return to religion-online

Whitehead’s Principle of Relativity

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. 1-20, Vol. 8, Number 1, Spring, 1978. 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.

Fifty years after the publication of Process and Reality, process scholars have yet to recognize that the principle of relativity -- the principle on which Whitehead founded his metaphysical system (PR 76) -- asserts, in effect, the repeatability of all entities of all sorts: the repeatability, that is, of particulars as well as of universals. Process scholars have recognized, to be sure, that Whitehead intended the relativity principle, together with the ontological principle, to "blur the sharp distinction between what is universal and what is particular" (PR 76). They have recognized also that actual entities and eternal objects are the closest analogues, in Whitehead’s metaphysics, to particulars and universals, respectively (PR 76). But the idea of particulars having multiple instances is so paradoxical and revolutionary that even Whitehead’s most sympathetic interpreters have been unable to take him literally when he says, and he says it frequently, that earlier actual entities are repeated in later ones (e.g., PR 208, 224, 347, 364)1 In one way or another, the interpreters have avoided the conclusion that Whitehead blurred the traditional distinction between universals and particulars with his doctrine that actual entities, as well as eternal objects, are repeatable. They have, to that extent, missed the full import of the relativity principle.

Missing the full import of the doctrine of relativity is a matter of no small consequence; for Whitehead, it must be remembered, strove, with considerable success, to have his metaphysical principles presuppose each the others (PR 5, 9). Accordingly, any error or misapprehension in the interpretation of the relativity principle can be expected to visit itself on, and thus vitiate, the interpretation of other important organic principles. The ontological principle, the causal objectification of earlier occasions in later ones, the mutual immanence of discrete occasions, and even the Category of the Ultimate, are all, I maintain, organic doctrines presupposing the repetition of completed actual occasions. Hence, insofar as the major interpreters of Whitehead do not acknowledge the repetition of particulars, their accounts of these four doctrines severely distort, or truncate, the meaning Whitehead intended them to have. Moreover, to the degree they are accepted as being completely accurate, those accounts stand in the way of many genuine applications of Whitehead’s conceptuality -- applications as basic and important as the elucidation of memory and perception. Suffice it to note, in this last regard, that the reformed subjectivist principle, on which Whitehead based his metaphysical theory of memory, perception, and knowledge, was for him "merely an alternative statement of the principle of relativity . . ." (PR 252). At issue in the interpretation of the relativity principle, therefore, is the applicability, as well as the coherence, of the metaphysics of organic process.

In these times of resurgent interest in the coherence and use of Whitehead’s conceptuality, a sustained effort to improve upon, or go beyond, the received understanding of the relativity principle seems very much in order, even necessary. This essay is intended as an initial step in that direction -- an initial step because it will not be possible for me in this, or in any single, article to explicate the principle’s full meaning and import. Indeed, to examine the principle thoroughly and exhaustively is tantamount to elucidating the whole of Whitehead’s metaphysics. My efforts here, then, have a limited but basic objective: to argue that the doctrine of relativity implies the repeatability of all entities, including actual entities, and to begin to exhibit the extent to which Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is built on the tenet that even particulars are repeatable.

To achieve the essay’s two-fold objective, I shall first argue, through a series of textual considerations, that the relativity principle must be understood as asserting that to be an entity is both to have a potentiality for being repeated and to have that potentiality realized in every actual occasion whose becoming finds that entity already existing as a fully determinate being. Thus understood, I shall argue also, the principle implies that every completed occasion in the universe of a novel occasion is reproduced in and for that occasion. This reproduction of earlier occasions in later ones, I shall show, is what Whitehead meant by the objectification of the former in the latter. I shall further argue for the correctness of my interpretation by bringing it to bear on the mutual immanence of actual occasions, the ontological principle, and the Category of the Ultimate. It will then be seen that actual occasions must be repeatable if these three doctrines are each to be prevented from issuing in either a conceptual incoherence or an outright logical contradiction.

II. Textual Evidence

In the categoreal scheme of Process and Reality, the relativity principle is listed as the fourth Category of Explanation, and reads as follows:

(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)

As given in this formulation, the ultimate meaning of the principle is far from clear. Certainly, the formulation contains no explicit assertion of the repeatability of all entities. Indeed, no meaning is apparent in it other than this: every entity in the universe of a concrescing actuality must be involved in the actuality, so that to be an entity in that universe is to be involved in that concrescence. But the nature of the involvement, or the meaning of ‘being a potential for every becoming’, is not at all obvious.

Fortunately, throughout Process and Reality, Whitehead makes frequent and illuminating references to the principle of relativity. Through a careful interpretation of those references, the true meaning and import of the principle can be gradually ascertained. For example, many of those references make clear that Whitehead construed ‘thing’, ‘entity’, ‘being’, and ‘object’ as synonymous, or nearly synonymous, with one another (PR 68, 336, 366, 371; see also 31). They are but nearly synonymous because, for Whitehead, an actuality in process of attainment is an entity or thing, but is not yet a being or object. To be a being or object, the actuality must be complete or already become, i.e., it must be an attained actuality -- the superject or satisfaction, rather than the subject or genetic process. This is why Whitehead says of the completed actuality or superject: "It has become a ‘being’; and it belongs to the nature of every ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming’" (PR 71). Given that the superject is the fully determinate occasion, this statement also suggests that an entity is a being if, and only if, it is completely determinate; entities that are still in the process of becoming fully determinate are not yet beings. Hence, an occasion qua subject is an entity, but it is not a being. Nonetheless, though ‘entity’ and ‘being’ do not have exactly the same connotation or intention, they do have the same denotation or extension; for the actuality as in process of attainment, and the actuality as attained, are one and the same entity (PR 326f). "It is subject-superject, and neither half of this description can for a moment be lost sight of" (PR 43). My point is that, for Whitehead, all entities are, or are destined to be, beings or objects. Hence, all entities fall, or are destined to fall, under the scope of the relativity principle.2

From other passages where Whitehead discusses the principle of relativity, we can safely infer that what all entities have in common -- and thus what ‘entity’, ‘being’, ‘object’, and ‘thing’ connote in common -- is their capacity to contribute determination to every actuality whose becoming finds those entities already existing (PR 366, 371, 392). In this manner, it becomes evident that ‘being a potential for every becoming’ means the same as ‘being a capacity for being a realized determinant of every becoming’ (PR 366, 371). To have the capacity is to be an object and to exercise it is to function as an object. But the capacity must be exercised in one way or another; for "every item in its universe is involved in each concrescence." Therefore, "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).

The objective functioning of entities turns out to be one of two species of functioning distinguished by Whitehead. The generic meaning common to both species is set out in the twentieth Category of Explanation, where we are told that "to ‘function’ means to contribute determination to the actual entities in the nexus of some actual world" (PR 38). The next four Categories of Explanation jointly establish a distinction between the functioning of one entity in respect to another and the functioning of one entity in respect to itself. All entities of all sorts function in respect to other entities. But only actual entities function each in respect to itself. For that reason, self-function or self-realization constitutes a sufficient criterion of actuality (PR 38). To be an actual entity is to be, or to have been, self-realizing. "An actuality 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). The self-realization of the actuality is what Whitehead terms its formal functioning (PR 81, 336). But the self-realized superject is the actuality as completed or already become; it is a being and, as with all other beings, it must function objectively in the becoming of actualities later than itself. "The peculiarity of an actual entity is that it can be considered both ‘objectively’ and ‘formally’" (PR 336).

According to the twenty-fourth Category of Explanation, the "functioning of one actual entity in the self-creation of another actual entity is the ‘objectification’ of the former for the latter actual entity" and the "functioning of an eternal object in the self-creation of an actual entity is the ‘ingression’ of the eternal object in the actual entity" (PR 38). But in the eighth Category of Explanation we are told that the objectification of one actuality in another is the particular mode in which the potentiality (or capacity) of the former is realized (or exercised) in the latter, and in the seventh Category of Explanation we are told that the ingression of an eternal object into an actuality is the particular mode in which the potentiality (or capacity) of the eternal object is realized (or exercised) in the actuality (PR 34). This latter way of characterizing the objectification and ingression of actual entities and eternal objects, respectively, has the advantage, for our purposes, of emphasizing the distinction Whitehead makes between an entity or object qua capacity for being a realized determinant and that same entity or object qua realized determinant. This distinction provides an important clue to the meaning of the principle of relativity.

Whitehead explicitly contrasts the object as capacity and the object as realized determinant in terms of the object’s transcendence and immanence relative to the actuality in which it functions: "Immanence and transcendence are the characteristics of an object: as a realized determinant it is immanent; as a capacity for determination it is transcendent; in both roles it is relevant to something not itself" (PR 366f). What sense is to be made of this contrast? How can the same object be at once immanent and transcendent relative to the same actuality?

In the case of eternal objects, a possible answer immediately suggests itself. As ingressed in a particular actuality, a particular eternal object is just another instance of itself. It contributes its unique individual essence to the determination of the actuality. No other eternal object can make that contribution. But that same eternal object must make exactly that same contribution to any actuality or occasion in which it is ingressed. Thus, the individual essence

of an eternal object is merely the eternal object considered as adding its own unique contribution to each actual occasion. This unique contribution is identical for all such occasions in respect to the fact that the object in all modes of ingression is just its identical self. But it varies from one occasion to another in respect to the differences of its mode of ingression. (SMW 229)

These different modes of ingression are a function of the eternal object’s relational essence, that is, of its patience for being jointly ingressed with other eternal objects having the requisite relational essence (SMW 229f). But the point to emphasize now is that any eternal object is just itself in whatever mode of ingression it is involved (SMW 247). Hence, as ingressed in a particular occasion, a particular eternal object is an exact replica of every other instance of itself. It becomes a realized determinant of the particular occasion by being reproduced within the occasion. Moreover, as eternally ingressed in God’s primordial nature, each eternal object is, relative to the temporal actualities, a transcendent capacity for their determination. In this manner, the same eternal object can be both immanent and transcendent relative to the same occasion.

Can this explanation be extended to include the functioning of one actuality in another? Does an earlier actuality function in a later one by being reproduced in it? Is the earlier actuality in itself the transcendent capacity? Is its reproduction within the later actuality the realized determinant?

To pave the way for affirmative answers to these questions, I now turn to one of Whitehead’s most illuminating characterizations of the fourth Category of Explanation:

The principle of universal relativity directly traverses Aristotle’s dictum, ‘ (A substance) is not present in a subject.’ On the contrary, according to this principle an actual entity is present in other actual entities. In fact if we allow for degrees of relevance, and for negligible relevance, we must say that every actual entity is present in every other actual entity. The philosophy of organism is mainly devoted to the task of making clear the notion of ‘being present in another entity.’ This phrase is here borrowed from Aristotle: it. is not a fortunate phrase, and in subsequent discussion it will be replaced by the term ‘objectification.’ (PR 79f)

‘Being present in another entity’, when the entities in question are both actual entities, means the same as ‘being objectified in another entity’ -- that much is evident. But elsewhere Whitehead equates ‘being objectified’ with ‘being repeated’: "In the organic philosophy the notion of repetition is fundamental. The doctrine of objectification is an endeavor to express how what is settled in actuality is repeated under limitations, so as to be ‘given’ for immediacy" (PR 208). Accordingly, ‘being present in another entity’ means ‘being repeated in another entity’. In other words, it is as repeated -- i.e., as another instance of itself -- that the one entity is present in the other.

In this regard, it must be emphasized that whatever is given for the immediate experience of an actuality must be immanent in, and a constituent of, the actuality; for, in the organic philosophy, "experience is not a relation of an experient to something external to it, but is itself the ‘inclusive whole’ which is the required connectedness of ‘many in one’" (AI 299). This is why, for Whitehead, "every item of the universe, including all the other actual entities, are constituents in the constitution of any one actual entity" (PR 224). But each item in the universe of an actual entity becomes a constituent of that entity by being repeated in it. It is only as thus repeated that the items are given for the experience of the actuality. "Tear ‘repetition’ out of ‘experience’ and there is nothing left" (PR 206).

By the repetition, or causal objectification, of an earlier occasion in a later one, let me hasten to add, Whitehead did not mean, as so many of his interpreters have erroneously taken him to mean, merely that some eternal object ingressed in the earlier occasion is also ingressed in the later occasion. Causal objectification is the repetition of an earlier particular in a later one, and no mere repetition of universals can ever count as the repetition of a particular. An actual occasion embodies other actual occasions (qua reproduced), and, hence, its make-up cannot be reduced to its embodiment of ingressed eternal objects. Thus, an actual entity cannot be described, even inadequately, by universals; because other actual entities do enter into the description of any one actual entity" (PR 76). To reduce causal objectification, and thereby the immanence of the earlier in the later, to a mere repetition of eternal objects, is to make the repetition of occasions a sham repetition. It is simply to refuse to take Whitehead at his word, and what Whitehead says, in effect, is that each superject is repeated in every occasion whose origination is subsequent to the existence of that superject (PR 208, 211, 364).

But can Whitehead really mean that actual occasions, as well as eternal objects, are repeatable entities? If the following passage from Process and Reality is at all significant, the answer must be that that is precisely what Whitehead means: "The oneness of the universe, and the oneness of each element in the universe, repeat themselves to the crack of doom in the creative advance from creature to creature, each creature including in itself the whole of history and exemplifying the self-identity of things and their mutual diversities" (347f). Surely, whatever else Whitehead is saying here, he is saying that actual occasions are repeated (qua superjects only, never qua subjects), for among the ‘elements’ in the universe relative to the origination of a novel creature are all those occasions which have already completed their becoming, i.e., those which are already superjects; hence, every superject accumulated in the wake of the universe’s creative advance is repeated in each novel creature at the utmost verge of that advance.

Whitehead is also saying, in the passage just quoted, that all elements in the universe are repeated in each novel occasion. The property of being repeatable belongs to all organic entities and not just to eternal objects and actual entities. This, after all, is what we should expect, given that eternal objects and actual entities are the fundamental types of entities in Whitehead’s ontology and that "the other types of entities only express how all entities of the two fundamental types are in community with each other, in the actual world" (PR 37). My point is that the repetition of entities of the fundamental types necessarily carries with it the repetition of entities of the derivative types. For example, a nexus is repeated if, and only if, its constituent actualities are repeated; also, if an actuality is repeated, then at least some element of its subjective form is also repeated.

Accordingly, all entities, actual and nonactual, achieve objective functioning in a given occasion by virtue of their reproduction within the occasion. But what needs to be emphasized now is that actual entities, when they are completely attained, share with eternal objects the property of being repeatable. It is in virtue of this property that actual entities and eternal objects alike have the capacity for being realized determinants of processes of becoming. Both types of entities contribute to the becoming of actual entities, and what the entities of either type contribute is themselves as repeated, i.e., as objectified or as ingressed, respectively. To that extent, actual entities and eternal objects behave in an identical manner. This is one reason (it is not the only one) why Whitehead refuses to identify ‘universal’ with ‘eternal object’: "The term ‘universal’ is unfortunate in its application to eternal objects; for it seems to deny, and in fact it was meant to deny, that actual entities also fall within the scope of the principle of relativity. If the term ‘eternal objects’ is disliked, the term ‘potentials’ would be suitable" (PR 226). In this respect, the point I have been trying to make is that the realization of potentials involves repetition -- repetition either in the guise of ingression or in the guise of objectification. But if my interpretation is correct, and if being repeatable is made the criterion for being a universal, then it follows that eternal objects and actual entities are alike universals, or, in Whitehead’s terms, are alike potentials.

Moreover, since potentials are repeated within actualities, it follows that if being present in a subject, or actuality, is made the criterion for being a universal, then again actual entities and eternal objects are alike universals. This explains how the principle of relativity was meant to "blur the sharp distinction between what is universal and what is particular" (PR 76). As Whitehead put it:

The notion of a universal is of that which can enter into the description of many particulars; whereas the notion of a particular is that it is described by universals, and does not itself enter into the description of any other particular. According to the doctrine of relativity which is the basis of the metaphysical system of the present lectures, both these notions involve a misconception. An actual entity cannot be described, even inadequately, by universals; because other actual entities do enter into the description of any one actual entity. Thus every so-called ‘universal’ is particular in the sense of being just what it is, diverse from everything else; and every so-called ‘particular’ is universal in the sense of entering into the constitution of other actual entities. (PR 76)

To understand correctly the meaning of Whitehead’s statement, we need only keep in mind that every so-called particular enters into the constitution of other particulars by being reproduced in them. But the same is true of every so-called universal. Thus, every entity contributes its own particularity to the determination of each novel actuality; thus, too, every entity contributes itself as repeated; and thus, finally, every entity in its objective functioning transcends itself -- it is repeated beyond itself so as to be immanent in, and given for the immediacy of, each novel actuality (PR 324, 327, 336, 366).

My contention that the principle of relativity implicitly asserts the repeatability of all entities, including actual entities, has now received its initial substantiation. To further substantiate it, I shall next examine how the principle of relativity bears on the solidarity of occasions, the ontological principle and the Category of the Ultimate. This examination will illustrate the extent to which the relativity principle is the bedrock on which a sound interpretation of Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme can, and must, be built. To those cognizant of the received interpretations, the examination will illustrate also, though only implicitly, the degree to which, in those interpretations, the misapprehension of the relativity principle is interwoven with the misapprehension of other crucial organic doctrines.

III. The Thesis of Solidarity

The fundamental thesis of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is that the final actualities of the universe cannot be abstracted from one another because each actuality, though individual and discrete, is internally related to all other actualities. This mutual involvement of discrete actualities is what Whitehead meant whenever he spoke of the solidarity or connectedness of the universe.3 The problem with Whitehead’s thesis of solidarity is its apparent logical inconsistency, for it posits final actualities that are at once mutually transcendent, as entailed by their discreteness and individuality, and mutually immanent, as required by their reciprocal internal relations (PR 470f; AI 254). Showing that the thesis is not really a logical contradiction requires, among other things, the very interpretation of the principle of relativity advanced in this essay.

If we keep in mind Whitehead’s conception of actual entities as discrete individuals, each separate and distinct from the others (PR 470f), the problem posed by the thesis of solidarity may be rephrased as follows: how can the world, or universe, be composed of discrete actual entities and yet be itself contained in each of its component actualities? This problem is one of which Whitehead is fully aware; indeed, he makes it explicit in more than a few passages of his works, sometimes referring to it simply as "the problem of solidarity" and other times as "the paradox of the connectedness of things" (PR 88; AI 293). To cite but one example, in Modes of Thought Whitehead says, in respect to occasions of human experience, that "there is a dual aspect to the relationship of an occasion of experience as one relatum and the experienced world as another relatum. The world is included within the occasion in one sense, and the occasion is included in the world in another sense" (MT 224). This bond between world and occasion, Whitehead immediately admits, is a "baffling antithetical relation"; but for him, when we examine our everyday experience of the world, or when we inquire into the presuppositions of common practice, or into the presuppositions of the natural sciences, or into the presuppositions of basic epistemic claims, we run again and again into this paradoxical relation of mutual immanence (MT 218f).

This compelling character of human experience -- that it is a constituent of the universe and that the universe is a constituent of it -- suggests to Whitehead that the togetherness of all final actualities somehow involves their mutual immanence: "In some sense or other, this community of the actualities of the world means that each happening is a factor in the nature of every other happening" (MT 225). By thus generalizing what is manifest in our experience of the world into a necessary feature of every final actuality, Whitehead arrives at what I have termed the thesis of solidarity (MT 227). The thesis maintains that any set of actual occasions are united by the mutual immanence of occasions, each in the other" (AI 254). It asserts, in effect, that any two actual entities, regardless of their temporal relationship (AI 254), are at once mutually transcendent and mutually immanent. The problem is to find a sense of ‘mutual immanence’ wholly consistent with the discrete individuality of actual entities.4

The importance of the solidarity thesis is evident in Whitehead’s many statements to the effect that his categoreal scheme is meant to elucidate the solidarity or connectedness of actual entities. Three such statements should suffice to make my point:

(1) The scheme should . . . [develop] all those generic notions adequate for the expression of any possible interconnection of things. (PR vii)

(2) The coherence which the system seeks to preserve, is the discovery that the process, or concrescence, of any one actual entity involves the other actual entities among its components. In this way the obvious solidarity of the world receives its explanation. (PR 10)

(3) The world within experience is identical with the world beyond experience, the occasion of experience is within the world and the world is within the occasion. The categories have to elucidate this paradox of the connectedness of things: -- the many things, the one world without and within. (AI 293)

Clearly, the solidarity or connectedness of the world is the thesis whose truth the organic categoreal scheme is designed to convey and demonstrate.

It was with a view toward the elucidation of the world’s connectedness, Whitehead himself informs us, that he chose the basic working hypothesis of his philosophy -- namely, that the final actualities of the world have the necessary features of acts, or occasions, of experience (AI 283f; see also PR 65, 114, 217). This assertion is to be found right after a passage criticizing Humean and Cartesian philosophies because their respective working hypotheses are alike in precluding outright any possibility of doing justice to the connectedness of the world. In marked contrast, the advantage of the organic working hypothesis, that which makes it attractive to Whitehead, is precisely its capacity to suggest categories applicable to the connectedness of things. Thus, immediately after his criticism of Descartes, Whitehead writes:

But if we hold, as for example in Process and Reality, that all final individual actualities have the metaphysical character of occasions of experience, then on that hypothesis the direct evidence as to the connectedness of one’s immediately present occasion of experience with one’s immediately past occasions, can be validly used to suggest categories applying to the connectedness of all occasions in nature. (AI 284)

Such a pre-categoreal analysis of memory -- i.e., of the connection between the present remembering occasion and the past remembered occasions -- must make use, according to Whitehead, of two interrelated, but distinct, notions: ‘repetition’ and ‘immediacy’ (PR 206f). For memory "is a particular example of this character of experience, that in some sense there is entwined in its fundamental nature the fact that it is repeating something" (PR 206). In other words, some of the contents of the remembering occasion constitute reproductions of the remembered occasions. There is, however, more to the remembering occasion than its reproductive contents; for "‘immediacy,’ or ‘first-handedness,’ is another element in experience. Feeling overwhelms repetition; and there remains the immediate, first-handed fact, which is the actual world in an immediate complex unity of feeling" (PR 206).

The notion of repetition, we have seen already, gives rise to, and is incorporated in, Whitehead’s theory of (causal) objectification. The theory generalizes the repetition of the past that is evident in conscious, mnemonic occasions of human experience into a feature of all actual occasions, human or nonhuman. According to the theory of objectification, therefore, every novel actual entity "is the reproduction of the many actual entities of the past" (PR 364). In this manner, the notion of repetition, as incorporated in the doctrine of the causal objectification of past actualities, begins to throw some much needed light on the "paradox of the connectedness of things: -- the many things, the one world without and within." For the actual world relative to a novel occasion, or, equivalently, the occasion’s universe insofar as it is made up of completed occasions, lies, as reproduced, entirely within the occasion; yet that same actual world or universe lies, in itself, entirely beyond the occasion.

As reproduced, the past occasions function objectively in and for the novel occasion. But the reproduction of past occasions, as noted earlier, carries with it the reproduction of all other organic entities, i.e., nexuses, prehensions, subjective forms, etc. Accordingly, the theory of objectification entails the reproducibility and objective functioning of all past entities, actual and nonactual -- entails, in short, the relativity principle. This is why, according to that principle, "it is the one general metaphysical character of all entities of all sorts, that they function as objects. It is this metaphysical character which constitutes the solidarity of the universe" (PR 336). Without the relativity principle, therefore, there can be no intelligible theory of causal objectification and no logically consistent thesis of solidarity.5

Nonetheless, not just the relativity principle, but the entire organic categoreal scheme, is involved in the elucidation of solidarity. Needless to say, I cannot deal here with each and every organic category; but I will examine two -- the ontological principle and the Category of the Ultimate -- which, because they imply the repeatability of actual entities, are immediately relevant to my interpretation of the relativity principle. The first to be examined will be the ontological principle or eighteenth Category of Explanation. This principle is doubly relevant to the task at hand because it is characterized by Whitehead both as blurring the sharp distinction between universals and particulars and as constituting "the first step in the description of the universe as a solidarity of many actual entities" (PR 65).

IV. The Ontological Principle

In the categoreal scheme of Process and Reality, the ontological principle reads as follows:

(xviii) That every condition to which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance, has its reason either in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence, or in the character of the subject which is in process of concrescence. This category of explanation is termed the ‘ontological principle.’ It could also be termed the ‘principle of efficient, and final, causation.’ This ontological principle means that actual entities are the only reasons; so that to search for a reason is to search for one or more actual entities. It follows that any condition to be satisfied by one actual entity in its process expresses a fact either about the ‘real internal constitutions’ of some other actual entities, or about the ‘subjective aim’ conditioning that process. (PR 36f)

Of immediate interest is the fact that the eighteenth Category of Explanation can also be termed the "principle of efficient, and final, causation;" for elsewhere Whitehead tells us that the "‘objectifications’ of the actual entities in the actual world, relative to a definite actual entity, constitute the efficient causes out of which that actual entity arises; the ‘subjective aim’ at ‘satisfaction’ constitutes the final cause, or lure, whereby there is determinate concrescence" (PR 134). Clearly, then, the ontological principle is meant to establish the kinds of particular causes -- or, equivalently, of particular reasons or conditions -- that can be given as explanatory of how and why a particular actual entity came to have the determinate characters it has. All such causes -- or reasons, or conditions -- are to be sought either in the determinate characters of past actual entities, to the extent they had objective functioning within the actual entity in question, or in the particular actual entity itself, to the extent it was a self-functioning entity. Thus, actual entities are the only reasons, the only causes.

In what sense are the past occasions efficient causes of the new, particular occasion? The answer to this question, even without the considerations already advanced in this essay, requires that the past occasions be, in some sense, immanent in the novel occasion. For, no matter what is meant by an objectified actual occasion, it is almost universally agreed that the objectified past occasions are data for the feelings originated by the new concrescence or subject. But, for Whitehead, these data are not external to the subject: "they constitute that display of the universe which is inherent in the entity. Thus the data . . . are themselves components conditioning the character of the . . . subject" (PR 309). Surely, this immanence of the data is precisely what we should expect given Whitehead’s commitment to the doctrine that a subject’s experience is the inclusive whole required by the connectedness, or solidarity, of the many in one. And surely, too, the requisite immanence of the data in the subject is one reason why Whitehead says that the ontological principle amounts to the assumption that each actual entity has to house, or be the locus for, its actual world or universe (PR 123f).

Efficient causation "is nothing else than one outcome of the principle that every actual entity has to house its actual world" (PR 124). To be sure, there is a second sense in which the data from the past are efficient causes of the new subject. For each individual datum has to be felt conformably by the subject (AI 326; PR 374f) 6 Hence, the subjective concrescence is conditioned, though not determined, by its data. In this sense, the past occasions are efficient causes of the new occasion because they condition its concrescence. However, since they condition it through their immanence in it, this second sense of efficient causation presupposes the first -- namely, that the past occasions are efficient causes of the new occasion because, as data, they are included in, and hence are constituents of, it. Efficient causation, then, is merely the outcome of the principle that every actual occasion has to house its universe and conform to it (MT 226f). Accordingly, the first half of the ontological principle asserts the immanence of the universe in each of its component actualities, and, to that extent, constitutes a first step in the description of the universe as a solidarity of the whole in each of its actual parts.

Now, in what sense is an occasion’s universe -- understood as a community of settled, or completed, actualities -- immanent in the occasion itself? My answer is that the universe is immanent only as reproduced or causally objectified; the universe in itself remains external to the occasion. My position, however, is at odds with all variants of the received interpretation. In this regard, differences of detail aside, the major interpreters of Whitehead are divided into two groups: one group, which includes Hartshorne and Lowe, asserts the literal immanence of the universe (as such) in each occasion;7 the other group, which includes Christian, Johnson, Leclerc, Schmidt, and Sherburne, apparently denies the immanence of earlier occasions in later ones, holding instead that there is immanence only in the sense that an eternal object characterizing the subjective form of an earlier occasion is repeated in a later occasion so as to characterize the latter’s subjective form also.8 Nevertheless, the difference between the interpretations propounded by the two groups is, in respect to my purposes here, merely verbal. For those who construe immanence in terms of the reproduction of eternal objects, or of subjective forms, also hold that the earlier occasions are data, in one way or another, for the conformal experience of later occasions. But to the extent that such data are experienced or prehended by later occasions, they are already immanent in them, and they are so even before there is any conformal reproduction of subjective forms. If this fact has escaped the interpreters in the second group, it is because they have forgotten that experience is not a relation of an occasion to something external to it, but is itself the ‘inclusive whole’ required for the connectedness of ‘many in one.’

Only two alternatives, then, are left: either the immanent datum for a subject’s experience is the universe in itself, or it is the universe as repeated. But if we choose the former alternative, the avowed pluralism of the organic philosophy collapses into an extreme monism. The experiencing subject would be the universe -- literally! And this conclusion cannot be avoided by claiming that the experiencing subject would not include other subjects contemporary with it; for Whitehead explicitly asserts that any two mutually contemporary occasions are also (in a sense not involving causal objectification) mutually immanent (AI 278, 254; PR 91; SMW 106f). Moreover, even if the mutual immanence of contemporary occasions were denied, it would still be the case that the literal immanence in occasions of their respective actual worlds would abolish their discreteness; even mutually contemporary occasions would overlap because they have a common past, i.e., because their respective actual worlds also overlap.

Accordingly, either the first half of the ontological principle turns the organic philosophy into a monistic system, through and through, or one occasion is included within another only as repeated. Which of these alternatives we ought to opt for, and what bearing the principle of relativity (and with it the notion of ‘repetition’) has on the ontological principle, Whitehead himself tells us in the following passage:

It follows from the ontological principle, . . . that the notion of a common world’ must find its exemplification in the constitution of each actual entity, taken by itself for analysis. For an actual entity cannot be a member of a ‘common world,’ except in the sense that the ‘common world’ is a constituent of its own constitution. It follows that every item of the universe, including all the other actual entities, are constituents in the constitution of any one actual entity. This conclusion has already been employed under the title of the ‘principle of relativity.’ This principle of relativity is the axiom by which the ontological principle is rescued from issuing in an extreme monism. Hume adumbrates this principle in his notion of ‘repetition.’

Some principle is now required to rescue actual entities from being undifferentiated repetitions, each of the other, with mere numerical diversity. (PR 224)

What Whitehead is saying, in other words, is that each actual entity exemplifies the ‘common world’ because the world as a whole is repeated in every actual entity. Thus, for any occasion there are two ‘worlds’: the ‘world’ including the occasion, and the ‘world’ included in the occasion. But the latter ‘world’ is a repetition of the former. Accordingly, the principle of relativity, as I construe it, not only saves the ontological principle from issuing in an extreme monism, but also explains how there can be "one world without and within." For the world within, it is now evident, is the repetition of, and hence is numerically different from, the world without. To that extent, the problem posed by the thesis of solidarity has been alleviated.

To that extent, too, the alleviation of the problem has required the blurring, by the ontological and relativity principles, of the sharp distinction between universals and particulars. The former principle blurs the distinction because its doctrine of efficient causation requires that earlier occasions be present in, and hence characterize, later occasions. The latter principle blurs the distinction because it holds that one occasion is present in another, not simpliciter, not in itself, but only as reproduced, only as objectified. In these ways, the two principles ascribe to actual entities functions traditionally restricted to universals.

V. The Category of the Ultimate

Without the two-fold reality which the relativity principle attaches to all completed occasions (and, more generally, to every entity of every type), the Category of the Ultimate, or principle of creativity -- the most general principle presupposed by all the other categories of Whitehead’s metaphysics (PR 31) -- would be an outright contradiction. The contradiction is not immediately obvious in Whitehead’s characterization of creativity as "that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively" (PR 31). But as Whitehead elaborates on this principle, what he says, if taken literally, is hopelessly self-contradictory. For the novel occasion created by the advance from disjunction to conjunction, Whitehead tells us, "is at once the togetherness of the ‘many’ which it finds, and also it is one among the disjunctive ‘many’ which it leaves; it is a novel entity, disjunctively among the many entities which it synthesizes. The many become one, and are increased by one" (PR 32). This means, in effect, that each novel occasion "is one among others, and including the others which it is among" (AI 231). But how can the new occasion be one among the many other occasions and also contain within itself those same other occasions?

The problem raised by any literal reading of the Category of the Ultimate may be put this way: how can an actual occasion be at once the creative synthesis of and a novel addition to the many occasions of its correlative universe? The new occasion, through its subjective reactions, does add novelty to what it finds. But this is not the sense in which the novel entity is an addition to the disjunctive many which it finds, for the new occasion synthesizes within itself both what it finds and what it adds. Moreover, if the many entities which the novel occasion finds are united within that novel occasion, if they are together in it, then that novel occasion cannot be also alongside, as it were, the entities it found. The new occasion exists as their synthesis; it includes them; it cannot exist also side by side with them; for that would require that the many entities be both inside and outside the new occasion -- a logical impossibility. Accordingly, the novel occasion cannot both synthesize and add itself to the many completed occasions it finds as already existing in its universe. It cannot both reduce a multiplicity to one and increase it by one. Hence, the Category of the Ultimate, or principle of creativity, is self-contradictory -- unless, of course, it be interpreted in light of the two-fold reality of completed occasions that is implied by the principle of relativity. In that light, what first appeared as a logical impossibility now becomes the familiar paradox of the solidarity of occasions.

If the two-fold reality of entities is accepted, if each entity is real as a transcendent potential and real as an immanent determinant, then the paradox associated with the Category of the Ultimate is alleviated; but it is not eradicated, since there emerges a new paradox: in what sense are the numerically distinct transcendent potential and immanent determinant the same entity? Indeed, the acceptance of the systematic ambiguity attaching to the notion of an entity merely replaces one paradox with another, but, for our present purposes, we may assume the eventual resolution of this second paradox and proceed to examine how the first paradox is eliminated.9

The original paradox is dispelled as soon as we distinguish between the ‘many’ of the ‘disjunctive many’ and the ‘many’ of the ‘conjunctive many’. The actual occasions forming the disjunctive many are the self-same actual occasions forming the conjunctive many, but there is a numerical difference between each actual occasion in the disjunctive many and its counterpart (or objectification) in the conjunctive many. We have to distinguish, therefore, between the growing accumulation of completed actualities qua their original selves, or superjects, and those same actualities qua their reproduced selves, or objectifications.10

In light of this distinction, the principle of creativity can be understood as asserting that the actual universe is continually expanding by the addition of new actualities, each actuality transcending all others, yet also uniting within itself the reproduced selves of all the other actualities. In other words, the universe’s creative advance leaves in its wake, as it were, an ever-growing multiplicity of attained actualities. This is the cumulative character of actuality. But the universe is not only a multiplicity of discrete actualities; it is also the solidarity of actualities: each in all, and all in each (PR 254, 529). There is a solidarity of actualities because all the attained actualities that have accumulated in the wake of the universe’s creative advance are reproduced within each new actuality in attainment at the utmost verge of that advance. This, I maintain, is what Whitehead means when, using ‘time’ figuratively in place of the more systematic notion of ‘actuality’s creative advance’, he says that "time is cumulative as well as reproductive, and the cumulation of the many is not their reproduction as many" (PR 365).11

In respect to the creative advance of the universe, then, or in respect to time in its metaphysical sense, superjects constitute the cumulative or disjunctive ‘many’, whereas the causal objectifications of those superjects in later occasions constitute the reproduced or conjunctive ‘many’. The many entities, in either case, constitute the universe correlative to a new occasion. Hence, the universe as including the new occasion is a disjunctive diversity which yet functions as a conjunctive diversity within that new occasion. For the disjunctive universe has a capacity for functioning as a determinant of the new occasion, but it exercises that capacity by being reproduced within the new occasion. In this manner, the correlative universe of an actual occasion is both beyond and within that occasion, and the immanent universe has as many actual components as the transcendent universe. But it is the components of the immanent universe that are integrated by the occasion qua concrescent subject into subordinate elements of its final unity (PR 233). In the final satisfaction, therefore, the many (as their reproduced selves) have become one within the novel addition to the many (as their original selves). We thus arrive at the only logically consistent sense in which a novel occasion can be "disjunctively among the many entities which it synthesizes." For what Whitehead means is that the novel occasion is disjunctively among the many entities whose reproductions it includes and synthesizes.

The Category of the Ultimate, then, construes the universe as an evergrowing community of actual occasions. Every new settlement of that community, every new disjunctive multiplicity of attained actualities, gives rise, through the transcendent process of transition, to a new occasion in which that particular settlement is reproduced and in which the settlement as reproduced is then synthesized into a final unity of experience by the immanent process of concrescence. But the original settlement is thereby added to; there is now a new settlement which includes the new occasion and all the occasions of the old settlement (PR 364f). There is thus a new disjunctive multiplicity from which yet another new occasion takes rise. In other words, each new attained actuality defines a new actual world, a new creative situation, from which an even newer actuality emerges. The universe’s creative advance is the application of . . . [the] ultimate principle of creativity to each novel situation which it originates" (PR 32). But the creative advance involves both the accumulation and the reproduction of actualities. The universe, then, "expands through recurrent unification of itself, each, by the addition of itself, automatically recreating the multiplicity anew" (PR 438; see also PR 89).

Obviously, the paradox of the Category of the Ultimate is of a piece with the paradox of the thesis of solidarity. Indeed, the Category of the Ultimate is really the thesis of solidarity in disguise. It is that thesis cryptically reformulated to emphasize the dynamic character of the universe; for the universe as a solidarity of actualities is not a static fact, given once and for all; rather, it is an ongoing achievement. Accordingly, the Category of the Ultimate gives expression to this ultimate fact about the universe: that it is creative and that by virtue of its creativeness its many entities are ever becoming one and are thus being increased by one. There is no explaining this fact. "Each creative act is the universe incarnating itself as one, and there is nothing above it by way of final condition" (PR 375).

However, though the fact of creative advance cannot be explained by reference to anything more ultimate than itself, it can and must be elucidated. To elucidate it is to ascertain what the basic units of creative advance are, how they relate to one another, what generic features they have, and what other metaphysical principles they presuppose. Equivalently, to elucidate it is to come up with categories capable of clarifying the paradox of the connectedness of entities -- the many entities, the one universe without and within. Thus, the sorts of entities involved in the creative advance, the what and how of each process of synthesis, and the other metaphysical constraints governing each such process, are respectively rendered explicit in the Categories of Existence, of Explanation, and of Obligation. In this regard, therefore, the other categories of the organic philosophy represent an attempt to make explicit what is implicitly asserted in the Category of the Ultimate.

By way of illustration, let us examine how the principle of process, the principle of relativity, and the ontological principle make clear or explicit much of what is vague or implicit in the principle of creativity. The Category of the Ultimate asserts that the creative advance "is the universe always becoming one in a particular unity of self-experience, and thereby adding to the multiplicity which is the universe as many (PR 89). In that regard, the principle of process formulates the relationship between a unit of creative advance considered as a synthesizing process and that same unit considered as added product (PR 34, 360). It emphasizes that the unit-process and the unit-product are the same entity in two successive modes of existence: first, as a self-realizing subject and, next, as a self-realized superject.12 The principle of relativity, in turn, establishes the metaphysical character which each unit-product shares with all entities of all types -- namely, that they are, each and all, capacities for the determination of unit-processes and that they exercise their respective capacities by being reproduced within each unit-process that finds them already in existence. Finally, the ontological principle establishes the sorts of particular reasons, or of particular causes, that can be given as explanatory of how and why a particular unit-product of the creative advance came to have the determinate characters that it has. All such reasons, or causes, this principle asserts, are to be sought either in that unit itself, to the extent that it was a self-functioning (or self-realizing) entity, or in the character of other unit-products, to the extent that they had objective functioning within (or were reproduced in) the unit in question (PR 36, 134).

Notice that, in the elucidation of the Category of the Ultimate, the ontological principle is more fundamental than the principle of process. For the former principle establishes that each unit-product is the outcome of two different species of creative process: one of efficient, the other of final, causation (PB 228, 320); whereas the latter principle merely emphasizes that the teleological process is immanent to the entity, i.e., that it is the partly determinate entity as in the process of becoming completely determinate through the realization of its subjective aim (PR 135, 423, 130, 373, 390, 524). The ontological principle, however, is less fundamental (because more specialized) than the principle of relativity. For the efficient process of transition involves the objectification of past actualities, and the teleological process of concrescence involves the ingression of eternal objects. Hence, both processes involve the repetition of entities, and thus both presuppose the repeatability of all entities -- presuppose, that is, the principle of relativity. Accordingly, when Whitehead says that the relativity principle is the basic doctrine on which his metaphysical system is founded, I take him to mean that it is the most basic principle for the elucidation of the Category of the Ultimate, or, equivalently, of the thesis of solidarity.

But, as is the case with all the other (nonultimate) categories, the relativity principle not only elucidates, but also presupposes, the Category of the Ultimate. It presupposes it because the repeatability of entities presupposes the creativity whereby there is repetition. Thus, the principle of creativity is ultimate in one sense, and the principle of relativity is basic in another; thus, too, what is indefinable in one notion is presupposed by, or is relevant to, what is indefinable in the other. This mutual relevance, or coherence, of the two principles is particularly evident when Whitehead says: "The oneness of the universe, and the oneness of each element in the universe, repeat themselves to the crack of doom in the creative advance from creature to creature, each creature including in itself the whole of history and exemplifying the self-identity of things and of their mutual diversities" (PR 347f). Unless this statement be taken seriously -- and it is not so taken, I submit, in the received interpretations -- much of the coherence and logical consistency of Whitehead’s metaphysical system will be either lost or distorted, and worse yet, many of the system’s intended applications will be overlooked.



CSPM -- Hartshorne, Charles. Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method. The Open Court Publishing Co. La Salle, III., 1970.

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

PCWP -- Schmidt, Paul F. Perception and Cosmology in Whitehead’s Philosophy. Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick, N.J., 1967.

UW -- Lowe, Victor. Understanding Whitehead. The Johns Hopkins Press. Baltimore, 1966.

WA -- Sherburne, Donald W. A Whiteheadian Aesthetic. Yale University Press. New Haven, 1961.

WM -- Leclerc, Ivor. Whitehead’s Metaphysics. George Allen and Unwin Ltd. and the Macmillan Co. London and New York, 1958.

WTR -- Johnson, A.H. Whitehead’s Theory of Reality. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, 1962.



1 Richard M. Rorty is a notable exception. He takes Whitehead literally, or almost so, in two excellent articles discussing, among other things, the possible link between a concrete entity’s being knowable and its being repeatable (‘Matter and Event," in The concept of Matter, ed. E. McMullin, Notre Dame University Press, 1963; and "The Subjectivist Principle and the Linguistic Turn," in Alfred North Whitehead; Essays on His Philosophies, ed. George L. Kline, Prentice Hall, 1963). Unfortunately, Rorty’s insight into Whitehead’s intended use of the doctrine of repeatable particulars is clouded by his misunderstanding of other relevant Whiteheadian principles. He is thus led to reject Whitehead’s doctrine as both untenable and unnecessary. Since I am not concerned here with issues of adequacy or tenability, but only with showing that Whitehead did indeed hold that completed actualities are repeatable, I have no reason to discuss Rorty’s views at this time. But I believe that no complete account of this aspect of Whitehead’s philosophy can afford to ignore what Rorty has had to say about it in the above-mentioned articles.

2 Whitehead’s conception of God as the one actual entity that is always becoming, and hence never complete raises an interesting problem. For if God is never completely determinate, he is never a being; yet God does fall under the principle of relativity, does function as an object for all other actualities. I hope to deal with this problem in a short essay on God’s superjective nature. For the moment, I can only suggest that God is an object for other actualities only in respect to those aspects of himself that are completely determinate.

3 Whitehead borrowed the term ‘solidarity’ from H. Wildon Carr’s Presidential Address ("The Interaction of Body and Mind") to the Aristotelian Society, Session 1917-18 (PR 65, fn. 3). For Carr: "The term solidarity means that diverse, even divergent, activities together bring to pass a single common result to which all the activities contribute without sacrificing their individual integrity" (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1917-18, p. 32). In his Harvard lectures of 1926-27, Whitehead listed the principle of solidarity as one of the six main principles of his metaphysics; he formulated it as follows: that "every actual entity requires all other entities in order to exist" (Victor Lowe, tr., "Whitehead’s Gifford Lectures," The Southern Journal of Philosophy 7/4 [1969-70], 332). In Process and Reality, this principle received expression in three different, but closely related, categories: the Category of the Ultimate the principle of relativity and the ontological principle (see section V. below). Of these three categories, the first embodies the thesis of solidarity in its most fundamental, but also in its least explicit, form, whereas the third embodies the thesis in its least fundamental, but also in its most explicit, form; the principle of relativity is, in this regard, a half-way house between the other two.

I should add here that ‘connectedness’ (or ‘connexity’) seems to be, for Whitehead, a wider notion than that of ‘solidarity’. For, though often the two terms are used interchangeably, ‘solidarity’ is normally predicated only of actual entities, while ‘connexity’ is predicate d of all entities of whatever type (MT 13, 91f). Eternal objects, for example, are connected inter se: they are all mutually transcendent in respect to their individual essences; but many are mutually immanent in respect to their relational essences (SMW, chapter X).

4 Explaining what Whitehead meant by the mutual immanence of any two occasions, regardless of their temporal relationship, is a complex problem, well beyond the scope of this essay. The doctrine of repeatable particulars is relevant to the explanation of how earlier occasions can be at once transcendent to, and immanent in, later occasions, but the doctrine is not relevant to the explanation of how, or in what sense, later occasions can be at once transcendent to, and immanent in, earlier occasions; it is only indirectly relevant to the explanation of how, or in what sense, mutually contemporary occasions are at once mutually transcendent and mutually immanent. I intend to deal with this problem in a subsequent essay. But I have already dealt with it at length 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).

5 The relativity principle is necessary but not sufficient, for the complete intelligibility of the thesis of solidarity. It cannot by itself explain the sense in which occasions contemporary with, or later than, a given occasion are at once without and within that occasion.

6 In a conformal feeling, an eternal object already ingressed as characterizing the subjective form of an individual objectification given for a nascent occasion is reingressed as a character of the subjective form of the nascent subject’s prehension of that objectification (PR 476, 364, 78). By virtue of those two ingressions, the one eternal object is functioning both datively and conformably in the one, self-same occasion (PR 249). In its subjective immediacy the occasion is thus conforming to a past occasion as given, or objectified, for it. Most interpreters of Whitehead, I should add, confuse the repetition involved in conformation with the repetition involved in causal objectification (see, for example, IWM 131f, 141f, and PCWP 124f). But the repetition of conformation is merely of universals, whereas the repetition of objectification is of particulars.

7See CSPM 117f and UW 359f.

8 See IWM 141f, 134f; WTR 30f; WM 158f; PCWP 124f; and WA 27f, 47f. Sherburne’s views on this matter are not very explicit in WA; but the illustrations in that book suggest that he would deny that earlier occasions are literally included in later ones. See also figure 1 on page 10 of his Key to Process and Reality, Macmillan Company and Collier-Macmillan Limited, New York and London, 1966.

9 I intend to examine the second paradox in a subsequent essay.

10 Although the reproduction of a superject abstracts from the superject’s constitution, it does not abstract from the constitutional elements on which the self-identity of the occasion depends. If this were not so, a superject and its objectification would not be two and the same entity.

11 The cumulated many and the reproduced many are numerically distinct. However, since the many as accumulated and the many as reproduced are, in some non-numerical sense, the ‘same’ entities, it is just as correct to say that the accumulated actualities lie inside a novel occasion as it is to say that they lie outside it. Thus, there are two different, but intimately related, senses of ‘cumulative character’. In the second sense, the causal objectification within an occasion of its antecedent world may be construed as the cumulative character of time, or, in more systematic terms, of the creative advance of actuality. ‘The irreversibility of time depends on this character" (PR 363).

12 I have argued for this interpretation m my "Whitehead’s Principle of Process" (PS 4:275-84).

Viewed 7189 times.