On Whitehead

Jack F
6 min readApr 28, 2022


His General Ideas

  1. Hegel’s evolutionary idealism (naturalism)
  • Hegels phenomenology of spirit, there is no substance but processes: the dialectical self conscious unfolding through time (absolute spirit)
  • Whitehead inverts Hegel and creates evolutionary naturalism (realism)

2. Modern science (philosophy of science)

  • Electromagnetic theory, quantum mechanics, theory of relativity
  • Fallacies of science: fallacy of misplaced concreteness (reification), fallacy of simple coordinates (space time simplification)
  • Philosophy of science has two tasks: Flights of metaphysical imagination and critical philosophy applied to science (using fallacies from b)
  • We use two things: science facts (nature is value-laden, we must construct value from facts) and concrete experience

3. Alexandrian Church Fathers

  • Middle platonism development of the structure of logos manifested in every being (Emnation)
  • Initially wanted to be a theologian but became a mathematician with Bertrand Russell instead

His Process Philosophy

He uses scientific facts and flights of speculation to frame his metaphysics. Profoundly interested in idealism and romanticism of 19th century. But his Ultimate Reality does not appear like the theists (with Gods reality being the highest yet other lesser realities exist). His Ultimate Reality is something that ‘pulses’ through everything, it is Creativity. Whiteheads ultimate reality is not a thing, not a substance metaphysic but a process. A process of emergence of novelty, creativity. This creativity is not God though (Bradley), God is simply the highest manifestation of Creativity (Absolute).

How then to describe the process of creativity? Let’s start with a Creativity event, like the experience of sense perception. This event (experience) is like looking through the lens of consciousness at reality. This is where Hegel begins his phenomenology of the mind as well for subjective spirit, sensation and perception. He’s going to do a phenomenological description of the introspection into the experience of sense perception. Phenomenological method like in Hegel. He distinguishes in the perceptual experience three modes of perception:

  1. Perception in the mode of causal efficacy
  • Affective rather than cognitive consciousness, the awareness is less vivid in visual perception but more vivid in auditory (loud noise, experience the loudness before you know what caused the noise) (if the light is bright enough, you will feel it first rather than conceptualize first)
  • To feel
  • Direct knowledge or Existence

2. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy

  • The cognitive content, the idea
  • To conceptualize
  • Hypothetical conceptualization, representational knowledge

3. Perception in the mode of symbolic reference

  • Ideas as symbols of reference rather than simply representational copies of knowledge)
  • Indirect knowledge of Essence of object

These are developed in contrast with John Locke’s theory of perception. In Locke’s phenomenology of sense perception, ideas (cognitive content) come first instead of causal efficacy. For Whitehead this is the great fallacy of Locke. The fallacy of giving primacy to presentational immediacy (the idea that’s immediately presented to consciousness, the cognitive content) the first thing that comes to mind is an idea and to prioritize this is a fallacy. If we consider of the perceiver to be the entire psycho-somatic unity, the entire human organism — then from a phenomenological standpoint in terms of consciousness of, the initial thing is causal efficacy (there is some effect that is felt). Mislead by the clarities of sense perception, Locke thought otherwise.

In Locke the idea came first, then the question of what caused it. And then you have to have a cause and effect argument from a purely intellectual standpoint. Through Locke, our knowledge of reality was always indirect because first we experience the idea (representation of reality) and then have to deduce a cause, it has to be logically inferred.

But for Whitehead, if the causal efficacy is the thing first experienced then in that causal efficacy experience there is a direct knowledge of what is affecting me. A direct knowledge of existence of a real object (Whitehead the realist). In contrast to Hume as well (Hume the great doubter of cause/effect we only know constant conjunctions), Hume fallacied like Locke.

Presentational immediacy then follows the causal efficacy (no idea if the idea is correct). Presentational immediacy presents you with a hypothetical idea that you have to turn around and refer it to the cause of the stimulus. The idea is not a representation of a copy, it’s a symbol (Bradley, critique of traditional empiricism, ideas are not copies they are symbols). Symbols are used to reference. They give us an indirect knowledge of the essence of an object. The essence is what it is, the existence is that it is. So you have a direct awareness that something is (Affect) and an indirect awareness of what something is (Symbol).

What are the causes (factors) of perceptual experience from these three? First there is objective data (givens) that affect the present state of consciousness (causal efficacy). Second, as the ideas develop these are eternal possibilities (presentational immediacy), possibilities that come to mind (the world is full of possibilities). Thirdly, decision is made (symbolic reference). The decision is selecting from the eternal range of possibilities provided from the stimulus. You select and go. And either the symbol works or it doesn’t (someone tells you to go somewhere with directions, you start going down the street and receiving objective sense data to relate to the directions <representational knowledge> to make decisions on and either you get to where you were going or realize you made a wrong decision somewhere). Pierre Grimes speaks of this in Plato with his Dividing Line (world of appearances, world of forms). Perceptual experience is Whiteheads paradigm event, and in every event these three factors or perceptual experience play out in this order (first causal efficacy / real causal process, then immediacy / eternal possibilities, then symbolic reference / decision). There is always three constituent elements in every event in the cosmic process. Objective casual givens, inherent possibilities. Natural process is loaded with possibilities for good or bad, value-laden. The objective causal given, the eternal possibilities, and then the decision.

Whitehead asks what is the source of the eternal possibilities? He’s looking for a logos doctrine so God (Logos) becomes his source. Not a creator, ex nihilo, not a causal force, prime mover — but a orderer, the providence, the logos. This is why he isn’t a theist (or a deist), not a pantheist, he’s unique. A Process theologian.

These three constituent elements are central to Whitehead’s process philosophy. The objective data are simply other events, other space time events which causally effect the present. Eternal possibilities are eternal object (objects of understanding from Plato’s divided line?). Whiteheads sometimes refers to events as actual entities. His metaphysic is one of actual entities comprising of space time process with eternal objects (logical possibilities) and decisions which account for the individuality of things — what makes your individual life (decision). A decision brings satisfaction (not necessarily emotive) but in the sense that the causal stimulus is assimilated into the self. The decision becomes an ingredient in ongoing individuality. The process involves individual things, causally related to other individual things (sub processes) where there is eternal possibilities of creativity of which only some are actualized. And those some are actualized by virtue of the decisions by virtue of individual process. This kind of event is the paradigm and where we can understand gradualism. While in perception, it’s a conscious thing and you have awareness of all the three constituent elements. And other degrees of reality it may not be conscious. There is a low grade analog to decision which is not conscious and which is nobody deciding but it’s the cutoff point. In which in the confluence of events a certain possibility is to be assured. Example: tulips bloom (process) where all sorts of objective data affects this process and your mind becomes ablaze with possibilities (eternal possibilities) of the color it could be, the flower it could be. But what if a freeze occurs and kills the tulips. The freeze is the decision event (the tulip not blooming was always a possibility). Flowers are much more deterministic than conscious decisions humans make (but a week before the freeze event the process was indeterminant but became determinant with the decision event). The flower decision is not free, but it was indeterminant.

Notes taken from ‘A History of Philosophy’ Lecture #61 Whitehead’s Process Philosophy by Dr. Arthur F. Holmes



Jack F

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