Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

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Matter, Consciousness, and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

David Ray Griffin

II. Overcoming Misplaced Concreteness with Regard to Both Matter and Mind


B. The Status of Consciousness in Human Experience


The first precondition for Whitehead’s generalization from our own experience to the intrinsic reality of other things is his repudiation of the “implicit assumption of the philosophical tradition . . . . that the basic elements of experience are to be described in terms of one, or all, of the three ingredients, consciousness, thought, sense-perception.”   In Whitehead’s philosophy, “these three components are unessential elements in experience,” belonging to a derivative phase of experience “if in any effective sense they enter at all” (PR, 36).  I will deal with consciousness and thought in this point, saving sense perception for the next.

Whitehead specifically connects the derivative nature of consciousness with the program to generalize.  Just after saying that, because of analogies, “bodily activities and forms of experience can be construed in terms of each other,” he adds:

This conclusion must not be distorted . . . [by] a distorted account of human experience.  Human nature has been described in terms of its vivid accidents, and not of its existential essence.  The description of its essence must apply to the unborn child, to the baby in its cradle, to the state of sleep, and to that vast background of feeling hardly touched by consciousness.  Clear, conscious discrimina-tion is an accident of human existence.  It makes us human.  But it does not make us exist.  It is of the essence of our humanity.  But it is an accident of our existence. (MT, 116)

This notion means that the unity of a moment of experience—the unity of reception, enjoyment, and action—is not dependent on conscious operations.  With regard to a moment of experience’s reception of causal influences from its body, Whitehead uses the term “prehension,” which means a taking account that may or may not be conscious, or cognitive (SMW, 69).  Whitehead is here pointing to the most basic form of the operation that lies behind what philosophers, following Franz Brentano, have called “intentionality,” meaning “aboutness.”   By using the term “prehension,” however, Whitehead means no merely external reference but the way an experience “can include, as part of its own essence, any other entity” (AI, 234).  Accordingly, in speaking of a moment of our experience as a “unit occurrence,” he says: “This total unity, considered as an entity for its own sake, is the prehension into unity of the patterned aspects of . . . the various parts of its body” (SMW, 148f.) .  One point of this description is “to edge cognitive mentality away from being the necessary substratum of the unity of experience” (SMW, 92), because that unity occurs prior to, and perhaps without the accompaniment of, consciousness or cognition.

Cognition discloses an event as being an activity, organizing a real togetherness of alien things.  But this psychological field does not depend on its cognition; so that this field is still a unit event as abstracted from its self-cognition.  Accordingly, consciousness will be the function of knowing.  But what is known is already a prehension of aspects of the one real universe.  (SMW, 151)

As Whitehead put the point more concisely later, “consciousness presupposes experience, and not experience consciousness” (PR, 53).  Whenever I speak of the mind, accordingly, the reader should understand this “process of unification,” which Whitehead puts in place of “mind” as usually understood in philosophy (SMW, 69).

If consciousness is not the substratum of experience, what status does it have? In discussing this question, Whitehead refers to James’s essay “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” Whitehead accepts James’s rejection of consciousness in the sense of an “aboriginal stuff . . . , contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made” (SMW, 144; quoting James).  He also accepts James’s view that consciousness is a particular function of experience. (Note that consciousness is said to be a function of experience [which is an “aboriginal stuff,” although not one “contrasted with that of which material objects are made”] rather than a function of the brain.)   This function (as indicated in the extract above) is the function of knowing or (as indicated in the previous extract) the function of clear discrimination of the prehended objects[*]  Whitehead later works out this view more technically, defining consciousness as the “subjective form” of an “intellectual prehension.”   To clarify this definition will require a discussion of Whitehead’s account of the phases of a moment of experience.

[*] Given this distinction between distinctively conscious experience and experience itself (which essentially involves prehensions, which may not clearly discriminate among any of the prehended objects), it would be implausible in the extreme to attribute consciousness to amoebas, let alone atoms and electrons.  Those philosophers who insist that all experience is conscious experience, such as McGinn, Seager, and Strawson, must be presupposing some very different notion of consciousness.  Of course, there is no “right” way to define consciousness.  However, it is puzzling that, so many decades after Freud, Jung, and others have provided extensive evidence of unconscious experience in human beings, many philosophers still define their terms in such a way that, as Strawson puts it, “the expression ‘conscious experience’ is, strictly speaking, pleonastic” (MR, 3).

Whitehead also accepts James’s idea (although he had evidently come to it independently) that one’s experience, although it may seem like a “stream,” consists literally of “buds or drops of perception,” which “come totally or not at all” and in that sense are not divisible (PR, 68).  Such a “drop” has the internal duration stressed by Bergson.  Whitehead’s technical term for these “drops” is “occasions of experience.”  This term involves a further specification of his other technical term for an actual entity, “actual occasion,” which is used to indicate the temporal and spatial extensiveness of an actual entity (PR, 77).  He thereby overcomes the dualism between physical entities as having spatial but not temporal extension and minds as having temporal but not spatial extension.  His view is that all actual entities are actual occasions, thereby having both spatial and temporal extension, and that all actual occasions are occasions of experience.  But that is to anticipate.  For now the focus is on a human occasion of experience.  

An occasion of experience consists entirely of prehensions.  A prehension always involves—besides the occasion of experience that is the subject of the prehension—two aspects: (1) the object that is prehended and (2) the subjective form with which it is prehended.  The most basic kind of subjective form is emotion, but there are other subjective forms as well.  Every prehension has both an objective datum and a subjective form.  There can be no “bare” grasping of an object, devoid of subjective feeling.  (This position, incidentally, agrees with McGinn’s view that “the subjective and the semantic are chained to each other” [PC, 30] so that there cannot be content without subjective experience.)  Given this twofold meaning of prehension, Whitehead uses as a virtual synonym[*] the term “feeling,” which suggests both that something is felt and that it is felt with affective tone (AI, 233).  The term “feeling” suggests the operation of “passing from the objectivity of the data to the subjectivity of the actual entity in question” (PR, 40).  Prehensions or feelings can be simple or they can be more or less complex, involving integrations of simpler feelings.[1]

[*] There is a technical difference, in that there are both positive prehensions, which are termed feelings, and negative prehensions, which exclude their data from feeling (PR, 23).  For our purposes, however, the terms “prehension” and “feeling” can be used interchangeably.

An occasion of experience, although not divided or divisible in fact, can be divided intellectually into phases.  Each phase has different types of prehensions.  The first phase consists of physical prehensions, which are prehensions whose objects are other actualities, that is, other occasions of experience or groups thereof.  To speak of a “physical feeling,” accordingly, does not necessarily mean that the object is some portion of one’s body.  The only requirement is that the object be an actuality, not a mere possibility.  Feelings of one’s body are, however, of overwhelming importance in one’s physical experience.  (To speak of “physical experience,” of course, is to challenge the dualistic use of these two words, which put them in opposition: To be “physical” was to be devoid of experience, whereas to have “experience” was to be mental.)  In any case, all higher forms of experience presuppose physical experience.

Physical prehensions stand in contrast with mental (or conceptual) prehensions, in which the object is a possibility, an ideal or abstract entity (what is often called a “mental object,” meaning an object of mental apprehension).  These conceptual feelings occur in the second phase of an occasion of experience, being derivative from physical feelings.  For example, out of a particular set of physical feelings originating from a red object, I may lift out redness as such, in abstraction from its exemplification in this particular object.  The feeling of redness itself is a conceptual feeling; it is mentality.  

Mentality, however, does not necessarily involve consciousness and, in fact, in this second phase cannot.  (As we will see, consciousness cannot arise prior to the fourth phase.)  Mentality is essentially appetition, either for or against some possible form of experience.  It can be a blind urge to realize, or avoid, some form of feeling.  In any case, conceptual feeling is derivative from physical feeling, with which experience originates.  

This account of the relation between the physical and mental types of experience agrees, then, with Hume’s claim that experience originates with “impressions,” not “reflections”; but it disagrees with Hume’s opinion that the data of these “impressions” are mere universals, such as sense data, rather than actual entities (PR, 160).  For Whitehead, perceptual experience begins with the direct perception of other actualities, such as those comprising our bodies.  This is the ground of our realism, our knowledge that we exist in a world of other actual things.  This Whiteheadian view agrees, therefore, with McGinn’s view that “physical facts [rather than “mental items” in the sense of abstract objects] are the basic kind of intentional object” (PC, 48n), except that what McGinn refers to as “mental states” would be included among the “physical facts,” that is, among the actual entities that can be the objects of physical prehensions.  For example, in “remembering” what I meant to say when I started this sentence a few seconds ago, my present occasion of experience is prehending some earlier occasions of experience.  This perception of those prior “mental facts” is an example of a physical prehension, because the data are prior actualities, not mere possibilities.  In any case, the basic point is that mental experience, which in its most sophisticated forms may seem to be completely detached from the actual world, always in fact arises out of physical experience,[*] with the body being the most powerful source of physical experience.  

[*] This point is the basis for calling panexperientialism of this sort a species of “physicalism,” which I do in chapter 10.

In the third phase of experience, there is an integration of prehensions from the first two phases, resulting in propositional feelings, which are prehensions whose objects are propositions.  A proposition is a union of an actuality (from a physical feeling) and a possibility (from a conceptual feeling).  An example is “this stone is grey.”  Of course, the conscious judgment that “this stone is grey” would belong to the fourth phase, in which intellectual feelings arise.  But the proposition involving the stone could constitute part of the content of such a feeling.  Other examples would be “my body is tired” and “my back is painful,” both of which happen at the moment to be true.  More important in a sense are untrue propositions, such as one in which I imagine my back as not painful.  Such a counterfactual proposition, which may lead me to take remedial action, best illustrates the basic role of propositions in experience, which is to serve as lures for feeling.  (To serve as objects of “judgment” is simply a highly intellectualized version of this role.)  This description of their role depends on the previous point that mentality is basically appetition: A proposition serves to lure its experiencer either toward or away from the conjoining of some particular possibility with some particular fact(s).  Propositional feelings, then, are feelings in which such propositions are entertained.  

This description of propositions as basically “lures for feeling,” rather than as essentially objects of intellectual judgment, allows their functioning to be generalizable to nonhuman occasions of experience, by virtue of minimizing the sophistication of the mentality needed to entertain them.  Even with this definition, however, propositional feelings in their full-fledged form could not be generalizable to the lowest types of occasions of experience.  In a propositional feeling, the possibility, such as redness, is lifted up as such, that is, as a possibility, in abstraction from its presence in the immediate feeling.  That operation takes considerable sophistication.  Whitehead, accordingly, distinguishes propositional feelings in this full-fledged sense from “physical purposes,” in which this abstraction from the present feeling is only latent.[*] In a physical purpose, the possibility embodied in the physical feeling is felt with blind appetition, either positive or negative.  Even in human experience, most of the feelings in the third phase would seem to be mere physical purposes rather than full-fledged propositional feelings.  In any case, “propositional feelings” should here be understood to include “physical purposes.”  

[*] Another difference between a “physical purpose” and a “propositional feeling” is that, in the latter, the actual entity that was physically felt in the first phase is reduced to a bare “it” in becoming the logical subject of the proposition (PR, 261).  This twofold difference between physical purposes and propositional feelings is especially important in indicating (as I do below) how organisms as simple as neurons, which presumably cannot entertain propositions, can nevertheless experience an incipient intentionality, in the sense of aboutness.

In the fourth phase, if it occurs, there is an integration of a propositional feeling (from the third phase) with primitive physical feelings (from the first phase).   The result is an intellectual feeling.  A peculiarity of intellectual feelings is that their subjective forms involve consciousness.  One species of intellectual feelings, in fact, is that of “conscious perceptions” (PR, 266f.) .  But intellectual feelings also include judgments, which would cover most of what is usually meant by “thought,” including that kind of thought that we are inclined to call knowing or cognition.  

Whitehead’s point is that consciousness, as a subjective form of a feeling, can occur only in a feeling that has an adequate datum or content (PR, 241f.)  His notion that this datum must involve a synthesis of a proposition and a fact connects his position with the widespread agreement that consciousness is always associated with negation.  Whereas experience always involves some minimal awareness of what is, we should not speak of consciousness unless there is also awareness of what is not: “Consciousness is the feeling of negation: in the perception of ‘the stone as grey,’ such feeling is in barest germ; in the perception of ‘the stone as not grey,’ such feeling is in full development.  Thus the negative perception is the triumph of consciousness” (PR, 161).  More precisely, consciousness involves the contrast between what is and what might be, between fact and theory.  It involves awareness both of something definite and of potentialities “which illustrate either what it is and might not be, or what it is not and might be.  In other words, there is no consciousness without reference to definiteness, affirmation, and negation. . . . Consciousness is how we feel the affirmation-negation contrast” (PR, 243).  This is the kind of datum that consciousness presupposes, without which it cannot be provoked into existence.  

This account of the phases of a moment of experience, culminating in the conscious entertainment of an intellectual feeling, constitutes an explanation of the rise of what has come to be called conscious intentionality, in the sense of “aboutness.”  Whitehead’s account, describing consciousness as the way in which an intellectual feeling (the contrast of a proposition and an alternative possibility) is entertained, agrees with the widespread doctrine that consciousness is always consciousness of something.  One virtue of the account by Whitehead is that, rather than implying that conscious intentionality somehow emerged in full-blown form out of wholly nonintentional objects (such as neurons as conventionally understood), he portrays it as emerging out of experience that involves intentionality but not consciousness.  That is, in the third phase of a moment of experience, there are numerous propositional feelings, only a few of which, if any, will become full-fledged intellectual feelings and thereby be entertained consciously.  To be sure, this point by itself would not be relevant to the mind-brain relation if neurons are too simple even to entertain propositional feelings.  However, propositional feelings, as I have indicated, can be regarded as simply more sophisticated versions of “physical purposes,” which neurons (by hypothesis) do have.  So, neurons, while (presumably) being devoid of conscious intentionality, are not devoid of intentionality, or at least an incipient intentionality, altogether.  This is one way of explaining how this kind of panexperientialism, in portraying minds and neurons as different only in degree, avoids (ontological) dualism while affirming interactionism.  

This summarizes Whitehead’s technical account of his view that thought, consciousness, and cognition are “unessential elements in experience.”  Far from being foundational, they are not even necessary.  When they do occur, they are surface elements, being derivative from the basic operations of an occasion of experience.  In most occasions of experience, the fourth phase does not occur, or is latent at best.  Without the integration of integrations that can occur only in that phase—that is, without intellectual prehensions—consciousness, which is the subjective form of an intellectual prehension, cannot arise.  It is provoked into existence only by the right kind of experiential content.  In a sense, then, Whitehead would agree with Dennett’s functionalist claim that content is “more fundamental than consciousness” (CE, 455).  However, Dennett here seems by “consciousness” to mean any subjective experience whatsoever, not simply consciousness as a very high-level form of experience.  Whitehead would, as I indicated earlier, support McGinn’s antifunctionalist point that subjective experience and content are inseparable.  

In any case, one of the implications of Whitehead’s view of consciousness as a “function” is that consciousness is not a preexistent stuff lying in waiting, as it were, to be filled by this content or that.  That assumption, which Whitehead rejects, has led to the related assumption that those elements that are most clearly lit up by consciousness must be the elements that actually arise first in experience.  The opposite is, Whitehead insists, more nearly the case.  That is, because “consciousness only arises in a late derivative phase of complex integrations,” it tends to illuminate the data of that late phase, not the data that were in the first phase, except for those relatively few elements that are carried into the late phase (PR, 162).  From this point follows Whitehead’s criticism of what he considers the basic error of modern epistemologies:

Thus those elements in our experience which stand out clearly and distinctly in our consciousness are not its basic facts; they are the derivative modifications which arise in the process. . . . [T]he order of dawning, clearly and distinctly, in consciousness is not the order of metaphysical priority.  (PR, 162)

It should be recalled that we are exploring Whitehead’s claim that the ordinary (especially in modern times) notions of “mind” and “matter” as stark opposites arise from mistaking the abstract for the concrete I have just reviewed much of his explanation as to why the common understanding of the “mind” as consisting essentially of “consciousness” and “thinking” involves such a mistake.  I will now, building on this account of consciousness, do the same for the notion that perception is essentially sense perception.  That will provide the basis, in turn, for explaining his related idea that the ordinary notion of matter is derived from a process of constructive abstraction rather than from any truly primary elements in our experience.  



1. For a biologist’s nontechnical, readable account of the Whiteheadian-Hartshornean worldview oriented around the notion of feelings, see Charles Birch, Feelings (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1995).

 Posted August 31, 2007


C. The Status of Sensory Perception in Human Experience


Abbreviations of Works Cited

·          AI Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas

·          SMW Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

·          MBS John R. Searle, Minds, Brains and Science: The 1984 Reith Lectures

·          MR Galen Strawson, Mental Reality

·          MT Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought

·          PCH Lewis Edwin Hahn, ed., The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne: Library of Living Philosophers XX

·          PR Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology

·          VN Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere


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