Whitehead’s Process and Reality

“there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.”

AN Whitehead Process and Reality, Corrected Edition Free 1978 (original 1929)

A notoriously inaccessible work, even for a philosophy book. It was based on his Gifford lectures, and comes to 533 pages. In my comments I focus on those aspects that impact on ‘good reasoning’, with links to the earlier logical work of Russell and Whitehead and to the later work of Whitehead’s student, Keynes.


The intention was to reform classical concepts sufficient to provide a basis for any logical cosmology, including the then novel quantum mechanics. This is seen as ‘a philosophy of organism’. Whitehead started with  a view to revising the greats:

“But a careful examination of their exact statements disclosed that in the main the philosophy of organism is a recurrence to pre-Kantian modes of thought.”

He means Descartes, Newton, Locke and Hume. He rejects attempts by Kant and others to be ‘rigidly systematic’. Whitehead developed both ‘ways of reasoning’ and a generic cosmological perspective.

“I am greatly indebted to Bergson, William James and John Dewey.”

Whitehead provides:

“… the following list of prevalent habits of thought, which are repudiated … :

(i) The distrust of speculative philosophy.
(ii) The trust in language as an adequate expression of propositions.
(iii) The mode of philosophical thought which implies, and is implied by, the faculty-psychology.
(iv) The subject-predicate form of expression.
(v) The sensationalist doctrine of perception. [Due to Locke, that objects can be sensed directly.]
(vi) The doctrine of vacuous actuality. [That objects have no subjective experience.]
(vii) The Kantian doctrine of the objective world as a theoretical construct from purely subjective experience. [The interpretation of Kant that the world is only socially constructed.]
(viii) Arbitrary deductions in ex absurdo arguments.
(ix) Belief that logical inconsistencies can indicate anything else than some antecedent errors.”

He notes that:

“By reason of its ready acceptance of some, or all, of these nine myths and fallacious proceedings, much [theorising] excludes itself from relevance to the ordinary stubborn facts of daily life.”

In contrast:

“The positive doctrine of these lectures is concerned with the becoming, the being, and the relatedness of  ‘actual entities.’ … In these lectures ‘relatedness’ is dominant over ‘quality’.”

Whitehead concludes:

” … all constructive thought, on the various special topics of scientific interest, is dominated by some such scheme, unacknowledged but no less influential in guiding the imagination. The importance of philosophy lies in its sustained effort to make such schemes explicit, and therefore capable of criticism and improvement.

There remains to the final reflection, how shallow, puny and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths of the nature of things. … the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.” 

Comments on preface

  • Whitehead’s subject is philosophy, but his remarks apply equally to any logic or mathematics applied in the same role, as a check or aid to understanding. Attempts to recover from his 9 myths might be termed ‘unreasoning’, as they are myths that we need to ‘unlearn’.
  • There is a clear antipathy to over systematization.
  • Whitehead’s use of the term ‘objective’ is very different to Kant’s, which can be confusing.

Part II Discussions and application

Ch III The Order of Nature

Description ‘in the short-term’

In distinction to classical approaches:

“Four grounds of order at once emerge:
i That ‘order’ in the actual world is differentiated from mere ‘givenness’ by the introduction of adaptation for the attainment of an end.
ii That this end is concerned with the gradations in intensity in the satisfactions of actual entities (members of the nexus) in whose formal constitutions the nexus in question is objectified.
iii That the heightening of intensity arises from order such that the multiplicity of components in the nexus can enter explicit feeling as contrasts, and are not dismissed into negative prehensions as incompatibilities.
iv That ‘intensity’ in the formal constitution of a subject-superject involves ‘appetition’ in its objective functioning as superject.”

Whitehead goes on to define the notion of a society:

“The point of a ‘society’ … is that it is self-sustaining; in other words, that it is its own reason. … The members of the society are alike because, by reason of their common character, they impose on other members of the society the conditions that lead to that likeness.”

“But there is no society in isolation. … But this means that the environment, together with the society in question, must form some larger society in respect to some more general characters than those defining the society from which we started. … In reference to any given society the world of actual entities is to be conceived as forming a background of layers of social order, the defining characteristics becoming wider and more general as we widen the background. Of course, the remote actualities of the background have their own specific characteristics of various types of social order. But such specific characteristics have become irrelevant for the society in question by reason of the inhibition and attenuation introduced by discordance, that is to say disorder.”

“But there is not any perfect attainment of an ideal order whereby the indefinite endurance of a society is secured. A society arises from disorder, where ‘disorder’ is defined by reference to the ideal for that society; the favourable background of as larger environment either itself either decays, or ceases to favour the persistence of the society after some stage of growth: the society then ceases to reproduce its members, and finally after a stage of decay passes out of existence. Thus a system of ‘laws’ determining reproduction in some portion of the universe gradually rises to dominance; it has its stage of endurance, and passes out of existence with the decay of the society from which it emanates.”

Whitehead regards people as societies (of organs etc) and regards aspects of people, or persona, as belonging to different societies rather than subordinating people (or objects) to societies.


He notes:

“Thus in general an unspecialized society does not secure conditions favourable for intensity of satisfaction among its members, whereas a structured society with a high grade of complexity will in general be deficient in survival value. In other words, such societies will in general be ‘specialized’ in the sense of requiring a very special sort of environment.

Thus the problem … is the production of societies which are ‘structured’ with a high ‘complexity’, and which are the same time ‘unspecialized’. In this way, intensity is mated with survival.

There are two ways in which structured societies have solved this problem. … one way is by eliciting a massive average objectification of a nexus, while eliminating the detailed diversities of the nexus in question. … It ignores diversity of detail by overwhelming the nexus by means of some congenial uniformity which pervades it. The environment may then change indefinitely so far as concerns the ignored details – so long as they can be ignored. … There is some originality in conceptual integration, but no originality in conceptual prehension. …

The second way of solving the problem is by an initiative in conceptual prehensions, i.e. an appetition. The purpose of this initiative is to receive the novel elements of the environment into explicit feelings with such subjective forms as conciliate them with the complex experiences proper to members of the structured society. Thus in each concrescent occasion its subjective aim originates novelty to match the novelty of the environment.

In the case of the higher organisms, this conceptual initiative amounts to thinking about the diverse experiences; in the case of lower organisms, this conceptual initiative merely amounts to thoughtless adjustment of aesthetic emphasis in obedience to an ideal of harmony. In either case the creative determination which transcends the occasion in question has been deflected by an impulse original to that occasion. This deflection in general creates a self-preservative reaction through the whole of society. It may be unfortunate or inadequate; and in the case of persistent failure we are in the province of pathology.” 

Comments on Order

Whitehead has given a useful way of describing activities beyond the straightforwardly mechanical. He provides a way of describing short-term behaviours and considering stability. It is very suggestive.

Ch IV Organisms and Environment

“There are different types of order … if there is to be progress beyond limited ideals, the course of history by way of escape must venture along the borders of chaos in its substitution of higher for lower types of order.

 … pure chaos is intrinsically impossible. At the other end of the scale, the immensity of the world negatives the belief that any state of order can be so established that any state of order can be so established that beyond it there can be no progress. “

Triviality arises from taking a broad view, without considering the detail. Harmony involves co-ordination between broad and deep views. Vagueness is due to a lack of discrimination between parts of a whole.

“Thus vagueness is an essential condition for the narrowness which is one condition for depth of relevance. … The right chaos and, and the right vagueness, are jointly required for any effective harmony. They produce the massive simplicity which has been expressed by the term ‘narrowness’. Thus chaos is not to be identified with evil; for harmony requires the due coordination of chaos, vagueness, narrowness, and width. “

Whitehead notes:

“The current difficulties of perception are the stronghold of modern metaphysical difficulties.”

Visual perception had been regarded as ‘direct’, but we now see that it is ‘theory laden’. The notion of ‘duration’, derived from the kinematics of systems, is introduced

“The aim … is to express a coherent cosmology based on the notion of ‘system’, ‘process’, ‘creative advance into novelty’, ‘res vera’ (in Descartes’ sense), ‘stubborn fact’, ‘individual unity of experience’, ‘feeling’, ‘time as perpetual perishing’, ‘endurance as re-creation’, ‘purpose’, ‘universals as forms of definiteness’, ‘particulars – i.e. res verae – as ultimate agents of stubborn facts’.

 Ch. V Locke and Hume

“… Hume discovered that an actual entity is at once a process, and is atomic; so that in no sense is it the sum of its parts.” (V)

Ch. VI From Descartes to Kant

Whitehead’s treatment of ‘perception’ is much like the psychologists view of ‘sense-making’, mediated by ‘frames’, except that it applies universally.

The kinematics of a whole, system or society are determined partly by interactions between the parts and the environment as separately ‘felt’, and partly by interactions between the parts within the whole.  Thus the environment provides a ‘real potential’ for the parts, but the change also has to be compatible across the whole. [That is, the overall effect is a compromise between the rules of the parts in their own right and the rules of the containing whole.]

“According to this account, efficient causation expresses the transition from actual entity to actual entity; and final causation expresses the internal process whereby the actual entity becomes itself.”

“The creative process is rhythmic; it swings from the publicity of many things to the individual privacy; and it swings back from the private individual to the publicity of the objectified individual. The former swing is dominated by the final cause, which is the ideal; and the latter swing is dominated by the efficient cause, which is actual. ” (III)

“The organic philosophy … holds that [particular existents] are prehended by the mediation of universals. … This is the doctrine of ‘objectification’ of actual entities.”

“Rationalism is the belief that clarity can only be reached by pushing explanation to its utmost limits.”

“… in every act of experience there are objects of knowledge; but, apart from the inclusion of intellectual functioning in that act of experience, there is no knowledge.” (IV)

Ch. VIII Symbolic Reference

“Symbolism can be justified, or unjustified. The test … must always be pragmatic. … So much of human experience is bound up with symbolic reference, that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the very meaning of truth is pragmatic. … the pragmatic test can never work, unless … there is a definite determination of what is true on that occasion. ”

“Symbolism is essential for the higher grades of life; and the errors of symbolism can never be wholly avoided.” (VI)

Ch. IX The propositions

Meaning is always relative to context. (III) On probability, Whitehead commends Keynes’ Treatise Ch XXI.

“The mathematical theory of  probability is based on certain assumptions. When these assumptions hold, the meaning of probability is simple; and only remaining difficulties are concerned with the technical mathematical development. But its is not easy to understand how the statistical theory can apply to all cases to which the notion of more or less probability is habitually applied. … It is arguable … But in this explanation puzzling questions are accumulating; and it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that we are being put off with one of those make-believe explanations, so useful to reasoners who are wedded to a theory.”

“… probability is always relative to evidence; so, on the statistical theory, the numerical probability will mean the numerical ratio of favourable to unfavourable cases in the particular class of ‘cases’ selected for the ground of statistical comparison. But alternative ‘grounds’ certainly exist. Accordingly we must provide a reason, not based upon ‘probability,’ why one ‘ground’ is selected rather than another.  … Apart from some such ultimate  ‘ground,’ the statistical theory, viewed as ana explanation for all our uses of the notion of ‘probability,’ must inevitably fail. This failure arises by reason of the complete arbitrariness of the ultimate ‘ground’ upon which the whole estimate of probability finally rests. ” 

“When the ‘case’ in question does not belong to the ground examined, there can, apart from further information, be no rational inference from the ‘ground’ to the novel case. … either such an inference is irrational, futile, useless; or, where there is justification, there is additional information. This is the famous dilemma which perplexes the theories of induction and of probability. ” (V)

“Thus … inductive reasoning gains its validity by reason of a suppressed premise. This tacit presupposition is that the particular future which is the logical subject of the judgment, inductively justified, shall include actualities which have close analogy to some contemporary subject” enjoying assigned experience … . It is also presumed that this future is derived from the present by a continuity of inheritance in which this condition is maintained. There is thus the presupposition of the maintenance of the general social environment … .”

“In every inductive judgement, there is therefore contained a presupposition of the maintenance of the general order of the immediate environment, so far as concerns actual entities within the scope of induction. The inductive judgement has regard to the statistical probabilities inherent in this given order.”

“The question, as to what will happen to an unspecified entity in an unspecified environment, has no answer. Induction always concerns societies of actual entities which are important for the stability of the immediate environment.” (VI)

“Our conscious experience involves a baffling mixture of certainty, ignorance, and probability.

Now it is evident that the theory of cosmic epochs, due to the dominance of societies of actual occasions, provides then basis for a statistical explanation of probability. In any one epoch there are a definite set of dominant societies in certain ordered interconnections. There is also an admixture of chaotic occasions which cannot be classified as belonging to any society.” (VII)

“Thus the basis of all probability and induction is the fact of an analogy between an environment presupposed and an environment directly experienced.”

“… there is another factor from … which a non-statistical judgement of probability can be derived. The principle of ‘intensive relevance’ … expresses a real fact as to the preferential adaptation of selected eternal objects to novel occasions originating from an assigned environment.”

“… There can thus be an intuition of an intrinsic suitability of some definite outcome from a presupposed situation. There will be nothing statistical in this suitability.”

“In this way, there can be an intuition of probability respecting the origination of some novelty. It is evident that the statistical theory entirely fails to provide any basis for such judgments.” (VIII)

Thus novelty arises in response to ‘challenge’.

Ch. X Process

“That ‘all things flow’ is the first vague generalization which the unsystematized, barely analysed, intuition of men has produced.”

[But] “On the whole, the history of philosophy supports Bergson’s charge that the human intellect ‘spatializes the universe’; that is to say, that it tends to ignore the fluency, and to analyse the world in terms of static categories.” (I)

Part IV The theory of extension

Ch. V Measurement

“Measurement depends on counting and upon permanence.” (IV)

The ‘principle of least action’ is the special case in which the objects remain stable. (VI)

Part V Final interpretation

Ch. I The ideal Opposites

“Another contrast is … essential for the understanding of ideals – the contrast between order as the condition for excellence , and order as stifling the freshness of living.”

“The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order. Life refuses to be embalmed alive. The prolonged the halt in some unrelieved system of order, the greater the crash of the dead society.”

“Order is not sufficient. What is required, is something much more complex, It is order entering upon novelty; so that the massiveness of order does not degenerate into mere repetition; and so that novelty is always reflected upon a background of system.” (III)


If we distinguish between the short-term and the long-term, then much reasoning is actually extrapolation. This is the essence of William James’ pragmatism. But the essence of becoming is becoming different. And becoming, as in quantum mechanics, can be quick. Prigogine’s ‘From being to becoming’ some of the same ground, more mathematically and in  more detail. But Whitehead shows us the relevance to our conceptual habits. There also seems (to me) to be an analogy between all processes and cognition and decision. Often, we just act on habit, but – hopefully – checking that our tendencies are leading somewhere satisfactory. Analogously, all things tend to move according to their natural tendency or ‘the law of least action’, as long as they are not so stressed as to threaten their constitution. But otherwise, in deciding what to do, we extrapolate the entities within the situation, to see what they may do, and then consider which combinations are compatible and hence possible. In so far as we can, we try to influence things so that a favourable combination results. Analogously, things act, but without the intelligence.

My interpretation of Whitehead’s favourable reference to Keynes (q.v) is that induction is not a ‘law’ but a method of analogy that in practice often proves fruitful. The ‘probabilities’ that it uses should be used for generating hypotheses to be tested; they are not of the same kind as a priori or statistical probabilities. Keynes notes that induction is more reliable when one has events that are ‘going with the flow’, as in (II, IX, VI) above.

See also

  • Smuts’ Holism and Evolution, which covers emergence (becoming) through physics to personality.
  • Good’s Good Thinking, which develops Keynes’ ideas on induction.

Dave Marsay 

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