return to religion-online

Whitehead and Locke’s Concept of "Power"

by Ernest Wolf-Gazo

Ernest Wolf-Gazo is a member of the philosophy faculty at the University of Muenster, West Germany. He was a postdoctoral Fellow at Yale University for 1985-86, New Haven, CT. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 237-252, Vol. 14, Number 4, Winter, 1985. 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.


I. Introduction

The present paper promotes a basic thesis: Locke, as he presents his main epistemological theory in his celebrated An Essay on Human Understanding, is transformed into a metaphysician by Whitehead in his Process and Reality.

Anyone familiar with the traditions in Western philosophy, particularly with British empiricism, will find my contention somewhat curious, if not to say strange. The apparent strangeness of my thesis, however, happens to disguise one of Whitehead’s great philosophical accomplishments: transforming the prototype of British empiricism, namely Locke and his epistemological doctrines, into an original and useful ontological position carving out of this very transformation a mature philosophical cosmology, namely the "philosophy of organism. It was Locke who turned out to be the most important philosopher for Whitehead in his mature philosophical stages. Initially it was Berkeley’s acute analyses of perception which captured the early Whitehead’s attention. The Whitehead of Science and the Modern World is still very much engaged with Berkeley’s basic positions; however, by the time of Process and Reality Whitehead felt that he solved basic Berkeleyan problems pertaining to the nature of perception and moved on to Locke’s assessment of the "inner constitution of things" with a special emphasis on the notion of "power."1 In fact, the novel notion of "prehension" in Whitehead’s mature epistemology can be traced directly to Whitehead’s critique of Berkeley, who in turn opened the door for Whitehead’s own critique of the "Century of Genius."

The direct link between Whitehead and Locke was the latter’s entertainment of the concept of "power." This, however, can also be said of Leibniz’s relation to Locke and Whitehead.2 In order to come to terms with the concept of "power," establishing the missing link between Locke and Whitehead, we must forward the following questions:

(a) What relevance had the notion of "power" to Locke and Whitehead?

(b) What is the exact status of "power" in Locke’s Essay?

(c) How did Whitehead transform Locke’s notion of "power"?

(d) What is the relationship between "power" and the idea entertained, by both philosophers in question, of the "real internal constitution of things"? and finally,

(e) How important is Locke’s concept of "power" to the development of Whitehead’s mature philosophy of organism as worked out in his Process and Reality?

These are closely related questions I have tried to come to terms with in the present paper and the respective sections. I think we can say this in a preliminary fashion: the reason why Whitehead turned to Locke, again in his mature state of philosophical development, was the very fact that Locke’s Essay embodied all those doctrines and ideas which were so dear to the followers of the "mechanistic Weltanschauung" in the English-speaking camp. Locke was somewhat influenced by Pierre Gassendi, yet he was probably not such a rigorous atomist as was the case with Gassendi. There was far more "speculation" in Locke’s Essay than his staunch admirers would like to admit. It was Whitehead’s shrewd assessment of Locke which made him see that there were, in fact, "speculative moments" in Locke which had not been hitherto explored. Ultimately, it was Whitehead’s philosophical doctrines of "prehension" and "organic atomism" which "up-rooted" the mechanistic view, replacing it with a more congenial "organic Weltanschauung." For it was the "speculative moments" in Locke’s Essay, such as the concept of "power," which helped Whitehead to supplant (aufheben) the original problem of the "bifurcation of nature." This was the quintessential problem Whitehead had in his mind since the very early Twenties and which he, by a strange detour via Berkeley and ultimately Locke, intended to come to terms with in Process and Reality. Whether he succeeded will show itself at the final stage of our century. Whitehead has drawn up the blueprint for a possible future metaphysics; whether it will carry the day in the long run has not yet been decided.

II. The Status of "Power" In the Essay

Locke gives us a significant definition in the chapter on power in the Essay, ‘The power of Perception is that which we call the Understanding’ (Essay, II, XXI, V, 236). This means, in effect, that the Essay inquires into the origin and extent of the power of human perception, and can be understood as a critique of that power of perception or understanding. Unfortunately, Locke’s method of description did not suffice to undertake such a proposed critique.3

Whitehead’s interest focused on the nature of the very constitution of the power of perception. For surveying the phenomenon of power leads us directly in a realm beyond immediate sense-data. If we remained on the level of mere description, we would not have a leverage to treat the problem adequately. Hume was quite aware of that fact and dealt with the problem of power on the level of cause and effect; however, instead of seeing the problem as an ontological one, he too practiced epistemology, perhaps somewhat more sophisticated, but still descriptively. It was Whitehead who transformed the problem of the effects of power, from an epistemological to an ontological problem, into the form of the origin of the constitution of the power of perception.

Locke’s understanding of power was in terms of thinking, and volition, or will. These powers turn out to be the great principles of actions of the mind, or the abilities of the mind.4 However, we should remind ourselves that thinking as well as perceiving are powers of understanding (Essay II, VI, II, 128, and II, XXI, V, 236). It seems that Locke, at this point, was close to one of Whitehead’s ideas: that perception turns out to be a mode of thinking. Whitehead’s analysis is in terms of contrasting, differentiating, and discerning of the very act of perception. This act of perception, again, is the exemplification of a mode of process occurring in the higher organism.

Another statement of Locke is of interest to the philosophy of organism. "For observing in our selves, that we can, at pleasure, move several parts of our Bodies, which were at rest; the effects also, that natural Bodies are able to produce in one another, occurring every moment to our Senses, we both these ways get the Idea of Power" (Essay II, VII, VIII, 131f.). The very idea that we can inspect ourselves, through the organs of our body, say pleasure and pain, and thereby receive an idea of ‘power in the body’ seems quite congenial to a philosophy of organism. However, a small adjustment has to be made -- in Whitehead’s terms we do not ‘receive’ pleasure or pain, i.e., register in a way, as though our reception of these sensations is any different from the very feeling felt; on the contrary, the feeling of pleasure or pain is the very act of power, making its way onto a level of another mode of sensation in terms of volition, denial, or enduring.

Basically Locke holds that power resides within the body. For instance, ". . . the Power to produce any Idea in our Mind, I call Quality of the Subject wherein that power is . . ." (Essay II, VIII, VIII, 134). For Whitehead, there is no distinction, on an ontological level, between subject, power, and quality. Nothing resides ‘within’ something. The very notion of power, produces, to create the very sensation of the simple idea of power -- to use Lockean language. Thus, the production of power itself, gives power, in the last analysis, the very idea thereof. In other words – "power" comprehends its own power in multitudinous forms.

Locke thinks in terms of ‘. . . the power we can consider is in reference to the changes of perceivable Ideas (Essay II, XXI, I, 233)’. This is seen from the vantage point of a subject in the act of perception. Yet, the so-called ‘changes’, in Whitehead’s terms, are to be found within the relations of the powers themselves and not in ‘perceivable ideas’. For these ‘changes of perceivable ideas’ belong to the department of cause and effect, i.e., they are to be treated as the logic of relations.

Locke holds power to be of a twofold nature: passive and active. For instance, the sun has the active power to blanch wax, and wax, the passive power to be blanched -- the change of color, from yellow to white, is a significant proof of some sort of changes taking place. Locke describes the effects of power and reminds us very much of Descartes’ description of his wax example while sitting near his fireplace meditating. The inquiry, however, as to the origin of this very power effecting such a change as to be able to destroy yellowness of the wax is not Locke’s business, as he puts it (Essay II, XXI, II, 234).5 Again, Whitehead’s ontology starts exactly at the point where Locke draws the limits of his inquiry.

Locke is aware that power includes the idea of relation. Yet he seems, as is the case in the following statement, strangely apprehensive as to the nature of these relations. "For our Ideas of Extension, Duration, and Number, do they not all contain in them a secret relation of the Parts ?" (Essay II, XXI, III, 234). The very ‘secret relation of the parts’ is exactly what interests Whitehead.6 The philosophy of organism is conceived in order to come to terms with just such a Lockean problem remaining to be solved -- i.e., this is another example where Locke seems almost afraid to tackle the problem entertained by him.

Another question occurs in the Essay. "For who is it that sees not, that Powers belong only to Agents, and are Attributes only of Substances, and not Powers themselves?" (Essay II, XXI, XVI, 241). Here we have an example of a Whitehead critique of Locke as still presupposing a subject-predicate ontological base of his theory of knowledge. Whitehead’s reply to this question is clear: Why not consider Powers themselves? And this is exactly what we find, particularly, in his Theory of Prehension where the powers are analyzed in terms of prehensions.

At another point Locke almost gave himself a Whiteheadian answer, considering the following statement. "But it is the Mind that operates, and exerts these Powers (e.g. actual singing, actual dancing, actual thinking); it is the Man that does the Action, it is the Agent that has power, or is able to do. For Powers are Relations, not Agents" (Essay II, XXI, XIX, 243). This statement seems quite contradictory:

on the one hand, Locke identifies power with substance (e.g., mind, man, or agent); on the other hand, he defines powers in terms of relations. In Whitehead’s terms, the actual singing, the actual dancing, and the actual thinking are real as exemplifications of modes of the ways of power. The modes of singing, dancing, or thinking are relations expressed in specific forms of energy.

Whitehead once pointed out, in the opening paragraph of this Preface to Process and Reality (PR xi), that Locke’s Essay "most fully anticipated the main position of the philosophy of organism." We can change this to a statement saying: Locke almost always, in dealing particularly with the problem of power, anticipates Whitehead -- yet Locke does not see the consequences of his own insights. A typical example is the following statement. "What moves the mind, in every particular instance, to determine its general power of directing, to this or that particular Motion or Rest? And to this I answer. The motive, for continuing in the same State or Action, is only the present satisfaction in it; The motive to change, is always some uneasiness: nothing setting us upon the change of State, or upon any new Action, but some uneasiness" (Essay II, XXI, XXIX, 249).

Anyone reading this passage with Whitehead in the back of his mind is forced to smile. The passages ‘only the present satisfaction in it’ and ‘some uneasiness seem to fit exactly the Whiteheadian concept ‘lure of feeling’ and its satisfaction in a determinate subjective form. Feeling as a vector-character does not know of any ‘uneasiness’ -- direction and intensity in the form of power take on a definite form of feeling awaiting fulfillment in terms of satisfaction. From a descriptive view, Locke, in the reply to his question gives us a Whiteheadian answer, but in the second part, as to the motive of change, he fails. It is here, from a Whiteheadian point of view, a leverage is found and applied in terms of vector-characteristic of feeling.7

It seems clear that for Locke power inheres in material things which, in turn, have the capacity and ability to produce ideas of primary qualities in us, such as shape, size, extension, or solidity as well as ideas of secondary qualities, such as colors, sounds, smells. In short: power causes changes in material things. Yet, in Locke’s descriptive epistemology, matter and motion, space and time, remain separate entities embedded in a mechanistic universe. The inquiry into the origin of the power would have been metaphysics. This step was taken by Whitehead. The investigation of the specific relationship between power and substance served as an initial step taken by Whitehead to transform Lockean problems on that matter.

III. The Transformation of Locke’s Notion of "Power"

A highly interesting aspect of one form of functioning of Whitehead’s ontological principle is the transformation of Locke’s idea of "power" into a relevant context of the organic doctrine.8 The following quotations should give the reader an adequate account as to how the ontological principle integrates Locke s important concept into the philosophy of organism:

The ‘ontological principle’ broadens and extends a general principle laid down by John Locke in his Essay (Bk. II, Ch. XXIII, Sect. 7), when he asserts that "power" is "a great part of our complex ideas of substances." The notion of ‘substance’ is transformed into that of ‘actual entity’; and the notion of ‘power’ is transformed into the principle that the reasons for things are always to be found in the composite nature of definite actual entities. (PR I, II, I, 18f.)

This quotation can be supplemented by the following:

the notion of ‘power’ is making a principal ingredient in that of actual entity (substance). In this latter notion, Locke adumbrates both the ontological principle, and also the principle that the power’ of one actual entity on the other is simply how the former is objectified in the constitution of the other. Thus the problem of perception and the problem of power are one and the same, at least so far as perception is reduced to mere prehension of actual entities.(PR II. I, VII, 58)

In order to gain a proper perspective as to the motive why Whitehead focuses our attention to the relevant passage in the Essay, we can offer another quotation from the Essay which gives us a fuller description of the notion of "power" within the context of the corpus-cularian theory:9

Nor are we to wonder, that Powers make a great part of our complex Ideas of Substances; since their secondary Qualities are those, which in most of them serve principally to distinguish Substances one from another, and commonly make a considerable part of the complex Idea of the several sorts of them. For our Senses failing us, in the discovery of the Bulk, Texture, and Figure of the minute parts of Bodies, on which their real Constitution and Differences depend, we are fain to make use of their secondary Qualities, as the characteristical Notes and Marks, whereby to frame Ideas of them in our Minds, and distinguish them one from another. All which secondary Qualities, as has been shown, are nothing but bare Powers. For the Color and Taste of Opium, are, as well as its soporific or anodyne Virtues, mere Powers depending on its primary Qualities, whereby it is fitted to produce different Operations, on different parts of our Bodies. (Essay II, XXIII, VIII, 300)

Locke’s interest in ‘power’ is clearly exhibited in the longest chapter of the Essay, namely Chapter XXI of Book II, "OF POWER" (Nidditch edition, pp. 233-87).10 It is a curious fact that, although the aspects of ‘power’ are described by Locke, a careful reading, still, does not yield a clear idea of what ‘power’ really is. We are given examples as to ‘how’ power demonstrates its activity and how we, as human beings, are affected by it. The direct question, what exactly power means, elicits the reply by Locke, as was the case in reference to the notion of ‘substratum’: ‘I know not what’. These unresolved problems were clearly appreciated by Whitehead, who tried to resolve them in his own scheme of thought.

In order to gain a full appreciation of Whitehead’s attempt at resolving Lockean problems it is necessary to see the matter in the proper context. An important aspect, which we find stated in the introduction to the Essay, is Locke’s insistence that he describes things as products of sense-experience and not to pretend to do metaphysics.11 This is the very reason why Locke does not pretend, and at this point he is coherent, to say anything about power, which he cannot, in good conscience, subscribe to -- description must suffice. Whitehead goes beyond this point. He admires Locke’s description of ‘power’, but intends to transform the very concept and elevate it onto an ontological platform. ‘Power’ is treated as a medium, as the process and source of vital nature. Whitehead thinks, of course, in terms of thermodynamics, metabolism, and vectors. ‘Power’ is thus translated and transformed into terms of modern physics and modern biology.

The Introduction to the Essay gives us clues as to Locke’s intention and in what sense Whitehead could agree or disagree with Locke. Interestingly enough, Locke states and defines, in a positive manner, his purpose, and gives the reader reasons as to what the Essay does not propose to do, or inquire into. Thus, we read, ‘This, therefore, being my Purpose to inquire into the Original, Certainty, and Extent of humane knowledge; together, with the Grounds and Degrees of Belief, Opinion, and Assent’ (Essay I, I, II, 43).

Locke’s intention was to find out the origin, certainty, and limits of human knowledge. This program coheres with the method of mere description of things. However, the Essay remains a descriptive epistemology, or, we could also say, the descriptive epistemology of Locke is conceived within a context of "middle-range knowledge." This "middle-range knowledge" (as I term it), ascertains to find the limits of certain knowledge, based on our senses, but does not claim certain knowledge beyond sense-experience. Certain knowledge here means, not absolute or ontological knowledge, but description limited within sense-perception.12 Hence, Locke’s "middle-range knowledge" is descriptive epistemology embedded within a corpuscularian ontology, which is based on sense-experience and the science of mechanics. However, the application of the descriptive method upon areas beyond sense-experience caught the attentive eye of Whitehead. No doubt, there are areas touched upon in the Essay which transgress the limits of the Lockean method -- power, space and time, mathematical objects, causality, the substratum as the internal constitution of things, or divine revelation; Whitehead reiterates these facts in a telling passage: ‘Locke explicitly discards metaphysics. His enquiry has a limited scope’ (PR II, VI, II, 145): In the same chapter, however, Whitehead states, ‘. . . his Essay, however, does contain a line of thought which can be developed into a metaphysics (PR II, VI, II, 146). Here we can register a kind of ambivalence towards Locke. The basic idea which Whitehead follows is that, although Locke’s clear articulation in explaining facts in the world does not satisfy an ontological commitment to work out a metaphysics, yet, if we look closely in the matter, we will find a niche from where we can, in fact, initiate a metaphysical train of thought. Whitehead’s keen sense of what is relevant and what is not, for constructing a coherent and systematic metaphysics, helped to find that niche -- namely the concept "power." Locke’s descriptive epistemology does not suffice in order to work out an ontological perspective of the world. But his efforts gave Whitehead hints and new ideas so as to make a reassessment in terms of an inventory into the ‘storehouse of knowledge’ surveying the claims of an apparently strict empiricism.

The following passage from the Essay gives us a clue to the nature of the hints and ideas which Whitehead found in order to set the stage for transformation:

I shall not at present meddle with the Physical Consideration of the Mind; or trouble myself to examine, wherein its Essence consists, or by what Motions of our spirits, or Alterations of our Bodies, we come to have any Sensation by our Organs, or any Ideas in our Understanding; and whether those Ideas do in their Formulation, any, or all of them, depend on Matter, or no. (Essay I, I, II, 43)

Whitehead felt that, in order to transform Locke’s descriptive epistomology into a full-fledged metaphysics, its shortcomings had to be turned onto a positive platform. Thus, a different method had to be devised and a new categoreal scheme constructed in order to come to terms with the negative issues of the Essay. Whitehead’s response to that challenge was clear cut: introduce the speculative method, as formulated in "The Speculative Scheme" (PR I, I, 1-VI, 3-17) and apply it to Locke’s concept of ‘power’. In short, it was the ‘method of imaginative rationalization’ and a formal analysis of the role and function of the concept of ‘power’, that gave Whitehead the leverage necessary to initiate his enterprise.13 Whitehead saw clearly that Locke came close to some aspects entertained by the philosophy of organism, but, the latter did not see the consequences of his own inquiry. The following passage in PR makes this clear again.

In the first place, he (Locke) distinctly holds that ideas of particular existents -- for example, the child’s idea of its mother -- constitute the fundamental data which the mental functioning welds into a unity by a determinate process of absorption, including comparison, emphasis, and abstraction. He (Locke) also holds the ‘powers’ are to be ascribed to particular existents whereby the constitutions of other particulars are conditioned. Correlatively, he (Locke) holds that the constitutions of particular existents must be described so as to exhibit their ‘capacities’ for being conditioned by such ‘powers’ in other particulars. He also holds that all qualities have in some sense a relational element in them. (PR II, VI, II, 146f.)

This is sufficient evidence that Whitehead worked at translating Locke’s conceptions into the language of the philosophy of organism. For instance, ‘the child’s idea of its mother’ 14 as ‘a unity by a determinate process of absorption’ is typical ‘Whiteheadian language’. Then, the possibility of ‘power’ is introduced: Whitehead correlates ‘power’, ‘particular existences’, ‘constitution’, and ‘condition’. The relations between ‘powers’, ‘the constitution of particular existents and the ‘conditions’ under which this constitution develops, while the various elements constitute the formal framework of the respective constitution, exhibit qualities which, in turn, demonstrate the makeup of their source -- actual entities.

Locke, writing about ‘powers’, seems quite modest and content with his undertaking; thus, we read in the introduction to the Essay:

If by this Enquiry into the Nature of Understanding, I can discover the Powers thereof; how far they reach; to what things they are in any Degree proportionate; and where they fail us, I suppose it may be of use, to prevail with the busy Mind of Man, to be more cautious in meddling with things exceeding its Comprehension; to stop, when it is at the utmost Extent of its Tether; and to sit down in a quiet Ignorance of those Things, which, upon Examination, are found to be beyond the reach of our Capacities. (Essay I, I, IV-V, 44f.)

Clearly, Whitehead is not that modest and develops the respective line of thought by transforming it into his own conceptual scheme. Being ignorant of things beyond sense-experience, as a fundamental ingredient of human limitation, was accepted by Locke and called common sense. The examination of our intellectual capacities turns out to be the analysis of "middle-range knowledge." Whitehead, however, examines our capacities and formulates the results in terms of "far-range knowledge," (as I termed it). "Far-range knowledge" can be defined as knowledge that yields results beyond sense-experience or immediate appearance, namely metaphysics. He aims at ‘the vast extent of things’, while Locke settles ‘for that Portion and Degree of Knowledge, he (the bountiful Author of our Being) has bestowed on us’ (Essay I, I, V, 45). Hence, we can say that "middle-range knowledge" is limited within a Lockean context, which reserves "far-range knowledge" for the domain of ‘the bountiful author’. This is the reason why Locke has to discriminate between different forms of revelation, e.g., divine, natural, and traditional.15 Whitehead, on the other hand, is forced into developing a theory of deity which includes Locke’s theological context.

At the very point where Locke turns theological, Whitehead starts to initiate a cosmological theory in which theological matters appear as derivative products having their source in nature. Locke remains within the traditional language of the Cambridge Platonists such as Cudworth or Culverwell,16 when he says, ‘The Candle, that is set up in us, shines bright enough for all our Purpose’ (Essay, Introduction, 46). Locke seems content with merely surveying ‘the Powers of our own Minds’ (Essay, Introduction, 47), while Whitehead’s interest lies in the very constitution of those powers and how they constitute mind. Power and Mind seem to be separate categories, but somehow connected in Locke’s understanding of matter -- in Whitehead’s metaphysics they correlate each other. Locke thinks in terms of the powers to ‘see to what Things they were adapted’ (Essay, Introduction, 47f.), i.e., power, minds, and events are for the author of the Essay separate items -- for Whitehead, again, the correlate -- each term connoting a phase of the process of concrescence. For to separate the items at hand means to separate them only for analytical purposes, but in reality they condition one another. Yet, in the last analysis, Locke’s intention is clearly put, and he does not promise anything he could not deliver – ‘Our Business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our Conduct’ (Essay, Introduction, 46f.).

So far we have seen the general shortcomings of Locke’s method, inquiry, and scope. On the epistemological level, Locke dealt with a "middle-range knowledge" platform encompassing the empirical basis of his theory of knowledge. However, his concept of ‘power’ reaches far beyond his point of reference.17 Locke did not have an adequate explanation for his original concept: Whitehead was quite aware of this fact. Thus, Whitehead was forced to integrate the concept of power into a "far-range level of knowledge," which includes his categoreal scheme of thoughts.

IV. The Real Internal Constitution of Things and their Real Essence

Whitehead’s initial approach, tackling the problem of how an actual entity is constituted and what its real essence could be, starts with a Lockean critique of ‘internal relations’.

The basic critique of Locke can be formulated thus: How is change possible? The suggestion that internal relations of parts make up a whole does not give us a satisfactory stepping stone in order to introduce the idea of change. Thus, Whitehead makes this explicit: ‘Every actual entity is what it is, and is with its definite status in the universe, determined by its internal objects in the evolving universe of actual things’ (PR II, I, VII, 59).

Two points are of importance in this statement: the philosophy of organism speaks in terms of ‘internal relations to other actual entities’and assigns ‘change’ to ‘the evolving universe of actual things’, which includes eternal objects. What is of interest in these aspects of Whitehead’s formulation is that where Whitehead speaks of ‘internal relations’ Locke usually describes ‘external relations’. Thus, the philosophy of organism consists of patterns of internal relations making-up varieties of constitutions forming a thing or entity. ‘Change’ turns out to be an ingredient element in actual entities: actual entities evolve while eternal objects participate in the universe of actualities, yet, they remain within the state of continuity. The internal relations within the world of actual entities are settled by eternal objects participating or ingressing into actual entities. This is the reason why the philosophy of organism does not need to make a distinction between internal and external relation. The world is not divided into two separate parts -- the world is viewed as a whole. Locke, accepting a twofold world of things and minds, needed the difference between ‘internal’ and ‘external’; Whitehead does not.

The real, actual, or relevant problem which evolves from this discussion on relations -- internal and external -- is the problem of ‘the real internal constitution of things’ and ‘real essence’. This is metaphysics in the making -- at this point Locke is transformed into a metaphysician by Whitehead. Descriptive epistemology turns into the philosophy of organism.18

The notion ‘real internal constitution’ Whitehead discovered in Locke’s Essay. The real importance of Locke’s inquiry, in so far as it deals with entities and substances, lies in Locke’s conviction that entities and substances in the world have a constitution. That is to say, in order to come to an adequate understanding of the world, we must study their constitution.19 Thus, Locke presents us with a constitutional theory of matter. However, how he presented his doctrine is exactly where Whitehead’s critique sets in; nevertheless, the Lockean emphasis upon the fact that we must take a close look at things at hand, i.e., their constitutional framework in terms of structure and function, was an achievement in itself. Locke always seems to stop short of going beyond his own masterful analysis in the descriptive sense. Locke remains stuck in the descriptive phase and is thus unable to handle the ontological stage in terms of such questions as, What is the real nature of the internal constitution of a substance or entity? This is the kind of question which interests Whitehead. Locke, on this point, either speaks of the ‘secret relation of the Parts’ (Essay II, XXI, III, 234f.), or of ‘particular internal Constitution, or unknown Essence of that Substance’ (Essay II, XXIII, III, 296f.). For, to find the constitution of a thing means to discover the essence of that thing. However, this intention goes beyond descriptive epistemology. This kind of program belongs to the realm of "far-range knowledge." Perception, on a sense-data platform, does not give us sufficient spectrum in order to handle the question at hand from an ontological position. Now we must think in terms of relations and their specific structures, functions, and patterns. We must now search for a pattern or matrix which provides for us a frame of reference within which the internal constitution originates and makes sense.

Locke tells us in direct language that essence is merely an abstract idea entertained in mind; moreover, abstract ideas are merely collections of simple ideas; therefore, essence, for which an abstract idea stands, is ‘the workmanship of Understanding’ (Essay III, III, XII, 414f., and Essay III, III, XIII-XIV, 415f). However, on the question as to the origin of ‘real essence’ of things Locke remains silent. Each distinct idea stands for a distinct essence; yet, what is the difference between the distinct essence and the real essence? This question shows clearly the limitation of Locke’s descriptive method -- the real essence cannot be discovered by mere description. This is the point of Whitehead’s critique and departure of entering the very question as to the real essence or constitution of an entity.20

We have to follow Locke a bit more in order to see how this apparent problem turns into a real problem for Locke, and before we merge into the essence of the philosophy of organism. We will focus our attention particularly on the paragraphs of "Real and Nominal Essence" (Essay III, III, XV, 417ff.), since these are quoted by Whitehead almost in their entirety in PR (see Note 18).

What does Locke exactly say on essence?21

. . . the real internal, but generally in Substances, unknown Constitution of Things, whereon their discoverable Qualities depend, may be called their Essence.

This true, there is ordinarily supposed a real Constitution of the sorts of Things; and ‘tis past doubt, there must be some real Constitution, on which any Collection of simple Ideas coexisting, must depend.

The classification of natural things, by the scholastics, in genus and species, Locke holds to be just ‘nominal’, i.e., an artificial, but not real constitution. It is a constitution assigned by words and language to natural things, i.e., a mere designation. Here we can also speak of a meta-constitution’, i.e., the linguistic construction of the grammar of a language designed to construct a nominal essence of natural things. Locke hints at the idea that there must be some ‘real constitution’; this speculation goes, of course, beyond sense-experience. However, Locke cannot be interpreted, on this point, as turning metaphysical. Quite on the contrary, he merely tells us that our means and ways of knowing the world as real are insufficient -- i.e., sense-experience is not enough. Thus, he cannot state anything that does not conform to the realm of "middle-range knowledge" spectrum.

Whitehead picks up Locke’s idea of the real internal constitution of natural things and turns this whole problem into an ontological question: How is this internal constitution really constructed? Whitehead seeks the essence making up the construction. Another hint for Whitehead is Locke’s statement as to the collection of simple ideas co-existing -- they must have a real constitution, or pattern, in order to exhibit themselves.22 The particular relevance to the philosophy of organism should be apparent.

Locke continues on the following line: ‘For it is the real Constitution of its insensible Parts, on which depend all those Properties of Color, Weight, Fusibility, Fixedness, etc., which are to be found in it. Which Constitution we know not; and so having no particular Idea of, have no Name that is the Sign of it’ (Essay III, III, XVIII, 419). Locke points out that what we call ‘essence’ is usually the attaching of names upon abstract ideas and

that they are all ingenerable, and incorruptible Which cannot be true of the real Constitution of Things, which begin and perish with them. All Things, that exist, besides their Author, are all liable to change; especially those Things we are acquainted with, and have ranked into Bands, under distinct Names or Ensigns. Thus that, which was Grass to Day, is to Morrow the Flesh of a Sheep; and within few day after, becomes part of a Man: In all which, and the like Changes, ‘tis evident, their real essence, i.e. that Constitution, whereon the Properties of these several things depended, is destroyed, and perishes with them. But Essences being taken for Ideas, established in the Mind, with Names annexed to them, they are supposed to remain steadily the same, whatever mutations the particular Substances are liable to. (Essay III, III, XIX, 419f.)23

Thus, abstract ideas as immutable essences entertain only relations with sounds of signs and remain true. They are ingenerable, incorruptible, and immutable. Not so the simple ideas or natural substances. In Locke’s own words, ‘The Names of simple Ideas and Substances, with the abstract Ideas in the Mind, which they immediately signify, intimate also some real Existence, from which was derived their original pattern’ (Essay III, IV, II, 421).

It should be quite clear now that it was the ‘original pattern’24 of ‘real existent things’, having ‘real internal constitution’, in terms of a ‘collection of co-existing simple ideas’, which was the original object of curiosity and interest for Whitehead to tackle. In this sense we can say, that Locke served as a blueprint for Whitehead, yet, once the house was built, the original blueprint was almost totally transformed in such a way, as to maintain that there remained only an historical connection between the original blueprint of Locke and the house that Whitehead constructed. And this is one of the basic reasons why we had to go into the detail of the present subject matter.

At this point the function of the status of ‘real essence’ of the real constitution has to be elaborated.25

Whitehead ‘translated’ Locke on essence as follows:

The ‘organic doctrine’ demands a ‘real essence’ in the sense of a complete analysis of the relations, and interrelations of the actual entities which are formative of the actual entity in question; furthermore, ‘Thus the real essence involves, real objectification of specified actual entities’; Contrary to that idea which continues in the same paragraph, ‘and an ‘abstract essence’ in which the specified actual entities are replaced by the notions of unspecified actual entity. Thus, the real essence involves real objectifications of specified actual entities; the abstract essence is a complex eternal object. There is nothing self-contradictory in the thought of many actual entities with the same abstract essence; but there can only be one actual entity with the same real essence. For the real essence indicates ‘where’ the entity is, that is to say, its status in the real world; the abstract essence omits the particularity of the status’. (PR II, I, VII, 60)

This is Whitehead’s solution to Locke’s distinction between ‘real’ and ‘nominal’ essence. If we say that nominal essence depends on real essence, we must also ask, but how? Locke tried to clear the matter in terms of the linguistic usage of simple and complex ideas; Whitehead, however, confronts the problem head on: ontologically. The phrase ‘in such combination’ seems somewhat loosely formulated, but means that there is room for the process of patterns of combination, i.e., the process from the ‘unspecified’ to the ‘specified’ entities.

Whitehead intends to solve the problem thereby, in transforming Locke’s ‘real essence’ into ‘real relations’, yielding an exhaustive analysis of actual entities or simple ideas (to use Locke’s language); on the other hand, Whitehead transforms ‘nominal essence’, or complex ideas into abstract essence or eternal objects; thus a transformation from a linguistic-epistemological level into an ontological level of analysis has been performed. Understood in this sense, the transformation enlightens the important passage from Locke’s Essay:

The measure and boundary of each sort, or species, whereby it is constituted that particular sort, and distinguished from others is that we call its Essence, which is nothing but that abstract Idea to which the Name is annexed: So that every thing contained in that Idea, is essential to that Sort. This, though it be all the Essence of natural Substances, that we know, or by which we distinguish them into Sorts; yet I call it by a peculiar name, the nominal Essence, to distinguish it from the real Constitution of Substances, upon which depends this nominal Essence, and all the Properties of the Sort; which therefore, as has been said, may be called the real Essence: e.g., the nominal Essence of Gold, is that complex Idea the word Gold stands for, let it be, for instance, a Body yellow, of a certain weight, malleable, fusible, and fixed. But the real Essence is the constitution of the insensible parts of that Body, on which those Qualities, and all the other Properties of Gold depend. How far these two are different, though they are both called Essence, is obvious, at first sight, to discover! (Essay III, VI, II, 439)

It need hardly to be said that this whole matter was not as ‘obvious to discover’ as Locke would have it. For Whitehead tried to solve this specific problem inherent in both ‘real’ and ‘nominal’ beings called ‘Essence’. Basically, Locke introduced the problem of the relationship between sensible-objects, i.e., the realm beyond immediate sense-experience, prehended by the intellect. How difficult the problem would turn out to be and what consequences ensued was demonstrated by Hume, and not the least, by Whitehead.



1The direct link between the early Whitehead and Berkeley was presented by this author at the Whitehead-Conference at Bad Homburg, October 3-5, 1983, entitled, "Whitehead und Berkeley -- Zur wahren Natur der Wahrnehmung," to be published in: Beitraege zum Symposion "Metaphysik der Natur" in Bezug auf Whitehead, (eds.) F. Rapp and R. Wiehl (Alber Verlag, forthcoming, 1986).

2 The present author dealt with this question at the Leibniz-Kongress in Hannover, Nov. 14-19, 1983, entitled, "The Concept of Power as a Guiding Principle -- On the Linkage Between Whitehead, Locke, and Leibniz," in: Beitraege des IV. Leibniz-Kongresses, (ed.) Leibniz-Gesellschaft, Hannover, 1983, pp. 842-48.

3A. C. Fraser makes an interesting comment: Why does Locke separate the treatment of ‘power’ and that of ‘cause and effect’? Locke may have considered the idea of cause to be a complex one in nature; thus, he entertains the idea of cause ‘as an idea of relation between substances, while power is conceived as a simple idea occasioned by change’ (see Fraser’s Essay Edition, Dover Publ., New York, 1959, p.309, Vol. I). This is exactly what Whitehead had in mind -- power is to be understood, or better, analyzed as a phenomenon of change, repetition, development, and process. As such, the Lockean simple ideas turn into prehensions and relations. (Cf. Essay II, VII, VIII, 131.) I have used the critical edition of P. Nidditch.

4Leibniz writes to Isaac Jaquelot (February 9, 1704) that he has carefully read Locke’s Essay. Here he refers to P. Caste’s French translation. Leibniz was able to read English on an adequate level. But apparently he had problems speaking it -- compared to French and Italian, which he spoke in a masterful way. His inadequacy in his active command of English is certainly the reason why Leibniz wrote his letters in French to Clarke instead of English. Nevertheless Leibniz read carefully the chapter on Power in the Essay, in the original as well as Coste’s French translation. See K. Müller/G. Krönert: Leben und Werk von C. W Leibniz, Frankfurt: Lostermann VIg., 1969, 46, 109, and 189. Particularly see Leibniz’s own copies of the Essay (English and French) in which he underlined explicitly the passages relating to the concept of ‘Power’ in: A. Robinet/H. Schepers: (ed.) Nouvaux Essais. Berlin: Akademie Vlg., 1962, 3-9; 12-13.

See R. I. Aaron: Locke, Oxford: Univ. Press, 1955, 9-12, on Locke’s relation to Descartes.

6 This is also true of Leibniz meditating on Locke’s concept of power.

7Vector characteristics’ of feelings, or prehension are emotions having a certain direction and energy in terms of purpose, valuation, or causation. (Cf. PR I, II, I, 19.)

8 Cf. Rainer Specht, in his excellent work, Innovation und Folgelast, Frommann-Holzboog, Stuttgart, 1972. He makes an interesting comment on Locke: ‘Deno die angeborenen faculties oder powers werden zwar von Locke ins Spiel gebracht, aber nicht charakterisiert, obgleich sie nach der Vermutung des heutigen Lesers das eigentliche Interessante sein müsste’, 190. This is exactly what Whitehead noticed in Locke’s concept of ‘power’, and he took advantage of this very useful notion. Specht points out, and rightly so, that Locke’s ‘experience’ turns out to be the new criteria for judging reality. Thus, contrasting Whitehead and Locke on the concept of ‘power’ should not only be of interest to the reader of Process and Reality, but also to the study of the Essay. Also see Specht’s article, Ùber empiristische Ansiitze bei Locke," in: Allgemeine Zeitschrift für Philosophie, Bd. 3, 1977, 1-35.

9The paragraphs 8-14, 23, and 26 of Book II, Chapter XXIII in the Essay should he particularly interesting to the student of the history of science in which Locke describes his understanding of the corpuscularian theory entertained in the latter part of the 17th century. In this connection see Maurice Mandelbaum, Philosophy, Science, and Sense Perception, Johns Hopkins U.P., 1964, 1-60, and M. R. Ayers, "The Ideas of Power and Substance in Locke’s Philosophy," in: Locke and Human Understanding, ed. I. C. Tipton, OUP., 1976, 77-104. Also see Rainer Specht, "Erfahrung nod Hypothesen -- Meinungen im Umkreis Lockes’," in: Phil.Jahrbuch, 88. Jhrg., 1981, 20-49: Specht speaks of the Essay ‘als eine an Gassendi; orientierte Natural History aus der Umgebung Sydenham und Boyles’, 43f.

10 I would suggest that Leibniz, upon reading what Locke had to say about ‘Power, felt that his emphasis upon ‘Force as the central concept in his Dynamics, was duly justified. We may even go so far as to say that, whereas Whitehead transforms Locke’s ‘Power’ on the basis of ‘Process’ and the philosophy of organism, Leibniz does likewise -- transforming ‘Power’ into ‘Force’ on the basis of Dynamics. See A. Robinet/H. Schepers: op. cit., 169f However, if power was to be the source of action, Leibniz appropriated the term ‘entelechy’ to stand for ‘power’. Cf. Robinet/Schepers, op. cit. 216f.

11Again, we must emphasize that the young Locke of the Essays on the Low of Nature (ed.) W. von Leyden, Oxf. Univ. Press, 1954, had a closer affinity to metaphysical speculation than in his later writings. The methods of Hooke and Boyle may have had a decisive influence on Locke’s turning away from metaphysical speculations. See the highly interesting entry in Locke’s Journal of 26 August 1676 on "Transubstantiation" (W. von Leyden edition, 278).

12 Cf. John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (Gifford Lectures 1929) Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1960. Dewey’s comments on the matter seem instructive: ‘. . . the quest for certainty has always been an effort to transcend belief (p. 26), and ‘As far as empiricism is concerned the case of John Locke is instructive. His Essay on Human Understanding is one continued effort to test all reflective beliefs and ideas whatever by reduction to original "simple ideas" that are infallibly known in isolation from any inferential undertaking -- a point in which many of the new realisms are still Lockean’ (p. 184).

13 Aside from the ‘method of imaginative rationalization’ understood as the most general method of inquiry, Whitehead also developed the more technical method of ‘Extensive Abstraction’ which is based on mathematical logic and set theory. The latter method is employed, particularly, in order to work out the ‘structural’ basis of the philosophy of organism. The ‘method of imaginative rationalization’ is employed in order to ‘translate’ concepts and categories entertained by the 17th and 18th century, i.e., the scientific language at that time, into the modern language of quantum theory, relativity theory, and evolutionary theory.

14 Locke was one of the first philosophers to introduce the child-mother paradigm into epistemological theory. Whitehead’s translation reveals that he comes closer to contemporary developmental psychology as expressed in the works of Jean Piaget and John Bowlby. Cf. J. Piaget, Biologie et Connaissance, Gallimard, Paris, 1967; J. Bowlby ,Attachment and Loss, Vol. I, Attachment, The Hogarth Press, London, 1969; also relevant and highly readable: James K. Feibleman, The Stages of Human Life, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1975.

15 See the highly interesting treatment of ‘revelation’ in the Essay, Book IV, Chapter XVIII, "Of Faith and Reason" (688-96). The introduction of science in theological discussion made it difficult for Locke to account for miracles and revelation in a Biblical sense. Thus, he distinguishes, in good Deistic tradition, between revelation as understood in the traditional sense or Biblical sense, and the revelation of God’s divine nature in terms of ‘the Book of Nature’, also well-known through Galileo. Inquiry into the nature of things meant, henceforth, the uncovering or unraveling of God’s beautiful nature. This discovery of parts of God’s nature was a matter of grace bestowed by God upon mankind. Contrary to Hobbes, Locke was a believer. Whitehead tried to solve the deistic dilemma of working with the scientific method while trying to come to terms with the Christian doctrine of divine nature. Leibniz also was very much interested in Locke’s comments on revelation. He underlined passages in Bk. IV, Ch. VII, Sect. XI, of the Essay. See Robinet/Scheper, op. cit., 3-9.

16 Still worthwhile reading, Georg F. von Hertling, Locke und die Schule von Cambridge, Herder Verlag, Freiburg, i.Br. 1892, highly relevant 275-316. Also see Grenville Wall, "Locke’s Attack on Innate Knowledge," in: Tipton, op. cit., 19-24.

17 Leibniz grasped this point very well by suggesting that the concept of ‘power’ should be attributed to corporeal substance as a primary quality, among extension, solidity, figure, and number, instead, as Locke suggested, ‘power’ being part of the ‘secondary qualities’ producing sensations in us. Cf. Robinet/Schepers, op. cit., 130f.

18 Whitehead’s extensive discussion of the doctrine of ‘real internal constitution of things’ can be found in the following passages in PR: (a) PR 1,11,11, 25f.; (b) PR 11,1, VI, 53f.; (c) PR II, I, VII, 59f.; (d) PR II, X, I, 21f.; (e) PR 111,1,1,219; and particularly the paradigmatic foundation of the developmental stages of ‘the real internal constitution of things’ in (I) PR II, X, III, 212f. A comparison of Locke’s Essay III, IX, XII, 482, and Essay III, III, particularly sections XIII to XIX, 415-420, should make clear to every reader to what extent Whitehead leans on and transforms Locke’s notions and scheme. In passages (a), (b), and (c) of PR, Whitehead quotes explicitly section XV, Ch. III, Bk. III, 417.

19 The problem of the constitution of things actually belongs within the history of chemistry. Thus, it is no surprise that Robert Boyle, who influenced Locke on this point, was a chemist. See the version from the view of the history of science in Marie Boas: Robert Boyle and Seventeenth-Century Chemistry, Cambridge University Press, 1958; and Robert P. Multhauf, The Origins of Chemistry, Oldbourne Book Co., London, 1966.

20 For useful Locke scholarship on that point see the following: John W. Yolton, "The Nature of Things Themselves," in: Locke and the Compass of Human Understanding, 1643, Cambridge, 1970; J. L. Mackie, "Substance and Essence, in: Problems from Locke, 72-106, Oxford U.P., 1976; R. I. Aaron’s useful commentary on Chapters V and VI, pp. 155-219, in John Locke (1937), 2nd. Ed., Oxford UP., 1955, and M. R. Ayers, "The Ideas of Power and Substance in Locke’s Philosophy," in: Locke, ed. I. C. Tipton, 77-104, Oxford UP., 1977.

21 Cf. Essay III, III, XV, 417; another instance of how Locke’s language is incorporated into the style of Whitehead’s expression can be nicely seen in the following passages compared: Whitehead, ‘Every actual entity is what it is’ (PR II, I, VII, 59) -- Locke, ‘Essence maybe taken for the very being of anything, whereby it is, what it is (Essay III, III, XV, 417).

22Cf. Essay IV, VI, IV, 580: ‘But in Substances, wherein a real Essence, distinct from the nominal, is supposed to constitute, determine, and bound the Species, the extent of the general Word is very uncertain: because not knowing this real Essence, we cannot know what is, or is not of that Species’.

23 This section discusses the difficult relationship between language and reality and gives much support to J. W. Yolton’s thesis, which holds that Locke’s Essay is best understood from the vantage point of the final chapter, wherein Locke sketches a threefold division of the sciences: the science of nature, ethics, and logic as semiotics. See Yolton’s Introduction, 1-15, in Compass, op. cit. Also cf. Essay IV, XXI, 720f.

24 See Locke on ‘Pattern’; cf. M. Mandelbaum: Philosophy, Science, and Sense Perception, Johns Hopkins U.P., 17ff., 1964.

25 Cf. J. L. Mackie, Ch. 3, "Substance and Essence": Problems from Locke. op. cit., 1976; Mackie, 72-75 (op. cit.) and J. Bennett, 59-63 (op. cit.) agree in holding that Locke did not hold a theory of material substance, i.e., Berkeley’s critique of that supposed doctrine was unfounded. We should add that ‘ontologically’ that is true, but epistemologically Locke did hold an hypothesis as to the material nature of substance, yet, within the realm of "middle-range knowledge" and the method of descriptive epistemology. See Essay III, VI, II, 439. It should be noticed that Locke himself laid the fuse to blow up his own idea of substance by introducing the doctrine of the real internal constitution in terms of real essence. Historically this is of interest, as J. W. Yolton showed in his Locke and the Way of Ideas, O.U.P., 1956, 126ff, in that Bishop Stillingfleet criticized Locke that he wanted to do away with the idea of substance. The Bishop perhaps felt, intuitively, that Locke’s critique of the idea of substance would result, ultimately, in the dissolution of the substance doctrine. Note what Yolton says on the matter (p. 127) and to what extent it agrees with Whitehead’s ideas on that particular problem.

Viewed 14929 times.