A review of
Judith A. Jones, Intensity:
An Essay in Whiteheadian Ontology,
Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998. 264 pages.
Transactions of The Charles S. Peirce Society 34:3, Summer 1998,
". . . one of the most profound
studies of Whitehead’s philosophy to appear in many years."
Lewis S. Ford
This is one of the most profound studies of Whitehead’s
philosophy to appear in many years. It owes much of its importance to
her efforts to combat a prevalent interpretation which accords
ontological primacy to concrescence, the process of coming into being,
relegating the resultant being to a derivative status. Thus “the
typical reading of the subjective immediacy of actual entities as being
the sole locus of ultimate ontological status turns Whitehead’s scheme
into one in which an actual, objective world must be derived in some
subsidiary way from the experience of subjects” (p. 109). Jones seeks
to redress the imbalance she perceives, for to her both concrescence
and being are equally actual.
Her study focuses on “intensity” since this is equally a
feature of the concrescent experience as a property of the being
achieved. Intensity, like novelty, is a difficult term to pin down.
We know what it is, but not how to delimit it. Metaphysically
generalized, it embraces evolutionary stages already achieved, such as
locomotion and nutrition (p. 143), but there may be stages still to be
achieved. Types of intensity may be compared, but there is always
more. There is always the striving for greater intensity which cannot
limited by our descriptions of lesser intensities. Perhaps it can be
understood in terms of contrasts, which for Whitehead are integrations
of other feelings. There can be contrasts of contrasts, ever more
complex. The complexity and richness of contrasts is a measure of
The other interpretation which gives primacy to
concrescence seeks to affirm Whitehead’s ideal of only one genus of
actual entities (PR 110). It also assumes that the meaning of actuality
should be univocal. Faced with a choice between the activity of
becoming and the determinateness of being, it opts for the former. If
so, only an acting entity can be fully actual. Past actual occasions,
though so called, are really no longer actual. But Whitehead’s ideal
is not for one genus of entities which are actual in any one sense of
the term, but for actual entities which take time to be fully actual,
which might be actual in one sense as present, and in another as past.
The problem with according primary existence only to
concrescence is that it may undercut the concreteness of the past. For
that which is ontologically derivative is also taken to be abstract.
The abstract takes on the features of the forms or eternal objects.
Past actuality then acquires the status accorded to such forms. The
corrective accords equal status to both concrescence and being. Both
are equally actual, or perhaps both are abstractions from the fully
concrete and double-sided actual entity.
If either concrescent becoming or being were ontologically
derivative, then being would be abstracted from becoming. Becoming is
the novel feature in Whitehead’s philosophy, and his writing shows a
dominant preoccupation with it to the neglect of being. If Process
and Reality were a careful presentation of a philosophical position
that had been fully thought through, we might have expected a more
balanced account of the two aspects of an actual entity, its coming into
being, and its resultant being. But the book is more an account of the
problems and issues that Whitehead was wrestling with, and these
primarily concerned concrescence. Part II shows the struggle he had,
and Part III presents, more systematically, the theory he finally came
to. On the other hand, his theory of being had already been largely
worked out. His beings, that which come into being by way of
concrescence, are individual events. The nature of events had already
been analyzed in the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and
The Concept of Nature (1920). All that is needed is to show how
the theory of concrescence and the theory of being were correlated.
Whitehead’s interest in pursuing new problems seem to have led him to
postpone writing up that chapter on “Coordinate Division” (PR 283-93) to
In any case, her emphasis upon the actuality of what has
become for subsequent occasions is a welcome corrective. It is
difficult to disentangle any substantive revision from rhetorical
redescription. In many cases this is just what is needed: a fresh
restatement of the facts of the case. Even if it is only rhetorical,
still it is new and provocative. It directs our attention to important
issues. It ferrets out little noticed aspects of Whitehead’s endeavour.
Her approach shows how much of Jorge Nobo’s interpretation
of transitional and causal objectification can be retrieved from the
perspective of what I call the “standard interpretation”. The
“standard interpretation,” inaugurated by Christian and Leclerc, takes
part III of Process and Reality as the center of interpretation, often
neglecting other parts. Nobo, in Whitehead’s Metaphysics of
Extension and Solidarity (SUNY, 1986), uses part II (in particular
part II, chapter 10) as his center of interpretation, in terms of which
he attempts to interpret the rest. I contend that Whitehead has two
different and somewhat incompatible theories in parts II and III, and
that in devising the final theory of concrescence he left much of part
Central to Nobo’s endeavour is the theory of two distinct
processes, transition and concrescence (part II). Jones admits that
there are texts supporting this interpretation: “it appears at times
from Whitehead’s discussions as if transition were a ‘transitional
process’ . . . between concrescences” (p. 111), but in reality things
are different. The connection between the past and the present can be
explained in terms of physical prehension, making any separate
“transitional process” unnecessary (part III).
Thus we may view Intensity as an endeavour, from the
perspective of the standard interpretation, to redress its over-emphasis
upon the subjective elements of the theory of concrescence, by using as
many elements from part II as are consistent with this interpretive
She is not embarrassed by the notion of “atomism,” yet
atomism with respect to time seems never to be examined. Instead there
seems to be a very provocative connection between atomism and
individuality. Both terms originally refer to that which is
indivisible. Individuality, however, has lost much of its etymological
origin. Since Descartes it has meant that which is independent of
others. This is ill-suited, even in an attenuated way, for Whitehead’s
occasions; they are related by prehension to all others. In his context
each occasion is individual as a unique concrete unity of all of its
relations. This concrete unity cannot be divided without the
destruction of the actuality itself. There may be considerable
perspectival elimination, as in the prehension of distantly past
occasions, but as long as the concrete unity is preserved, the actuality
and not some abstract replica is being prehended.
Whitehead does not refer to the indivisibility of the
concrete prehensive unity. He only refers to the indivisibility of the
act of becoming of an occasion (PR 69). Yet this is only the
counterpart in prehensive unification to the concrete unity in being.
The two go hand in hand.
In affirming the full actuality of superjective being,
Jones often minimizes the distinctions Whitehead uses to make his point
that both subject and superject are fully actual. She claims that he
distorts his own position by using terms drawn from the philosophies
he’s opposing, such as efficient and final causation, or subject and
object. This may be true of efficient and final insofar as they refer
to external or internal causation, for the lines of this division get
blurred by the introduction of physical prehension. In general,
unless Whitehead were to gives new meaning to old terms, he must invent
new ones even more than he does.
This particularly true for “subject” and “object,” which
become temporal terms for “present becoming” and “past being”. Her
resistance to this duality of basic terms leads her to question the
basic metaphor by which Whitehead relates this two notions:
“Whitehead’s strong doctrine of subjective perishing needlessly
introduces an ontological distinction between temporal states of an
actuality, when the difference between ‘subjectivity’ and
‘objectification’ could just as easily have been cashed out in terms of
the degree of presence of a certain unity of intensive contrasts” (p.
208). A satisfaction is just such a unity of contrasts, which can be
said to be subjective when inherent in the occasion itself and objective
in other occasions. But is this all that Whitehead intends by these
Just what perishes? She is protesting against the view
that something of the full actuality perishes, such that what remains
is partially abstract, only secondarily real. But if the resultant
being is fully concrete, the perishing can only refer to some feature
of how things come to be. Concrescence is the process of unifying the
prehensive relations of an occasion into a final unity. Subjectivity is
the unifying, which to be unifying must result in some unity, but that
unity is not the subject.
Rather the subjective immediacy of the occasion, this
activity of unifying, must cease with the attainment of that unity,
for then there is nothing further to unify. Concrete unity, the
occasion as objective, presupposes both such unifying and the
completion of the unification. This shift from subjectivity to
objectivity is also the shift from present to past.
Nothing actual has been lost, if we understand by the
actuality of an occasion both its concrescence and objective being. It
is so easy to lose sight of the extent to which Whitehead pushes his
objection to activity at an instant. It means, contrast to substance
philosophy, that the actuality of a thing cannot be adequately
expressed at an instant. It takes time to be actual, and that time
embraces both its becoming and its being. Jones challenges the view
which defines actuality in terms of some instant of its concrescence,
but her “harmony of contrastive incorporation” (p. 209) defines
actuality in terms of the instant of its satisfaction. This is her
sense of ecstatic individuality, for it can be the same for the
occasion itself and for successor occasions. It centers on intensity.
“Intensity is both what makes an entity unique, a form of individual
value-achievement, and what makes it a genuine contribution to the
becoming of other subjects” (p. 209).
Because Whitehead’s sharp distinction between subject and
object recedes into the background, she sometimes uses ‘subject’ as
synonymous with ‘occasion’. For example, “an individual is that
subject wherever its contrasts are embodied” (p. 128). The subject may
be actual wherever prehended, as realism requires, but it is only
concrescent in its own present subjectivity. As such it is
unrepeatable. Her formulations misleadingly suggest that the
unrepeatable is somehow repeated.
The first three chapters lay out the general metaphysics of
intensity, the second by means of a commentary on the categoreal
obligations. The fourth chapter concentrates the discussion upon
conscious intellectual experience, including the role of symbolic
reference. The final chapter sketches “An Essay on the Morality of
Attention.” This essay is quick to disclaim that it can present
anything like a Whiteheadian ethic. That may not really be possible, at
least within the scope of the metaphysics of Process and Reality.
Whitehead is concerned with metaphysically necessary principles of the
widest scope, and has little to say about the contingencies of
humankind and the human situation. Ethics (and political philosophy)
cannot get started without some assumptions about these contingencies.
Apart from these caveats, however, a lot can be
accomplished. She points to Whitehead’s value realism. She sees the
subjectivist “as inauthentically denying the ecstatic presence of
other subjects in him or her, and his or her ecstatic presence in the
agency ... of other beings” (p. 191). She protests against final
causation seen as pure private, and efficient causation as devoid of
value. For the value is not simply in the subjective experience, but in
the occasion as prehended by others.
The emphasis on the full actuality of the superject as well
as subject locates moral responsibility. According to the category of
subjective intensity, the occasion aims at “intensity of feeling (a) in
the immediate subject and (b) in the relevant future” (PR 27). Acting
in anticipation of the relevant future is acting responsibly. Thus
“responsibility is internal to the act of self-constitution.
Responsibility is not optional” (p. 173).
Thus value issues which are wider than human concerns alone
can be addressed, such as moral improvement, or moral attention, drawn
from the work of Iris Murdoch. She shows very effectively the way in
which these two thinkers complement each other.
The role of value within a Whiteheadian context raises the
question of subjective aim, the dominant value shaping a concrescence,
and its origin in God. She a makes a very circumspect appeal to God:
“Subjective aim might be derivable from the general nature of the
universe itself, without recourse to a primordial actual entity [God],
though how this is to be done without stretching the ontological
principle to the point of unintelligibility is unclear to me” (P. 127)
But a minimal interpretation of this primordial functioning “does not
have to be given the name ‘God’ except in so far as we address
ourselves to issues broader than the conditions governing the coming to
be of events” (PR 147) She provides a sober and nuanced account of
God’s “secular” functions as required for a process metaphysics, leaving
God’s more religious functions to one side.
The concept of
God introduces an interpretive note. She is also quite sensitive to the
wider contrast between strict conceptual argument and poetic
interpretation. The chapters are prefaced by poetry from Hadas, Auden,
Blake, Yeats, Heaney, and Bishop. These poems are not external
ornamental embellishments, but provocative introductions to their
respective chapters, which are further illuminated by Jones’
interpretive comments. This blending of poetry and philosophy is a
welcome surprise. There is plenty in Intensity to reward the diligent
reader, but without the poetry we would be the poorer.
February 14, 2007
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