 “Objective immortality” is the mode in which an actual entity exists after it has completed its process of concrescence and perished (see PR 44, 335-37). The “actual world” for an actual entity includes all actual entities of the past, which function as the data for its process of concrescence (see PR 34, 101).

29 “Superject” is another term which Whitehead uses to describe the way in which an actual entity exists after it has been “thrown up” by the creative process (see PR 43, 71, 134).  An actual entity as superject exists in the mode of objective immortality.

30 See PR 44, 129-30, 249, and 344 for Whitehead’s claim that actual entities supply creativity with a “character.”  Now, it may be urged that it is only metaphorical to speak of actual entities as “qualifications” or “characterizations” of creativity. Creativity is not an entity which can possess characteristics, nor are past actual entities universals which can be said to characterize anything.  Yet Whitehead constantly questions the adequacy of the subject-predicate form of expression in dealing with ultimate metaphysical issues (see, e.g., PR 45, 76-78, 208-209).  In fact, he seems to claim that, in the final analysis, all metaphysical language is metaphorical and must be apprehended imaginatively (see PR 6, 16, 20).

31 See PR 47, where Whitehead explicitly compares creativity with Aristotle’s prime matter: “Creativity is without a character of its own in exactly the same sense in which the Aristotelian ‘matter’ is without a character of its own . . . . It [creativity] cannot be characterized, because all characters are more special than itself.”  Compare Plato’s description of the complete formlessness of the Receptacle at Timaeus 50a-51b.  As far as I know, Whitehead never explicitly compares creativity with the Receptacle. His remarks about the Receptacle in Adventures of Ideas (e.g., at 171-72, 192-93, 240-42) could equally suggest a comparison with the extensive continuum. But it is very appropriate to compare creativity with Plato’s Receptacle.  For example, while Raphael Demos does not explicitly identify creativity with the Receptacle, that would be a fair extrapolation from his careful analysis in “The Receptacle,” Philosophical Review, 45 (1936),535-57.

32 See PR 127, 130; AI 230-31.  On my interpretation, creativity is the principle which accounts for the “givenness” of past actual entities to present ones. Thus, it is unnecessary to adopt Christian’s strategy of bringing in God to bridge the “gap” between the past and the present (see note 20 above).

33 See PR 129-30, 134-35, and esp. 324, where Whitehead even asserts, “the notion of ‘passing on’ is more fundamental than that of a private individual fact.” Compare AI 305: “Thus perishing is the initiation of becoming.  How the past perishes is how the future becomes.”

34 I am indebted to Donald Sherburne for his perceptive remarks about the importance of transition in A Whiteheadian Aesthetic, pp. 9-24.  His remarks concerning the “rhythm of process” have also influenced this discussion.

35 See PR 443: “. . . nature is never complete.  It is always passing beyond itself.  This is the creative advance of nature.”  Cf. Whitehead’s discussion of the concept of incompleteness in “Time,” pp. 240-47.

36 A Whiteheadian Aesthetic, pp. 18-21; see also his A Key to Whitehead’s PROCESS AND REALITY (New York: Macmillan, 1966; rpt., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 32-35, 218.

37 Here I am using the formal-material contrast in the traditional Aristotelian sense.  I do not consider these terms inappropriate, since Whitehead himself often uses Aristotelian terms in presenting his metaphysics.

38 One of Whitehead’s most forceful accounts of the continuity of the creative advance comes in an early work on philosophy of science: “The passage of nature which is only another name for the creative force of existence has no narrow ledge of definite instantaneous present within which to operate.  Its operative presence which is now urging nature forward must be sought for throughout the whole, in the remotest past as well as in the narrowest breadth of any present duration.  Perhaps also in the unrealised future.  Perhaps also in the future which might be as well as the actual future which will be.  It is impossible to meditate on time and the mystery of the creative passage of nature without an overwhelming emotion at the limitations of human intelligence” (CN 73).

39 Of course, we must keep in mind the important differences between Whitehead and Spinoza (see Section I above).  Yet one virtue of my interpretation is that it shows us the rationale behind Whitehead’s remarks about his similarities with Spinoza and other monists.  That the analogy with Spinoza is not confined to Science and the Modern World is evident from Whitehead’s discussion at PR 10-11, which he prefaces with the remark, “The philosophy of organism is closely allied to Spinoza’s scheme of thought.”

40 Cf. PR 22, where Whitehead says that “all occasions proclaim themselves as actualities within the flux of a solid world, demanding a unity of interpretation.”  Cf. PR 88-89.

41 This point is implicit in Whitehead’s initial discussion of coherence at PR 5.

42 This is the expression which Charles Hartshorne uses to characterize Whitehead’s concept of creative synthesis in “Whitehead’s Novel Intuition,” Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, ed. George L. Kline, pp. 18-26.


Posted April 28, 2008

Return to Whitehead Page