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On Prehending the Past

by Charles Michael Johnson

Charles Michael Johnson is Senior Minister of he East Main Street Christian Church, Elwood, Indiana, and is pursuing lie Ph.D. in theology at Vanderbilt University. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 255-269, Vol. 6, Number 4, Winter, 1976. 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.


The focus of this essay is the process in which an actual entity arises out of its actual world. In particular, I want to suggest a paradigm which renders intelligible the notion of an "actual occasion prehending its past" in its primary phase of concrescence. I am obviously assuming that this notion needs to be rendered intelligible, in some sense or another. That such is the case may not be immediately evident, however. Thus it is necessary, first of all, to clarify the nature of the problem.

The fact that occasions prehend the past is made abundantly dear by Whitehead, of course, and plays a crucial role in his system. Criticizing the Humean presupposition of the "individual independence of successive temporal occasions," Whitehead says that

Hume’s impressions are self-contained, and he can find no temporal relationship other than that of mere serial order. This statement about Hume requires qualifying so far as concerns the connections between ‘impressions’ and ‘ideas.’ There is a relationship of ‘derivation’ of ‘ideas’ from ‘impressions’ which he is always citing and never discussing. [But] so far as [derivation] is to be taken seriously . . . it constitutes an exception to the individual independence of successive ‘perceptions.’ This presupposition . . . is what I have elsewhere called ‘the fallacy of simple location.’ The notion of ‘simple location’ is inconsistent with any admission of ‘repetition’; Hume’s difficulties arise from the fact that he starts with simple location and ends with repetition. In organic philosophy the notion of repetition is fundamental. (PR 208; italics mine)

In other words, while Hume begins by assuming the total independence and isolation of the past from the present (so that the experienced phenomenon of temporal continuity becomes an inexplicable mystery), Whitehead begins with the assumption that there is a real connectedness between past and present. And this connectedness is explained in terms of "simple physical feelings" -- the prehensions of the past by the present.

To prehend something actual is to be influenced and shaped by it, and to be prehended is to enter into the constitution of the prehending occasion and become a determining factor in shaping it. Through the prehension of the past by a present concrescence, then, the past enters into the constitution of the present. Thus we can affirm that the past really is in the present: "this transference of feeling effects a partial identification of cause with effect, and not a mere representation of the cause" (PR 364).

But if Whitehead is not a nominalist, neither is he a simple realist. In the first place, actual occasions are not enduring substances which continue to exist, after they have created themselves, as independent concrete realities in the classical sense. An occasion s ‘birth is its end" (PR 124). Each occasion is an atomic creature which creates itself and then passes away: it goes though the "process of becoming and perishing and never really is" (PR 1.30; italics mine). It continues to "exist in the present" only in the sense of being a component in the experience of the present occasion which has prehended it.

And even then, it is not the occasion itself which is "in the present," but only its subjective form. "What Hume . . . is really doing is to appeal to an observed immanence of the past in the future, involving a continuity of subjective form" (AI 184). The occasion itself, which cannot be separated from the subjective process which brought it into being (except in the abstract; cf. PR 129), perishes as an atomic occasion of experience. And it survives only in the sense -- although a very real sense -- that it is reproduced (with partial equivalence of subjective form) by and in the occasion which prehends it (cf. PR 363).

Thus the doctrine of reproduction-via-prehension enables Whitehead to explain the experience both of continuity and of change, without explaining either of them away. It is a fundamental notion, by means of which he escapes the nominalist-realist dilemma.

But this notion seems to involve a dilemma of its own, which becomes apparent when we move from affirming the fact of the prehension of the past to elucidating it.

(1) On the one hand, we would be hard put to deny that an occasion must be past to be prehended. A new concrescence is logically able to prehend only what has already happened; only decisions already made can affect it. Hence only a past occasion, which has completed the process of making the decision of its life, can be taken into account by supervening occasions. Prior to the completion of that decision, the antecedent occasion is not yet there as a determinate unified reality which can be prehended.

Moreover, there is the fact that new occasions begin to come into being only with and by their prehensions of the past. Novel concrescences do not come out of nowhere. To be sure, every occasion is a self-creating creature; but it cannot create itself ex nihilo. It has to have "something to work with." And what it works with is its initial prehensions of the antecedent actual entities constituting its actual world. Thus, until those antecedent occasions have actualized themselves -- until the determinate decisions have been made which provide the data Out of which a new occasion can begin constructing itself -- there will be no supervening entity to prehend the past. Hence, again, an occasion must be past -- completed, finished -- in order for prehension to occur.

John Cobb is certainly correct, then, in saying that "all the causal influences on the present are past" (FC 150). And Donald Sherburne is right when he explains that

each actual occasion, once it has become and reached its satisfaction, loses its subjectivity, its own immediacy of becoming, and serves as a datum for succeeding generations of actualities, which incorporate it, in some aspect, into their very being by prehending it as a datum (KPR 232)

which is given as a matter of brute, unalterable fact.

(2) But on the other band, when an occasion "loses its subjectivity" it has lost everything. Actual entities, unlike melancholy human beings, do not linger after the party is over; they are their parties, and when the party is over, so are they. When an occasion passes away, there remains no "empty shell" of feeling to be prehended by new occasions as they come along. Whitehead explicitly repudiates the notion of vacuous actuality" -- i.e., the "notion of a res vera devoid of subjective immediacy" (PR 43). Thus a past occasion is not only a dead datum but a gone datum as well. "You can’t catch a moment by the scruff of the neck -- it’s gone, you know" (WEP 8). How then can it be a datum at all? How can something which is not there be given? How can that which does not exist exert a causal influence on its successors?

Cobb suggests it can do so because the nonexistence of past occasions is not the ordinary, run-of-the-mill brand of nonexistence which can be found in any old universe of discourse. No, it is "a very peculiar type of nonexistence, namely a causally efficacious nonexistence" (FC 150). A very peculiar type of nonexistence indeed (!), considering that "apart from things that are actual, there is nothing . . . either in fact or in efficacy" (PR 64; italics mine).

This is the dilemma, then: an occasion must be past (i.e., completed) to be prehended, but upon completion it dies and disappears; the only thing that can be prehended is not there to be prehended. How then is it prehended?

I. The Inadequacy of Certain Proposed "Solutions"

A. Nonexplanatory "explanations" based on axioms. One way of dealing with the problem of explaining how the past is prehended is simply to deny that the notion needs to be explained, or even can be explained, due to its axiomatic status. This is the sort of approach which Cobb takes, suggesting that the dilemma is a false one which will be cleared up immediately when we see that, according to Whitehead,

all causal efficacy is of the not-now existing.... Since our experience seems to give us numerous instances of the influence of past experiences... on present experience, and since there is no ontological difficulty in affirming this kind of relation, I wish quite simply to assert its occurrence. (FC 152)1

In effect, Cobb is claiming that "in organic philosophy the notion of repetition is fundamental" (PR 208) in the sense of being an axiom that is assumed in order to explain all else but therefore cannot itself be explained.

This claim seems plausible, since every metaphysics must have some such fundamental (s) and since Whitehead does make it clear that "repetition" (the causal influence of the past on the present) is indeed a given fact with which he begins and not, as in Hume’s case, an irritating and inexplicable remainder with which he is left at the end. But the right of fundamental notions to remain silent when asked to explain themselves extends only to demands for certain kinds of explanation. As William Christian has observed, we must take account of

the distinction between explanation in the sense of logical demonstration of facts and explanation as categoreal analysis of facts. Whitehead thinks that stubborn facts cannot be explained in the former sense, but that they need to be explained in the latter sense. He does not begin by saying that the past must be given for the present, for such and such reasons, and then conclude that therefore it is given. Instead he begins by accepting what seems to him the obvious fact that the past is given now. The question then to be asked and answered is, How is it possible that the past is given now? (IWM 320)

We are not asking for proof, then, but for understanding. We are asking "how it is that the past is given now" (IWM 320), granted the scheme in which prehension of the past is assumed to take place. The dilemma may well be a false one; indeed, we assume it to be such. But it is not enough merely to assert that it is false; its falsity must be demonstrated. Otherwise, we may begin to have doubts -- not about the reality of the influence of the past, but about the ability of a Whiteheadian system to account for that influence.

Some have attempted to provide an explanation by pointing to another basic Whiteheadian notion, having to do with "creativity" and "the many and the one."

‘Creativity’ is the universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact. It is that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively. It lies in the nature of things that the many (thusly) enter into complex unity. (PR 31; italics mine)

So it does. But this explains only why the many occasions in an actual world enter into the complex unity of the one new occasion; it does not explain how that happens. That is, the above statement does not provide an illuminating description of the process of reproduction-via-prehension, but merely asserts that creativity is the "ultimate principle" which accounts for that process. What we need to know, in order to solve our dilemma, is how this creativity enables the "many" -- which perish and disappear upon completion -- nonetheless to be prehended by and enter into the constitution of the one novel concrescence. How is it done?

Might this question be answered in terms of Whitehead’s fundamental "principle of relativity"? According to this principle,

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. . . . In other words, it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming.’ (PR 33; italics mine)

With respect to actual occasions, the principle of relativity is expressed in terms of their inherent superjective character, which is "that character [an occasion] has as a dead datum functioning as a given object for the concrescence of subsequent generations of actual entities" (KPR 245f). Thus Whitehead speaks of an actual entity as being both subject and superject, by definition: it is the nature of the beast to be a potential component for inclusion in and by a concrescing occasion.

However, like the other "explanations" above, this is no explanation (i.e., no elucidation) at all, but only another assertion that "it lies in the nature of things" for the past to be prehendable and prehended by the present. And such "answers" merely beg the question of how a past, dead and gone occasion can do what comes naturally, or anything else. "Daddy, where do actual entities come from?" "From prehending their pasts. But how can they prehend their pasts?" "They just do, that’s all."

The basic flaw in such answers is that if we were to take them on faith, without asking any further embarrassing questions, we would end up trapped in Hume’s impasse: "repetition" or "derivation" would be something we were always citing but never discussing -- or, rather, always discussing but never explaining (cf. PR 208).

B. The explanation in terms of "objectification." This last statement requires qualification so far as concerns Whitehead’s explanation of the "mechanics" of reproduction in terms of the "objectification" of its actual world by a novel concrescence:

Objectification relegates into irrelevance, or into a subordinate relevance, the full constitution of the objectified entity. Some real component in the objectified entity assumes the role of being how that particular entity is a datum in the experience of the subject. (PR 97)

Sherburne has further delineated the notion of objectification -- even providing a diagram of one occasion prehending another (cf. KPR 10). The diagram depicts past occasion A with its various component feelings (M, N, 0) and novel occasion B with its feelings (X, Y, Z), showing how N is the "real component" in A by which A is objectified in B via B’s prehension (X) of A. The other components (M and 0) of A are negatively prehended by B -- i.e., are "relegated into irrelevance, or into a subordinate relevance."

This is how it happens, then. But the question remains, "How it is possible for this to happen?" The diagram referred to above assumes the availability of the past occasion (A) and presents it as being there for prehension. But that availability is precisely what needs to be explained, and not simply asserted. The diagram is akin to a picture of me shaking hands with Napoleon. One could draw such a picture, carefully explaining just what was involved in hand-shaking. What would not be clear, however, is how it would be possible for me to shake hands with the dead-and-gone Napoleon. It is no good having a recipe for rabbit stew if you are not told how to catch the rabbit -- particularly if there are no rabbits around to be caught.

C. God as the ground of the givenness of the past. William Christian’s solution is to have God catch the rabbit. But this solution solves nothing, as Sherburne has pointed out (cf. PPCT 308f; PS 1:105f), for God himself is an actual entity. To have God give the past to the present, though it solves the problem of how the present is able to prehend the past, only raises the similar problem of how the past can be prehended by God; before the past is completed, it is not yet a determinate prehendable reality, and after it has completed itself it has perished and disappeared and is not there to be prehended -- not even by God.

This difficulty can probably be overcome, however. For God is a nontemporal, eternal actual entity. Unlike other actual entities, God does not have to wait till the past completes itself before he begins to come into being; God is always in the process of becoming. Therefore God is always there, and is able to prehend the past at whatever point it becomes available for prehension. Nonetheless, it would still not be compatible with Whitehead’s system to have God prehend the past and then, in the next instant, give the past to the present. For God functions as the source of novelty, not continuity. If God is made the source of continuity as well, then he becomes the effective cause of all prehensions by the present -- which is to say that all the prehensions we have are of God. This would mean that there is no direct prehension of the past by the present. It would also mean that we had jumped out of Hume’s frying pan into Leibniz’s fire: the "illusoriness" of the experience of continuity between past and present would be mitigated "only by recourse to a pious dependence upon God" (PR 289).

D. Explanations based on the "immediacy" of the immediate past. Can we solve the dilemma by maintaining, as Sherburne does, that a novel concrescence does not prehend the "deep past" but only the immediate past? That is, can we hold that there is a significant difference in prehendability between what is "long gone and what "went" only an instant ago? This sort of solution would seem to have the support of Whitehead, who says of our immediate past -- "roughly speaking . . . that portion of our past lying between a tenth of a second and half a second ago" -- that "it is gone, and yet it is here" (AI 181).

But it is nonsensical to speak of something being both here and gone (in the same sense), just as it would be nonsensical to say, of some marvelous geometrical figure, that "it is round, and yet it is square." If something is here, then it has not left yet. If something is gone, then it is not still here (at least not in the same sense that it was here when it was really here). If it is past -- even though only "a tenth of a second" past -- then it is past, period. Being "just a little past" is like being "just a little pregnant."

Cobb has made the same point, albeit more prosaically: "If a past event of 1/10 second ago can exercise direct causal efficacy for me now, what of a past event of one second ago? Is there in principle any difference?" (FC 151). But Cobb takes this to mean that the remote past is just as available for prehension as the immediate past, whereas I take it to mean -- at least at this point in the discussion -- that the immediate past is just as unavailable for prehension as the distant past.

I say "at this point" because, in the final analysis, there is an important distinction to be made between the immediate and distant past. We have not yet seen anything that would support such a distinction, but this does not mean the matter is settled as conclusively as Cobb suggests:

I grant that the thought of the immediate influence of a remote past event on the present is . . . baffling to our ordinary ways of thought. . . . My argument, however, is that this strangeness is the product of failure to recognize that all causal efficacy is of the now not-existing. Once this is really understood, the question of temporal proximity can be seen as a secondary one. (FC 151f)

I agree that once the causal efficacy of the past is really understood, the question of temporal proximity will be solved. But until it is really understood, we have no way to determine whether temporal proximity is only a secondary matter or not. All we can say at this point is that Sherburne has not yet supported his assertion that the immediate past is less past than the remote past, so far as concerns its availability for prehension.

He has tried to do so, offering the following explanation. The immediate past "stands out," unlike the distant past, and is available for prehension in that it has not yet been integrated into the whole -- into any whole. It still stands out as something to be dealt with and ordered into harmony in and by some percipient concrescing subject. This explanation has to do with the previously discussed principles of "creativity" and "the many and the one," according to which it lies in the nature of things for the many occasions constituting a given actual world to pass over into, and be creatively unified in and by, a new concrescence. When one understands this, Sherburne argues, it will also be understood that the many occasions "stand out" like sore thumbs in their disjunctive diversity, crying out to be prehended and unified in a new occasion. And since occasions in the remote past have already been unified (in and by their successor occasions), it is only the immediate past which "stands out" in this way.

At most, however, Sherburne’s argument succeeds only in establishing that, if any past is available for direct prehension, it is the immediate past. He fails to show how even the immediate past can be thus available -- i.e., fails to show how something which passed away only an instant ago is any less dead and gone than what died a year ago. We can see how the immediate past might "stand out" at the point of its completion in the way Sherburne describes; but the next instant it is gone. There is a law which decrees, "The occasion that attains satisfaction, it shall thereupon die." And no past occasion is allowed to be an exception to that rule, no matter how much it might desire and beg to be allowed to stay up for just a tenth of a second longer, until the present gets here" to prehend it and fulfill its yearning for unification in the future beyond itself.

So the dilemma remains, none of the proposed solutions having solved it. As experience testifies, the past is here, even though it is gone. We feel its presence. But it is not the past itself which is present, but our feelings of the past. And the question is, how did we ever get our present feelings of the past? That is, if the past perished before the present began to come into being, then how is it that our present feelings are of the past? The metaphysical situation seems to be one in which occasion A arises, pulses with life, and passes away; then, in the next instant, occasion B arises by prehending the now nonexistent A! A theoretical mystery.

II. A New Paradigm

As with many mysteries, however, I suggest that the solution to this one is relatively simple. If an occasion cannot be prehended the instant before it completes itself (since it is not yet a determinate prehendable reality) nor the instant after (since it then has perished and disappeared), it must be prehended at the same instant it attains satisfaction. Thus also, its successor begins to come into being neither before nor after but at the same instant the prior occasion completes itself. The end of the old, then, does not merely "make way for" the new; the end of the old is the beginning of the new.

In thus joining the two together, it may seem that I am "overlapping" them so as to make them indistinguishable. If the end of A’s process is the beginning of B’s process -- if B s concrescing follows immediately upon A’s act of becoming -- then it seems that we have, not two atomic processes at all, but only one continuous concrescing. Moreover, on this view it appears difficult to explain how anything ever becomes, since the situation seems to be one in which things are ever becoming (rather like God).

To this objection, two answers must be given.

(1) Insofar as the objection is based on my assertion that the past is prehended at the same instant it attains satisfaction, the answer to it involves recognizing the inadequacy of the language of "successive instants" to describe a fundamentally fluent process. The fact is that "all things flow" (PR 317) and that "instants" are only abstractions from that flow. Hence, just as the analysis of successive frames of a motion picture film will never yield an understanding of the fluent connection between them, so an analysis of the arising of a new concrescence in terms of successive instants will never yield an understanding of "what really happens."

For example, suppose we return to the "three-instant model" against which I have been arguing: (1) at one instant, A is still concrescing, but is about to complete itself; (2) the next instant, A completes itself; (3) the next instant, B prehends A and begins coming into being thereby. From one standpoint, this is an adequate model. It expresses the obvious fact that A must complete itself before it can be prehended. It also clearly "separates" the two occasions, so that the problem of "overlap" does not arise. But it fails to express the fluent connection between A and B; and when the process from which its instants are abstracted is not understood, it prompts the question of how the past can be prehended after it becomes past.

Hence we must not take the language of "successive instants" too seriously. We must look beyond such language, as it were, to the process which it is intended to point to.

(2) In the final analysis, however, we will find that the two occasions do "overlap," though not in any fundamentally objectionable sense. We must understand that

the bonds between prehensions take on the dual aspect of internal relations, which are yet in a sense external relations. It is evident that if the solidarity of the physical world is to be relevant to the description of its individual actualities, it can only be by reason of the fundamental internality of the relationships in question. On the other hand, if the individual discreteness of the actualities is to have its weight, there must be an aspect in these relationships from which they can be conceived as external, that is, as bonds between divided things. (PR 471; italics mine)

In other words, we must maintain that the past really does "enter into" the constitution of the present -- that the present occasion’s feelings are genuine and direct reproductions of the past and "not a stage-play about it" (PR 364). (Otherwise we cannot explain the solidarity of the world in terms of its individual actualities, but only by referring, e.g., to Leibniz’s God.) We must thus couple the two occasions together so that reproduction can take place. In fact, we must say that A, at the instant of its satisfaction, "belongs to B" and is "in B" as the initium (beginning) of B.

But we must also maintain the individuality of the actualities in the world. Otherwise we end up with a materialistic philosophy of enduring substances, rather than a philosophy of "organic realism" (of PR 471) involving the reproduction of atomic, self-creating occasions. Thus there must be some aspect of the relationship between past and present occasions from which that relationship can be conceived as a bond between divided things -- as a union of discrete entities. It is precisely this dual aspect of the relationship between past and present that I mean to express in saying that what is genuinely the endpoint of one discrete occasion’s process is at the same time the beginning of its successor’s concrescence.

A. Perishing and perishing (and perishing). In elucidating this last statement (and the process of reproduction), I begin with the fact that an occasion in its lifetime passes from becoming through being into nothingness. It is a process of self-creation, the end (both goal and terminus) of which is the one complex unified Feeling that the occasion becomes.2 The endpoint of that process is a "dead-endpoint" in two senses. (1) At that point, the occasion is dead in that its internal process is over and done with; it is no longer becoming, but has become. (2) The occasion has "nowhere to go" from that point. And that is precisely where it does go: nowhere -- i.e., into nothingness. An occasion has the power to create itself, but not to sustain itself. Thus it does not remain in existence, but only passes though on its way to nothingness. It completes itself and disappears.

But it completes itself before it disappears. Thus we may say, so far as concerns its availability for prehension, that an occasion "perishes" in two stages. (1) It perishes as a self-creative process in attaining its satisfaction. But it does not disappear when it thus perishes. Rather, that is precisely the point at which it appears, as a determinate reality. At that point it is dead-past (completed, no longer becoming) but is not yet gone-past. It is at this point -- and only at this point -- that the occasion meets the two criteria of prehendability: it has become what it was becoming, and it is there to be prehended. (2) The instant following the attainment of its satisfaction, the occasion has "utterly perished" and disappeared, having completed its passage from becoming through being into nothingness.

It does not disappear without a trace, of course. But this is because it was prehended by its immediate successor at the prior instant -- after it had "perished" (as a self-creative process) but before it "utterly perished" and disappeared. As it became, it passed on its Feeling "to be reproduced by the new subject" (PR 362); and because it was felt at that instant, it continues to "live on" as a "dead fact" in the experience of the present -- and will also thus be available for prehension by the future -- even though it is gone. (Insofar as the occasion is negatively prehended, so that its subjective form or "family line" gradually fades away, this fading constitutes a third form of "perishing.")

B. Subject-Object-Superject. Focusing now on the occasion as it arrives at its endpoint -- i.e., at the instant it accomplishes its transition from becoming to being -- we see that, as it becomes, it becomes three "things" at once.

(1) It becomes a self-existent reality:

The problem which the concrescence solves is, how the many components of the objective content are to be unified in one felt content with its complex subjective form. This one felt content is the ‘satisfaction,’ whereby the actual entity is its particular individual self; to use Descartes’ phrase, ‘requiring nothing but itself in order to exist.’ (PR 233)

This is somewhat misleading, of course, for the term "satisfaction" refers to "the ‘entity as concrete’ abstracted from the ‘process of concrescence; it is the outcome separated from the process, thereby losing the actuality of the atomic entity, which is both process and outcome" (PR 129; italics mine). Thus we might better speak of the completed occasion as a "subject," which term refers to "the entity constituted by the process of feeling . . . including this process" (PR 135; italics mine).

In other words, as the outcome of a particular process, the completed occasion obviously requires that process in order to bring itself into being. But it requires nothing else. The "reason" for its instantaneous existence as a determinate Something is its own process which produced it.

(2) The occasion also becomes an object or datum, as it becomes a determinate Something. "It has become a ‘being’; and it belongs to the nature of every ‘being’ that it is a potential for" a new becoming (PR 71). And being a potential for a new feeling-concrescence is what it means to be an object: "the word ‘object’. . . means an entity which is a potential for being a component in feeling" (PR 135). This is also the definition of a datum: "data are the potentials for feeling; that is to say, they are objects" (PR 135).

When does the occasion go from being merely a potential for a new becoming to being an ingredient in that new becoming? At that instant. Which is to say that there are not two instants, one in which the past becomes available, as a dead datum, and a second in which it is given to the present. To become a datum is to be given. Moreover, to be given is to be received (prehended). A datum is "met with feelings" (PR 234) at the instant it becomes a datum, and not the instant afterward.

That every occasion will immediately be "met with feelings" is guaranteed, because it is the nature of every occasion, as it becomes, to give rise to those feelings which meet it or "spring from it."

(3) In other words, as it becomes Something, an occasion also becomes the creator of that which prehends it. In passing from becoming into being, it does not merely pass into being a dead object, but also "passes into its activity of other-formation" (AI 193). As, and insofar as, it becomes a determinate Feeling, it "provokes the origination" of the new feelings which feel it (AI 176). As it dies, it "hurl[s] itself into a new transcendent fact" (AI 177). This above all is the reason why, although an occasion exists at its endpoint as the outcome of its own process, its chief "ontological status" is that of the initium of its successor.

How can an occasion become active as it becomes dead? Because it thereby becomes part of an actual world, in conjunction with other occasions which reach their endpoints simultaneously (relative to the standpoint of the new occasion whose actual world they form).

To be sure, considered merely as the sum of its parts, an actual world is simply a collection of dead occasions which may be termed "objects" for the new occasion, or

the ‘data’ for that occasion. . . . But both words suffer from the defect of suggesting that an occasion of experiencing arises out of a passive situation which is a mere welter of data. . . . The exact contrary is the case. The initial situation includes a factor of activity which is the reason for the origin of that occasion of experience. This factor of activity is what I have called ‘Creativity.’ The initial situation with its creativity can equally well be termed the ‘actual world’ relative to that occasion. It has a certain unity of its own, expressive of its capacity for providing the objects requisite for a new occasion, and also expressive of its conjoint activity whereby it is essentially the primary phase of a new occasion. (AI 179; italics mine)

Thus it is that an actual world, and the dead-past occasions in it, is not merely a "potentiality for" the new occasion but is

a ‘real potentiality.’ The ‘potentiality’ refers to the passive capacity, the term ‘real’ refers to the creative activity This basic situation, this actual world, this primary phase, this real potentiality -- however you characterize it -- as a whole is active with inherent creativity. but in its details it provides the passive objects which derive their activity from the creativity of the whole. . . . Thus viewed in abstraction objects are passive, but viewed in conjunction they carry the creativity which drives the world. (AI 179)

Here we find the explanation of those passages in which Whitehead asserts that "it lies in the nature of things" for the past, upon perishing, to become a component in the experience of its successors: it lies in the nature of things that an occasion, in attaining satisfaction, thereby becomes part of an actual world (in fact, many actual worlds, relative to many different standpoints). It also lies in the nature of things that the actual world thus formed is greater than the sum of its parts -- i.e., that the parts, though individually dead, should conjointly form a living organic whole which is "essentially the primary phase of a new occasion" (AI 179).

C. Two species of process. Insofar as an actual world is composed of past (dead-past) occasions, the factor of activity inherent in it may be termed the "activity of the past." Insofar as an actual world is essentially the initial phase of the new concrescence, this activity "belongs to" that new occasion. Indeed, this latter statement is surely more correct, for since occasion A perishes (qua self-creative process) in becoming determinate, any activity which follows immediately upon the cessation of A’s act of becoming must be referred to the becoming of its successor. Moreover, the activity in question is precisely the activity of "B prehending A."

But in another sense this creativity does not belong to either A or to B. That is, it does not belong to the self-creativity of either. It is obvious that it is not A’s self-creativity, of course. But neither is it B’s self-creativity. For the novel concrescence is passive in its initial phase.

When we speak of "B prehending A," our language suggests that B actively reaches out to seize and prehend the past. Thus Sherburne is led to write that an "actual entity initiates its process by prehending many other datum occasions in its causal past" (KPR 13). But this is misleading. An occasion does not so much initiate its own process as it is initiated as a process. Occasions do not ask to be born, nor do they decide to come into being without asking. The present has no more power to decide whether it will feel the past (and thus begin coming into being) than the past has to decide whether or not it will give itself to be felt. The decision in the matter is a "transcendent decision" (PR 248). Sherburne is more nearly correct, then, when he says that the

concrescence of an actual entity begins with a passive, receptive moment when the givenness of the past is thrust upon it; it then completes its becoming through a series of creative supplemental phases that adjust, integrate, and perhaps modify the given data. (KPR 206; italics mine)

In short, the new occasion is constituted as a self-constituting entity. And its primary phase consists precisely in its being thus constituted -- i.e., in its being "thrown into existence" by the creativity inherent in its actual world. Not until its second phase does it begin genuinely creating itself, exercising the freedom it then has to arrive at its own determinate unity.

The creativity inherent in an actual world thus belongs neither to A’s self-creativity process nor to B’s, but to the process of transition. There are not one, but

two kinds of fluency required for the description of the fluent world. One kind is the fluency inherent in the constitution of the particular existent. This kind I have called ‘concrescence.’ The other kind is the fluency whereby the perishing of the process... constitutes that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existents. . . . This kind I have called ‘transition.’ (PR 320; italics mine)

"To sum up: There are two species of process, macroscopic process and microscopic process" (PR 326; italics mine), the latter being the self-creative process of an occasion becoming itself, and the former being the process of transition. We might also speak here of two modes of creativity: the self creativity of an occasion, and that "creativity whereby there is a becoming of entities superseding the one in question" (PR 129).

This transitional creativity is "not an external agency with its own ulterior purpose" (PR 339). It is not a "something" which is "outside" or "in between" the past and present which serves to give the past to the present (like God in Christian’s interpretation). But it is outside and in between the respective internal self-creative processes of the past and present occasions, and links the two. It is found in A at its final "lifeless" stage as A’s "activity of other-formation" (AI 193) and/or in B at its primary passive stage as the initial, founding activity of B’s process.

But however we characterize the transitional creativity, it must be seen that the process of transition effected by it is a macroscopic process involving the "whole world." If we focus only on the two respective microscopic processes, we will never be able to see the connection between the two.2 The situation will always appear as one in which creativity comes to a halt when A attains its satisfaction (of IWM 29f) and does not start up again until an instant later, when B begins to come into being by prehending its now-nonexistent predecessor.

To sum up: An occasion in its lifetime passes from becoming through being into nothingness. But as it reaches its endpoint and becomes a single unified Feeling (just before it becomes nothing at all) it becomes part of an actual world composed of other occasions which have reached their endpoints simultaneously, relative to the standpoint of the new occasion whose actual world they conjointly form. The antecedent occasions "perish" (qua processes) as they become determinate Feelings, but the actual world they conjointly form as they "die" is an organic whole, alive with inherent creativity that marks the beginning of the new occasion, though the new occasion thus conceived is left to give birth to itself.

Focusing more specifically on "how" reproduction occurs, we might say that as occasions perish and become determinate Feelings, forming an actual world, the many Feelings in that world "flow together"; and at the "center" of this "bio-forcefield" there arises at that instant a novel concrescence which feels those Feelings, its own feelings being "conformal feelings" (i.e., genuine and direct reproductions of the Feelings in its causal past). Thus does every occasion, as it completes itself, become an initial datum from which a new concrescence immediately buds forth.

At the next instant, the actual world is no longer there, the occasions comprising it having completed their passage from becoming though being into nothingness.4 The only thing which is there at that point is the new occasion, now in its second phase: deciding what to do with its feelings of the past.

D. Postscript. With this model in mind, we may speak of "three instants" as follows. (1) At one instant, A is still becoming. (2) Next, as A ceases becoming and becomes, it becomes a datum for, and the initial phase of, B. In becoming determinate, it provokes and gives rise to the new feeling which arises from it at that instant as a reproduction of it and of the other occasions in B’s actual world. (3) The new occasion then begins making something of itself -- of the multiplicity of feelings that it is.

Referring to the initial passive phase of B, we can say that "B starts to become at the same instant A stops becoming," knowing that this does not mean that A never finishes its act of becoming or that the two are not discrete entities. And referring to B’s (second) self-creative phase, we can say that "B does not begin to create itself until the instant after A attains satisfaction (and has disappeared), "knowing that B nonetheless began coming into being the instant prior, when A was thrust upon it.

Indeed, there are a good many things we can say, using the language of "before and after" and of "successive instants" -- so long as we understand the process from which those instants are abstracted. It is only when we abstract from the process -- and forget that we are abstracting -- that we end up with the apparently insoluble problem of how to put it all back together again.

 

References

FC -- Dow Kirkpatrick, ed. The Finality of Christ. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969. For John B. Cobb, Jr., "The Finality of Christ in a Whiteheadian Perspective," pp. 122-54.

KPR -- Donald W. Sherburne. A Key to Whitehead’s PROCESS AND REALITY. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.

IWM -- William A. Christian. An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.

PPCT -- Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James, Jr., and Gene Reeves, eds. Process Philosophy and Christian Thought. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971. For Donald W. Sherburne, "Whitehead Without God," pp. 305-28.

WEP -- George L. Kline, ed. Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963. For William Ernest Hocking, "Whitehead as I Knew Him," pp. 7-17.

 

Notes

1. In the passage cited here, Cobb is assuming that the unmediate past influences the present and is arguing that the remote past also influences the present, rather than making a case for the influence of the past in general. However, since he bases his argument on the assumption of the causal influence of the immediate past, and since the principle is the sanie for him in either case, I think I have not done him an injustice in quoting him slightly out of context.

2. I capitalize Feeling when referring to the complex unified Feeling that an occasion becomes at the end of its process. I use the term feeling to refer to one of the component feelings of that Feeling -- and especially to one of the yet-to-be-unified multiplicity of feelings that a novel concrescence initially is.

3. In PR, Whitehead’s approach is largely amdytical and his focus is primarily upon the individual occasion as it goes through its phases. He speaks of the macroscopic process of transition in PR, of course, but does not really elucidate it -- precisely because that process cannot be "seen" from the standpoint of an individual occasion. Thus any attempt to understand the flow from past to present on the basis of PR alone may easily lead to a variety of (mis)interpretations.

In AI, the approach is more synthetic and the process of transition from past to present is dealt with more illuminatingly, (especially in the chapters on "Subjects and Objects" and "Past, Present, Future’). Thus the weightiest quotations I have used in supporting and clarifying my position have come from AI (especially AI 179), and it is in their light that I have placed the bulk of the PR texts cited.

4. Once the immediate past disappears, there is no distinction between it and the distant past so far as concerns its availability for prehension. The world of the nineteenth century is no less gone than the world of one-tenth of a second ago. But at the point that the immediate past reaches completion, there is an important distinction between it and the distant past. For at that point, the distant past has already completed itself and disappeared, while the immediate past has completed itself and is "dead-past" but is not yet "gone-past." Thus it is only immediate past occasions which are available for direct prehension by, and form the actual world of, their immediate successors.

Of course, the distant past was prehended at the point of its completion by its immediate successors, and its Feelings have been reproduced and thus carried along by intervening occasions. Hence the distant past is "in" the immediate past, and in this sense it forms a part of the actual world of the new occasion and is available for prehension by that new occasion. Indeed, everything that has ever happened in the past (or at least in my past) is in some sense and to some extent in my actual world and prehendable (and prehended) by me. But the distant past is available for prehension only mediately through and in the immediate past. I have my grandfather’s brown eyes; but I got them through my father, and not directly from my grandfather, who died before I was born.


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