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From The Whitehead’s Philosophy: Points of Connection, edited by Janusz A. Polanowski and Donald W. Sherburne, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004, 3-15. 

Whitehead is announcing right at the opening of Process and Reality that he is returning to the beginnings of modern philosophy to review the assumptions of Descartes for the purpose of locating the weak spot in those assumptions, the spot that, if accepted, leads to the Humean reduction.” 

A fine brief introduction as any to the Whiteheadian enterprise from the co-editor of the corrected edition of Process and Reality, this essay also summarizes the atheological theme of his “Whitehead Without God” and “Decentering Whitehead,” available elsewhere on this site, while succinctly outlining the function of God in Whitehead’s mature system.


Whitehead, Descartes, and Terminology

Donald W.  Sherburne


The first sentence of the Preface to Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process and Reality, reads:  “These lectures are based upon a recurrence to that phase of philosophic thought which began with Descartes and ended with Hume.”1  This sentence is certainly prima facie evidence that in Descartes’s philosophy there lurks a basic “point of connection” with Whitehead’s mode of philosophizing.  Yet one must be careful here.  The word recurrence is tricky.  It might suggest that Whitehead is going back and embracing Descartes’s standpoint.  Nothing could be farther from the truth!

What, then, is Whitehead building into this notion of “recurrence”?  He is saying, from his viewpoint in the twentieth century, that Descartes really does deserve his title, Father of Modern Philosophy, because he laid out the assumptions that to a large extent dictated subsequent philosophical reflection and created the intellectual environment that helped clear the way for the enormously fruitful advances in science of the next several centuries.  By the 1920s, however, science had progressed way beyond the framework supported by Cartesian principles and the philosophy itself had become bankrupt.  The phrase “ended with Hume” is Whitehead’s observation that the tradition that began with Descartes ended, or at least faced the beginning of the end, with Hume’s articula-tion of a set of arguments that established that if one begins with Descartes’s assumptions, then one ends up in a hopeless skepticism.

But some endings really drag out.  Whitehead noted that Hume’s “sceptical reduction” was “reissued with the most beautiful exposition by Santayana in his Scepticism and Animal Faith.”  That “reissue” came after almost two hundred years.  More recently than that, some persons, most notably Richard Rorty, have announced, not the end of “a phase of philosophic thought,” but the very end of philosophy itself!  In this latest scenario Sellars, Quine, and Davidson take on the role of Hume and Santayana.  Suddenly a lot is at stake—the very future of philosophy itself!  In the twenty-first century, recurring to the Descartes/Hume era happens in a context more urgent even than was Whitehead’s context in the 1920s.

In the modern era it is those Cartesian assumptions that demand reconsideration.  Whitehead is announcing right at the opening of Process and Reality that he is returning to the beginnings of modern philosophy to review the assumptions of Descartes for the purpose of locating the weak spot in those assumptions, the spot that, if accepted, leads to the Humean reduction.  Whitehead will repudiate certain of those assumptions and replace them with new assumptions, with just those assumptions that undergird his process philosophy.  This is a point of connection of the first order.  If we can grasp it clearly we are well on our way to grasping the relevance of Whitehead’s philosophy to current issues and discussions.


Descartes’s problems are epistemological problems, problems about knowing.  If we as knowers are mental substances, requiring, as substances, nothing other than ourselves in order to exist, how do we really know there is anything “out there” beyond us?  When we say that we see an object, do we really directly see the object itself, or do we rather infer that there is an object out there of which we entertain some sort of representation or appearance?  Descartes held that we really do not perceive such external objects at all, but merely “representations,” which are subjective occurrences in our minds.  Maybe these representations relate in some way to external objects, but we cannot know how, or even that, they do.  This is a hugely abbreviated statement of the problem, but this is the basic philo-sophical architecture, drafted by Descartes, from which Hume et al. proceed to draw their skeptical conclusions.

This philosophical architecture is anathema to Whitehead!  Contemplating it moves him to write some pretty blunt prose.  “All modern philosophy,” he writes, meaning by this the tradition with its roots in Descartes, “hinges round the difficulty of describing the world in terms of subject and predicate, substance and quality, particular and universal.  The result always does violence to that immediate experience which we express in our actions, our hopes, our sympathies, our purposes, and which we enjoy in spite of our lack of phrases for its verbal analysis.  We find ourselves in a buzzing [This epithet is, of course, borrowed from William James.—Whitehead’s footnote] world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures; whereas, under some disguise or other, orthodox philosophy can only introduce us to solitary substances, each enjoying an illusory experience: ‘O Bottom, thou art changed!  what do I see on thee?’” (PR 49-50—the quote will be recognized as from Act III of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, where Bottom has been transformed by fairy magic so that he has the head of an ass).  In another passage Whitehead makes the point more directly:  “[C]ommon sense is inflexibly objectivist.  We perceive other things which are in the world of actualities in the same sense as we are.  Also our emotions are directed towards other things. . . . These are our primary beliefs which philosophers proceed to dissect” (PR 158).

Here, then, is the point of connection, and the point of departure—the notion of “solitary substances” must be abandoned!  But how does one defend such a move?  With what does one replace the notion of substance?  These are not easy questions, as Whitehead is quite aware—he will have to introduce new concepts and a new vocabulary to support the philosophical perspective he intends to submit as an alternative to the philosophy of substance.

I begin this summary of Whitehead’s response to Descartes by introducing a terse passage from PR that sets the stage for Whitehead’s fundamental moves.  “All metaphysical theories which admit a disjunction between the component elements of individual experience on the one hand, and on the other hand the component elements of the external world, must inevitably run into difficulties over the truth and falsehood of propositions, and over the grounds for judgment.  The former difficulty is metaphysical, the latter epistemological.  But all difficulties as to first principles are only camouflaged metaphysical difficulties.  Thus the epistemological difficulty is only solvable by an appeal to ontology” (PR 189).

The first point to focus on here is the claim that if your epistemological problems seem intractable, you had better scout around in the neighboring fields of the metaphysical assumption or assumptions that may well be generating your problem.  Put more directly in terms of Descartes’s epistemological problem, we can focus Whitehead’s point by translating it thusly:  if you have problems re knowing, you had better go back and check out your assumptions about the nature of the knower.  Questions about the knower are questions in the domain of ontology, questions about assumptions in the undergirding metaphysical theory.

Descartes’s knower is a mind, which means, in his terms, that it is a mental substance requiring nothing but itself in order to exist.  Even if there were nothing out there beyond it in a spatial world it could continue to exist in its “solitary” splendor, continuing to entertain a stream of mental events originating perhaps, as suggested by Berkeley, with God.  This is the fundamental assumption that Whitehead repudiates.  In its place he puts the notion of a “knower” that is totally dependent for its existence upon other, preceding entities of the same sort that it is and which are internally related to it so that it could not be, and could not be just that entity it becomes, without appropriating, that is, prehending, those entities in its immediate past.  Whereas Descartes continues and deepens Aristotle’s systematic commitment to the primacy of the category of substance, Whitehead reaches down to Aristotle’s category of relation and promotes it to the position of honor—to be is to be in relation.

In the penultimate sentence the word knower was placed in quotes to warn that it is very misleading to carryover the term to its new Whiteheadian context.  Descartes embraces a dualism of mind and matter; Whitehead digs below that dualism and in its place establishes what might best be called a neutral monism.  Whitehead’s “knower” is not a mind at all; neither is it a bit of matter.  It is what he labels an actual entity, or actual occasion.  It is critically important that we begin by establishing just what an actual entity is as well as what it is not.

So, if an actual entity is not a mind, what is it?  My answer is going to sound paradoxical, but hang with me—in a few paragraphs we can work this out.  An actual entity, then, is not a mind but is, rather, a momentary drop, or bud (to use William James’s word) of “experience” that pulls the actual entities that constitute its immediate past, its actual world, into the unity (of “experience”) that it is.  Okay, you say, what is accomplished by putting the word experience in quotes, as, indeed, Whitehead does?  How do the quotes get us beyond the Cartesian notion of mind?

I reply by noting that at one point in PR (p. 176) Whitehead invites us to “descend the scale of organic being.”  This is a thought experiment.  As we move from dogs and horses down to the amoeba and the jellyfish, various dimensions of human consciousness drop out of what remains of “experience,” but such animals, and even vegetables, retain some aspect of a relation to the environment.  A jellyfish advances and withdraws and an amoeba moves its pseudopodia in response to the prick of a pin, as we all discovered in junior high science class.  A vegetable grows down to the point of dampness in the earth and upward to the sun, growing out of the shade of other plants if need be to get into the light.  Most assuredly the amoeba and the plant do not possess anything like the properties of a Cartesian mind, yet, as Whitehead notes, there is “some direct reason for attributing [to them] dim, slow feelings of causal nexus” (PR 176-77).  Normally Whitehead puts the term feelings in quotes in such a context, matching his use of “experience.”  His point is that even at that level there is some primitive mode of taking account of the environment, some basic way of “feeling,” or being in relation with, other actual entities.  The amoeba is clearly not a mind and its “experience” is clearly nothing like conscious human experience.  Yet it, in some very primitive way, “takes account of” its environment.  Even in the inorganic world magnets “attract” filings and gravity “pulls” objects.  Just so, when we reach the bottom of the scale of organic being, Whitehead says, it is the case that “[a]s we pass to the inorganic world, causation never for a moment seems to lose its grip.  What is lost is originativeness, and any evidence of immediate absorption in the present.  So far as we can see, inorganic entities are vehicles for receiving, for storing in a napkin, and for restoring without loss or gain” (PR 177).

Let us step back and ask what has happened here.  We have been reviewing the considerations in terms of which Whitehead accuses Descartes of having committed the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.  Descartes claims that mental substances and material substances are the two final, fully concrete realities.  Whitehead denies this claim, maintaining that minds and bodies are both abstractions from that which is fully, concretely real, viz., actual entities.  In Whitehead’s words: “‘Actual entities’—also termed ‘actual occasions’—are the final real things of which the world is made up.  There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real.  They differ among themselves:  God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space. . . . The final facts are, all alike, actual entities; and these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent” (PR 18).  Of course there are minds and bodies in the world, but every mind and every body is a grouping of actual entities.  Such groupings of actual entities are called societies.  A society is not a final actuality; it is, rather, an abstraction that has its reality in virtue of the full and final concreteness of the actual entities that make it up.

The interdependence of actual entities is critical.  As Whitehead says, “Actual entities involve each other by reason of their prehensions of each other” (PR 20).  This word prehensions relates to the business of putting the word experience in quotes as one moves down the scale of organic being.  “Prehension” is cut off from the word apprehension.  “Apprehension” refers to the fully conscious grasping of something; the attenuated version of that word, that is, “prehension,” refers, for Whitehead, to the primitive, unconscious, primordial, attenuated way that, way down at the bottom of the scale of organic and then inorganic being, one actual occasion takes account of another.  The becoming of an actual entity is its process of prehending the actual entities in its immediate past, in what Whitehead labels its actual world, and then harmonizing those prehensions into the unity of being which that concrescing actual entity becomes.  It is helpful to note that the word concrescence means a growing together—in this case the growing together of the prehensions that constitute the actual entity which is in the process of becoming.

Actual entities happen very quickly; they appropriate their actual world, concresce, reach their final unity, and then become part of that actual world which gives rise to the next generation of actual entities.  They exist (their being is their becoming) very briefly as “subjects” and then take up their role as objects, as brute facts that the future must take into account.

These last few paragraphs have introduced a good many technical terms, terms that Whitehead uses to support his process vision and which are therefore an alternative to the terminology that Descartes uses to support his substance vision.  Since one cannot get from Descartes’s terminology to Whitehead’s vision (any more than one can get from Whitehead’s terminology to Descartes’s vision), it will be worth our while to explore Whitehead’s language a bit more in order to clarify some of the philosophical implications of this unusual and unique mode of expression.

A first, very important point about this unusual philosophical language can be made by pointing out that Whitehead sometimes referred to his orientation as The Philosophy of Organism.  In the early pages of chapter III of Science and the Modern World Whitehead notes that the philosophy of the seventeenth century was “dominated by physics,” meaning that the vocabulary to be used to shape the most general ideas of the era as they were bedded in philosophy were derived from the language of physics.  In a most suggestive passage, Whitehead states: “[T]he root ideas of the seventeenth century were derived from the school of thought which produced Galileo, Huyghens and Newton, and not from the physiologists of Padua.”2  In a somewhat longer, very illuminating passage near the end of chapter I of SMW, Whitehead provides a very clear description of these “root ideas”:

There persists, however, throughout the whole period the fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread throughout space in a flux of configurations.  In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless.  It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being.  It is this assumption that I call “scientific materialism.”  Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived.  It is not wrong, if properly construed.  If we confine ourselves to certain types of facts, abstracted from the complete circumstances in which they occur, the materialistic assumption expresses these facts to perfection.  But when we pass beyond the abstraction, either by more subtle employment of our senses, or by the request for meanings and for coherence of thoughts, the scheme breaks down at once.  The narrow efficiency of the scheme was the very cause of its supreme methodological success.  For it directed attention to just those groups of facts which, in the state of knowledge then existing, required investigation. (SMW 17)

Whitehead makes it absolutely clear in his discussions that while scientific materialism was just what the world needed in the seventeenth and subsequent centuries, today it is a disaster of the first order.  The day of those researchers at the University of Padua has arrived!  Whitehead is very deliberately grounding the “root ideas” of his philosophy in the language of biology, not the language of physics.  A Whiteheadian actual entity is an organism, not an inert bit of physical stuff.

What can be said in support of this monumental shift of perspective?  A great deal, Whiteheadians will assure you.  It was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who observed that from the twentieth century forward no one could philosophize responsibly without giving Darwin due consideration.  Whitehead was not familiar with the writings of his somewhat younger contemporary, Teilhard, but it is almost as though one could imagine that Whitehead, on the model of Darius having a servant say “Remember the Athenians” before every meal, chanted “Remember Darwin” each morning upon arising!  It seemed axiomatic to Whitehead that you could not get from inert material stuff, “senseless, valueless, purposeless,” to the richness of human experience.  Something analogous to the barest, simplest structures apparent in human experience has to go all the way down to the level of the most fully concrete reality, to the level of the simplest actual occasions, if evolution is ultimately to be a coherent concept.

Whitehead is confident that his doctrine of actual entities and the prehensions that link them is grounded in the immediate human experience of memory.  If I set myself the task of remembering something—what I had for breakfast, for instance—memory floods in upon, and shapes, my experience in an immediate, direct way.  I encounter brute fact, that is, I immediately encounter certain given structures and attendant meanings that bear in upon my experience and constitute my recollections.  This, Whitehead would maintain, is one instance of my direct encounter with the experiences that underlie the categories and concepts that he uses to give the most general description of the real, viz., actual entities undergoing their own becoming as they prehend the structures dominating their actual worlds and reproduce those structures in the warm subjectivity of their immediate concrescence.

Very simple actual entities are considered by Whitehead to be pulses of physical causation, appropriating their immediate past and passing it on to the next generation pretty much intact as received—as already quoted above, Whitehead describes such simple actual entities as “vehicles for receiving, for storing in a napkin, and for restoring without loss or gain.”  Evolution, however, proceeds as clusters of actual entities, termed societies, emerge and provide ever more sophisticated structures that channel prehensive inheritance into richer and richer patterns, patterns that, in their richness, allow for the emergence of increasingly ordered and meaningful experience.  In short, complex and sophisticated actual entities emerge at the nodal points of complex societies, complex societies such as those that constitute animals and human beings, for instance.  But while sophisticated actual entities, like simple ones, do inherit the structures of their immediate past through their prehensions, they also, due to the richness of their inheritance, have the possibility of reacting to their environment in innovative ways.

These last paragraphs are meant to suggest that Whitehead’s starting point can deal with the subject matter of the physical sciences in terms of simple actual entities and yet can also deal with the subject matter of the biological sciences in terms of his account of the emergence and functioning of complex societies of actual entities.  The scientific materialism against which Whitehead is protesting notoriously suffers from the difficulty of dealing with human experience given the assumptions with which it starts.  And the dualism of Descartes, isolating knowing substances from the external world, encounters, as we saw above, enormous difficulties in articulating the character of the interaction of its two different sorts of substances.  Hence Whitehead would argue that his position, rooted in the biological sciences, is the better way, better because it can do justice to the richness of human experience while still presenting human beings as an integral part of nature.  Of course, as the saying goes, the Devil is in the details, and the account I have been able to provide is most admittedly short on details.  But I hope that this overview, brief as it has been, is sufficient to orient the reader unfamiliar with Whitehead’s thought so that he/she can follow the comparisons, introduced in the remaining essays in this book, between Whitehead’s philosophy and various other philosophical positions.


There is, however, one more topic that needs to be introduced before this terminological overview is complete.  This topic/term is “God.”  Whitehead observed that Christianity has been a religion in search of a metaphysics (whereas Buddhism has been a metaphysics in search of a religion).  Augustine and Plotinus utilized Platonism to ground and give meaning to Christianity; St. Thomas utilized Aristotle’s writings for the same purpose; and many contemporary Christian thinkers have adopted Whitehead’s metaphysics because they see it as capable of supporting a kinder Christianity that can be made compatible with twentieth/twenty-first century sensibilities and understandings of the world about us.  The result has been the emergence of Process Theology as a significant presence in the domain of philosophical theology.  The good news emerging from this is that many, many very sharp theological/philosophical minds have turned their attention to Whitehead’s metaphysics, clarifying and developing his philosophical, as well as theological, categories.  Indeed, it is fair to say that a great deal of the work done in process metaphysics has been done, and in most instances done very well, by persons whose ultimate concern is with shaping that metaphysics to adapt it more adequately to the theological concerns that they bring to their philosophical studies.

The bad news, the downside to all this, is that the dominant mood in the philosophical community at large is nonreligious.  Certainly this secular mood is in part an inheritance from the recent decades that saw analytic philosophy, with its overwhelming lack of interest in matters religious, totally dominate philosophy in the Anglo-American world.  But it is more than just that.  Developments in astronomy, in theoretical physics, and in the mapping of the human brain combined with the use of DNA analysis to confirm the reliability of ever richer archeological evidence clarifying the origins and development of the human species have contributed immensely to the creation of an intellectual climate within which religious concepts seem to many within the philosophical community to have less and less relevance to our self-understandings and to our understandings of the way the world works and of how we as human beings fit into the general world scheme.  In this intellectual climate a widespread perception among philosophers that Whitehead’s accomplishments are primarily in the domain of religious understandings serves as a put off, serves immediately to marginalize Whitehead in the philosophical community.

Religiously oriented Whiteheadians are quite aware of this “downside,” but in most cases, I suspect, they shrug it off as a phenomenon that does not interfere with their work or really bother them all that much.  Other Whiteheadians, however, for whom the religious hypothesis is not a live option, are struck by the sophistication and relevance of Whitehead’s philosophical categories and are a bit sad that the religious dimension of his work may be a barrier to wider philosophical interest in what he has to say.  I myself fall in this last group and have written articles with titles such as “Whitehead Without God” and “Decentering Whitehead” with the hope that arguments in favor of the thesis that the concept “God” is not essential to the coherence or viability of Whitehead’s philosophy might encourage an interest in Whitehead’s writings by the more secularly inclined.

These, then, are some of the wider issues surrounding Whitehead’s process philosophy and process theology.  I turn now to a look at how the concept “God” functions in Whitehead’s metaphysics.  Because Whitehead considers God to be an actual entity, and therefore because a discussion of Whitehead’s God will illuminate the structures of actual entities in general, this analysis will provide additional background that will be helpful to bring to the articles that follow in this book.  In this regard it is worth noting that Whitehead insists that God not be brought forward as an exception to the normal principles of his philosophy in order to solve philosophical problems, but, rather, that the concept exhibit the regular categories of the system in an exemplary way.

Like all actual entities, God inherits the input provided by the past actual world.  At any given moment, then, God experiences the totality of the structures embodied in the immediately past phase of the entire sweep of all that which is—what separates God from us, as finite human prehenders of the past, is that whereas each of us is relatively limited in what constitutes the actual world for us, God’s prehensive vision encompasses everything.  Whitehead identifies that aspect of God that takes account of the totality of the actual world as the consequent nature of God.

But in addition to a consequent nature, God also has what Whitehead terms a primordial nature.  God’s primordial conceptual visualiza-tion is God’s grasp of the realm of potentiality.  The realm of potentiality is constituted by the infinitely extended relatedness of the forms of definiteness that may, or may not, attain realization in the actual world.

As functioning as an element in the universal process, God begins by, using Whitehead’s word, “weaving” the divine consequent nature upon the divine primordial nature.  This gives God a vivid grasp of the many different ways that present concrescences might move from the givenness of the past into the emerging concreteness of the future.  The key point is that God is not neutral as to how the process of growth from past to future works out.  On some scenarios the future works out “better” than on some alternative scenarios.  Here “better” means that those scenarios are such that when the new future emerges and then becomes the immediate past for yet another instance of creative advance, the consequent nature of God will have an experience of that newly emergent past that is more harmonious, more vivid, more satisfying than it would have been had other alternatives prevailed.

This raises the question of whether or not God can influence the way that the creative process unfolds into the future.  Whitehead’s answer is affirmative.  But it is crucial to note that for Whitehead God does not operate as an efficient cause upon the world.  Rather, God “lures” the process from the front, if you will, rather than pushing it from the rear.  This happens, Whitehead suggests, because God functions for every actual entity as part of its given actual world.  In the prehensive experience of each relatively sophisticated actual entity there is a sense of the possibilities relevant to the future of just that past, and there is also a sense that some of those possibilities are more desirable than are others.  This, in human experience, is an encounter with God that is experienced as a lure for feeling that can take the form of a nagging sense of “ought” that attaches to certain possibilities and not to others.  Whitehead suggests that this sense of ought can be an encounter in experience with God’s preference for how things should work out.  This preference on the part of God can be accepted, or can be ignored, by actual entities that encounter it.  And sometimes events have worked themselves into such a mess that no option is really good.  In such a situation, Whitehead opines, “God can be personified as Ate, the goddess of mischief.  The chaff is burnt” (PR 244).

To recapitulate, God plays a role in the unfolding process of the world that is strongly analogous to the role played by each and every actual entity.  Just as each finite actual entity prehends its actual world, so God prehends the actual worlds of each and every entity as it appears.  Each finite actual entity then enjoys its own process of concrescence whereby it achieves the definiteness that will constitute an aspect of the actual world of the next generation of actual entities.  God does not concresce to a completion, as do temporal, finite actual occasions, but continues to prehend each new generation of settled, completed finite actual entities as it arises and then project possibilities relevant to the future of each such generation upon the gathering experience of those entities that will shape that future by means of their concrete decisions.  Whitehead refers to God in this role as the fellow sufferer who understands.

The portrait of God painted by Whitehead is not that of a being with a plan worked out in advance for the universe as a whole.  To the contrary, he holds that  

Tennyson’s phrase [in the final lines of In Memoriam],

. . . one far-off divine event

To which the whole creation moves,

presents a fallacious conception of the universe. (PR 111)

Whitehead’s image, rather, is that God is the Eros of the universe, luring it forward toward what God envisions as a definiteness that will produce the most intense satisfaction for the actual entities that will experience that particular definiteness as they prehend their actual worlds.  God will also prehend those very same actual worlds, so it is in this sense that God is the fellow sufferer who understands.  Insofar as actual entities in the world accept God’s lure, they and God will enjoy richer, more harmonious experience as the process unfolds.  But there is in Whitehead’s thinking no final end, no point at which the process aims; rather, the process is without end, advancing through the rise, and then the decline, of a fundamental order which defines a cosmic epoch and then moving to new orders and new cosmic epochs undreamed of in epochs past.

It is worth noting here that Whitehead finds no justification for affirming a notion of personal immortality.  Each actual entity emerges in the process, concresces into its particular form of concrete definiteness, and then perishes after having functioned as an element in the actual world of the next unfolding generation of actual entities.  We human beings are very complex societies of entities.  It is societies that endure over time, some, such as mountains or stars, enduring for huge stretches, others, such as mosquitoes or human beings, enduring over far more modest stretches.  That in us that is analogous to the traditional notion of soul, or to the Cartesian notion of mental substance, is what Whitehead refers to as the regnant nexus in this complex hierarchy of societies which each of us is.  The regnant nexus is a string of actual entities, each one of which inherits its experience from the actual entity preceding it in the string as well as from some of the subordinate societies that make up the animal body.  The regnant nexus is often conscious and is experienced by each of us as the self that we most truly are.  The question of immortality is the question of whether or not the regnant nexus can exist apart from the complexly interwoven societies that underlie and support it.  Whitehead notes:  ‘‘We do not know of any living society devoid of its subservient appara-tus of inorganic societies” (PR 103).

With this conclusion we have come full circle in our comparison of Whitehead and Descartes.  We have seen that Descartes conceives of each substance as requiring nothing but itself in order to exist, a philosophical position that makes immortality an easy notion to defend but which creates insoluble problems in the domain of epistemology.  Whitehead’s actual entities are their relations, are their absorption, via prehensions, of their actual worlds into the being that they are becoming, which obviates the epistemological issue but has the added effect of placing in question any notion of immortality.  Descartes’s language draws its inspiration from the world of the physicists and not surprisingly has a profound problem with the “mind-body” relationship, whereas Whitehead’s language has its roots in the discourse of those physiologists of Padua and consequently is at home with evolution and the idea that a philosophical position must not only do justice to human nature, but must at the same time incorporate humanity firmly into that nature studied by the physicists.  The contrast between Descartes and Whitehead is stark, as is the contrast between the languages in which they express their deepest convictions about the nature of that which is, including their convictions about human nature.  It is my hope that this introductory presentation, brief as it has been, will make it much easier for the reader unfamiliar with Whitehead’s writings to grasp the drift of what transpires in the essays that follow.



1 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (corrected edition edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne; New York: The Free Press, 1978), xi.  This book will hereafter be cited in the text as PR.

2 Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Free Press, 1967), 41. This book will hereafter be cited in the text as SMW.

Posted April 26, 2007


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