Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism

Chapter 3

Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism


Much of contemporary legal theory is effectively the expression of a continuing concern to bridge this gap that opens up in legal decision-making between living reality and legal representation, two supposedly separate and distinct but connectable domains, most obvious in respect of hard cases such as Re A where the interface between the so-called theoretical and the practical is revealed as problematic but nonetheless true of other cases where the anomalies are not so obvious or so easily recognised. Such an understanding of the legal task plainly has its roots in a Parmenideaninspired universe, in particular in the teachings of Democritus of the Eleatic school; that is, with the understanding of an entitative conception of reality in which the ultimate building blocks of reality are atomic entities, basic and undividable, whose relative motions and relationship to each other are regulated and apprehended through the use of general predictable laws. Clearly, only on the basis of such an understanding as composed of fixed, or fixable, and relatively constant entities can we make any further assumption about the accuracy of their linguistic and conceptual representation within a correspondence theory of truth. The counter view to this Parmenidean theory of essentially unchanging reality has its roots in the tales of Heraclitus. Unlike Parmenides, Heraclitus contended that ‘everything is in flux, and nothing is at rest’ (Popper 1989: 44), so that rather than it being this outward appearance of stability which most truly represents reality, reality is more accurately thought of as a world of continuous but imperceptible change.

The proposal offered here is that although the minutiae of legal decision-making and the relations between them are often thought of in terms as separate but connectable and essentially stable elements in the ongoing process of law they should not be thought of as ‘simply locatable’, or isolatable, elements whose forms and functions can be abstracted to imply separate fixed points with connections and correspondences between them. Rather, they should be thought of as outlining a mutually constitutive process of becoming, not reducible to each other or to anything else; that is, interpenetrating and interrelated. But how might we begin, and where should we look to, to develop further such a view of law? According to Alfred North Whitehead (1938):

creative activity … is the process of eliciting into actual being factors in the universe which antecedent to that process exist only in the mode of unrealised potentialities … [I]n conceiving … an occasion of experience, we must discriminate the actualised data presented by the antecedent world, the non-actualised potentialities which lie ready to promote their fusion into a new unity of experience, and the immediacy of self enjoyment which belongs to the creative fusion of those data with those potentialities. This is the doctrine of the creative advance whereby it belongs to the essence of the universe, that it passes into a future.

(Whitehead 1938: 206–7)

Whitehead’s Early Philosophical Interest

In his early writings, Whitehead’s concern was mainly with the problems of modern science and, in particular, with the breakdown of Newtonian cosmology. ‘Newtonian physics’, he observed, ‘is based upon the independent individuality of each bit of matter … fully describable apart from any reference to any other portion of matter … [and] adequately described without any reference to past or future[,] … conceived fully and adequately as wholly constituted within the present moment’ (Whitehead 1933: 200–1). But this concept of the ultimate facts as ‘simply located particles’ is inconsistent with the notions of ‘velocity, acceleration, momentum, and kinetic energy, which certainly are essential physical qualities’, proving that ‘there is a fatal contradiction inherent in the Newtonian cosmology’ (1938: 199). In providing a different conception, ‘we must … include the notion of a state of change’ (Whitehead 1919: 2).

So, in place of the concept of simply located particles of matter, Whitehead attempted to formulate a conception of the ultimate facts consistent with experience and free from the contradictions of the older theory. His proposal was that ‘the ultimate facts of nature in terms of which all physical and biological explanation must be expressed, are events connected by their spatio-temporal relations’ (Whitehead 1919: 4). On this basis, taking ‘event’ as the ultimate fact, he included ‘a state of change’ as an intrinsic feature of the ultimate facts and, in recognising that events extend over each other, was able to account for their essential relatedness. However, ‘sense-awareness also yields to us other factors … which are not events … with a definite implication in events …’ (Whitehead 1920: 15). Clarifying his concepts and working out the relations between events, and between events and objects, Whitehead now entertains problems and issues essentially different from the strictly scientific ones that characterised his early work. Philosophical considerations take centre stage and issue in a comprehensive metaphysical enquiry; in particular, ‘the idea that the relation of extension has a unique pre-eminence’ gives way to ‘the true doctrine, that “process” is the fundamental idea. … Extension is a derivative from process, and is required by it’ (Whitehead 1919: 202). Believing that a more complete account of the ‘complex essences’ of events as derivative from their interconnections is discovered through emphasising the ‘prehensive’, rather than the ‘separative’, character of space-time, Whitehead ascribes to events the essential feature of ‘unity’. ‘The event is the unit of things real’ (Whitehead 1925: 189). Yet, ‘this abstract word cannot be sufficient to characterise what the fact of the reality of an event is in itself’ (Whitehead 1925: 116). Thus, what began as a fairly abstract theory of ‘events’ put forward to replace the older theory of simply located matter now becomes a much more complex, and concrete, investigation into the ultimate nature of reality: ‘The final problem is to conceive a complete fact [παντελης]’; not being as such, but being in the sense of a fully existing entity, a particular concrete thing (Whitehead 1933: 203).

The Formative Elements of a Philosophy of Process

In contrast to traditional philosophy, then, Whitehead conceives of individual entities as a series of moments of experience rather than masses of static substance. Within each moment, an entity is influenced by others, creates its own identity and propels itself into further experiences. Reality, then, is this process of creative advance in which many past events are integrated in the events of the present and, in turn, are taken up by future events. Events particularise ultimate creative power; the world is the realisation of a selection of creative potentials. Process thought is an attempt to elucidate the developmental nature of reality, of ‘becoming’ rather than sheer existence or ‘being’: it seeks unity-in-diversity, the ‘many-becoming-one’, in a sequence of integrations at every level and moment of existence.

For Whitehead, reality is composed of complex combinations of actual energy events. These units of becoming, or ‘occasions of experience’, may be described as dipolar: that is, Whitehead describes each as having a physical pole, which is the repeat of past occasions of experience in the present unit of becoming, and a mental pole, which represents the element of subjectivity that enables each occasion of experience, in the process of becoming, to entertain novel possibilities and exercise some determination over the shape it will take. The basic idea is the Heraclitean one, that all things are in flux, and that there is no ‘unchanging subject of change’, for the primary feature of existence is not ‘substance’ or ‘being’, but ‘process’ or ‘becoming’. Being is the final outcome of each process of becoming, the result of it instantly ‘perishing’ as the next stage of becoming commences. However, with the perishing of each moment comes the possibility of the present and the advance into the future; everything is in this process of becoming, moving from the past through the present into the future.

This process of becoming of each ‘actual occasion’ of experience Whitehead terms ‘concrescence’. It consists as follows: first, at the physical pole, there is the passive reception of data (or ‘physical prehension’ of prior occasions of experience); next, at the mental pole, an entertaining of novel possibilities (or ‘conceptual prehensions’); finally, a reconciliation of the initial desire to conform to the past and the subsequent desire to achieve new possibility. So, each actual occasion of experience takes on a new form and immediately perishes, to be replaced by a succeeding occasion in its first phase: passively receiving data and attempting to maintain the same aim of immediately preceding occasions; entertaining novel possibilities; achieving reconciliation and ‘choosing’ the form it will take (i.e. determining its ‘subjective aim’ or ‘guiding principle’). Finally, to account for where and how these novel possibilities arise, that are ‘felt’ or ‘grasped’ through conceptual prehensions, Whitehead develops the concept of ‘eternal objects’, the pure potentials of the universe that forever remain constant (in the same way that ‘blue-ness’ remains unchanged even though the different things that we refer to as ‘blue’ change). Thus, logically, each actual occasion prehends all occasions of experience antecedent to itself: ‘the many become one and are increased by one’ (Whitehead 1933: 32).

It is to be noted that prehension, in Whitehead’s terms, does not equate to rational or conscious activity. It is more properly understood as a sort of selective filter, providing emphasis or de-emphasis. Equally, not all past occasions and present possibilities may be absorbed in the integration of physical and conceptual prehensions in the process of concrescence: as well as ‘positive’ prehensions, there are ‘negative’ ones, excluding certain past occasions of experience and certain possibilities from the process of concrescence; moreover, organic, unlike inorganic, forms of life exhibit modes of behaviour that suggest creative impulses that go beyond a mere physical prehension of the past.

So, in each present occasion of experience, past occasions are synthesised with conceptual prehensions into a subjective aim before being returned to the realm of data to be prehended by future occasions. In this passing from ‘subject’ to ‘object’, each occasion achieves an ‘objective immortality’, an existence that all future occasions prehend and with which they must grapple. But, while all prior occasions of experience internally determine the present occasion in this way, nonetheless, each present occasion is free to come to its own ‘satisfaction’; that is, as well as feeling a desire to conform to the past each also contains its own lure to novel adventure.

How then can we make sense of our commonly expressed experience that ‘things’ change over time? Accepting, on the one hand, the implication that this scheme seems to suggest (that the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism), Whitehead, on the other hand, appears to evade the same charge by developing a notion of ‘societies’ or groupings of occasions of experience that together exhibit some sort of enduring order or pattern that is reproduced in each occasion in society. As long as this commonality remains, a society, or a ‘society of societies’, unlike an occasion of experience, may change over time. Subject to evolution in this way, they too can never really be defined until their existence is totally in the past.

‘Between Order and Chaos’: On the Development of Human Civilisation

We can appreciate the thrust of Whitehead’s scheme by looking at what he says on the development of human civilisation. This tension between the physical and mental poles in an occasion of experience is the tension between order and chaos, a tension between conformity to the past and creativity in the future. Here, chaos is inevitable, for progress demands the forsaking of present perfections for greater possible perfections and without the advance into novelty there is no possibility of achieving higher perfections. Whitehead describes two types of advance into novelty, ‘the discovery of novel pattern’ and ‘the gathering of detail within assigned pattern’ (Whitehead 1938: 80). The first of these he describes as ‘the condition for excellence’; the second, as ‘stifling the freshness of living’ (Whitehead 1929: 338). These are illustrated by reference to the Hellenic mentality of ancient Greece and the Hellenistic mentality of the later Alexandrian and medieval scholastic tradition, respectively. Hellenism was an advance of the first type, beyond known modes of perfection; Hellenistic scholarship was an advance of the second type; that is, within a given state of perfection, exploring new ways to achieve this perfection.

Significantly, this latter form generates only a minor form of chaos, while harmony among the occasions is overwhelming. Eventually, though, the various possibilities for advance within a mode of perfection play themselves out and, at that point, repetition begins to produce a gradual lowering of vivid appreciation – convention dominates, suppressing adventure. Precisely at this point, adventure of the former type, the search for new perfections, becomes essential; there must be a ‘leap of imagination … beyond the safe limits of the epoch, and beyond the safe limits of learned rules of taste’ (Whitehead 1933: 360). A sense of discord occurs, until the contrasts can be resolved into new and larger patterns of harmony. Nothing can prevent this advance into novelty: there is no moment when the process halts or when being can be understood independently of becoming. And there is no end state, ‘no perfection which is the infinitude of all perfections’ (Whitehead 1933: 330).