In the preface to
Adventures of Ideas (1933), Whitehead recognized that his title
has at least two meanings: “One meaning is the effect of certain ideas
in promoting the slow drift of mankind towards civilization . . . . The
other meaning is the author's adventure in forming a speculative scheme
of ideas which shall be explanatory of the historical adventure”
(Whitehead 1933: vii). Here I shall recount Whitehead's own adventure of
ideas, especially the way in which he gradually worked out his concept
of God in stages. First, however, I must dwell on a particular
idiosyncrasy which reveals a lot about his adventuresome spirit. That
peculiarity also helps us enormously to keep track of this process of
It has been said
that a good author must be prepared to be bored by his own ideas.
Whitehead was never willing to go over and over the same old stuff.
Ideas are like fish, he said, they don't keep. He realized that it is
more important that propositions be interesting than that they be true,
although he added that truth was a major factor in making them
interesting. Nevertheless he was by temperament a speculative
philosopher, constructing new ways of thinking about things, rather than
a critical philosopher making sure that speculation does not get out of
bounds. Without prior speculation the critic has nothing to work with.
As a result he was
always seeking new ideas, and bored with old ones. He was frustrated by
the process of adjusting everything to keep it all consistent. Finally
he became unwilling to revise what he had already written. Thus, in at
least two of his books, passages in one part are not consistent with
what he had already been written in another part.
For example, the
later Whitehead espoused the epochal theory of time. According to this
theory time comes in “epochal” or discrete droplets of experience. Time,
in one of its aspects, has discontinuous features. Another aspect of
time is continuous, being infinitely divisible. But continuous time
gives rise to instants as the end result of infinite division. Whitehead
had grave doubts as to the meaningfulness of any activity at an instant.
The calculus is simply a way of papering over the problem, for it treats
a very short temporal span—as
short as you like—as
if it were an instant.
The theory of
epochal time first makes its appearance in Science and the Modern
World (1967 ), and most commentators interpret this book as a
whole in terms of the epochal theory. It is seen as a precursor,
somewhat out of focus, to his magnum opus, Process and Reality
(1977 ). Yet most of the book presupposes a continuous theory of
events. Events can be of any size; they are infinitely divisible,
whereas epochal occasions are atomic, and cannot be reduced any further
without the loss of actuality.
In the preface
Whitehead explains that Science and the Modern World consists in
the main of the eight Lowell lectures he had delivered in February 1925.
“These lectures with some slight expansion . . . are here printed as
delivered” (Whitehead 1967: viii), together with some additional
chapters. It is possible to determine that slight expansion. The
striking feature was that all additions pertain to epochal time,
strongly suggesting that when Whitehead gave the original lectures, he
did not yet have the epochal theory in mind, and that we are wrong in
interpreting these lectures as if “events” meant the “epochal occasions”
of later theory.
Usually we assume
that a book by a single author should be interpreted in terms of the
whole, that the book constitutes a single unified context of meaning.
Here, however, it makes better sense to read the original lecture as
constituting one context of meaning, and the additional chapters as
providing another context of meaning. As it turns out, the original
lectures sketch out a metaphysics appropriate to the philosophy of
nature Whitehead had developed in his earlier books such as The
Concept of Nature and Principles of Natural Knowledge. They
are much closer to them than to the later Process and Reality.
From the initial
reception of Science and the Modern World, Whitehead thought that
he had “gotten away with” the strategy of combining different texts in
the same book, and so resolved to do likewise in the very ambitious and
complex enterprise of Process and Reality. In any case, it is
possible to analyze the text into 13 different strata, each of which
develops the implications of some new unanticipated insight. Whitehead
seems to be very partial to the reception of new ideas, willing to
revise his conceptuality quite extensively in the light of these ideas,
but very impatient with the humdrum tasks of organizing his texts for
publication. He would not proofread; as a result there are over 600
typographical errors in the original edition.
His usual strategy
for retaining earlier material is to write an insertion designed to
persuade the reader to interpret that material according to some fresh
insight. While each stratum is quite consistent within itself,
inconsistencies and anomalies between the various strata abound.
procedure (which he abandoned in later books) had the result of making
Process and Reality an unnecessarily difficult book to
understand. This may be why serious Whitehead interpretation could not
get underway until some 30 years later when William A. Christian (1959)
concentrated his interpretation on the perfected system of the latter
stages of Process and Reality, ignoring the rest. Ivor Leclerc
(1958), in what is still probably the best introduction to Whitehead's
philosophy, also concentrated on this final position.
While Process and
Reality has shortcomings as a treatise, it provides a rich source of
clues for anyone wishing to trace out the play of ideas Whitehead
developed in its construction. In a way it is a dialectic of ideas; yet
whereas Hegel always knew where he was heading, and only had to create
as many obstacles along the way as possible, Whitehead had no idea where
his inquiry would take him. There is an amazing growth from the rather
simple and impoverished metaphysic of the Lowell Lectures to the final
stages of Process and Reality—due chiefly to Whitehead's
relentless self-criticism and willingness to revise (conceptually, if
not compositionally) his own achievements along the way.
The theory of
epochal time opens up the possibility of exploring another dimension of
reality besides the being of events. Being is not something static, but
includes the dynamism of change and growth. Such is the “process” of
events, which are sort of dynamic beings. But the “process” which
occasions undergo is considerably more radical. It is not simply
becoming in the sense that the leaf becomes, or turns into red, but in
the sense of bringing something into being which hitherto had no being.
does not call it so, we may call this a theory of creation. Granted, it
is very different from the traditional understanding of creation. It is
not one transcendent, eternal, divine act ex nihilo, but a series
of many immanent, temporal acts of self-creation out of past
actualities. Nevertheless, each process of actualization is creative of
Whitehead came to
this notion of self-creation gradually. The first step was taken as
early as 1898. As a young mathematician and lecturer in Trinity College,
Cambridge, he searched seven years in vain for an adequate concept of
God. Those available to him were all flawed in that they assumed God
created the world. Traditional views of creation posit a God behind this
world, which is like the theory of a causal nature behind nature as it
appears to us. Later Whitehead criticized “the bifurcation of nature”
into a causal nature giving rise to an apparent nature. Both are forms
of dualism. Moreover, such a creation requires divine omnipotence, which
precludes human freedom, unless we can presume upon the goodness of God.
Whitehead argues that divine goodness should not depend upon accidents
of divine will.
Giving up all hope
of finding an adequate concept of God, he was initially drawn to
atheism. Bertrand Russell collaborated closely with Whitehead from 1898
to 1910 on Principia Mathematica, and reports that they agreed on
matters religious. Russell thinks the experience of World War I and the
loss of so many young men, former students of his, as well as his own
son Eric, had a lot to do with Whitehead's turning back to religion. But
he did not find an adequate concept of God, or one he could at least
refine, until 1925. The Lowell Lectures avoid the topic, even announcing
at one point that it was not something he was prepared to discuss
(Whitehead 1967: 92f.), yet the additional material includes a chapter
on God. God is conceived as a cosmic order (or orderer) which structures
the basic parameters of reality. The important point is that such a God
is not the world's creator.
conceived of the world as a multiplicity of events of any magnitude
whatsoever. Since any spatio-temporal expanse qualified as a event,
dinner last night or the third world war were perfectly good events. Not
all events have the minimum unity we assign to actuality. Finding no
criterion within the concept of event to qualify as actual, Whitehead
could see no reason for stopping short of the whole. He thus conceived
actuality in a monistic fashion, in terms of an underlying substantial
activity. Then individual events were its derivative modes. God is not
this underlying activity, but one of its attributes.
The reconception of
some events as epochal occasions allowed Whitehead to view the occasions
as actual, rendering creativity (as the substantial activity was now
called) one of the formative elements of actual occasions. “Creativity”
may have come from “creative activity” to signify the activity of an
occasion in achieving its own being. Each occasion individualizes its
own creativity as its immediate subjectivity. Once being is achieved,
the occasion is objectively available for prehension by others.
“Creativity,” by the
way, seems to have been coined by Whitehead. There is only one other
attestation to the word, in the mid-1920s, before his Religion in the
Making (1996 ). Other neologisms, such as “prehension” and
“concrescence,” have much older attestations, even going back to the
1640s. These two terms deserve recognition and definition. “Prehension,”
coined from conscious ap-prehension, means any taking account of things,
abstracting from consciousness and subjectivity. Such a general concept
can serve as the converse of causation. If B prehends A, then A causally
influences B. Any occasion prehends all its causal factors, and
integrates them in the process of becoming a new being. This integration
is called “concrescence,” the “growing together” of these prehensions
into one concrete being.
In place of an
underlying activity with its attributes and modes, Whitehead now
proposed a basic category of actual occasions and their three formative
elements: creativity, God, and the forms, called eternal objects. Two
were actual: actual occasions and God. Two were non-temporal: God and
the eternal objects. Whereas creativity was both non-actual and
temporal, God was contrastingly actual and non-temporal.
In effect this
pluralized the underlying activity, giving each occasion its own
creativity. The individual occasion thus has two sides, the creative act
and its outcome. Whitehead recognized that this meant some sort of
theory of self-creation: “But there are not two actual entities, the
creativity and the creature. There is only one entity which is the
self-creating creature” (1996: 102). Although he was not then prepared
to show how this is possible, the idea of self-creation was a beacon for
further inquiry. How could he make this concept intelligible?
He got off to a bad
start by assuming that there must first be a being to initiate the
process of its own creation. If so, he proposed, there must first be a
datum from which the concrescence proceeded. Concrescence is the growing
together of the many prehensions to produce a concrete actuality. This
early theory is only clearly evident here and there (e.g., Whitehead
1977: 150, 210), but it underlies most of part 2 of Process and
The datum is the
objective counterpart for the subject. It provides the being for the
subject in terms of which the subject could concresce. But the
origination of the datum became increasingly problematic, so Whitehead
replaced that theory with a more comprehensive theory of concrescence,
one that took over the functions for the formation of the datum as well.
Concrescence thus is
streamlined. Two acts of unification were replaced by a single act, as
was required by Whitehead's new understanding of epochal becoming. Now
there can be only one act of becoming for any occasion. This means that
the occasion lacks any unified being during concrescence (Whitehead
1929: 69). It prehends the many beings of the past, but these are not
unified until its completion. Becoming is then seen to contrast with
being, and to be productive of being. Becoming is not therefore nothing,
but another mode of reality besides being. In fact, becoming is
ontologically prior to being, since being (as unity) only exists as the
outcome of becoming.
Part 3 of Process
and Reality details this revised theory of concrescence. Now another
problem arises: how can we account for the obvious unity of the self
during concrescence? Whitehead tries out many different strategies,
provisionally settling on two factors. First, he devises a set of
categorical conditions governing the process of concrescence. These are
transcendental conditions for all possible experience, but, unlike in
Kant, these are also the necessary conditions for actualization.
however, these conditions do not account for the particularity of
subjectivity. The second factor he considers is aim. Subjects are
motivated by purpose, and this could be applicable to subjects still
coming into being, to situations in which there was not yet a single
subject. The many feelings in such a situation could share the same goal
towards which they strive. Where that aim comes from, however, remains
The next step
involves a slight detour. Whitehead endorsed Hume's principle that all
ideas are derived from sensations. In his context this means that all
conceptual feelings must be derived from prehensions of past
actualities. This by itself does not allow for novelty, for the new
cannot be derived from the old. Without novelty, there can be no
evolution of order in the universe, an evolution which Whitehead thinks
should include the evolution of matter as well as life. At first he
proposes reversion, a process which permits possibilities cognate to
possibilities derived from the past to become part of an occasion's
life. This, however, does not account for the ontological grounding of
these new possibilities, or unrealized forms (which for Whitehead were
uncreated and hence eternal). In the end, he argues, unrealized forms
must be located in God as the conceptual realization of all such forms.
(Placing all these
forms in God rendered reversion superfluous, which Whitehead later
recognized by noting that “the Category of reversion is then abolished”
[Whitehead 1977: 250]. Many readers are perplexed by this statement,
since reversion is still used in the rest of that chapter and the next.
But these sections were retained in their original state, while the
paragraph about abolition was inserted afterwards.)
At any rate,
novelty, or at least the potentiality for novelty, is a universal
feature of actual occasions. Without a capacity for novelty among the
most primitive of occasions there can be no evolution of matter, unless
we suppose that evolution can happen by mere chance. (This is the
fundamental reason why Whitehead adopts a broader definition of
mentality than most, for mentality is the capacity to be influenced by
possibilities, and therefore a fortiori by novel possibilities.)
Every occasion must be able to receive some novelty in the form of some
If this were
possible, it might help to explain the origin of the occasion's
subjectivity. Aim had been conceived as something various feelings
shared. Another possibility, which Whitehead now explored, was
reconceiving aim as a single conceptual feeling which might then
influence all the other feelings. Where does this feeling of subjective
aim come from? Not from past actualities, for the purpose of the aim was
to unify all these past causal influences. He proposed to derive it from
riches of God's entertainment of all possibilities whatsoever.
This means that each
occasion derives from God the individual telos in terms of which
it seeks to unify all factors inherited from the past. No past actuality
alone can be the source of the aim, nor can any provide its novelty, nor
can all actualities together supply the aim, for they are precisely what
needs to be unified.
This subjective aim,
once informed by the creativity of the occasion, is an embryonic focus
for the subjective unity of concrescence. It is a dynamic unity in
constant process of modification. It shares this aim with all the other
feelings so that they together seek a common integration.
God's provision of
subjective aim also helps to explain the nature of God's influence on
the world. Whitehead endorses Plato's idea of divine persuasion. God
does not impose any structure upon the world, but seeks to persuade each
creature to create itself. Concrescence is self-creation out of the many
past actualities; by means of a creative possibility the occasion can
modify during its process of actualization.
of omnipotence are subject to the problem of evil: if God is
all-powerful and all-good, why is there so much evil in the world? The
world as we find it is also partially ordered. How can there be such
partial order from the welter of independent occasions? This problem of
good, we find, seeks a transcendent explanation in terms of a cosmic
orderer acting by divine persuasion.
All the texts we
have discussed about the conceptual realization of the eternal forms and
the provision of subjective aim appear to be insertions after Whitehead
had completed the first draft of Process and Reality, which
included all but two chapters of part 4 and the final chapter (Ford
1993). Thus we would expect these to be fresh ideas which Whitehead just
then discovered. But there is a major problem. The idea of divine
conceptual realization was already present in Religion in the Making.
There God's vision is described as a “synthesis of omniscience” which
“determines every possibility of value” (Whitehead 1996: 153). Why does
this thought enter Process and Reality so late, and then only by
way of insertion?
Perhaps we could
explain this in terms of a contrast between the differing purposes of
the two books with respect to the nature of God. The first concerns
rationalized religion; the second, natural or purely philosophical
theology. Rationalized religion, particularly if it focusses upon a
specific tradition such as the Christian one, is reflection upon that
tradition in terms of its compatibility with a particular metaphysical
scheme. Even though Christianity constitutes the context in which he
sees religion in Chapter 4 of Religion in the Making, Whitehead
is not committed exclusively to one tradition. His intention, at least,
is to mediate between two extremes: God as the impersonal cosmic order
and God as personal Creator (Whitehead 1996: 150).
system sketched in Chapter 3 holds that there are three formative
elements: God, creativity and the forms. These were constitutive of
every actuality. He intended God as a formative element to be the basis
for either major alternative. God as a formative element is abstract and
could be expressed either impersonally or personally. The metaphysics
should make it possible for God to be personal, but only a rationalized
religion could be justified in claiming that God is really personal.
Since Whitehead did not (yet) have a rational argument that could show
that God is personal, Chapter 4 cannot belong to natural theology. (Only
when God is reconceived as temporal could God be personal.)
In this situation
Whitehead found he could not introduce notions dependent upon God's
being personal until he found some warrant for doing so within a strict
philosophical theology. Yet the notion of a divine conceptual
realization, which becomes the key for his solution to the problem of
the ontological status of unrealized eternal forms, is already present
in Religion in the Making: “Actual fact always means fusion into
one perceptivity. God is one such conceptual fusion, embracing the
concept of all such possibilities graded in harmonious, relative
subordination” (Whitehead 1996: 157). “Thus the nature of God is the
complete conceptual realization of the realm of ideal forms” (Whitehead
I think Whitehead
sensed an unresolved tension between God conceived as a formative
element immanent in all things and God conceived as an actual
individual. This may have led him, in Process and Reality, to
postpone any constructive discussion of God until he had completed his
cosmology. He provisionally adopted the strategy he had used in
Religion in the Making. First he worked up the general metaphysical
scheme, then he provided an account of rationalized religion compatible
with that scheme. Thus Process and Reality is in the main “an
Essay in Cosmology” (Whitehead, 1977: iii), to which he planned to
append a discussion of rationalized religion. This seems indicated by
the paragraph he wrote to introduce such rationalized religion, which
concludes: “Any cogency of argument entirely depends upon elucidation of
somewhat exceptional elements in our conscious experience—those
elements which may roughly be classed together as religious and moral
intuitions” (Whitehead 1977: 343)
Whitehead came to write the final chapter of Process and Reality,
he was able to do so in a straightforward metaphysical argument which
need not depend on any special premises from rationalized religion. This
is as it should be, if coherence is such that the fundamental
metaphysical principles require each other.
This strategy of
completing his cosmology before turning to theology allowed Whitehead to
postpone saying anything specific about God until the end. But it
probably was these unresolved tensions that reinforced the strategy of
postponement, for then he did not have to commit himself to any
particular view until he was sure of how to proceed.
As a formative
element, the immanence and influence of God on occasions would be quite
unproblematic. The problem arises with the specific nature of God and
the role God must perform in the world. God is the only formative
element that is also actual. This is no minor point, for God must be
actual in order to be different from the eternal forms, which are also
nontemporal. Moreover, God is “an antecedent ground for the entry of the
ideal forms into the definite process of the temporal world” (Whitehead
1996: 152). In what sense is this different from the eternal forms as
ordered into a realm? If Whitehead were now to appeal to “the synthesis
of omniscience” which “determines every possibility of value” (Whitehead
1996: 153) as “the complete conceptual realization of the realm of ideal
forms” (Whitehead 1996: 154), this would presuppose that God is an
If God is an actual
individual, however, the question of how God could influence the
actualities of the world arises. We have to consider this question as it
appeared to Whitehead, then, before he had devised the notion of hybrid
prehension. There seem to be only three ways God could be related to the
world: creation, ingression and prehension. The traditional way is for
God to create the world, but that is not an option for Whitehead.
Ingression is the way forms are ingredient in actualities, but that
applies solely to possibilities, not to other actualities.
That leaves only
prehension, but at this stage he recognized only (pure) physical
prehension as the means of being affected by another actuality. (There
were also conceptual prehensions of forms, but these were all derivative
from physical prehensions.) A physical prehension has another past
determinate actual occasion as its datum. He did not apply the notion of
prehension to God as datum, particularly when he did not yet consider
God to be an instance of concrescence, let alone have physical feelings.
All such solutions would be ad hoc. These problems could be solved only
after Whitehead was firmly committed to conceiving of God as individual.
Religion in the
poses difficulties by claiming that God is both a formative
element and actual. The notion of God as an actual entity is
profoundly ambiguous, for all other actual entities are individual
actual occasions. Yet the divine formative element is also an “actual
but non-temporal entity” (Whitehead 1996: 90). Whitehead hoped that both
personal and impersonal visions of God could have the same metaphysical
basis. This does not work in the end, because the notion of God as
personal presupposes that God is a distinct actual individual, and this
conflicts with the notion of an abstract formative element which is a
component of all actual individuals. This tension, and the problems with
how a divine individual could influence the world may held explain why
he postponed claiming that God is an individual as long as he could.
In the meantime he
worked out his cosmology using the notions of actual occasion and actual
entity interchangeably, even though he had already recognized that there
must be a necessary difference between God and occasions (Whitehead
1996: 152f., 1929: 110). He was engaged in metaphysics, and so intended
the principles he devised to be requirements for all actuality, and so
for all actual entities. That God would exemplify the principles was a
given, right from the start (Ford 1984: 313), but how God would
exemplify these principles, whether as an individual or as a formative
element or as both, was not worked out. After his theory of God was more
fully worked out, he saw that some of his formulations about actuality,
particularly the later categoreal conditions (Whitehead 1977: 244-80)
would not apply in the divine case, and so he inserted the stipulated
difference between actual entity and actual occasion (Whitehead 1977:
88, 110). He does not, however, develop the difference in specific
So far I have not
mentioned what is perhaps the best known feature of Whitehead's theism,
namely, the notion that God is temporal as well as eternal. All of the
above was worked out before Whitehead proposed his process theism. Up to
this point he was a traditional theist insisting that God was purely
non-temporal. The transition to process theism, however, was fairly
straightforward given the conceptuality he had worked out by then. The
actual occasions were all conceived to have both physical feelings of
past actualities and conceptual feelings of forms. But God was conceived
to have only conceptual feelings. All that was needed was to experiment
with the possibility that God might also have physical feelings.
If God were to have
physical feelings of actual occasions, these would depend on those
occasions for their content. Then God's experience would be a function
of the ongoing of the world, and would be increased by its temporal
advance. Although this is a fairly direct inference in terms of
Whitehead's developing philosophy, it was rarely taken in the entire
history of theism. The traditional ideas of divine perfection and
completeness entailed divine immutability, and this seemed to exclude
any growth in God, even with respect to experience.
The way was prepared
for making this advance by the way in which Whitehead had reflected on
the implications of divine non-temporality. Traditionally the issue was
obscured by the Western acceptance of the biblical image of God.
Whitehead accepted God's non-temporality, but saw that it did not
necessarily entail subjectivity. Later investigations into the nature of
concrescent becoming convinced him that subjectivity was inherently
temporal: the present immediacy of becoming, contrasted with the past
objectivity of being. Thus, if God was conceived as a timeless
concrescence ordering all the forms, this non-temporality was considered
to abstract from temporality and subjectivity.
There was a definite
tension between non-temporality and actuality, for God was above all
actual (so as not to be confused with the forms). All other actualities
were concretely determinate. If actuality is generalized as requiring
physical feeling, then “the primordial actuality” (as God had been
conceived) could be relativized into simply “the primordial nature”
which by itself is “deficiently actual” (Whitehead 1977: 343). Then the
whole structure of definite possibilities, which Whitehead had hitherto
construed as actual, shows itself to be abstract, requiring further
supplementation. This supplementation was readily available in the form
of divine physical prehensions of actual occasions. Thus, God's concrete
actualization means that God's experience must be temporal as dependent
upon the contingencies of the world.
omniscience is the omniscience of a perfectly complete being, whose
knowledge must be immutable regardless of what this entails for the
world. Knowledge is either dependent upon the knower or the known, or it
is not knowledge. Immutable knowledge makes it ultimately dependent upon
the knower, for even if the knower does not cause the known, the known
must be determinate to be known. If the divine known future is already
determinate, then there can be no freedom to determine it. Process
omniscience, on the other hand, is perfectly contoured to the nature of
what is being known, the actual as actual, and the possible as possible.
It does not seek to know the possible as if it were already actual. It
requires a revision of absolute immutability, although it can affirm
that God is in all necessary aspects immutable. This requires a new
conception of perfection, for it is the perfection of becoming rather
than the perfection of being.
is an added powerful reason for affirming God as individual; and if an
as individual, then also personal. A person is a dynamic, responsive
source of value. God can be a source of value without being responsive,
but responsiveness depends upon the capacity to be influenced by
temporal actuality and the ability to propose aims in the light of that
a process, temporalistic theism. Many people reading Process and
Reality assume that he had this idea in mind from the start, and
that it is the only concept Whitehead employs in the book. Denis
Hurtubise has demonstrated the falsity of this assumption (Hurtubise n.d.).
By means of the clues provided by compositional analysis, we can now
trace the different stages of this intellectual adventure. Whitehead
became a process theist through the intellectual endeavour of
constructing that book; he did not start out one.
A. 1959 An Interpretation of Whitehead's Metaphysics. New Haven:
Yale University Press.
Ford, Lewis S. 1984
The Emergence of Whitehead's Metaphysics. Albany: State
University of New York Press.
Ford, Lewis S. 1993
“The riddle of Religion in the Making. “ Process Studies
Hurtubise, Denis n.d.
Relire Whitehead. Concepts de Dieu dans Process and Reality.
Quebec: Les Presses de l'Université Laval, forthcoming.
Leclerc, Ivor 1958
Whitehead's Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition. London:
George Allen and Unwin.
North 1933 Adventures of Ideas. New York: Macmillan.
1967  Science and the Modern World. New York: Free Press.
1977  Process and Reality. New York: Free Press.
Religion in the Making. New York: Fordham University Press.