Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, George L. Kline, ed.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 18-26.

“. . . [T]he central intuitive novelty seems to be in the idea of synthetic psychical creativity, which feeds on its own previous products, and (except, perhaps, for eternal objects) on nothing else whatever.

Whitehead’s Novel Intuition

 Charles Hartshorne

It may seem that Whitehead’s system is not particularly new.  Thus he is a theist, an epistemological realist, a pluralist, an indeterminist, a metaphysical idealist or psychicalistin the sense of denying any mere matter (“vacuous actuality”) irreducible to mind or experience as suchand have there not been many theists, realists, pluralists, indeterminists, psychicalists?  Even this combination of doctrines is not altogether new.  For instance, Fechner, Varisco, James Ward, and Bergson approximated it.  To be sure, Whitehead qualifies his pluralism by the recognition of a profound organic unity of reality, but so did the philosophers just mentioned, and also Royce, Lotze, and still others.  Again, the “philosophy of organism” holds that past events are immortal as constituents in subsequent process, but did not Bergson say as much?  Finally, Whitehead stands for a seemingly neoplatonic version of eternal forms as integral to the divine reason, an old doctrine indeed!  Is, the, his system merely a somewhat new combination of old factors, an eclectic contrivance, as Pepper once suggested?

According to Bergson, a great system is the elucidation of a single novel intuition.  Is there such an intuition in Whitehead?

I believe that intellectual affairs are too complex for Bergson’s contention to be wholly sound.  Probably no philosophy, not even Bergson’s, is limited to the elucidation of an organic insight.  Eclectic moments, I suspect, always enter in.

However, I also think that Whitehead is a strongly intuitive as well as highly original philosopher.  And he wrote one phrase which comes as close as any to capturing the novel insight which his philosophy expresses: “The many become one and are increased by one” (PR 32).  Since this assertion is used to elucidate the “category of the ultimate,” we have Whitehead’s own word for its central position.  Let us see how various aspects of his philosophy are implicated in this supreme category.

Pluralism is indicated by “the many.”  There are numerous realities, not just one, or a mystical reality beyond number.  So far the doctrine is simply pluralism.  But what pluralist had ever clearly stated that it is the destiny of the many to enter into a novel unity, an additional reality, which, since we are dealing with a principle, not a mere fact, must in its turn be united with the others in a further unity, and so on without end?  We have here an admission not merely of emergence, but of emergent or creative synthesis as the very principle of process and reality.  This is brought out in another phrase, defining the “Principle of Relativity”: “To be is to be a potential for every [subsequent] becoming” (cf. PR 33).  Each item of realty has the destiny of forming material for endlessly compounded and recompounded acts of synthesisproducing new and more complex realities.

This “pluralism” is original in so many ways at once that I scarcely know in what order to take them.  The many are not one, they become one.  This is not the usual “Organicism.”  First an item is, on its own, through its own unification of its presupposed items; then it is included in, possessed by, subsequent items.  In other terms, relationships to prior entities are internal to the given entity, but not conversely.  Thus we have both internal and external relations.  Bradley and Hume (or Russell) are alike left behind, with all the paradoxes of their two extreme positions.

Again, the “many” are not existing individuals or substances, in the usual sense, but “actual occasions” or unit-events.  “Actual” is opposed to “potential,” and in any individual thing or person there are always both the actual individual past and the potential individual future.  In an occasion, however, there is only actuality, so far as that unit of reality is concerned.  It is indeed a “potential” for subsequent becoming; but the actualization of this potentiality can never be a possession of the occasion itself, but only of later occasions.  The occasion is, it does not have, the potentiality, and it is contradictory for a potentiality to be or have its own actualization.

In other language, it is not the items of actuality which change; change is merely their successive becoming. Here Whitehead takes a step beyond Leibniz, who interpreted spatial multiplicity in terms of many reals (not in terms of mere parts of reals), but did not so interpret temporal multiplicity, succession.  Whitehead takes this additional step.  Succession, he holds, never concerns merely a single-unit reality.  Thus process is individualized in time as well as in space.  The final “individual” is a spatiotemporal unit, an event, which becomes as a single entity.  (Bergson seems to deny any definite units.)  Of course there is a radical difference between time and space, for in temporal multiplicity we have the creation of new unities out of the previous ones.  Still the units are least terms of actual succession, as well as of coexistence in space. (Vere Chappell’s critical remarks,1 the validity of which I do not wish here to deny or affirm, concerning Whitehead’s epochal theory of becoming, seem to be neither intended nor adapted to upset the main point of Whitehead’s doctrine of spatiotemporal unit-actualities.)

Whitehead’s indeterminism is implicit in what has been said.  If the new unity were deducible from the old, it would logically be no addition at all, and the degree of multiplicity would not be “increased.”  Any causal laws used for the deduction must be viewed as mere abstract aspects of the previous multiplicity; and in any case, how can a law prescribe just how a set of items is to be embraced in a new equally unitary item?

What of the Whiteheadian denial of mere matter (or “vacuous actuality”)that is, the rejection of dualism as well as of materialism? Whitehead’s epistemology comes in here: we must always look to experience for our model of reality. An experience is precisely a synthesis emergent upon, and not deducible from, its data.  The category of the ultimate tells us that all process, and so, in this philosophy of process, all concrete reality, must at least in this respect be analogous to experience.  Moreover, Whitehead sees no way to distinguish between cases of emergent synthesis, or creativity, which are experiences of some sort (however different from the human) and cases which are just not experiences of any kind.  For one thing, how would the latter sort be given or known?  When given, an entity is taken into the unity of one or more experiences, and this unity is a case of “feeling of feeling,” not a case of the subject’s feeling the merely insentient as such.  How could one feel this?  We can sense or feel how various already-actualized occasions sensed or felt; we cannot sense or feel that they simply did not sense or feel at all.  A dualism of experiences and non-experiences would at best be a grave obscurity in the theory of process as creative synthesis.

Two doctrines of Whitehead seem not to be covered by our account, his view of God and eternal objects.  I believe that the latter doctrine, so far as I grasp it at all (and I may misconceive it), is to some extent a genuinely eclectic affair, not wholly pertinent to the central insight.  I shall not argue this here, but simply say that I think a somewhat more nominalistic version would improve the coherence of the system.

How does God come in?  There are many ways (I shall mention but two of them) in which creative synthesis requires a divine level of synthesizing.  In the ordinary case most of the items entering into an experience are but ineffectively present in it.  They are “negatively prehended,” which seems to amount, for most purposes, to not being prehended at all. Only a divine prehension could effectively and positively unify its data.  And is not the intelligibility of “negative prehension” dependent upon the reality of some positive prehension of the same items?  What makes it true that an item is not effectively prehended, if this is the whole story?  Whitehead himself says that the truth itself is but the way in which “all things are together in the Consequent Nature of God.”  Only in contrast with His definitive and positive prehension of an item can it make sense to speak of the deficiency of our prehension of it.

In another way, God is needed because the order of process is unintelligible without His influence.  Each unit of process is a partly free act, somewhat transcending its conditions and any mere causal regularities or laws. But sets of data cannot be synthesized at all unless there is a sufficient degree of order in them.  Process would come to an end if limits were not imposed upon the development of incompatible lines of process.  The comprehensive order of the world is enjoyed, but not determined or created, by ordinary actual entities. Since the particular order is logically arbitrary, it must be either a blind fact wholly opaque to explanation or the result of a synthesis which deliberately selected it.  The only alternative to such selection is the chance agreement of the multitude of acts of synthesis.  The theistic explanation meets the difficulty head on.  A divine prehension can use its freedom to create, and for a suitable period maintain, a particular world order.  This selection then becomes a “lure,” an irresistible datum, for all ordinary acts of synthesis.

Is this the traditional theistic view?  It seems not.  For (1) it conceives even God as endlessly enriched by new data, and (2) it conceives the divine creativity as the supreme, but not the sole, case of creative decision.  The old problem of Job cannot then arise in its customary form.  If all-mighty means “having power unilaterally to decide the details of the world process,” then for Whitehead’s philosophy the term is meaningless, or contradictory.  God’s power may in some sense be perfect, but it is not “absolute,” for power in its very definition is relative, power to deal with antecedent decisions as data and to influence all subsequent decisions; and thus a monopoly of decision-making exercised in a single act or by a single agent is nonsense.  How, nevertheless, power may in God be ideally great or “perfect” is a point which is not explicitly elucidated by Whitehead, but which I believe can quite well be rendered in terms of his basic conceptions.

Thus the category of the ultimate really does express the central intuition of Whitehead’s philosophy, with some qualifications as to eternal objects.

It is my personal view that a metaphysics can also be integrated by taking as intuitive starting point, not creativity or the category of the ultimate, but deity, defined in Anselm’s words as a reality such that none greater (meaning better) can be conceived[provided we understand this to connote, not unsurpassability in every sense, but only unsurpassability by another.  It can then, I hold, be shown that divine self-surpassing will not only not be ruled out, but will be implied.  Also that the self-surpassing, otherwise unsurpassable, deity exists necessarily and eternally, and in addition, that non-divine creativity must also have actual instances.  One will in this way have derived the equivalent of “the category of the ultimate” from the religious idea alone.  For self-surpassing deity must be creative.  In other words, the theistic intuition, properly understood and expressed, without distortions due to neoplatonic prejudices about the absolute superiority of being over becoming, or of the absolute or infinite over the relative or finite, will yield the essence of the Whiteheadian metaphysics.  The foregoing is but a hint or two.  Certain p arts, at least, of the reasoning involved are set forth elsewhere.

William Christian’s beautifully argued but to me unconvincing version of Whitehead’s account of pastness2 I take to be destructive of one of the most important elements in the system.  This account puts emphasis upon one side of the puzzle of negative prehending and misses the equally essential aspect that even the negatively prehended is present in the “subjective form.”  Also he has, I think, mistaken the meaning of “past” or “perished.”  “Past” is a relative term, and cannot describe a quality of the actual entity, taken in itself. “Perished” seems to describe such a quality, implying that the entity is dead, lacking in subjective activity.  For this reason I think that the metaphor was an unfortunate one. On the contrary, the principle of process means that the entity is its activity, and to say that it lacks this activity is to say that the entity is not what it is.  Nor does it help to say that it “no longer is what it was.”  For this “no longer” takes one outside the entity within which the “was” is meaningless.  The conclusion is that the pastness of an entity is the same as its being objectified by successors.  It is not first past and then objectified; rather it first completes its process of becoming, and then it is objectified.  There is nothing between, unless you want to say that its readiness for becoming past, that is, for becoming objectified, is between.  The pastness itself is only potential until objectification has taken place. When we are told that the indeterminacy of the actuality’s self-creative process has “evaporated” with the achieving of a determinate satisfaction, this only means, I take it, that the particular resolution of the indeterminacy is henceforth definitive; i.e., the “decision” cannot be made over again or otherwise.  But the process of deciding is not done away with, since it is the actual entity, and this, we are expressly told, can never change.  “Perishing,” as a sort of drying up of subjective immediacy, would be a change, or nothing that I can imagine. We should remember too that the very “being” of an entity is its availability for objectification (principle of relativity).  Hence how can it “be” unavailable?  And indeed, if being past is relative, meaning that some new present has the entity as its past, then there can be no legitimate puzzle as to how what is past and gone can be yet now had.  For what else is its pastness than this being now had as past?  The only “loss” through perishing is due to negative prehensions in an entity’s successors, and I cannot concede that these are attributable to God as prehending the creatures (or in any other way).  Apparently contrary texts in Whitehead I have dealt with elsewhere.3  Nor do I concede that nothing is past to the divine prehensions.  Nothing is past to God; but only because of His previous prehensions, whose data, however, did not include the entity in question, but only its antecedent conditions.  Thus I hold that Christian’s solution of his problem leads to a vicious regress. There is only one form of concrete prehension, “inheritance,” and to be inherited and to be past for the prehending experience are one and the same.

Perhaps this view is indeed “too simple.”  But if so, I do not know what complication would really help.  The view is rather less simple than Christian’s, so far as God is concerned, for it makes Him a society of actual entities, not a single entity.  I take Whitehead to have been rather seriously confused in those remarks in which he seems to imply such singularity.  If the many in becoming prehended into a novel unity is thereby “increased by one,” then in the case of God there is a new entity with each of His unified prehensive acts.  To say that there isnonly one such act is to say either that God never does attain subjective unity or satisfaction at all, or else that His actuality is the totum simul of Boëthius, surveying all time once for all.

Neither alternative seems to have any place in the Whiteheadian philosophy.

On one point Christian and I agree:  Whitehead did not always say unambiguously what he meant, and, therefore, to achieve clarity and consistency we must resolve certain ambiguities at our own risk.  But Christian’s risks seem excessive.  True, he can take Whitehead’s “God is an actual entity” literally, and I cannot.  But with some other passages it is my account, not his, which can accept the literal meaning.  And Whitehead told me himself that he felt his account of deity to be “very vague,” and he went on to suggest that certain other features of his philosophy were more adequately defined in his writings.

It should, I think, be added that there is none the less a good deal of admirable clarity in the Whiteheadian discussion of deity.  Thus it is perfectly clear that God is viewed as perceiving or prehending the evolving world and thereby endlessly acquiring new content and enhancing the aesthetic richness of His own experience; also that the strictly eternal, infinite, or non-derivative aspect of deity is “abstract” or “deficiently actual,” by itself, while only the aspect which is derivative (“consequent”), “in flux,” and “in a sense temporal,” is concrete or fully actual; further, that this aspect not only perceives, but consciously perceives, the world in all its aspects and thus forms “the unification of all things” whereby they achieve immortality.  Thus the divine form of creativity is a perpetual and ideal summing up of all anterior products of creativity, and so, in the penetrating though simple colloquial phrase, things always “add up to something,” for God never fails to perform the addition.

In essence this doctrine is not new.  Intuitively it was, I believe, always present in religious thought.  And as early as the Socinian catechism it became, in some respects, lucidly explicit.  In vain––for Europe had other things to do, even with respect to Socinianism, than to read this part of the catechism intelligently.  Later, Fechner, Lequier, W. P. Montague, and many others gave fairly clear anticipations of the Whiteheadian doctrine.  I myself first acquired such a view from my teacher W. E. Hocking.   I cannot believe that any theism which fails to include an equivalent of the features mentioned in the preceding paragraph can do justice to the intellectual situation which has resulted from the realization that the medieval or neoplatonic form of theism is not only a doctrine riddled with antinomies but one which never did have a genuine warrant from religious experience, or from the idea of worship, but was rather the result of certain philosophical biases introduced into European thought by Parmenides and Plato.  We have, in fact, become aware that to worship Being––or the infinite, immutable, absolute or independent––may be to worship not God, but an idol.  Perhaps deity is eminent becoming as much as eminent being.  Is not divinity in the “eminence,” rather than in an identity with one category as opposed to the other?  In supposing that pure being would be the same as eminence, what did we do if not worship a category instead of God?  Eminence may not consist in being on one side of ultimate polarities, such as infinite-finite, nonrelative-relative, eternal-temporal.  Eminence may overflow these simple and easy dichotomies, and be in its own unrivaled fashion on both sides of them.  Thus the way in which God’s concreteness is “consequent” upon the world is radically and in principle superior to the way in which we are consequent upon it.  And nothing less than deity could be consequent upon all other things, by means of prehensions positively inclusive of them in all their aspects.

Yet the neoplatonists (including Aquinas under this designation) were still, from the Whiteheadian standpoint, correct in an important point.  God, to be sure, is not exclusively eternal, infinite, absolute; but yet He and He alone has even an aspect of His individuality (the Primordial nature) which is these things.  He and He alone is the finite-infinite, the relative-absolute, the consequent-primordial form of creativity; other forms are exclusively finite, relative, consequent.  Thus Whiteheadian theism essentially embraces classical theism, but not conversely (though the doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation point, in some respects, toward a Consequent Nature).  Here is the crucial problem in religious metaphysics, the decision between God as supreme Being, and God as supreme Becoming or process, inclusive of an abstract element of eternal Being.

It is my conviction that in Whitehead western metaphysics moved appreciably closer than ever before to a technical language capable of formulating without inconsistency the content of the ancient saying, “God is love.”  This could not be accomplished so long as the magnificent achievements of the Greeks blinded men to the grave limitations and defects of the platonic (or perhaps pseudoplatonic) exaltation of the fixed and impassable.  The “many become one” only because the new unity is one of “feeling of feeling,” sympathetically appropriating the feeling-content of the previous entities.  Experience is never merely of some insentient “object,” but is always experience of others’ experience.  But what is the root idea of love but this, participation by one subject in the life of others?  This is the very process of realization, in Whitehead’s system.  Obviously no immutable form can engage in such participation.  Nor can the Aristotelian “thinking of thinking,” unless Aristotle failed badly in explaining his meaning.

Almost the whole of Greek ethics is based upon the notion of substances which never overlap in their being.  In one way or another the attempt is made to derive love from self-interest, for instance as a means of remedying deficiency by comparison with the absolute model of beauty.  But if value is essentially found in participating, in living the life of another, then supreme value must be the supreme form of such integration of the many into one, and then there cannot be an absolute case, for the novel unity becomes a potential item for a further act of synthesis, and there can be no final stage.  There can only be an inexhaustible progress of the divine life as summing up ever anew the de facto actualities.  “Divine love” means “divine relativity” in the concrete or consequent aspect of deity, and absoluteness only in the abstract eternal form of perfection common to all possible stages of the divine creativity.  Perhaps Plato had glimpses of such an idea, but certainly Greek thought never clearly elucidated it.

Apart from his eternal objects, Whitehead’s mode of thought is, to a remarkable extent, reminiscent of ancient Buddhism, the venerable tradition which most adequately rights the balance against certain exaggerations in the Greek tradition.  The Buddhists renounce the effort to explain love by self-interest; indeed, they deny the ultimacy of the idea of self as capable of an identical interest through the vicissitudes of time.  Whitehead once remarked, with a quizzical smile, “I sometimes think that all modern immorality is due to the Aristotelian notion of individual substances.”  A Buddhist would understand this remark without difficulty.  But would those immersed in the platonic tradition understand it?

However, Whitehead is deeply original even when taken as a neo-Buddhist.  He sees the synthetic nature of the momentary realities or actual entities (which Buddhism alone of the great traditions realized were the concrete units of reality) and he understandsas the Buddhists seem not to have donethe fashion in which each such entity prehensively sums up its predecessors (but not its successors). This asymmetrical organicity was made into a formal, clearly-stated category for the first time (so far as I know) in Process and Reality.  Here is the key to a philosophy of process according to which, so far from its being the case that “all things change,” no concrete reality changes at all, though every concrete reality becomes by its act of self-creation.  (Even God is self-created, with the difference that there can never have been a first and can never be a last divine becoming.)  Thus the fear of transition, influential in Buddhism as well as in Greek thought, is overcome without either the futile attempt to explain becoming as a special and inferior case of being or the renunciation of rational explanation altogether.  Becoming is no longer the enemy of permanence, but its everlasting foundation.  The many are not lost in the new unity, but preserved in it with all their concrete distinctiveness.  Values seemingly lost (through negative prehensions) on lower levels of emergent synthesis abide “evermore,” thanks to the operations of the highest level.  And thus one of Whitehead’s principal aims, to give “importance” to the passing moment, is fulfilled, and fulfilled upon the rational plane.  It is an old aim, but when and where was it achieved before with so much clarity and coherence?

Of course there are aspects of Whiteheadian originality not covered in the foregoing account, such as the distinctive theory of relativity in physics, the theory of extensive abstraction, and some aspects of the logic of Principia Mathematica.  But the central intuitive novelty seems to be in the idea of synthetic psychical creativity, which feeds on its own previous products, and (except, perhaps, for eternal objects) on nothing else whatever.


1 “Whitehead’s Theory of Becoming,” Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, George L. Kline, ed.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 70-80.

2 An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), chs. 6-8.  In his essay in the present volume (pp. 93-101) Professor Christian indicates that on this issue his mind is less closed than it once was.

3 “The Immortality of the Past,” Review of Metaphysics, 7 (1953), 98-112.

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