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Re-Reading Science and the Modern World

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 34-47, Vol. 27:1-2, Spring - Summer, 1998. 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. Ford’s Contribution

Lewis Ford has made many contributions to Whitehead scholarship. His founding of Process Studies and editing it for a quarter century retained for a Whiteheadian form of process thinking a visibility it would otherwise have lost in an unfavorable philosophical environment. His interactions with those who offered contributions to the journal not only improved the quality of many essays but also stimulated and refined the thinking of interested scholars. His independent metaphysical reflections made clear that his interest was not merely the scholarly study of particular texts but the solution of basic philosophical problems. And his work has contributed to the enlargement of the discussion, especially of the ways that God may be thought of in relation to basic Whiteheadian categories.

Despite all of this, perhaps his greatest and most distinctive contribution will turn out to be his critical reconstruction of the development of Whitehead’s thought based especially on his work on the texts of Science and the Modern World and Process and Reality. Along with many other students of Whitehead, I have believed that there was a considerable difference between Whitehead’s cosmological and metaphysical vision as worked out in his Harvard years and his earlier philosophy of science. But I de-emphasized the diversity within the early Harvard period.

Readers of Science and the Modern World and Process and Reality have always known that their final forms were not identical with the original lectures. In their prefaces Whitehead tells us this, and in the former case he is specific about some of the additions. But most of us still tried to read each book as a coherent statement of a single position. Furthermore, although we recognized that much of what was worked out in the later book was absent from the former, we read the former in light of where we understood it was tending, namely, the system that we identified as Whitehead’s great achievement. Our explanations of texts in Science and the Modern World were often dependent on what we had learned from Process and Reality. What did not fit well, we sometimes passed over, assuring students that Whitehead’s meaning would become clearer in later writings.

Ford saw that this was unsatisfactory. He had no systematic or personal axe to grind. He was led simply by an urge for accuracy and honesty to call us to read each passage in terms of what Whitehead was thinking at the time he wrote. This is possible, of course, only if we know when that passage was written. In Science and the Modern World distinguishing between the original lectures and the added material was relatively easy, whereas in Process and Reality the task is immensely complex. But Ford has worked though both books and much other material. Some of his conclusions in regard to Process and Reality are somewhat controversial. They deserve thorough discussion far beyond what they have yet received. But with regard to Science and the Modern World, few critics have challenged his reconstruction significantly.

Ford has not only undertaken to sort out the material chronologically, he has also drawn conclusions as to how Whitehead was thinking at each stage of his writing. Here controversy abounds. In part this results from different hermeneutical principles. Ford attempts rigorously to exclude from the interpretation of the text any idea from later writings for which the texts do not give clear evidence. They are to be interpreted, instead, from Whitehead’s previous writings. Others, and I include myself in this number, believe that Whitehead’s own later development of the ideas also give clues as to their meaning. But I have been convinced by Ford that I have misread many texts because of this hermeneutical principle and that only Ford’s demanding alternative could have brought me closer to historical accuracy. Others testify to similar indebtedness.

Ford believes that Whitehead himself invited and encouraged many of these errors in interpretation. He saw his new ideas as developments out of the old ones. By inserting new passages into the text as expansions of the old ones, while leaving much of the earlier writing intact, he invited us to read the earlier expressions in light of the later ones. Ford tells us that this is especially true of Process and Reality but that it applies to Science and the Modern World as well. If Whitehead implicitly guided us to view his work in this way, then a hermeneutic that does so, even if only unconsciously, cannot be all bad. Ford acknowledges, therefore, that his analysis supports the conclusion that what has been generally regarded as the normative Whiteheadian view, the one that has captivated many of us, is close to his final position.

For these reasons, Ford’s vast labor of deconstruction of the text does not lead to revolutionary judgments as to Whitehead’s major contributions. Those chiefly interested in using his conclusions in various fields of study. can continue to do so in ways that are little changed.

Those challenging what Ford takes to be the normative interpretation, and those with more specifically philosophical interests, will be more affected. To understand why Whitehead adopted the conclusions at which he arrived, Ford argues that we need to know when and why these insights emerged. That means we need to know just how he was thinking before the insight emerged, what was unsatisfactory, and how the new idea responded to that problem. This knowledge can help both in developing a more accurate understanding of Whitehead and in clarifying the relation of Whiteheadian process thought to other process philosophies which are sometimes closer to stages through which Whitehead passed. Yielding this knowledge is the principal goal Ford sets for the genetic analysis of Whitehead’s writings.

Of course, Ford’s work raises dozens of questions about textual interpretation. This essay will treat only one, one that has continued to evoke debate down to the present. This is the question whether, when Whitehead gave the Lowell Lectures that were developed into Science and the Modern World, he thought of all events, or all actual occasions, as having some measure of subjectivity, mentality, or experience. If the answer is negative, there is a further question whether that notion is found in the material added to the text before publication.

Ford’s insistence that this tendency toward panpsychism was read into the Lowell Lectures rather than found in them has aroused strong reactions from two other Whitehead scholars: David Griffin and Leemon McHenry. My own reading of Science and the Modern World has been, in the past, more like theirs. But following the debate has led me to side more with Ford, and even to take a less equivocal position than his. It is for this reason that I write this essay as a tribute to him.

II. Terminology

Before launching into a closer examination of the debate, I need to express my objection to the use of "panpsychism" in discussing Whitehead. No doubt the term is sometimes used in philosophy for any position that asserts that the things constituting the world are subjects, that is, units of experience that are affected by others. Whitehead certainly adopted this doctrine, and the proper debate is whether he had it in view when he gave the Lowell Lectures.

But the term "psyche" is the Greek word for "soul," a term that was important to Whitehead, at least when he wrote Adventures of Ideas. It is equivalent to "the living person" in Process and Reality. The soul or living person, for Whitehead, is by no means limited to human beings, but, equally, it is by no means universal. In general it seems that we can be sure there are souls only where there are central nervous systems providing sufficient stimulus in some locus in an animal body for a unified experience to emerge far more complex than that of individual molecules or cells. The vast majority of actual occasions are not soulish events as "panpsychism" implies. Whitehead’s failure to speak of his views in this way was not accidental. The other proposed terms – "pansubjectivity," and "panexperientialism" -- may be clumsy, but they have the important merit of being more accurate and following directly from Whitehead’s text.

Ford develops a clear definition of panpsychism in terms of the universal presence of mentality. My preference would be to call this "panmentalism." Since Ford accepts Whitehead’s understanding of mentality as a criterion for panmentalism, there is no question but that Whitehead became a panmentalist. For Whitehead, mentality is by no means limited to those high-grade occasions that constitute souls. To avoid the possible implication that things are only mental, we would then need to emphasize that Whitehead is a panphysicalist as well.

III. Are the Lowell Lectures Pansubjectivist?

In his portion of the Process Studies review of Ford’s The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, Griffin devotes one section to the question of whether pansubjectivity is found in Science and the Modern World (LSF 195-198). He has no difficulty in pointing out that Ford’s own statements are somewhat inconsistent because of shifts in the meanings of key terms. Ford subsequently acknowledges this; so it is not now the issue. But whereas Griffin takes this inconsistency to weaken Ford’s case that full-blown pansubjectivity or panexperientialism (Griffin’s preferred term) is absent from the Lowell Lectures, Ford moves to a more consistent rejection (FPP 43). This means that there develops a clear substantive disagreement between Griffin and Ford as to how Whitehead was thinking when he gave the Lowell Lectures.

Griffin musters considerable textual testimony to support the view that already in Science and the Modern World Whitehead attributed subjectivity, mentality, and experience to all actual occasions. His strongest evidence, however, is from the material added to the Lowell Lectures before publication, and we will turn to this later. It cannot be used against Ford’s argument that pansubjectivity is absent from the Lowell Lectures.

In the Lowell Lectures themselves, Griffin points out the great importance Whitehead attaches to the attribution of value to all events in nature. Whitehead associates this repeatedly with the intrinsic reality of every event as something in and for itself. Griffin quotes a key formulation of this point: "the element of value, . . . of being an end in itself, of being something which is for its own sake, must not be omitted in any account of an event as the most concrete actual something. ‘Value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event (SMW 93)." This statement makes excellent sense in the context of Process and Reality. There it is emphasized that value, being an end in itself, and being something which is for its own sake, can be characteristic only of subjective experience. For those of us informed by Whitehead’s final synthesis, the emphasis in Science and the Modern World on the value of every event implies quite directly that every event is a unit of subjective experience. Ford cautions us that at the time of the Lowell Lectures Whitehead may not have drawn these conclusions. Clearly, he does not state them directly.

Consider in this connection another passage in which Whitehead emphasizes the virtual identity of an organism with value that emerges for its own sake. "The organism is a unit of emergent value, a real fusion of the characters of eternal objects, emerging for its own sake" (SMW 107). Here what constitutes an emergent value is "a real fusion of the characters of eternal objects." This could mean the subjective form of prehensions of actual entities and eternal objects, as in Process and Reality, but there is no indication that it does.

The chief argument that Whitehead had not drawn pansubjectivist conclusions at the time of the Lowell Lectures lies in the explicit formulations of his metaphysical position within those lectures. He calls himself a provisional realist. And he summarizes what he means by this in the pages immediately preceding the passage on value quoted by Griffin.

The realism in question is the affirmation that the world of sense is common to all observers and hence not dependent on our cognition of it. In addition, our cognitive experience depends on our bodies. It is, most fundamentally, an experience of a bodily event. This bodily event is one of unifying "in itself all aspects of the universe" (SMW 92). We must affirm it as real, independent of our cognition, and we should also affirm, therefore, that the bodily events of other people are real. These events are events in nature, and we should posit that all events in nature are similarly unifications in themselves of aspects of all the other entities in the universe. Accompanying a unification of this sort, "there may or may not be cognition" (SMW 92). Since "perception is cognition of prehension" (5MW 71), Whitehead’s provisional realism is that these prehensive unifications are real independently of their being perceived.

The issue, then, with regard to pansubjectivity, is whether in the absence of cognition, events in nature, including bodily events, but not only they, are "subjects." In the terminology of Science and the Modern World the answer is clearly negative. "Subjectivism" is for Whitehead at this stage the doctrine that the sensory world exists only for cognitive experience. This particular type of event, which may or may not accompany an event in nature, is the only "subject" explicitly considered in this book. There is no suggestion that the events in nature are also "subjects."

Nevertheless, the realism Whitehead is affirming is far richer than the assertion of modern realists that matter in motion occurs regardless of human knowledge of it. Whitehead is affirming "secondary qualities in the common world" (SMW91). These are provided for cognitive experience by the bodily event; so they must be attributed to that event. If they are found in this event in nature, they can be attributed to other events in nature also. But this does not, in the Lowell Lectures, require that the bodily event be a subject alongside the cognitive event; so the generalization from the bodily event does not involve being a subject.

Of course, we might say that unifying in itself aspects of the universe and embodying secondary qualities entail subjectivity. We might say, rightly I think, that Whitehead’s intuitions were already leading him beyond what he systematically affirmed. Still, his systematic affirmations, as Ford has helped me see, were based on a distinction between events in nature and human cognition of such events and by means of such events. He generalized from bodily events to other events in nature. He did not generalize from human cognition to the rest of nature. And when he speaks of a subject or of the subjective, he seems to have human cognition always in view.

The passages quoted by Griffin are certainly consistent with a pansubjectivist position. The question is whether they are also consistent with the position that, in dependence on Ford, I have sketched. I believe the answer is that they are. Since this position is explicit in the Lowell Lectures and pansubjectivism is not, they should be read in this way when we are trying to understand just what Whitehead meant by them at the time. We can also see that they prepare the way for further developments of the sort that we are so strongly tempted to read back into them.

IV. Are the Lowell Lectures Panexperientialist?

Griffin knows, of course, that in Science and the Modern World Whitehead did not extend the term "subject" explicitly to events in nature. But terminology is not the basic issue. He writes, "the crucial question is whether he had in the Lowell Lectures affirmed that all events have experience" (LSF 198). He quotes a passage in Whitehead’s critique of Leibniz to give terminological support to the thesis that Whitehead was at that time a panexperientialist. The passage quoted by Griffin reads as follows: "He did not discriminate the event, as the unit of experience, from the enduring organism as its stabilization into importance, and from the cognitive organism as expressing an increased completeness of individualization" (SMW 155). Griffin italicizes "unit of experience" to show that already at the time he gave the Lowell Lectures, Whitehead understood all the events in nature as units of experience. He states that the "most natural reading of this statement is that Whitehead is pointing out how his own philosophy solves the basic problem in Leibniz’s. If so, he clearly attributes experience to all events, whether or not they have cognitive mentality" (LSF 198).

Griffin is correct that for one who has read the later writings of Whitehead this is the most natural reading. It has certainly been mine except as I have been taught by Ford. Reading the passage as so taught, however, I do not find Griffin’s argument so strong. The context of this quotation is Whitehead’s acknowledgment of Leibniz as a philosopher of organism. Since Whitehead’s philosophy of organism differs from that of Leibniz, he must explain why.

Leibniz’s monads are subjects with successive experiences. In his critique here, Whitehead does not take on this issue. His point is that because Leibniz retained the prevalent substance-quality scheme he was not able to explain how the monads were constituted by internal relations.

Clearly, Whitehead does not direct his criticism of Leibniz to the idea that monads experience or that they are constituted by experience. For purposes of this critique he lets that stand. This is significant in itself and one more indication that his thinking is open to the shifts that did in fact take place. But because he uses the term "experience" only in the explication and criticism of another philosopher, one cannot establish from this that he had himself adopted this way of thinking of all events. That the use of the term "experience" here should not be pressed is suggested also by another discussion of Leibniz. Whitehead states that for his purposes he is "toning down his monads into the unified events in space and time" (SMW 70). This would be an odd point to make if Whitehead wanted to retain the notion that all these events are units of experience. He goes on to say: "In some ways, there is greater analogy with Spinoza’s modes" (SMW 70). These are differentiated into physical and mental and the former are certainly not units of experience.

That the "toning down" is quite radical is suggested by another reference to Leibniz. Whitehead writes in his discussion of volumes as the most concrete elements in space: "I can use Leibniz’s language, and say that every volume mirrors in itself every other volume in space" (SMW 65). Unless one claims that every volume of space is a unit of experience, which would be markedly different from Process and Reality, we cannot think that for Whitehead the Leibnizian mirroring of the world necessarily requires experience.

I have belabored these passages about Leibniz, not out of confidence that I understand them correctly, but because Griffin places a weight upon the first against Ford that it will not bear when read in the context of Whitehead’s formulations at the time of the Lowell Lectures. Again, it may well be that it points forward to fresh thinking, that the idea that all events in nature can be thought of as units of experience stayed with him until it became his own position. This way of reading Whitehead seems tome quite legitimate and valid. But Ford is right to insist on the distinction between what the passage explicitly meant at the time of writing and how it leads into his later thinking.

It should be easier to believe that at this point Whitehead was not thinking of events in nature as having subjectivity or experience, when we see how many thinkers today affirm the intrinsic value of the natural world and the interconnectedness of all things without taking this step. Most deep ecologists are not panexperientialists, but they make strong statements about the intrinsic value of nature. They urge us to treat it as an end in itself and recognize that it exists for its own sake, not for ours. Similarly, many process thinkers not committed to the Whiteheadian or Hartshornean form of process thought affirm the reality and value of nature along with some idea of internal relations without accepting panexperientialism.

To those of us who are convinced by Whitehead’s later conclusions, this seems vague and unsatisfactory. Griffin brings together passages in Science and the Modern World which show that, from the later point of view, Whitehead should have drawn the conclusion of panexperientialism. Further, we know that considerations of just this sort did lead him to draw those conclusions. But we should recognize that Whitehead himself could be provisionally satisfied, at one stage of his thinking, with affirming intrinsic value and internal relations without the generalization of subjective experience to all events.

V. Ford’s Affirmation of Interiority

Ford himself is not quite able to avoid reading Science and the Modern World in light of later writings. He writes that Whitehead’s statement about value shows that he attributes "interiority" to events in nature (EWM 42). He supports this idea of interiority in his interpretation of prehensions: "Prehension is not simply internal relatedness but must be conceived from the standpoint of one of the relata. What is this but to conceive that relatum "from the inside" (EWM 42)?

Ford is correct that a prehension is the way one event or eternal object is internal to another event. But does this mean that the relatum is conceived from the inside? What would that mean other than that the relation is constitutive of the event? Any additional meaning is difficult to reconcile with the following passage dealing with volumes as the most concrete element of space.

Accordingly the prime fact is the prehensive unity of volume, and this unity is mitigated or limited by the separated unities of the innumerable contained parts. We have a prehensive unity, which is yet held apart as an aggregate of contained parts. . . . Thus if A and B and C are volumes of space, B has an aspect from the standpoint of A, and so has C, and so has the relationship of B and C. (SMW 64-65)

Clearly volumes of space have prehensive relations. And clearly these relations are internal to each volume. But does this mean that "interiority" is to be attributed to them? Or that the prehensions are to be viewed "from the inside"?

Ford appeals to the connection of prehension to perception to establish the interiority of the former. Whitehead’s statement on this point is clear. "Perception is simply the cognition of prehensive unification; or more shortly, perception is cognition of prehension" (SMW 71). There is, of course, no question but that perception is subjective, experiential, and expressive of interiority. But does that imply that what is cognized is also characterized by interiority? Since much prehensive unification is not so characterized, it would take more argument than Ford offers to justify this conclusion.

Ford, like his critics, is misled by the fact that in presenting his case for internal relations or prehensions in Science and the Modern World Whitehead begins from the human experiential side. This is dictated in part by his historical approach. He works from the writings of philosophers who take human perception as their starting point. He shows how their analysis of perception leads to the recognition of internal relations. This suggests that he arrived at his position through a generalization from human experience. This would entail viewing natural events as like moments of human experience and at least raise the question of which aspects of such moments should be generalized. In the past, this is the way I have myself read Whitehead’s later writings in general and Science and the Modern World in particular.

To understand Whitehead, however, we should pay more attention to his well-known statement that while we can come to an understanding of internal relations in this way, he did not do so. He came from the side of mathematics and physics (SMW 152- 153). He recognized that these disciplines abstract from the full event, including especially its value, but he does not say that they abstract from the interiority or subjectivity of events in nature.

My argument is, in a sense, one from silence. In Science and the Modern World Whitehead does not explicitly attribute experience or subjectivity to events in nature. He does attribute these to cognitive events. He relates cognitive events to events in nature in such a way as to explain that value and internal relations belong to the latter and are derived from them by cognitive events. Internal (or prehensive) relations exist among entities to which the attribution of subjectivity or experience would be extremely unlikely. Many thinkers have attributed value to nature without attributing subjectivity or experience. None of this proves that Whitehead did not attribute subjectivity and experience to all events in nature. It simply shows that there is no clear evidence that he did.

VI. Late Additions

There remains the question of whether the passages added to the Lowell Lectures for inclusion in Science and the Modern World introduce pansubjectivity or panexperientialism. At the time he wrote The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, Ford thought that they did. The Lowell Lectures, he said, affirmed universal interiority (EWM 42). To obtain subjectivity what was needed was universal mentality. In the last four paragraphs of the added chapter on "Abstraction" Whitehead introduced this.

So far I have been considering an actual occasion on the side of its full concreteness. It is this side of the occasion in virtue of which it is an event in nature. But a natural event, in this sense of the term, is only an abstraction from a complete actual occasion. A complete occasion includes that which in cognitive experience takes the form of memory, anticipation, imagination, and thought. These elements in an experient occasion are also modes of inclusion of complex eternal objects in the synthetic prehension, as elements in the emergent value. (SMW 170)

The language in this quotation remains odd from the point of view of Process and Reality. An actual occasion on the side of its full concreteness is a natural event, but this natural event, which is fully concrete, is an abstraction from a complete actual occasion. Apparently concreteness is physicality and what more is present in a complete actual occasion is not concrete. The fact that Whitehead states that up until this point he has considered actual occasions only in their concreteness, and that this means only as events in nature, supports the nonpanexperiential reading of the Lowell Lectures. Further, that these additional elements in a complete actual occasion are elements in the emergent value indicates that emergent value is also found in the events in nature apart from this added richness.

The paragraph goes on to distinguish the mode of ingression here considered from that which has been in view heretofore. The difference is described as "abruptness." He concludes: "This breaking off from an actual illimitability is what in any occasion marks off that which is termed mental from that which belongs to the physical event to which the mental functioning is referred" (SMW 171).

In this paragraph Whitehead explicitly attributes mentality to all complete occasions. Further he calls complete occasions "experient" occasions. The explicit description of all complete occasions as having mentality and experience differentiates this passage from anything to be found in the Lowell Lectures.

Ford came to read this passage as saying that there may be some occasions which are natural events and are not complete, whereas for completion such an occasion requires the addition of the mental (FFP 49). He prefers this interpretation because there are passages in Religion in the Making that imply this position. This reading makes this added passage only a minor adjustment of Whitehead’s position in the Lowell Lectures (PEHP 25-26). But Ford is not supported by Whitehead’s statement that such natural events are abstractions from complete actual occasions. This was not stated in the Lowell Lectures.

Further, it is clear that Whitehead is affirming that there are noncognitive occasions that have mentality. To argue that this leaves open the possibility that there are other noncognitive occasions that lack mentality strains the text. It is much more plausible to understand Whitehead as asserting that there are no complete actual occasions that lack an element of the mental. This is the doctrine of panmentalism that is equated by Ford in The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics with panpsychism.1

VII. Do Prehensions Presuppose Experience?

Ford’s denial of panpsychism to the Lowell Lectures has been challenged again, more recently, this time by Leemon McHenry. McHenry’s particular concern is to show that with regard to the concept of prehension "the crucial idea of the perspective of the individual experience seems to be with Whitehead from the very outset of his excursion into metaphysics" (WPSP 1).

McHenry is correct in emphasizing the central importance of the idea of prehension in Whitehead’s philosophy. He rightly notes that it is an idea that most contemporary philosophies ignore, reject, or have not understood. He may also be correct that "the very concept of prehension makes little sense without viewing Whitehead’s events as centers of experience actively selecting from their environments" (WPSP 11).

Nevertheless, these judgments do not establish that Whitehead appreciated the necessity of subjective experience for the occurrence of prehensions at the time he gave the Lowell Lectures or even when he completed Science and the Modern World. I noted above that in the Lowell Lectures a "volume" has "prehensive unity" in a context in which it would be very difficult to suppose that all the volumes referred to have subjective experience (SMW 65). For example, he says of a volume of space, A, that its prehensive unity "is the prehension into unity of the aspects of all other volumes from the standpoint of A" (SMW 65). If McHenry is correct, and every volume has subjective experience, then the reading of Science and the Modern World to which Ford has drawn me is wrong. But I find this improbable.

Much of McHenry’s argument takes the form of showing that the doctrine of internal relations or prehensions, so important to Science and the Modern World, does not make sense apart from experience. Whitehead came to agree with this. But Ford has taught me not to suppose that such conclusions can be assumed to have been reached at the outset of Whitehead’s metaphysical reflections. Hence McHenry’s systematic arguments are not persuasive with respect to the historical question of what Whitehead thought at earlier stages. In other respects, McHenry’s thinking overlaps with Griffin’s. Nevertheless, he raises fresh issues.

He points out, rightly, that in Science and the Modern World Whitehead is calling for greater concreteness. Whitehead puts forward his scheme as more concrete than the one he is rejecting -that of matter in motion. In McHenry’s words, Whitehead claims

that a philosophy of nature must be founded on concrete experience. This he combines forcefully with what he calls "an attitude of provisional realism," i.e., nature conceived "as a complex of prehensive unifications" to form the basis for a common world independent of our experience (cf.: SMW 64, 68, 72). This view of primary organisms as experiences for themselves is a generalized concept of organism that allows Whitehead to unify the physical and biological sciences. (WPSP 9)

In reading this argument it is important to recognize that the last sentence is McHenry’s interpretation of the meaning of the previous ones, which closely follow Whitehead’s wording. McHenry sees the "concrete experience" on which the scheme is to be founded, as Whitehead does in Process and Reality, as referring to the units of nature as they are in themselves. These are then understood as the prehensive unifications that constitute a common world independent of human experience. But he does not provide reason here for rejecting Ford’s alternative reading that the concrete experience in question is that of the human observer and that the events in nature are constituted by their internal relations to all the others. The model of "organism," in this reading, taken from biology (rather than psychology) and applied to all these events, highlights the inseparability of the entities of the world from their environment. It does not imply that they enjoy subjective experience.

VIII. Do All Organisms Have Purposes?

A more distinctive argument comes from McHenry’s attention to what Whitehead says about evolution. Whitehead states that the standard model of matter in motion provides no basis for evolution. One can have only changes in the relative location of material bodies -- no change in the bodies themselves. Whitehead presents his own scheme of organisms constituted by internal relations as providing units that can and do evolve.

McHenry makes his case for the subjectivity of all organisms as follows:

Whitehead identified two sides of the machinery of evolution: adaption to the environment, which he claimed had been emphasized by Darwin’s followers, and the creativeness of organisms that results m a modification of the environment. With the cooperation of other organisms, a single organism alters the environment according to its own purpose (SMW 111). Whitehead’s notion that "the emergence of organisms depends on a selective activity which is akin to purpose" accounts for this neglected side of evolution (SMW 107). (WPSP 10)

The fresh point made here is that organisms have purposes or selective activity akin to purpose. Obviously, if Whitehead says that all organisms have their own individual purposes, he is far advanced into what McHenry calls panpsychism and what I refer to as pansubjectivity or panexperientialism. But this is a place where Ford warns us to be cautious. Does Whitehead say this, or are we reading it into the text because we have learned from his later writings that every actual occasion has a subjective aim?

The first passage to which McHenry refers reads as follows:

The other side of the evolutionary machinery, the neglected side, is expressed by the word creativeness. The organisms can create their own environment. For this purpose, the single organism is almost helpless. The adequate forces require societies of cooperating organisms. But with such cooperation and in proportion to the effort put forward, the environment has a plasticity which alters the whole ethical aspect of evolution. (SMW 111-112)

The use of the term "purpose" here does not warrant, by itself, McHenry’s conclusion that an individual organism alters the environment to "its own purpose," although the passage does not exclude the presence of purpose in individual organisms. It does attribute agency to the organisms that evolve. Whitehead speaks of "cooperation" and "effort." Whether he thinks of this as instinctual or genuinely purposeful is not clear, but that the living beings that evolve participate in changing the circumstances of their existence is the point of the quotation.

Further, McHenry is correct that Whitehead identifies his units of prehensive unification with organisms. Whitehead makes a point of taking a concept from biology to understand physics instead of interpreting biological organisms from models developed in physics. Since he generalizes from biological organisms to physical ones, the question is which features does he generalize, in the Lowell Lectures, to all occasions. At this point the question is specifically, do all organisms individually have something akin to purpose as is the case in Process and Reality? For evidence, it will be useful to look at the other passage on which McHenry draws:

It is doubtful that this states that there is in each organism The doctrine thus cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental to nature. It also requires an underlying activity -- expressing itself in individual embodiments, and evolving in achievements of organism. The organism is a unit of emergent value, a real fusion of the characters of eternal objects, emerging for its own sake.

Thus in the process of analyzing the character of nature in itself, we find that the emergence of organisms depends on a selective activity which is akin to purpose. The point is that the enduring organisms are now the outcome of evolution: and that beyond these organisms, there is nothing else that endures. (SMW 107)

It is doubtful that this states that there is in each organism something akin to purpose. Organisms are the product of an underlying activity which is a selective activity akin to purpose. They have intrinsic value, but this passage does not speak of their individual purposes.

IX. Conclusions

McHenry may be correct that when Science and the Modern World is viewed against the background of Whitehead’s earlier writings it "becomes less rather than more intelligible" (WPSP 11). Systematically speaking I share this judgment with him. Whitehead did so also at a later point. But this does not count against Ford’s interpretation of the text. Metaphysically speaking, the gap between The Concept of Nature and the final form of Process and Reality is large. That Whitehead did not cover this distance immediately when he entered the metaphysical arena should not be surprising.

That his texts invite interpretation in terms of the end of the journey on which he was embarking is significant. It means that there was no need for him to reverse direction. For the full coherence and intelligibility of what he was thinking in these first major steps, the further steps were required.

The importance of Ford’s work is highlighted by the amount of resistance it has elicited from excellent Whitehead scholars. This does not mean that he is always correct. Since he, like Whitehead, repeatedly advances, any such claim would be absurd. But his basic thesis -- that Whitehead’s writings should be understood as expressing a succession of changes, and that earlier positions should be acknowledged as having their own distinct, if imperfect, integrity -- is sound and important.

 

References

EWM Lewis S. Ford, The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics 1925-1929. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984.

FPP Lewis S. Ford, "From Pre-Panpsychism to Pansubjectivity," Faith and Creativity, edited by George Nordgulen and George W. Shields. St. Louis: CBP Press, 1987.

PEHP Lewis S. Ford, "Panpsychism and the Early History 0f Prehension," Process Studies 24 (1995), 15-33.

LSF David R. Mason and David Ray Griffin, "Lewis S. Ford, The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics 1925-1929," Process Studies 15(1986), 192-197.

WPSP Leemon B. McHenry, "Whitehead’s Panpsychism as the Subjectivity of Prehension," Process Studies 24 (1995), 1-14.

 

Notes

1See, however, Ford’s later recognition of the misleading character of the term "panpsychism" for a position that holds that every actual entity has both mental and physical features (PEEP 15).


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