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Whitehead’s Principle of Process

by Jorge Luis Nobo

Jorge Luis Nobo is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Washburn University of Topeka, Kansas 66621. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 275-284, Vol. 4, Number 4, Winter, 1974. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

According to Whitehead, the positive doctrine of his philosophy "is concerned with the becoming, the being and the relatedness of ‘actual entities’" (PR viii). Because it succinctly characterizes what is most basic in his philosophy, I would normally assume that this statement had been very carefully worded by Whitehead. I certainly would find the statement misleading if I were later to find out that Whitehead understood ‘becoming’ and ‘being’, when referring to actual entities, to be strictly synonymous. Far from being carefully worded, the characterization in question would then be obviously, and needlessly, redundant.

That the terms in question are synonymous when applied to actual entities is precisely what the received interpretation of Whitehead’s principle of process would lead us to believe. For this principle has been traditionally taken to mean that the being, or the existence, of an actual entity is its becoming.’ In other words, the principle is held to assert that the becoming and the being of an actual entity are one and the same. It would seem, therefore, that Whitehead should have characterized more carefully the positive doctrine of his philosophy as "being concerned with the becoming (or, what is the same, with the being) and the relatedness of ‘actual entities’."

But Whitehead, I maintain, was not at all careless in making that statement. Without being redundant, he said exactly what he meant to say. What is hopelessly at fault, despite its widespread acceptance, is the interpretation which his followers and critics alike have fastened on the principle of process. I shall argue that this principle, far from identifying the becoming and the being of an actual occasion, assumes their difference -- assumes that they are two modes of existence exhibited by every actual occasion and establishes that the former mode is creative, or productive, of the latter. In so arguing I shall also be led to attack the erroneous belief that, in Whitehead’s philosophy, ‘actuality’ can be properly predicated only of processes of concrescence, and not of the static products of such processes. The interpretive thesis which will thus emerge is that an occasion is a becoming when it is a subject, and a being when it is a superject. In the former mode of existence, the occasion is a process of concrescence; in the latter mode, it is a concrete product; in both modes, it is actual. The main thrust of this essay, then, is to establish that the principle of process asserts that an occasion qua actual subject creates, or produces, that same occasion qua actual superject.

According to Whitehead, the principle of process, or ninth Category of Explanation, "states that the being of a res vera is constituted by its ‘becoming"’ (PR 252), Or to quote from the principle itself, this category asserts ‘that how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is" (PR 34). Now, as it is usually interpreted, this principle is held to equate actual existence with becoming. In other words, Whitehead is supposed to be contending that the being of an actual entity is its becoming (WM 71). But notice that to arrive at this understanding of the principle, we must assume that in it the verb ‘to constitute’ is functioning as a copula -- that it merely links the grammatical subject to a predicate nominative, thus establishing the identity of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’. Only if we so construe the verb in question, can we read the principle of process to mean that the existence of an actuality is its process of becoming.

I must admit that Whitehead frequently uses the verb in question as a copula; but I must also point out that, just as frequently, he uses it, either transitively or reflexively, in the sense of ‘to create’ or ‘to form’. Consider, in this connection, the following passages from his writings:

An actual entity appropriates . . . , for the foundation of its own existence, the various elements of the universe out of which it arises. . . . The ultimate elements of the universe, thus appropriated, are the already-constituted actual entities, and the eternal objects. (PR 335; emphasis mine)

The various particular occasions of the past are in existence, and are severally functioning as objects for prehension. . . . But there are no actual occasions in the future, already constituted. (AI 250f; emphasis mine)

The regulative principle is derived from the novel unity which is imposed on . . . the subjective forms by the novel creature in process of constitution. (AI 328; emphasis mine)

It is only by reason of the categories of subjective unity, and of subjective harmony, that the process constitutes the character of the product, and that conversely the analysis of the product discloses the process. (PR 390; emphasis mine)

In each of these passages, Whitehead is obviously using ‘to constitute’ in the sense of ‘to create’. For example, in the first two passages. he is telling us that past occasions exist as already-created, but that there are no occasions in the future, already-created. Even more important, in the last passage quoted, Whitehead is clearly saying that the process creates the character of the product, and that the analysis of the product somehow reveals the process by which it was created.

My contention, of course, is that Whitehead, in the principle of process, is using ‘to constitute’ in the sense of ‘to create’. If I am right, it follows that what he is saying there is that the being of an actual entity is created by its becoming. This, in turn, must mean that the being and the becoming of an actual entity are two different modes of its existence. The occasion exists first as a becoming and then as a being; but its existence as a being is the outcome, or result, of its existence as a becoming.

So far I have shown that Whitehead frequently uses ‘to constitute’ in the sense of ‘to create’ and that he could be using it that way in the principle of process. But, though the passages just quoted give good reasons for thinking he is indeed using the said verb in that manner, the possibility remains he may be using it as a mere copula. To someone skeptical of my interpretation, then, all I have shown is that the principle of process is ambiguously stated, I have not conclusively shown which of two possible readings is the correct one.

In order to support my reading of the principle of process, I now must argue that Whitehead incorporates the distinction between the becoming and the being of an actuality in the doctrine that every actuality is to be construed as a ‘subject-superject’, where in each case ‘subject’ refers to the actuality considered as a becoming, and ‘superject’ to the actuality considered as a being. To be sure, the claim that the subject is a becoming will raise no objections among Whiteheadian scholars. But the claim that the subject is not a being is an entirely different matter. To make my point, I must show that, for Whitehead, an actual entity may be said to be a ‘being’ only when it is a superject.

That this is the way Whitehead used ‘being’ when referring to actual occasions is, I believe, clearly stated in section III of chapter one, in part II of Process and Reality. Before examining the passage I have in mind, it is instructive to read the abstract of that section:

III. Platonic Form, Idea, Essence, Eternal Object; Potentiality and Givenness; Exclusiveness of the Given; Subject-Superject, Becoming and Being; Evaporation of Indetermination in Concrescence, Satisfaction Determinate and Exclusive; Concrescence Dipolar. . . . (PR 57; emphasis mine)

The abstract for each part of Process and Reality, it should be noted, merely lists sets of key terms and phrases in the order in which they first appear in the corresponding section of the text. With this in mind, we can easily correlate the abstract of the section in question with the text of the section itself. We then find that the section’s first three paragraphs deal with the notions of Platonic Form, Idea, Essence and Eternal Object. The next paragraph discusses the related notions of Potentiality and Giveness. In turn, the fifth paragraph expounds the Exclusiveness of the Given. Now, since the seventh paragraph deals with the Evaporation of Indetermination in Concrescence and with the Determinateness and Exclusiveness of the Satisfaction, it follows that the sixth paragraph must contain the relevant discussion of the notions of Subject-Superject, Becoming and Being.

The paragraph in question is the passage which, I maintain, establishes that an occasion is a being only when it is a superject. It begins with a reference to the doctrine, briefly discussed by Whitehead in the preceding (fifth) paragraph, that the becoming of an actual occasion terminates in the satisfaction; here is the sixth paragraph in its entirety:

This is the doctrine of the emergent unity of the superject. 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. It has become a ‘being’; and it belongs to the nature of every ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming’. (PR 71; emphasis mine)

But saying that the occasion "has become a ‘being"’ must be the same as saying that it has become a ‘superject’ or ‘satisfaction’. For it can be shown that an actual occasion can be a potential for other processes of becoming only when it is a superject.

To that end, let me first indicate that Whitehead is quoting from his principle of relativity when he says that "it belongs to the nature of every ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming’." This principle (the fourth Category of Explanation) holds:

(iv) That the potentiality for being an element in a real concrescence of many entities into one actuality, is the one general metaphysical character attaching to all entities, actual and non-actual; and that every item in its universe is involved in each concrescence. In other words, it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming’. This is the ‘principle of relativity’. (PR 33; emphasis mine)

Next, let me indicate also that Whitehead makes it abundantly clear that an actual entity falls under the principle of relativity only when it is a satisfaction or superject. Of the completed occasion, he says:

Its own process, which is its own internal existence, has evaporated, worn out and satisfied; but its effects are all to be described in terms of its ‘satisfaction’. The ‘effects’ of an actual entity are its intervention in concrescent processes other than its own. Any entity, thus intervening in processes transcending itself, is said to be functioning as an ‘object’. According to the Fourth Category of Explanation it is the one general metaphysical character of all entities of all sorts, that they function as objects. (PR 336)

Finally, to complete the task immediately at hand, let me point out that Whitehead has also made abundantly clear the synonymity of the terms ‘being’, ‘entity’ and ‘thing’ ". . . ‘potentiality for process’ is the meaning of the more general term ‘entity’ or ‘thing’" (PR 68). "The fourth category . . . asserts that the notion of an entity means ‘an element contributory to the process of becoming’" (PR 43). Accordingly, if every being or entity is a potentiality for process and if an occasion is a potentiality for process only when it is a superject, we can then conclude that when Whitehead says that an actual occasion has become a being and is, for that reason, a potentiality for processes of becoming, he means that the occasion has become a superject. An actual entity is a being, therefore, when and only when it is a superject.2

Since, as I have just shown, the superject is the occasion qua being and since the subject is the occasion qua becoming, saying that the satisfaction or superject is created by the genetic process or subject (PR. 71, 360, 390) must be the same as saying that an occasion’s being is created by its becoming. This creation of an occasion’s being by its becoming is precisely what the principle of process asserts. For if in this principle, as I contend, Whitehead is using ‘to constitute’ in the sense of ‘to create’, then he is there saying what we should indeed expect him to be saying, namely, that the subject is the genetic process whereby the superjective product, or satisfaction, comes to be. That this is what is being asserted in the principle of process, or ninth Category of Explanation, Whitehead himself makes explicit when, in the context of explaining how the genetic process can be reconstructed from the analysis of the satisfaction, he says:

"This relation between the satisfaction and the genetic process is expressed in the eighth and ninth categories of explanation. . ." (PR 360).

In light of this last statement, it is evident that the principle of process should always be interpreted in conjunction with the eighth Category of Explanation. These two categories are formulated as follows:

(viii) That two descriptions are required for an actual entity: (a) one which is analytical of its potentiality for ‘objectification’ in the becoming of other actual entities, and (b) another which is analytical of the process which constitutes its own becoming . . .

(ix) That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming’. This is the ‘principle of process’. (PR 34f)

These two categories, I hold, jointly give systematic expression to the doctrine that every actual entity is to be construed neither merely as subject nor merely as superject, but as subject-superject. Some additional light must now be thrown on this doctrine.

The relation of subject to superject is that of creative process to created product. That much is clear. What must be emphasized now is that we do not have two different entities, the one creating the other. On the contrary, we have but one entity, first existing as in the process of realizing itself, and then existing as the static outcome of that process of self-realization. The one entity is both the process of self-realization and the self-realized product. "An actual entity is at once the subject of self-realization, and the superject which is self-realized" (PR 340). An actual entity, however, is not literally at once both subject and superject, both creative process and created product. The product is the final outcome of the creative process; hence, the existence of the product marks the end of, and is subsequent to, the existence of the process. In other words, an actual entity first exists as subject, and then as superject. Both modes of existence cannot belong to it at once.

Nevertheless, in regard to its complete history, an actual entity is both process and product, both becoming and being, both subject and superject. This is one reason why an actual entity is not to be construed merely as subject or merely as superject, but is to be construed always as subject-superject. "An actual entity is at once the subject experiencing and the superject of its experiences. It is subject-superject, and neither half of this description can for a moment be lost sight of" (PR 43). But achieving a complete description of an actual occasion is not a matter of juxtaposing two otherwise independent descriptions; the One of the occasion’s subjective existence, the other of its superjective existence. On the contrary, the two partial descriptions are not independent of one another, since they convey the analyses of two modes of existence that presuppose each other for their ultimate intelligibility.

Thus, on the one band, the analysis of what an occasion is qua subject requires a reference to what the same occasion will be qua superject; for the subject is not an aimless, creative process, but is guided instead by its ideal of what the superject or outcome of that process is to be (PR 130). "The enjoyment of this ideal," writes Whitehead, "is the subjective aim, by reason of which the actual entity is a determinate process (PR 130). The subjective aim, then, is the final cause of the occasion entertaining it. But what the occasion qua subject is aiming at is the realization of itself qua superject. The ideal superject is the final determinateness at which the subject aims. Accordingly, what happens during the occasions process of becoming is, in part at least, "merely the outcome of the subjective aim of the subject, determining what it is integrally to be, in its own character of the superject of its own process" (PR 369). In this respect, therefore, the superject is already present (ideally or conceptually) as a condition determining how the process conducts itself (PR 341). For this reason, any explanation of the character of the subjective process involves a reference to the character of the superjective product either as aimed at, or as achieved by, that process.

On the other hand, any explanation of the character of the superjective product requires a reference to the character of the subjective process; for the superject is what it is by reason of the genetic process that produced it. Indeed, to understand the structure of the superject, it is necessary to reconstruct the process of which it is the outcome. How this is done need not concern us at this time. What should be emphasized now is that, for Whitehead, the analysis of the superject can be deemed successful only if it allows for the reconstruction of the genetic process. If the reconstruction is not possible, then the analysis of the superject has been faulty (PR 359f).

An occasion’s existence as subject and its existence as superject, we must conclude, cannot be intelligibly divorced from one another; but this is not to say that an occasion exists simultaneously as subject and superject. The attainment of the subjective aim halts the creative process; but since the process is the subject, the subject has ceased to exist; what remains is the completed occasion -- the superject. The actuality in attainment has given way to the attained actuality (PR 326f, 71, 369, 390).

The superject, I hasten to add, is as much the actual occasion as is the subject. I need to emphasize the actuality of the superject (or, what is the same, the superjective existence of the actuality) because the misinterpretation of the principle of process has often gone hand in hand with the mistaken belief that ‘actuality’ can be properly predicated of an occasion only while it is in the process of becoming.3 This widespread and deeply rooted mistake deserves more attention than I can give it here without digressing extensively from my main thesis. For my limited purpose, only the following remarks seem both pertinent and necessary.

Despite many interpretive arguments to the contrary, it seems undeniable that Whitehead intended ‘actuality’ (or ‘actual’) to be a proper predication of superjects. Reference to the actuality of completed occasions, in PR and in other major works, is surely the rule rather than the exception. Time and again, we find Whitehead speaking of "entities already actual," of "entities already become," of "already constituted actual entities," of "settled actualities" and, more generally, of "the world already actual" (PR 101, 208, 335, 362; RM 109). Moreover, the distinction Whitehead makes between an actuality in attainment and an attained actuality clearly indicates that ‘actuality’ is predicable of superjects as well as of subjects, though perhaps with slightly different, if interrelated, senses (PR 326f). Whitehead, I believe, is giving systematic expression to these interrelated meanings of ‘actuality’, or of ‘actual’, when he says:

An actual entity is self-realizing, and whatever is self-realizing is an actuality. An actual entity is at once the subject of self-realization, and the superject which is self-realized. (PR 340)

One thing Whitehead is telling us here is that an incomplete occasion, a subject, is actual in the sense that it is still involved in the process of self-realization. But Whitehead is also telling us here that a completed occasion, a superject, is actual in the sense that it is a self-realized entity, even though it is no longer a self-realizing entity. Hence, in the general sense in which the notion of actuality is tied to the notion of self-realization, the superjective existence of an occasion is as actual as its subjective existence.

It should be noticed, furthermore, that if actual entities were actual only while they were subjects, then the superjects, whatever else they might be, would not be actual entities. Consequently, actual entities as such would not fall under the principle of relativity. But actual entities do fall under the principle of relativity; therefore, the view in question must be false. The correct view, it seems to me, is that, for Whitehead, an entity is not actual unless it is, or has been, self-realizing. This view, at any rate, is the only one compatible with saying, as Whitehead does say, that an entity which is actual, is actual regardless of whether its present existence is that of a subject enjoying the universe from which it arises or that of a superject functioning objectively in subsequent processes. In Whitehead’s own words:

To be actual must mean that all actual things are alike objects, enjoying objective immortality in fashioning creative actions; and that all actual things are subjects, each prehending the universe from which it arises. (PR 89)

Clearly, then, Whitehead intended ‘actuality’ to be predicable of the occasion qua superject, as well as of the occasion qua subject; and this is what we would expect only if ‘actuality’ is to be predicated of whatever either is, or has been, self-realizing. Only occasions of experience, it should be remembered in this regard, are self-realized.4 All other proper entities recognized by Whitehead are either in all respects eternal (e.g., eternal objects) or are in all respects other-realized, that is, their realization is parasitic on the becoming of actual entities (e.g.. subjective forms, contrasts, propositions, prehensions and nexuses) - Self-realization, then, is a sufficient criterion for distinguishing actual entities from nonactual ones.

If these points are kept in mind, it need hardly be argued that the two descriptions referred to in the eighth Category of Explanation are those of the satisfaction and subject, respectively. The subject is the genetic process; and the satisfaction, as Whitehead tells us elsewhere, is the completed actual entity "considered as a creative determination, by which the objectifications of the entity beyond itself are settled" (PR 130). These two descriptions, then, are the two halves of an actual entity s total description.

As for the ninth Category of Explanation, it simply asserts that the two partial descriptions of an actual entity are interdependent because the actuality qua being, the superject or satisfaction, is created by the actuality qua becoming, the subject or genetic process. Indeed, to read straightforwardly the principle of process in this manner we have only to substitute ‘creates’ for ‘constitutes’, and ‘created’ for ‘constituted’, in its categoreal formulation. The relevant text would then read as follows:

That how an actual entity becomes creates what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is created by its ‘becoming’.

In other words, each attained actuality is what it is because its process of becoming was what it was. Had the process been different, the product would have been different.5 To truly understand the nature of a particular superject, therefore, it is necessary to reconstruct the particular process which was its becoming. This is one reason (we have seen another) why the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent.

Apart from its establishment of the interdependence of the two partial descriptions of an actual entity, however, the true significance of the principle is this: that the final definiteness of an actual entity is determined, or created, by how the subject conducts its process. This is why, elsewhere, Whitehead speaks of the subject as "determining what it is integrally to be, in its own character of the superject of its own process (PR 369). This is also why Whitehead says, in another place, that the "actual entity, in becoming itself, also solves the question as to what it is to be" (PR 227). Finally, the principle of process is again the reason why Whitehead, in still another place, says: "The point to be noticed is that the actual entity, in a state of process during which it is not fully definite, determines its own ultimate definiteness" (PR 390).

In retrospect, the arguments I have been advancing in favor of my interpretation of the principle of process seem straightforwardly simple and, I hope, convincing. I have shown that Whitehead frequently uses to constitute’ to mean ‘to create’. I have also shown that if we substitute the latter verb for the former, in Whitehead’s categoreal formulation of this principle, we obtain the very reading we would expect, given Whitehead’s assertion that the eighth and ninth Categories of Explanation are intended to elucidate the relation between the genetic process and the satisfaction. Indeed, by substituting ‘creates’ for ‘constitutes’, we obtain a reading which fits in perfectly with the main points of the doctrine that every actual entity is to be construed as a subject-superject. On that reading, for example, when Whitehead says that the ‘being’ of an occasion is created by its ‘becoming’, he is simply telling us that the occasion qua actual superject is created by the same occasion qua actual subject; and that is, of course, one of the main points of the said doctrine. Since the received interpretation of the principle of process has no comparable reasons to recommend it, I believe it should be abandoned in favor of the interpretation I have presented here.



IWM -- William A. Christian. An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

WM -- Ivor Leclerc. Whitehead’s Metaphysics. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1958.



1 Some of the more explicit examples of the received interpretation are found in the following: WM 69f, 79, 93; Donald W. Sherburne, A Whiteheadian Aesthetic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), p.. 9; J. N. Mohanty, Nicolai Hartmann and Alfred North Whitehead: A Study in Recent Platonism (Calcutta: Modern India Press, 1957), p. 78; and Charles Hartshorne, "Whitehead’s Novel Intuition" in Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on his Philosophy, ed. George L. Kline (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 22.

2 Given the synonymity of ‘entity’ and ‘being’ it would seem that an occasion qua subject could not be properly called an entity. The difficulties raised by this aspect of Whitehead’s terminology have been aptly presented by Robison B. James in "Is Whitehead’s ‘Actual Entity’ a Contradiction in Terms?" (Process Studies 2/2 [Summer, 1972], 112-25). "Actual entity" is almost a contradiction in terms, James argues, because the occasion is actual only qua subject, and an entity only qua superject. For reasons too numerous to list here, however, I reject James’s proposed solution to this terminological problem. In any case, I do not think the problem is very serious. For, without doing violence to a single organic doctrine, we could avoid the embarrassment of saying that an occasion qua subject is not an entity by the simple expedient of redefining ‘entity’ to signify whatever functions, or is destined to function, as a potential for processes of becoming. Thus, since every occasion is destined to be a superject, every occasion could be properly termed an entity at any stage of its existence, though it would not function objectively until it had achieved the superjective stage. In addition, the terminological problem in question is lessened if, as I believe, Whitehead intended ‘actuality’ to be predicable of the superject as well as of the subject. That this is the case, I shall argue later in this essay.

3 See, for example, IWM 37, WM 68-79, and Robison James, PS 2:112-25, particularly 125n14.

4 An actual occasion, however, is not completely self-realized; for part of its determinate character is given to it by the objectification of earlier occasions (PR 489). In other words, an actual occasion is in part other-realized and in part self-realized and is also, in virtue of its causal objectification in later occasions, other-realizing (PR 134).

5 The freedom of an actual occasion it should be noted, entails that its process could have been different. If the process had been different, the occasion would have had a different final definiteness, but it would have been the same occasion. The sense in which it would have been the same occasion is relevant to the doctrine that every actual occasion is a subject-superject; for, if the genetic fallacy is to be avoided, this doctrine requires that in some specifiable sense the subject be the same entity as the superject. The identity is specifiable in virtue of the unique position of each actual occasion. I have dealt extensively with this aspect of Whitehead’s philosophy in my doctoral dissertation (Extension and Solidarity: A Study of the Fundamental Thesis of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism, University of Texas at Austin. 1973, pp. 249-272). I can only note here that, for Whitehead, the determinateness of an actual occasion is analyzable into its definiteness and position, "where ‘definiteness’ is the illustration of select eternal objects and ‘position’ is relative status in a nexus of actual entities" (PR 38). Now the final definiteness of the occasion is the cumulative result of the subjective process. Thus the occasion fashions its own ultimate definiteness. This is the sense in which it is self-realized. But its position is a function of the objectification of the completed occasions in its correlative universe (PR 93f, 352, 296, 350). The position, in short, is a function of the dative, or earliest, phase of the occasion. Hence, for the occasion to exist at all, it must exist with its given position. And since each occasion defines its own correlative universe, each occasion has a unique position (PR 33f, 42). Thus, in virtue of its unique position, even an incomplete occasion is specifiable as a distinct and unique particular. Finally, since the occasion’s position remains unchanged throughout all the phases of the occasion’s existence, it serves as one ground for the identity of the occasion qua subject with the occasion qua superject.

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