Quantcast Donald W. Sherburne "Responsibility, Punishment, and Whitehead’s Theory of the Self"


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From inorganic entities to the divine entity, present actualities vary in their ability to take into account the possible consequences of their actions on future actualities.  Our interest is, of course, in human actualities.  This essay is posted for its insights into how Whitehead's “libertarian cosmology”  of perishing actualities might comprehend personal responsibility on the part of those human actualities, not for the dubious recommendations for social reform that the author floats in the third paragraph from the end.  (It’s hard to see their relevance to the rehabilitation of, say, a currency-devaluing banking cartel or war criminals.) 

From Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy.  Edited and with an Introduction by George L. Kline.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963, 179-88.  

Responsibility, Punishment, and Whitehead’s Theory of the Self

Donald W. Sherburne




Paul Weiss has continually needled the supporters of Whitehead on various aspects of the philosophical system they explicate and defend, and the Whiteheadians have indeed been fortunate in obtaining the services of such an acute and vigorous gadfly.  The concept of the self in Whitehead’s philosophy has been one of Weiss’ favorite targets.  Writing as a contributor to The Relevance of Whitehead,1 a volume of essays commemorating the centenary of the birth of Whitehead, Weiss admonishes:

Held to too tenaciously the view [that actual occasions perish when and as they become] would prevent Whitehead from affirming that there were any beings, other than God, which actually persist. As a consequence he would not be able to explain how a man could be self-identical over the course of an individual life, how any man could ever be guilty for something done by him years ago, how there could be an ethics of obligation, political action, artistic production, or an historical process.2

It is quite proper to reply to Weiss as George Kline did reply in reviewing the commemorative volume: “Weiss himself seems quite insensitive to the difficulties which Whitehead has exposed in the Aristotelian alternative.”3  Yet though it is true that the Whiteheadians can raise formidable objections to Weiss’ account of the self, as well as vice versa, in all likelihood the final philosophical significance of both parties will be determined by the success of the sustained effort of constructive thought which each puts into its own system and not by the acerbity of their attacks on each other. Therefore, it certainly will not do simply to point out Weiss’ own difficulties by way of retaliation against his attacks; rather, Whiteheadians must also get down to the much more difficult business of explicating, reformulating, and extending their own position.  The present paper is an experiment in this direction.  The mode of procedure will be as follows: Whitehead’s theory of the self will be retained in all its starkness, in precisely the form Weiss finds objectionable.  It will then be shown that this theory of the self has the interesting consequence that it can be combined in a novel manner with the views on responsibility and punishment held by such as Hume, Ayer, and Schlick.  This simple exercise does not pretend to solve all the problems in this area, but it may resolve a few and perhaps it will open up new lines of thought that might bear further examination.



To begin with, two basic world views must be presented.  The first is the Block Universe view described thus by Russell:

There are such invariable relations between different events at the same or different times that, given the state of the whole universe throughout any finite time, however short, every previous and subsequent event can theoretically be determined as a function of the given events during that time.4

The second is the Real Possibilities view described thus by William James:

. . . the parts have a certain amount of loose play on one another, so that the laying down of one of them does not necessarily determine what the others shall be . . . actualities seem to float in a wider sea of possibilities from out of which they are chosen. . . .5

Relating respectively to these two world views are the following two traditional attitudes toward punishment described thus by Raphael Demos:

Moralists have raised the question as to how punishment may be justified, and their answers to the question generally have been of two sorts: they have appealed to the principle either of retributive justice or to that of beneficial consequences.6

The Block Universe view has tended toward beneficial consequences and the Real Possibilities view toward retributive justice. Speaking of punishment from the Block Universe point of view, Moritz Schlick writes:

What is punishment, actually?  The view still often expressed, that it is a natural retaliation for past wrong, ought no longer to be defended in cultivated society; for the opinion that an increase in sorrow can be “made good again” by further sorrow is altogether barbarous. . . . Punishment is an educative measure, and as such is a means to the formation of motives, which are in part to prevent the wrongdoer from repeating the act (reformation) and in part to prevent others from committing a similar act (intimidation).7

Exhibiting the grounds for punishment from the point of view of one camp within the Real Possibilities position, Edwyn Bevan writes:

If anyone goes to hell, in the Catholic view, it is his own fault, because he has freely and voluntarily chosen evil. . . . The wrongdoer suffers the pain of hell, in their view . . . because he deserves it—although there is no possibility of the pain making him better.8

Whitehead, of course, belongs to the Real Possibilities tradition.  This tradition has a powerful appeal, particularly in the light of the success of Whitehead’s philosophy in interpreting the basic principles of modern science and of such telling arguments as William James’ “The Dilemma of Determinism.” Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle is also interpreted by some as support for this view.  On the other hand, in the area of punishment an emphasis on control and direction as over against retribution also has a powerful appeal to the modern mind.  Schlick’s assertion that punishment conceived as retaliation is a barbarous notion is convincing to readers steeped in current sociology and psychology. The thesis of this paper is that Whitehead’s concept of the self permits a marriage of the Real Possibilities view and a theory of punishment grounded on reformation and deterrence.  Far from being a liability, as Weiss argues, Whitehead’s theory of the self leads, when explicitly joined to the Real Possibilities view, to a position which incorporates the best aspects of the Hume-Ayer-Schlick attitude toward punishment while rejecting an atavistic emphasis on retribution.



It is necessary to adumbrate Whitehead’s theory of the self.  Whitehead’s is an atomistic, pluralistic system.  Each of the concrete, fully real entities of the system is termed an “actual entity,” or, alternatively, “actual occasion.” Actual entities are microcosmic.  Each of these actual entities is energetic—i.e., it acts, it is a process of becoming—and each actual entity is self-situated—i.e., it is non-adjectival.9  In William James’ terminology, it is a drop of experience.  Actual entities do not change position, nor do they endure through time; as Weiss noted in the passage quoted at the beginning of this paper, their being is their becoming, but they perish when and as they become.  Like Aristotle’s outer heavens, they are not in time, but rather time is in them; i.e., time is an abstraction from the ongoingness whereby generation after generation of actual entities succeed one another in the creative ongoingness of the universe.

The trees, houses, automobiles, and people which we encounter in our macrocosmic world are not single actual entities, but rather societies, or nexüs, of actual entities.  In any such society there are untold numbers of actual entities.  The nexüs which are trees, houses, automobiles, and people are four-dimensional nexüs.  

A slice of a nexus at a given instant is a three-dimensional, geometrical pattern composed of myriad actual entities.  A full, temporally extended nexus consists of generation after generation of actual entities linked into roughly the same geometrical pattern as a result of the prehensive bonds which bind the generations together into strands of inherited features.  These strands of inheritance spanning generations of actual entities are frequently referred to as “enduring objects.”  

In terms of this general scheme Whitehead reformulates and attempts to resolve the traditional mind-body problem.  The nexus which is a stone is a comparatively homogene-ous nexus, but the nexus which is a human being is a very complex society which is, in fact, a society of societies, or what Whitehead terms a corpuscular society.  

Within this corpuscular society stretches a regnant society, a society which is spatially thin, a society which is a temporally extended strand that wanders in its temporal unfolding from part to part of the brain, inheriting the vivid experiences of the many subordinate societies over which it ranges and refreshing and modifying those subordinate societies with its novel reactions to its environment.  

The mind, as distinct from the brain, must be associated with the regnant nexus which wanders from part to part of the brain.  This regnant nexus can be likened to a string of beads extended in the dimension of time, except that there is no string, no substantial substratum, enduring through the succession of entities.

This is the scheme of ideas in terms of which a Whiteheadian must frame his theory of the self.  Whitehead’s position emerges clearly in a striking passage.

In the quotation from the second Meditation: “‘I am, I exist,’ is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it,” Descartes adopts the position that an act of experience is the primary type of actual occasion.  But in his subsequent developments he assumes that his mental substances endure change.  Here he goes beyond his argument.  For each time he pronounces “I am, I exist,” the actual occasion, which is the ego, is different. . . . (PR 116).

The notion of a substance enduring through change is unacceptable to Whitehead.  “Actual entities perish, but do not change; they are what they are” (PR 52).  Again, “The fundamental meaning of the notion of ‘change’ is ‘the difference between [successive] actual occasions comprised in some determinate event’” (PR 114).10

Now, what are the consequences of this Whiteheadian position for a theory of punishment and for the notion of responsibility? They seem to raise the question: why execute a murderer or pin a medal on a military hero?  In each case, given the Whiteheadian position, the actual entities whose free decisions were responsible for the deeds have perished.  There is no concrete, actual element present in the post facto person which was actual at the time of the deed.  It seems impossible to find a resting place for the responsibility usually regarded as correlative to free decision; in short, responsibility seems to be incompatible with this Whiteheadian theory of the self, and consequently any attempt by a Whiteheadian to ground punishment upon retribution seems doomed.

It is now clear why Weiss and other substance philosophers find Whitehead’s theory objectionable on moral grounds.  They note his great emphasis on the internal freedom possessed by each actual entity in molding the character of its own being, and then can find no place in the system for the correlative guilt and responsibility which, they argue, this freedom entails; for, since actual entities perish immediately upon becoming, nothing endures which could assume the responsibility or guilt.



Turning now to the positive aspect of this paper, the attempt to exonerate Whitehead from these charges of inadequacy, I wish to eliminate at the start one possible line of rejoinder.  It is not possible, in my opinion (though some may want to disagree with me), to save Whitehead by joining the concept of responsibility to the notion of a nexus, or enduring object.  My reasons for rejecting this possibility are as follows. 

A nexus is an abstraction; it has being only as a function of the actual entities constitutive of it.  To seek the locus of responsibility is to seek a reason, and the ontological principle, the most fundamental principle of Whitehead’s system, asserts:

. . . to search for a reason is to search for one or more actual entities; . . . actual entities are the only reasons (PR 37).

. . . every decision is referable to one or more actual entities, because in separation from actual entities there is nothing, merely nonentity. . . (PR 68). (Italics added.)

To lodge responsibility in a nexus is to commit the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. To appeal to a nexus as the locus of responsibility is, as Whitehead remarks in a different context, “. . . exactly analogous to an appeal to an imaginary terrier to kill a real rat” (PR 348).  Denying in this way the possibility of joining the concept of responsibility to the notion of a nexus undermines the last possibility of grounding punishment on retribution within the framework of Whitehead’s system, because (1) since the actual entities to which any given decision can be traced have perished, they are beyond punishment and (2) the argument of this paragraph has shown that there is no other candidate for punishment if punishment is to be grounded on retribution.

But this conclusion does not entail that responsibility and punishment thereby become concepts impossible for the Whiteheadians to preserve within their system.  To obviate this eventuality I offer a straightforward suggestion: abandon the effort to ground punishment on retribution.   Certainly there is sound moral intuition in Schlick’s view that the doctrine of retribution “is altogether barbarous.”  I wish to argue that if Schlick’s reasonable and persuasive argument be accepted”11 then it is precisely Whitehead’s theory of the self which enables one to incorporate Schlick’s insight into Whitehead’s Real Possibilities cosmology.

Only a few of the directions in which this basic suggestion might be developed and defended can be adumbrated here, but it is hoped that the following remarks may increase the plausibility of the proposal.

First, consider responsibility.  The responsibility correlative to freedom is not obviated by the suggested solution.  It is true that actual entities responsible for certain decisions can be traced, but not recovered, for they have perished.  A remark of Whitehead’s reported by William Ernest Hocking is relevant: “You can’t catch a moment by the scruff of the neck: it’s gone, you know!”12  Nevertheless, the fact that you can’t catch an actual entity by the scruff of the neck and deal with it at leisure does not mean that it is not both responsible and judged.  Each actual entity is (a) responsible to God and (b) judged by God as God’s consequent nature evolves.  

(a) An actual entity is responsible to God as a result of entertaining in its initial phase a conceptual aim, derived from God, which points toward the manner of becoming on the part of that actual entity which would result in maximizing intensity and harmony of feeling in the evolving universe.  The actual entity can “turn its back,” so to speak, on this divine lure as it makes its own autonomous decisions by which it becomes actual, but it is responsible for its decisions,13 and

(b) its decisions are judged.  What each actual entity decides to make of itself has its impact as datum for the consequent nature of God, and what God makes of that actual entity as it is absorbed into his consequent nature is God’s judgment of the subjective decision of that actual entity.   As Whitehead writes, there is a “. . . judge arising out of the very nature of things. . .” (PR 533).  

The Whiteheadian cosmology is such that responsibility and judgment are built into the system at the microcosmic level; they are not eliminated by the suggestions of this paper.   In fact, the Whiteheadian cosmology pushes one to the sound moral view “judge not, that ye be not judged”; it provides for final judgment while recognizing ultimate judgment to be not human, but divine.

Secondly, it must be shown that Whitehead’s theory of the self is such as to encourage, even demand, that Schlick’s insights into the justification of punishment be incorporated into Whitehead’s cosmology.  It is the superjective aspect of concrescing actual entities which creates this demand, so the superjective character of an actual entity must now be examined.

Whitehead writes:

“An actual entity is to be conceived both as a subject presiding over its own immediacy of becoming, and a superject which is the atomic creature exercising its function of objective immortality” (PR 71).

It seems odd to speak of an actual entity exercising its function of objective immortality precisely because, when objectively immortal, a creature has perished and can do nothing. Whitehead could be interpreted as meaning here that even as a “subject presiding over its own immediacy of becoming,” an actual entity is concerned with what impact it will have in the future when it will be objectively immortal, when it will be a datum for other concrescences. It is concerned right now with what its impact on them will be in the future, and in as far as it has this concern it is superject.  

The crucial point for the argument which follows is this: as concrescing subject the actual entity is already superject; that is, how it will have its impact on future occasions can be, depending upon the degree of sophistication of the entity, an important factor already, “right now,” as it is becoming.  In this sense an actual entity can be said to exercise its function of objective immortality; i.e., it anticipates the effect of its present decisions on the future and modifies present decisions in the light of this effect.

This discussion of the superjective character of an actual entity, particularly the last sentence, deepens the meaning of two passages from Whitehead:

“The effect of the present on the future is the business of morals” and “The greater part of morality hinges on the determination of relevance in the future” (AI 346; PR 41).  

These statements are not only illuminated by the discussion of superject above, they also fairly beg for some mode of rapprochement with the position of Schlick concerning the justification of punishment.  This rapprochement must now be provided.

Schlick, it will be recalled, grounds punishment on both deterrence and reformation.  The deterministic aspect of Schlick’s Block Universe view makes it plausible for him to emphasize deterrence, but deterrence cannot be the primary justification for punishment within a Real Possibilities cosmology.  There is considerable disillusionment with punishment as a deterrent force in any case.  Richard B. Brandt opines that

. . . it is doubtful whether threats of punishment have as much deterrent value as is often supposed.  Threats of punishment will have little effect on morons, or on persons to whom normal living offers few prospects of an interesting existence.  Moreover, persons from better economic or social circumstances will be deterred sufficiently by the prospect of conviction in a public trial and being at the disposal of a board for a period of years.14

The positive emphasis on reformation as the justification for punishment which is presupposed by my own argument is presented in broad outline by Brandt as follows:

Some thinkers today believe that criminal justice in Great Britain and the United States is in need of substantial revision. If we agree with their proposals, we have even less reason for favoring the retributive principle; but we must also question the traditional utilitarian emphasis on deterrence as the primary function of the institution of criminal justice.

Their proposal, roughly, is that we should extend, to all criminal justice, the practices of juvenile courts and institutions for the reform of juvenile offenders.  Here, retributive concepts have been largely discarded at least in theory, and psychiatric treatment and programs for the prevention of crime by means of slum clearance, the organization of boys’ clubs, and so forth, have replaced even deterrence as guiding ideas for social action.15

It remains now to discover how this general position, emphasizing reformation, works out when interpreted in terms of the particular categories of Whitehead’s system.

Not all Whiteheadian actual entities have the same degree of sophistication.  “They differ among themselves: God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (PR 28).   The difference is a function of the degree of sophistication of the mental poles of the entities.  

Insofar as an entity is of a primitive sort with little power of originality in its mental pole, the superjective aspect of that entity approaches the vanishing point, efficient causation reigns supreme, and it and other similar entities become “. . . vehicles for receiving, for storing in a napkin, and for restoring without loss or gain” (PR 269).  This is the level of the inorganic.  

As entities become located at sensitive points within the progressively more specialized societies constituting the more highly evolved organisms, the more organized environment on which they draw enables them to become less totally dominated by efficient causation and progressively more sensitive to final causation; i.e., the extent to which they “exercise their function of objective immortality,” in the precise sense given to this phrase above, becomes more marked.  They become superjectively oriented; they anticipate the effects of their present decisions on the future and modify their present decisions accordingly; they operate telically in the light of goals, purposes and ideals.  To operate telically in the light of goals, purposes, and ideals is to be human and is to face the demands of morality:

“. . . the actual entity, in a state of process during which it is not fully definite, determines its own ultimate definiteness. This is the whole point of moral responsibility” (PR 390).

Punishment must be moral; a theory of punishment cannot flout moral intuitions—this assumption underlies all current discussions of punishment, as, for example, when utilitarians are attacked on the grounds that their theory must lead to the position that one ought to punish innocent people and is hence unacceptable for the reason that this practice is obviously morally reprehensible.16  Morality within the Whiteheadian scheme demands that creative decision “always be used toward the actualization of the wider, more complete creative order of good” where increase of value is understood as “the enlargement of the scope and depth of community of actualities.”17  

The implications for a theory of punishment are clear: punishment, to be justified, must be goal-creating; it must literally be creative punishment in that it seeks to reveal possibilities leading to depth and harmony of experience.  A juvenile delinquent or a perennial lawbreaker is, except in pathological cases, an individual who either has no goals at all and simply drifts in bitter helplessness and frustration, or else has antisocial goals, goals which are incompatible with the maximum harmonization of the goals of the other members of society.  

Punishment in these cases can be justified only if it is humane, only if it creates the conditions under which superjective—i.e., goal-seeking—activity is possible.  The incarceration of an offender is morally justifiable only to the extent that the offender is taught a trade, or otherwise educated to assume a constructive role in society, at the same time that he is led to project his own future activity into a harmonious pattern of social relationships.  An indispensable aspect of all rehabilitation is the elimination of chronic unemployment, discrimination in all its forms, and other social ailments which tend to frustrate irrationally the goal-oriented activity engendered by rehabilitation.

J. D. Mabbott argues against punishment justified by an appeal to deterrence and reformation, as this theory is held by Schlick, Nowell-Smith, Ebersole and others, on the grounds that “to be punished for reform reasons is to be treated like a dog.”18  His argument is reminiscent of Joseph Wood Krutch’s polemic in The Measure of Man against B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two.  In both instances the argument against deterrence and reform is an argument against the deterministic presuppositions of the protagonists, Schlick and Skinner, and the argument is based on the deep, and sound, moral conviction that these men lose sight of the very essence of what it is to be a human being.  

The position of this paper, based as it is on the libertarian cosmology of Whitehead, preserves the moral insight of Mabbott and Krutch that a theory of punishment must not rob man of his humanity—indeed, it links punishment closely to the most human of attributes, namely goal-seeking, telic activity. On the other hand, it has escaped the disadvantages of what has often seemed to be the only alternative to the dehumanization of man, namely, the retributive principle.

In summary, preserving Whitehead’s theory of the self in all its starkness enables one (a) to reject the atavistic appeal to retribution as the basis for punishment; (b) to incorporate the reformation aspect of the theory of Schlick into the Whiteheadian scheme; (c) to accept (a) and (b) while retaining the notions of freedom and creativity; and (d) to retain in cosmology the notions of responsibility and judgment, each properly grounded in a direct relationship with the divine element in the world.



1 Edited by Ivor Leclerc (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.; New York: The Macmillan Co., 1961).

2 Op. cit., p. 331.  Nathan Rotenstreich has urged the same general criticism in “The Superject and Moral Responsibility,” Review of Metaphysics, 10 (1956-57), 201.  He writes, p. 203, “[Moral responsibility] presupposes the fact of consciousness which bridges over the different stages of the personal existence . . .” 

3 Journal of Philosophy, 58 (1961), 824.

4 Our Knowledge of the External World (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1949 edition), p. 224.

5 “The Dilemma of Determinism,” in The Will to Believe (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1897), pp. 150-151.

6 “Some Reflections on Threats and Punishments,” Review of Metaphysics, II (1957-58), 224.  In fairness to Professor Demos it should be noted that he goes on to argue that the question itself is illegitimate.

7 Problems of Ethics (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1939), p. 152.

8 Symbolism and Belief (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p. 237.

9 The terms used in this sentence are borrowed from Ellen S. Haring, “The Ontological Principle,” Review of Metaphysics, 16 (1962-63), 7.

10 In this context Whitehead is using the term “event” synonymously with the phrase “temporally extended nexus of actual occasions.”

11 The emphasis of this paper is not on a detailed study of punishment, but rather on the examination of Whitehead’s metaphysics with the aim of seeing if that metaphysics is compatible with the theory of punishment espoused by Schlick.  If the reader wishes detailed arguments as to why Schlick’s attitude toward the retributive principle appears to me to be sound, I refer him to the lucid and detailed discussion of this principle in Richard B. Brandt, Ethical Theory (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1959), ch. 19, and in particular to the five specific arguments on pp. 500-501 which lead Brandt, quite correctly in my opinion, to reject the retributive principle.

12 “Whitehead as I Knew Him,” this volume, p. 7.

13 This same point is made in the language of moral obligation by Daniel D. Williams in his article “Moral Obligation in Process Philosophy,” especially Sec. II, this volume, pp. 190-191.

14 Brandt, op. cit., p. 504. He goes on to cite the well-known story of how picking pockets was once a capital offense in England and how for a time hangings for this crime were public in order to maximize the deterrent effects of this harsh punishment.  But it seems, so the story goes, that hangings in public had to be abolished because such crimes as picking pockets were so frequent during the spectacle!

15 Ibid., p. 503.

16 This example is designed simply to illustrate the relationship between morality and punishment; the utilitarian, of course, has an oft-repeated, and to my mind convincing, reply to this charge.  See Brandt, op. cit., pp. 494-495 for an indication of his line of defense.

17 Williams, op. cit., this volume, p. 190.

18 J. D. Mabbott, “Freewill and Punishment” in Contemporary British Philosophy (Third Series), H. D. Lewis, editor (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1956), p. 303.  See also pp. 308-309.

Posted March 10, 2008


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