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The Metaphysical Status of Civilized Society

by Austin Lewis

Austin Lewis is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866. His primary research interest is in Whitehead’s social theory. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 10-22, Vol. 20, Number 1, Spring, 1991. 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.


That Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism has generated much scholarly interest since its inception is well established, according to one measure at least, by the wealth of serious commentary devoted to the explication, criticism, and/or revision of his work. The mainstay of that research, however, has concentrated primarily on only three areas of Whitehead’s philosophy: the process metaphysics of his cosmological scheme, his views concerning the nature of God, and his early work in the philosophy of natural science. As provocative as these areas are to Whitehead’s overall philosophical thought, they by no means exhaust all relevant areas of inquiry. There remain, on the contrary, other aspects of his philosophy which are equally worthy of serious study, but which for the most part have been either ignored altogether or only partially examined.

Undoubtedly the most neglected aspect of Whitehead’s copious philosophical system is his social philosophy, in general, and his views on civilization, in particular. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that no other major area of Whitehead’s philosophy has received less attention than has his theory of civilized society. Of the many issues yet to be adequately investigated in this area is the principal question concerning the metaphysical foundation, and thereby justification, for civilized society according to Whitehead’s organic cosmology. More specifically, the question comes down to how well a civilized society exemplifies the ultimate principles and derivative notions of Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. The short version of the question, and the one I will address here, is simply: What is the metaphysical status of a civilized society? In other words, what is its classification as an existent thing?1

First of all, there is no doubt but that Whitehead himself took it as a matter of course that sociology and cosmology should be not only compatible but also fundamentally consistent lines of inquiry. Though the objects of study for each of the two disciplines are different, nonetheless both should be answerable to the same philosophical scheme, and appropriately enough we find in the very opening chapter to Process and Reality just such an assertion on Whitehead’s part -- note the justification which Whitehead offers for his cosmology. He writes:

Speculative Philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted. By the notion of ‘interpretation’ I mean that everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme. Thus the philosophical scheme should be coherent, logical, and in respect to its interpretation, applicable and adequate. . . . It is the ideal of speculative philosophy that its fundamental notions shall not seem capable of abstraction from each other. In other words, it is presupposed that no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the system of the universe. . . . (PR 3/4-5, emphasis added)

Accordingly every aspect of human experience, including civilized experience, is to be interpreted by virtue of this one general scheme, and thus "no entity," including a civilized society, is to be omitted as an instance which exemplifies the metaphysics therein entailed. For Whitehead, human activity has just as much place in the "system of the universe" as does any other type of event, and thus any ‘coherent and applicable system of general ideas’ designed to explain that universe can only be finally justified to the extent that human civilized activity is likewise interpretable in terms of that universal system. It follows then that Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism is, in part at least, an overt attempt to situate ontologically that type of entity known as a ‘civilized society’ within the framework of a universally consistent metaphysics.

Now it stands to reason that, given Whitehead’s own perspective of the correlation between cosmology and sociology, the key to resolving the issue as to the status of a civilized society should be sought in the context of that more general metaphysical scheme. In particular, the key to our question can be found, I believe, in Whitehead’s appropriation and adaptation of the concept ‘society’, for by his choice of the term "society" as the generic designation for a certain type of existent thing, i.e., to denote a social nexus, Whitehead laid the foundation in terms of which any such entity is essentially referent. Of this type of existent he includes such things as an electron, a molecule, a rock, an animal, or an individual human being (in ordinary language, any ‘physical object’). And technically speaking for Whitehead, any such ontologically derivative and composite thing is simply a ‘society.’2

That Whitehead should have borrowed from human experience the term "society" and then employed it systematically to refer to a certain type of ‘derivative existent’ without intending any metaphysical implication in the context of human social affairs, would have been not only careless on his part, but what is worse, fraudulent. And to be sure, Whitehead is not playing a word game here. Thus by no arbitrary whim, a civilized society falls under this same ontological classification, at least in more than merely a nominal sense. The pertinent question then becomes: To what extent is a civilized society a real instance of this more technical class of derivative existent? In other words, in what sense metaphysically is a civilized society a Society per se? Is the correspondence between these two types of entities one of analogy, equivalence, or identity?

In terms of Whitehead’s organic metaphysics, the most consistent of the three possible correlations between a civilized society and a Society per se is an equivalent status. For the correspondence between the two to be identical, a civilized society would have to be the exact same kind of entity as some other type of Society, inanimate or personal for example, which of course is not the case. (A civilized society is not a chair or type of vertebrate.) Besides, to treat a civilized society as purely the same as any other type of event in nature would be to downgrade the significance of one of those things Whitehead finds most peculiar to the human species, namely, civilization. On the other hand, if the correlation were simply analogical, then no coherent metaphysical connection could be maintained respecting the affinity between human activity and the rest of the natural world, and thus mankind is exiled from nature and a civilized society is merely an aberration of human invention, a consequence which is completely contrary to Whitehead’s naturalistic view of sociology.3

Thus the only coherent and applicable option, given Whitehead’s assumption, it seems to me, is to argue that a civilized society is generically the same as any other Society even though it is distinctive unto itself. That is, a civilized society and a Society per se are equivalent types of entities which only vary to an unusual degree. Or alternatively stated, a civilized society is simply a special case of the generic type. Given the issue as now formulated, the most profitable route of inquiry will thus be to establish this equivalent metaphysical status by evaluating a civilized society against the same basic principles which ground all Societies.4

As a preliminary point it is worth noting that neither a civilized society nor a Society per se is to be classified as an instance of what Whitehead calls an "actual entity" or primary existent. At the very minimum both a civilized society and a Society per se are entities which derive their reality from constituents which are ontologically more ultimate: a civilized society from the interrelationships of individual human beings, and a Society per se from the interrelations of actual entities. Thus the status of a civilized society is equivalent to that of a Society per se in that both types of ‘entities’ are composed of constituents which are ontologically superior to the whole of which each of those constituents is a component. That is, just as a Society is metaphysically a derivative type of existent inasmuch as its constituent actual entities are ontologically ultimate, so in an equivalent fashion, a civilized society is metaphysically secondary inasmuch as human beings are more real, ontologically speaking, than is the larger civilized society. Thus each type of entity is a dependent existent, one which derives its being from the actuality of its constituents.

The correlation here is more than merely analogical since in neither case would either type of entity exist as such were it not for this ontological dependence of the whole on its parts. On the other hand, the correlation is not identical at least for the reason that the respective constituents of each are not ontologically of the same kind. Simply put, an individual human being is not an actual entity, and thus a civilized society is not a Society per se, literally speaking.

But even as derivative types of existents, a civilized society and a Society per se are nonetheless both real in this secondary or dependent sense, and thus metaphysically speaking, they both must belong to some "category of existence other than that reserved for a primary existent. What then is that other category? In particular, to what ontological category does a Society belong, and in what manner does a civilized society meet those same metaphysical standards?

As a derivative type of existent thing every Society, of whatever kind, is properly classified by Whitehead as an instance of the category which he terms "Nexus, or Public Matters of Fact."5 Presented as one of eight derivative categories of existence the concept "nexus" denotes that type of entity which is brought into being as the relational complex of two or more actual entities grouped together into a composite whole. The so constituted compounded existent thing is a ‘nexus’ whose constituent parts are actual entities related to one another in such fashion that their interconnections form a real and particular unity of relationship. The essential feature of a nexus which qualifies it as an existent thing is then precisely the composite unity brought about through the relational "mutual immanence" of its many constituents.6

Equally important, the ontological status of a nexus must differ essentially from that ascribed to an actual entity. And this difference is adequately established when Whitehead asserts that a nexus arises as a "particular fact of togetherness" (PR 20/30), e.g., a nexus comes into being as an entity constituted by the relations of mutually interacting entities of a more primary type. Be it that the real particularity of a nexus is then a relational unity, and not an atomic unity (which is the case with actual entities), clearly denotes a fundamental metaphysical distinction. Nonetheless, a nexus is a real and particular existent thing, even though it is such in an ontologically dependent sense.

A civilized society is likewise constituted as a composite and relational unity in that its primary constituents, individual human beings, are interrelated socially via this same principle of mutual immanence. According to Whitehead’s cosmology, the ultimate ground of every type of physical relation, and thus the basis of any type of social relationship, be it human or otherwise, is to be derived from the generic character of experience itself, i.e., from the primacy of the subject-object relation as constituted in experience. It is, he further clarifies, by the primarily emotive nature of this relation of subject and object in experience that there arises a "conformity of feeling," a "sympathetic bond," between the two relata found in experience. As he writes of this most fundamental form of relationship:

The primitive form of physical experience is emotional -- blind emotion -- received as felt elsewhere in another occasion and conformably appropriated as a subjective passion. In the language appropriate to the higher stages of experience, the primitive element is sympathy, that is, feeling the feeling in another and feeling conformably with another. (PR 162/246)

In the simplest terms then, human social experience is a form of togetherness in which there is a sharing of feeling, a concordance of emotion, between two or more individuals who become immanently related one to another by the very character of their mutual experience.

Because the primary disposition of human experience necessarily entails this essential feature of mutual immanence, the basis of all human social relationships is, for Whitehead, likewise primarily emotive. As he addresses the question, human societies are founded on "emotions of respect and friendliness between man and man -- the notion of brotherhood. These emotions are at the basis of all social groups" (AI 37). Whitehead reiterates the same point by stating that human social development "depended on the slow growth of mutual respect, sympathy, and general kindness" (AI 100). The operative concept here is "cooperation." Indeed, as Whitehead is convinced, all ecological systems and by extension all naturally occurring social groups of whatever type, human included, are fostered upon the principle of cooperation, and not competition or antagonism. Force, in any of its various forms, is decidedly anti-social, for Whitehead.7 Thus rooted in human emotional and instinctive experience, human social relations are not principally rational or artificially instituted, but instead are founded on natural feelings of accommodation and mutual beneficence.

Derived as it is from the cooperative nature of human beings then, a human society comes into existence, is maintained, and continues to develop, insofar as individuals are able to interrelate with one another in ways which are reciprocally sustaining. In this way, social cooperation among human beings brings about the cohesion, and therein the unity, required of a society by interrelating the personal experience of individuals in such a way so as to emotionally bond those individuals together. The composite and relational unity of a civilized society is thus constituted in terms of the mutual immanence of individual human beings related to one another by the ‘sympathetic’ character of their experience. The correlation to a Society per se is more than simply analogical in these terms since the subject-object structure of experience is generic to all things, and yet neither are a civilized society and a Society per se identical, owing to the unique type of experience manifested by human social interaction. Thus, according to the general conditions set forth by the category Nexus, a Society per se and a civilized society are equivalent ontologically.

But as an existent thing, a Society per se, and likewise a civilized society, is more than simply an indeterminate assortment of relationships, something greater than merely a ‘composite togetherness.’ Both types of entities manifest, according to Whitehead, the special quality of ‘social order.’ A Society is, in Whitehead’s scheme, a type of nexus wherein the relations between its constituents exhibit an ordered relatedness to one another, i.e., some common pattern of relations is manifest wherein the nexus takes on the additional feature of social unity which thus constitutes it as a social nexus, or in Whitehead’s terms, a Society per se. He writes: "The term ‘society’ will always be restricted to mean a nexus of actual entities which are ‘ordered’ among themselves" (PR 89/136); and again, "A Society is a nexus which ‘illustrates’ or ‘shares in,’ some type of ‘Social Order’" (AI 203). Whitehead’s concept of Society thus explicitly calls attention to the essential orderliness of social relations; that is, groups of existing things are related socially because those things share a particular order among themselves.

The concepts of ‘social relatedness’ and ‘order’ are inextricably connected in Whitehead’s cosmology such that in effect the very notion of ‘society’ is intelligible only in terms of the creation of those types of relationships which exhibit a ‘common pattern of togetherness’ between things. Succinctly stated, a ‘society’ presupposes groups of existing things ordered one to another. Whitehead writes: "the general notion of Society . . . introduces the general consideration of types of order, and the genetic propagation of order" (AI 203). Accordingly, Societies arise in the scheme of things, they literally come into being, solely by virtue of the order that is manifested and propagated as actual entities mutually interrelate.8

In the case of a civilized society, the principles of ‘order’ and ‘genetic propagation’ are no less fundamental as regards its status as an existent thing than are those same principles required of a Society per se. What Whitehead offers to effect this particular translation of cosmology and sociology is the reintroduction of a theory of "social custom" to serve as the founding principle of order in human society. He writes:

The favorite doctrine of the shift from a customary basis of society to a contractual basis, is founded on shallow sociology. There is no escape from customary status. This status is merely another name for the inheritance immanent in each occasion. Inevitably customary status is there, an inescapable condition. (AI 63)9

In the generic sense, for Whitehead, the customs of any given civilized society function as the requisite ‘patterns of relationship,’ which not only define but also substantiate the particular order of that society. The various and diverse customs of a civilized society, be they economic, political, religious, etc., essentially organize the assorted activities of individuals into determinate and meaningful relationships, and thus there is ‘order’ in civilized society. In the absence of such established social customs, a civilized society would be merely a random group of individuals inadvertently related -- a disorganized, perhaps even chaotic, gathering of humanity. In short, there is order in civilized society because there is custom, Whitehead maintains.

As such, these self-generated, widely adherent, and historically enduring traditions of society, whether formally or informally instituted, are, in a literal sense, the ‘defining characteristic’ of civilized society. And inasmuch as the individual members of society to whatever degree mutually and steadfastly enact these customs, there is an efficacious transmission, i.e., propagation, of social order throughout civilized society over time. The customs of any society are thus a shared and likewise inherited form of social order as is the case with any other form of order in any other Society, notwithstanding the peculiarities of human social experience. Accordingly, the ‘order’ of a civilized society is ‘genetically propagated’ in terms of commonly accepted and habitually enacted social practices which are passed on from generation to generation, and thus in the most general terms a civilized society is metaphysically constituted as a ‘social nexus’ in a fashion equivalent to that of a Society per se. 10

Several other points of equivalence are relevant in comparing the status of a civilized society to that of a Society per se. These have to do with the closely allied qualities of endurance, identity, agency, and individuality.

First, concerning endurance, Whitehead’s metaphysics makes it clear that the quality of endurance is something which pertains exclusively to the nature of a socially composite entity, albeit a Society per se or a civilized society. Fundamentally, the quality of endurance refers to the continuity of order propagated among a plurality of things and not to the simple duration, i.e., occurrence, of social order in any single occasion. Whitehead writes: ". . . endurance is the process of continuously inheriting a certain identity of character transmitted throughout a historical route of events" (SMW 108). The endurance of a Society is thus founded on the repetitious enactment and propagation of its defining characteristic, a ‘continuity of pattern’ genetically transmitted among member constituents. The realized pattern of relations, or defining characteristic, is re-enacted customarily (to borrow a phrase) and thereby endures -- is continuous -- throughout the whole composite set of relations which constitutes the Society.

Whitehead further elaborates the status afforded a Society as an enduring existent by citing both its essential and accidental qualities, noting therewith its unique metaphysical status as compared to that of an actual entity. He writes:

A Society has an essential character, whereby it is the Society that it is, and it also has accidental qualities which vary as circumstances alter. Thus a Society, as a complete existence and as retaining the same metaphysical status, enjoys a history expressing its changing reactions to changing circumstances. But an actual occasion has no such history. It never changes. It only becomes and perishes. . . . The real actual things that endure are all Societies. They are not actual occasions (AI 204).

That a Society has both essential and accidental qualities thus enables it to be a type of entity which endures throughout change as a "complete existence" with an ongoing historical development of its own: it remains what it is essentially and yet changes accidentally in "reaction to changing circumstances." In contrast, the constituent actual entities of a Society are not historical entities since they neither endure nor change.11

With the distinction that a Society has this historical dimension to its existence, but that actual entities do not, it follows that a Society is in some manner a self-sustaining process which endures beyond the individual activity of any number of its member constituents. The actual entities of a Society come and go, as they become and perish. but the Society to which they belong carries on despite the transitions in membership which occur constantly. In this sense, the defining characteristic of a Society transcends any one set of relations pertaining at any one moment of the Society’s existence; it pertains instead to all moments in the life of the Society so long as it endures as what it is essentially.

In an equivalent light, a civilized society is constituted as an enduring, i.e., historically continuous, entity which manifests a definitive set of social relations that transcends the invariable changes in its membership. The factor in human social experience which Whitehead identifies as responsible for generating this correlative kind of ‘continuity’ is routine, namely, the repetitive activity of daily social intercourse. It is, he reasons, by way of the day-to-day repetition of commonly accepted and uniformly executed social practices that there arises a certain consistency, and thus persistence, of social order in society. And even though for Whitehead human social interrelationships are primarily instinctive (owing to the ‘sympathetic’ nature of human experience), nonetheless it requires the repetitive occurrence of inherited social activity to establish a social order stable enough to secure the continued social interaction of individuals, and therein the endurance of society as a whole. Simply put for Whitehead, routine begets continuity and continuity yields endurance. Thus, in terms of the enduring temporal continuity produced by routine, a society has a history of its own.

So crucial is the factor of routine to the endurance of social order within a civilized society that Whitehead quite earnestly asserts that, "Routine is the god of every social system. . . . Unless society is permeated, through and through, with routine, civilization vanishes" (AI 90). Consequently, without routine, social relations within a society would be capricious and chaotic, subject to the fluctuations of individual whim or the expediencies of the moment. Indeed, without the factor of routine, activity in a society would not be ‘social’ as such, in Whitehead’s terms, since it would lack the overriding order requisite to ground that activity as essentially interrelational in a social context. Accordingly, no matter how social human beings may be by nature, the endurance of society, the ‘continuity’ of the ‘social composite,’ is founded outright in the routine re-enactment of standardized social practices. It follows too that because of the enduring continuity of its now definitive social order, the society as a whole transcends individual constituent activity and survives in its own right despite the constant changes in its membership. The quality of endurance, therefore, is no less relevant to the status of a civilized society than it is to that of a Society per se.

The issue concerning the extent to which a civilized society manifests a certain ‘identity’ of social character -- that is, the extent to which it is a self-identical entity -- can likewise be resolved by comparison to a Society per se. In that both a civilized society and a Society per se are defined in terms of the particular social order which is dominant therein, and as existents are derived wholly from the immanent interrelations of their respective constituents, it follows that both types of entities exhibit only a relational self-identity. As Whitehead writes: "The self-identity of a Society is founded upon the self-identity of its defining characteristic, and upon the mutual immanence of its occasions" (AI 204). Thus the identity of any ‘socially composite’ entity is completely relative to the endurance of an established social order and dependent upon individual constituent interaction, and cannot under any circumstance be regarded as something which is manifested unto itself. Every Society is, after all, an ontologically derivative type of entity.

Likewise, a civilized society is never a self-sustaining entity apart from the ordered relationships of individual human beings immanently engaged in social activities, even though its definitive social order is historically propagated. A civilized society does endure, its social order is continuous, it does enjoy a history, but that does not entitle it to an identity independent of the interrelations of its constituents. In short, no socially composite entity is an atomic entity, and thereby both a civilized society and a Society per se are never self-identical in an absolute sense.

Civilized societies do come to manifest various socially peculiar characteristics, in some cases extremely divergent and seemingly strange, as do some Societies, but no social characteristics can ever be more fully exhibited than in the individual persons who enact those peculiarities, and thus the identity of a civilized society is always relative to those enactments. Commenting on American society, Whitehead writes: "There is no one American [social] experience other than the many experiences of individual Americans" (ESP 53, bracket word substitution). So it is with the identity of any civilized society, as it is with that of all Societies.

The problem of causal agency, i.e., the question of whether it is the larger social whole or the individual constituent which is the primary efficacious factor in society, is also relevant metaphysically. Certainly a Society per se is really only efficacious through the coordinated agency of its constituent actual entities, for whatever activity be manifested in the whole is ultimately to be derived directly from the interrelated and creative activity of its constituents. Whitehead’s ontological principle guarantees this eventuality. As he writes: "But [a] Society is only efficient through its individual members" (PR 91/139); and elsewhere: "The composite group illustrates its qualities passively. The activity belongs to the individual actualities" (AI 213).

Equally so, a civilized society, as one whole and regardless of its particular political orientation, exerts its influence solely in terms of the individual effort of persons, acting either alone or in concert with one another. And while the social customs, civil laws, and authoritatively sanctioned principles of a society can be said to have determinative influence on the social practices and development of a society, still it is the case that these social customs, etc., have that efficacy only as enacted by individuals in daily social intercourse. Even the compelling power of legal statutes is only as effective as is the action of those individuals whose task it is to judicially enforce those civil laws, or as the laws themselves are commonly upheld by the citizenry. Speaking of the efficacy of a society as a whole, via its inherited social customs and the like, Whitehead makes the following point: "In the end nothing is effective except massively coordinated inheritance" (AI 64). Thus the inheritance of acquired social order, in all its forms, must be "massively coordinated" in order to be effective. In other words, it is only through the coordinated activity of individual persons acting concordantly that the social order of society has any real and lasting efficacy at all. The agency of the larger social whole is thus to be compared to an ensemble of persons acting as one voice: an activity manifested as a whole, but one derived from and enacted by its parts; one voice made up of many separate voices, socially interrelated.

Another point of equivalence concerns the quality of ‘individuality,’ i.e., whether or not a civilized society is an individual entity in some sense, and if so, of what sort. According to Whitehead’s cosmology, there are three fundamental types of individuality manifested in the natural order of things. First, there is the inorganic form of individuality in which the composite whole is merely the sum of its parts, i.e., the entity in question is a simple ‘aggregate,’ a non-individual, so to speak. Second, there are basically two organic forms: the vegetative and the animate, the lower of which manifests a type of ‘collective’ individuality, ("a tree is a democracy," as Whitehead is fond of saying); and the higher animate form, in which the whole manifests a centrally unified field of experience wherein ‘subjective’ individuality is the norm. (These distinctions as to types of composite individuality are admittedly simplistic, but they are nonetheless consistent with Whitehead’s naturalistic approach to metaphysics.)

Within the range of these three options, the individuality of a civilized society correlates most appropriately to that of the collective individual, the intermediate type. The social unity of a civilized society is certainly more complex and interrelated than that which a mere aggregate of parts would allow. A civilized society is at least something greater than a simple mixture of homogenized persons. For one, the members of a civilized society are mutually and immanently related to one another in a host of ways: personally, religiously, economically, politically, etc.; each member of society is socialized, to varying degrees, in terms of the efficacy of prevalent social customs, institutions, etc.; and functionally speaking, a civilized society is itself a vast network of interdependent activities and enterprises, civilized and non-civilized. Thus a civilized society does manifest some form of real individual unity.

On the other hand, it is certainly the case that a civilized society does not exhibit any type of overriding unity greater than that which is manifest by the many individual efforts of its constituents. There is no centrally consolidated social experience which has dominion over the affairs of society as a whole; and consequently, a civilized society is not a subject as such, either structurally or functionally. In technical Whiteheadian terms, there is no ‘regnant nexus’ into which and out of which flows the experience of society, and thus there is no subjective unity characterizing the whole. While there is continuity of function in a civilized society, it is the kind of continuity defined by a plurality of interrelated things and not the continuity of any one single individual.

Thus utilizing Whitehead’s distinctions, a civilized society is best described as a collective individual, or communal whole, as opposed to either an aggregational composite or a subjective unity. To return to a metaphor already employed, a civilized society is, in effect, an ensemble of separate but variously interrelated human constituents and social activities, a ‘social assemblage’ of many voices acting in consonance with one another. It is a ‘social event’ founded on the basic need for human beings to interrelate with others of their kind within the context of a nourishing social environment; it is a ‘living-togetherness’ constituted of individual human beings sharing a common and, to some extent, mutually satisfying form of social experience. From its instinctively cooperative origins in human nature to the self-initiated perfection of its civilized enterprises, a civilized society is, in Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, a community of social beings who belong to one another essentially. And although it is true that different civilized societies manifest varying degrees of ‘communal unity’ depending on their particular social-historical situation, and/or political orientation, still it is the case that there is a general metaphysical equivalence in this regard.

In a number of essential ways then, a civilized society is metaphysically equivalent to a Society per se, and thus its status as an existent thing is explicable in terms of Whitehead’s organic cosmological scheme. A civilized society is, in the universal hierarchy of social order, simply a particular form of social creativity made uniquely distinctive by human effort. Consequently, a civilized society is but one further instantiation, among a myriad of such instances, of the ultimate creativity which underlies the very process of the world -- it is the realization in human social experience of the inherent principle of "creativity-one-many" at work in all things. It is fitting then that the final issue to be resolved regarding the status of a civilized society should concern the question of the creativity of one and many, e.g., is a civilized society a ‘one’ or a ‘many’ metaphysically?

Rightfully enough, according to Whitehead’s cosmology, the primary exemplification of the creative interplay of one and many is to be found in the becoming and perishing of an actual entity: each such primary existent a "conjunctive unity" arising out of the "disjunctive diversity" of things, which in its turn takes its place among that plurality as the ground of further such acts of creation. As Whitehead so aptly explains it, "The many become one and are increased by one" (PR 21/32). In short, the ultimate creativity of things is the process of many becoming one’ and ‘one perishing into many’. So too at the level of social interaction, the world of Societies, the creativity of one and many is not lost to the nature of things. Every Society is, although derivatively, a composite unity which arises out of the social interrelation of its many diverse constituents, which in its turn perishes, thereby adding to the ongoing creativity of things in its own fashion.

But there is an essential difference in that the functions of a Society and that of an actual entity are reversed in this creative process of one and many. An actual entity is a concrete unity, self-creative, ontologically primary, and thus a one of many, whereas a Society is a composite whole, created in terms of the interaction of its constituents, ontologically secondary, and thus a one in many. To put it another way, every Society is a relational one constituted solely as a plurality of actual existents, while each actual entity is an atomic one constituted out of a diversity of potential existents. Thus a Society is actually many and potentially one, while an actual entity is actually one and potentially many. The creative interplay of one and many is real in both worlds, but inverted metaphysically.

The basic correlation of Society and civilized society is again fundamentally equivalent as regards the issue of one and many. A civilized society as one is actually many, and as many it is potentially one, or what amounts to the same thing, a civilized society is really many and ideally one. In the first place, a civilized society is a secondary type of entity derived exclusively from the social interrelationships of its constituents, and is not, therefore, a concrete one in any sense of the term. Since each of the constituent human beings of a civilized society is itself more ultimate metaphysically than is the larger social whole, it follows that a civilized society is really only a relational unity composed of many individuals related as one socially. The individual constituents are the actual primary units of a civilized society, and therefore the larger society exists solely as a ‘composite one’ and not as an indivisible or atomic one. The real unity of a civilized society is vested in the actual interrelations of many individuals, and not in itself as such. It is real in the actuality of many, but ideally one insofar as the many individuals of society strive to create a social environment which is truly civilized.

So too, the qualities of endurance, identity, and efficacy, intrinsic to the nature of a civilized society, each exhibit the essential social creativity of one and many.

A civilized society is indeed an enduring, and thus historical, entity which survives changes in membership, but it does so only by virtue of the continuity generated by many actual individuals passing on the customs of society from generation to generation. While the quality of endurance does pertain to the society as a whole and not to its constituents per se, nonetheless the reality of that endurance is vested in the many who are solely responsible for bringing about the continuity of social order which ensures the endurance of civilized society. Endurance is made real for the whole by the many through the routine of individual social interaction. Thus as one, a civilized society endures in the many, and as many, it survives as one; in the many, it actually endures, and as one, it endures ideally.

The identity of a civilized society is likewise completely a matter of the actuality of many, and the potentiality of one, for whatever distinctive qualities a society may manifest it does so purely in terms of the various social enactments and characteristics exhibited by the many individuals who populate that society. The uniformity of its social identity always involves abstraction from the many, and is never concrete in and of itself. As one, its identity is exhibited in the many, and in the many, it is identified as one.

The agency of any socially composite entity, a civilized society included, is entirely to be derived from the coordinated activity of its many constituents, and never by any simple act of the whole. The efficacy of a civilized society, regardless of its apparent authority in the affairs of individuals, is in reality nothing but the cooperative agency of many persons functioning, either officially or informally, to carry on the daily exercise of accepted practice. And apart from the actuality of such individual effort, the efficacy of society is only a potency waiting to be realized. In the many lies the reality of social action; in the one lies the potentiality.

Lastly, the collective individuality, or solidarity, of a civilized society is realized as one community of many persons. It is a one constituted by the immanent and mutually satisfying relationships of unique human beings living together socially, working in concert to attain the civilized aims of Truth, Beauty, Art, Adventure, and Peace. It is a one founded on the real needs of the many, and a many aspiring to the ideal of one.

In sum, for a civilized society the reality of its existence is the social togetherness of many, and its ideality is their civilized perfection as one. So it is that a civilized society, itself a one living in the many, and a many striving to live as one, comes to exemplify the ultimate creativity of things.

Thus, according to the cosmological scheme as laid out by Whitehead in the Philosophy of Organism, a civilized society is metaphysically equivalent to a Society per se in the most basic and essential respects, and therein its generic status as an existent thing is secured. But in what way is a civilized society a special case of Society? What is its distinctive status? What is its precise, albeit unique, classification? Perhaps the simplest and most apt designation would be: a civilized society is a civilized Society.

 

Notes

1The only major work to date dealing with the metaphysics of Whitehead’s philosophy of civilization is David Hall’s book, The Civilization of Experience: A Whiteheadian Theory of Culture (New York: Fordham University Press, 1973). A highly competent and generally successful study, Hall’s work attempts to establish the fundamental connection between Whitehead’s cosmology and sociology by utilizing the "primary analogate" (root metaphor) approach to interpret Whitehead’s speculative metaphysical scheme in the context of his theory of culture.

2Whitehead identifies a number of different types of "societies," for instance, corpuscular, structured (both non-living and living), and personal -- all of which vary according to complexity and function. A rock, for example, is an inorganic structured society, while a human being is an organic complex structured society that includes a regnant personal society. Because the term "society" has a highly technical meaning in Whitehead’s cosmology, a meaning which differs significantly from common parlance, it will be necessary to note that distinction in the present discussion so as not to confuse their respective contexts. To this end, whenever the term "society" is employed in Whitehead’s technical sense it will be written as "Society," and when employed in the more standardized sense as "society." (This same stylistic device will also be adopted when quoting Whitehead directly, as was his practice on occasion.)

31n Whitehead’s cosmology the universe is conceived in terms of a structure of background-foreground "layers of social order" beginning with the most general, and thus most simple, level of the extensive continuum, ascending through consecutive layers of non-living and living things, culminating in the most specialized, and thus most complex, level of human activity, each more specialized level in the foreground presupposing the more general levels in the background. Human social life is thus essentially derived from more fundamental types of animate social order, although it is unique in many respects.

4No attempt will be made to correlate the status of a civilized society to any particular type of Society -- organic structured Society, for instance -- though that might be interesting. Instead, the determination as to status will be made in terms of the most general features common to all Societies, thus situating a civilized society within the same basic metaphysical scheme.

5Note that the term "public" is another example of Whitehead borrowing something from human social experience for metaphysical purposes, and note too how that appropriation is relevant to his use of the term "society" in this same context.

6 Whitehead writes: "Any set of actual occasions are united by the mutual immanence of occasions, each in the other. . . . Any set of occasions, conceived as thus combined into a unity, will be termed a nexus" (AI 197); and also, "[the] sole principle of unity [of a nexus) is derived from the bare fact of mutual immanence" (AI 203, brackets added).

7See SMW pp. 205-6, and AI chapter V.

8So essential is the occurrence of order to the constitution of a Society as an existent thing that Whitehead contends, "a non-social nexus is what answers to the notion of ‘chaos’" (PR 72/112).

9Just as Whitehead’s organic cosmology is a refutation of Newtonian material atomism with respect to the problem of "simple location," so in a correlative fashion his organic sociology stands in sharp contrast to the modern contractual theory of civil society, which conceives of individuals as autonomous existents externally related only by agreement. The refutation in one context necessitates a parallel refutation in the other. For a masterful account of the value of social custom to the life and well-being of society, see George Allan’s book, The Importances of the Past: A Meditation on the Authority of Tradition (Albany: SUNY Press, 1986). Not only immensely insightful and beautifully written, it also enlists a Whiteheadian perspective of the issue.

10In a narrower sense, the order of a human society is said to be ‘civilized,’ as opposed to merely social, when, according to Whitehead, that society is able to instantiate and sustain, at least to some degree, five characteristics deemed essential to the realization of a higher, more ideal social order. These civilized qualities are Truth, Beauty, Art, Adventure, and Peace. See AI. part IV.

11An actual entity does not endure as such, since its process of becoming is epochal in nature (it has duration, but not endurance), and every actual entity is ‘changeless’ inasmuch as each is the self-same individual. Given this contrast between a Society and an actual entity, Whitehead is thus able to assert, "there is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming" (PR 35/53), respectively.


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