The Process Ontology of Whitehead’s Metaphysics

I’m beginning to realise that in the UK philosophical canon Whitehead took up the radical empirical monism I associate with James, Bergson, Northrop and Pirsig, and which is seeing a resurgence in those increasingly rejecting a material metaphysics underlying the physical world. New-realists like Smolin, the new-panpsychists like Kastrup, Tononi and the Integrated Information Theorists (and Philip Goff in his latest – Galileo’s Mistake – just ordered.) [This view of Whitehead came up most recently in this post and A J Owens comment thread beneath it.]

Personally, I bought a monist information realism a long time ago, and have my own evolutionary metaphysical ontology based on that, but let’s just try to do justice to Whitehead here and not get ahead of ourselves.

I rejected Whitehead initially, because of his mathematical associations with Russell and the fact Russell never really got Wittgenstein. Thanks to Goff and Mumford at Durham Uni I was prompted to revisit Russell’s metaphysical ruminations, as I am now doing with Whitehead (courtesy of long-term Psybertron commenter A J Owens). I went straight for his “Process and Reality” – his most developed metaphysical treatise and have not read his earlier more accessible writings first-hand.

Having read the whole of it and, as warned, finding the bulk of it hard-going linguistically, I keep coming back to the opening chapters, which lay his ontology bare, before he embarks on a tour-de-force comparative philosophology reviewing his ideas against those of Locke, Hume, Mill, Kant et al whilst acknowledging his drawing on James and Bergson.

In fact, I’ve read and re-read the opening chapters with increasing awe and a yellow highlighter about 4 or 5 times in the last couple of weeks of travel and hotels.

Long story short: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism – is a process-based reality, since the fundamental notions are the events occasioned by the coming together of experience of one with another.

[All selective / paraphrase quotations below from the Process & Reality 1978 “corrected text” edition of the original 1929 transcript of his 1927/28 Gifford Lectures. Mainly Chapter II Section I and Chapter I respectively.]

The 4 Notions

N1 / E1 – Actual Occasions
N2 / E2 – Prehensions
N3 / E3 – Nexus
N4 – Ontological Principle

Actual Occasions – are the final real entities of which the world is made. These actual entities are drops of experience [ie this really is a radical empiricism].”

“Actual Occasions ‘happen’ through their Prehensions of each other, their ways of encountering each other, the concrete facts of relatedness. Each involvement or coming together is a Nexus, a public matter of fact.

“The Ontological Principle is that reason for things is found in the composite nature of these complex and interdependent entities. No entities, no reason.”

The 4 (Categories of) Categories

C1 – The Ultimate
C2 – Existence
C3 – Explanation
C4 – Obligations

The Ultimate: Creativity is the universal of universals. Creativity – the many enter into complex unity, each “one” being distinct – a novelty in relation to all others. [As in – one never steps in the same river twice.) One being the unity of many, the coming together – a “concrescence” – of novel togetherness. Each fact is more than its [Platonic] forms, each form participates throughout the world of facts. [The] individual fact is a creature and creativity is the ultimate behind all forms.

Existence – 8 Categories (!) of existence – Starting with the first 3 fundamental notions above, all else being derivative abstractions:

E4 – Subjective Forms or private matters of fact

E5 – Pure Potentials

E6 – Propositions or Impure Potentials

E7 – Pure Disjunctions or Multiplicities

E8 – Modes of Synthesis – Contrast and/or Compare in Prehension – an infinite progression of categories proceeding from contrasts to “contrasts of contrasts” an on indefinitely to higher order contrasts.

27 Categories (!) of Explanation

9 Categories (!) of Obligation

An infinite progression of methods of derivative abstraction … all of the above being my selective paraphrasing of (mainly) Chapter II only.

In terms of the duality in the contrast of mind and mentality with the physically real, Whitehead points out that his nexus of occasions in prehensions cover both – in the direction of public (outward, pure-prehension) or private (inward, subjective, impure-conceptual-prehension) attention through the nexus – and that the creativity of novelty, the ultimate distinction in every one is the root of causation and law-like tendency towards an outcome – an appetition.

Those first two and a half chapters are as good as any I’ve read on a radical empirical monism, of the kind Pirsigian fans of James should easily recognise. Like Smolin and the point views / events in space-time he terms Nads, Whitehead notes the generalised conception in Leibniz Monads, but pre-conceptual, could go either way, public & pure until made impure by private & subjective conception.

I have at least another 50 highlighted quotes from Chapter I – selectively paraphrased below – outlining his reasoning for “speculative” philosophy against the domination of the hard and “particular” sciences, his justification for daring to posit a radical empirical (monist, non-physical) metaphysics, barely a decade after collaborating with Russell on their Principia Mathematica.

[Whilst “particular” sciences show great successes within their own bounds …] “one aim of philosophy is to challenge the half-truths of scientific first-principles”

“The primary method of mathematics is deduction; the primary method of philosophy is descriptive generalisation. Under the influence of mathematics [and logic], deduction [and induction] have been foisted onto philosophy as its standard method [rather than] an auxiliary mode of verification.”

“Philosophy has been misled by mathematics; and even in mathematics the statement of ultimate logical principles is beset with difficulties” [see Russell and Whitehead … and Gödel?]

“After the initial basis of a rational life, with a civilised language, all productive thought has proceeded either by poetic insight or by imaginative elaboration of schemes of thought. Progress is always a transcendence of what is obvious. The distinction between [natural linguistic] phrases and [well-formed] propositions is one of the reasons the logicians’ rigid alternative, ‘true or false’, is so largely irrelevant for the pursuit of knowledge.” [see Wittgenstein]

“The combined influences of mathematics and religion which have so contributed to the rise of philosophy, have also had the effect of yoking it with static dogmatism.”

“The demand for an intellectual justification of brute experience has been the motive power in the advance European science. In this sense, scientific interest is only a variant form of religious interest. Any survey of the scientific devotion to ‘truth’ as an ideal will confirm this statement.”

The process of reality is nothing other than …
… the experiencing subject.

Wow, Whitehead was really onto it. Such a pity his language is so largely impenetrable; such a pity he never interacted with Wittgenstein or Gödel (* see comment below) ; and such a pity Russell’s public intellectual humanism came to dominate the English-language fundamentals of science and knowledge.

Also loving the second-[and-higher-]order classifications in the ontology – something not many get with their faith in a single comprehensive taxonomy of categories “to rule them all”. But I digress [see day job].

So, on to Philip Goff’s “Galileo’s Error” – Galileo is another whose apparent take on good science came to dominate the public imagination through the ongoing mythology of the triumph of science of over religion at the expense of enlightened philosophy. [See Alice Dreger and Arthur Koestler, previous links can be added.]

Panpsychist ideas scare the orthodox scientific, as do ideas of appetition or teleology / directed purpose, but they really should sit up and take notice of the sense being expressed by an increasing crowd of credible thinkers. [See another “Friends of Wisdom” correspondence thread with a knee-jerk rejection of even mentioning such ideas.]

Light at the end of this long dark tunnel, methinks.


[Post note : Creatures (organic creations) creating – very much lines up with Deutsch & Marletto – constructor theory, and human evolution towards universal constructors. AND “Pure & Impure Potential” above must also correspond to Marletto’s “Counterfactuals”?]

7 thoughts on “The Process Ontology of Whitehead’s Metaphysics”

  1. I forget where I read this, but Whitehead apparently thought Wittgenstein was insufferable to be around. I don’t think he engaged his ideas seriously, or at least if he did he just lumped him in with the logical positivists. Whitehead did engage with Godel (he references the incompleteness theorem in the opening paragraphs of his 1938 book “Modes of Thought”).

  2. And of course Witt detested the logical positivists and the idea that he might be one. Thanks for the Godel / Whitehead link, I will follow-up. (I should say, when I say engage, I was thinking of extended dialogue in face-to-face meetings, not simply reading and refencing, which I’m sure he did.)

  3. I should also add, no doubt that Witt was insufferable – a highly flawed life and person – but his insight that philosophy was about natural language & processes (the creative) and not about logic & objects (the obvious / tautology), given the environment in which he was positing it, was pretty amazing. (The fact he was such a big pain in the arse meant Whitehead probably never got to discover first-hand how close he was to his own position?)

  4. I’d suggest that Whitehead’s ideas offer a direction for resolving the mind-body problem, while Wittgenstein’s ideas offer a direction for dissolving it. For Wittgenstein, the mind-body problem was a non-problem, merely an inconvenient mixup between some convenient language games, and best left alone. He would have wanted to cure us of the confusion and allow us to talk about minds when that language game was useful, and bodies when that language game was useful, without getting too hung up on metaphysics trying to straddle these games. Whitehead, on the other hand, offered a radical conceptual realignment grounded in a new metaphysics. Wittgenstein might have viewed the new metaphysics as a radically new language game, but one bound to come up against the limits inherently posed by its own categorizations.

    Wittgenstein was all about clearing up confusions in philosophical thought that arise from misunderstanding how we use language, or how language works practically. Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” certainly highlights a certain misuse, or misunderstanding, of language that leads to bad philosophy, but Wittgenstein was more concerned with the general case.

    They seem to share the idea that different pursuits require different approaches. There’s a similarity between Whitehead’s modes of thought and Wittgenstein’s language games, both having something to do with William James’ pragmatism. But Whitehead (ironically, perhaps) seems more prepared to reify the subject of a given pursuit, or at least to allow that it corresponds to something “real.” Wittgenstein seems ontologically less committed.

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