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The Time of Whitehead’s Concrescence

by John W. Lango

John W. Lango is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, Hunter College of the City University of New York, 695 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10021. He is the author of Whitehead’s Ontology and various articles on metaphysics and ethics. E-mail jlango@hejira.hunter.cuny.edu. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 3-21, Vol. 30, Number 1, Spring-Summer, 2001. 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

A conception of time is fundamental to Whitehead’s metaphysics in Process and Reality. The creative advance of actual occasions is inherently temporal. Each actual occasion is a temporally novel act of becoming. When it comes into being, it feels only those actual occasions that have already come into being, i.e., those that are in its "causal past." It does not feel those actual occasions that are in "unison of becoming" with it, i.e., those that are its causal "contemporaries." And those actual occasions that will when they come into being feel it are in its "causal future" (123-26). In short, the creative advance of actual occasions is temporally ordered.

Each actual occasion comes into being through a process of concrescence. Is this process of concrescence also inherently temporal? One of the categories of his metaphysics in Process and Reality states that "(xxvii) In a process of concrescence, there is a succession of phases in which new prehensions arise by integration of prehensions in antecedent phases" (26). In light of this passage, the above question splinters into several interrelated questions. Is the succession of phases of concrescence a temporal succession? Is each new prehension temporally novel? Is "arising" a kind of (temporal) becoming? Are the prehensions in antecedent phases temporally earlier?

Let me summarize one way of answering these questions. Just as there is a temporal ordering of all of the actual occasions in the universe, so there is a temporal ordering of prehensions in the process of concrescence of each individual actual occasion. In brief concrescence is temporally ordered. To have a convenient label, I shall call this answer temporalism.

There is a contrasting way of answering the questions, one that is widespread in the literature on Whitehead’s metaphysics. This answer is rooted in the following quotation from Process and Reality "This genetic passage from phase to phase [of concrescence] is not in physical time" (283). Let me summarize this contrasting answer. The succession of phases is not a temporal succession, but instead is a sort of nontemporal succession. (Similarly, the succession of integers is a nontemporal succession, albeit of a different sort.) Each new prehension arises by integration of prehensions that are nontemporally antecedent. In brief, concrescence is nontemporally ordered. I shall call this answer nontemporalism.

It would seem that the nontemporalist ignores the adjective "physical" in the quotation, and reads it as saying that the phases of concrescence are not in time. For example, according to Donald Sherburne, "Concrescence is not in time" (38). On the other hand, the temporalist stresses that the word "time" is qualified by the adjective "physical," and suggests that the quotation is compatible with the claim that the phases of concrescence are in some sort of nonphysical time. For example, according to Lewis Ford, there are "two species, physical and genetic time" ("Successiveness" 424-25).1

While recognizing the plausibility of nontemporalism, I am inclined to prefer temporalism. Temporalism is, I think, more coherent with the bulk of Whitehead’s metaphysics in Process and Reality. In this paper, I shall discuss a conception of temporal order that encompasses both actual occasions and their concrescing prehensions.

Let me sketch a reason for preferring temporalism. In considering the topic of the succession of phases, William Christian asked, "What sort of priority is this?" (80). His answer was a nontemporalist one. The priority is not temporal. Instead, he adds, "we must accept it as something of its own kind" (81). But what is this kind? Why should we postulate such a nontemporal order in addition to the temporal order? One reason for preferring temporalism is its simplicity. It is simpler to have just a temporal order.

What is remarkable, however, is that both temporalism and nontemporalism are in agreement about this: concrescence is ordered. Although disagreeing about whether this order is temporal or nontemporal, they agree that there is order. In this paper, I shall state part of an account of the order of concrescence. Although this incomplete account is stated in temporalist terms, I shall also indicate how it can be restated in nontemporalist terms. Hence those readers who are not convinced by my defense of temporalism might still find this paper of interest.

Note that I shall only discuss Whitehead’s metaphysical views in Process and Reality. To confine my project within a brief paper, I shall not discuss his other writings.

II. What is the Nature of Time?

Let us compare two sorts of answers to this metaphysical question substantivalism and relationism.2 Substantivalists hold that time is something substantial, that it is an entity or an assemblage of entities. Commonsensically, we measure the passage of time by means of such quantities as seconds and days. And, in science, time is pictured as a continuum of instants. Accordingly, a substantivalist could claim that instants or time-intervals are entities, and that time is composed of them.

Was Whitehead a substantivalist? To ascertain the types of entities in his metaphysics in Process and Reality, we need to examine his eight categories of existence (22). Certainly, an actual occasion is neither an instant nor a tune-interval. Instants and time-intervals are peculiar sorts of particulars, and so they cannot be eternal objects (or universals). I shall assume, for the sake of brevity, that it is sufficiently obvious that neither instants nor time-intervals fall under any of the remaining categories of existence.

Rather than being a substantivalist, he was, I think, a relationist. Relationists hold that time is relational, that it consists of temporal relations between entities. I have summarized how the creative advance of actual occasions is temporally ordered. Some actual occasions come into being before other actual occasions come into being. Some come into being earlier than others. I want to emphasize that the concept of temporal order is a relational concept, and that the terms "before" and "earlier" stand for a temporal relation. My view is that the conception of time that is fundamental to his metaphysics is grounded on this temporal relation.

There is an important objection to my classification of him as a relationist. His metaphysics was strongly influenced by Einstein’s theory of relativity.3 Instead of a separate space and a separate time, there is, according to that theory, space-time. Consequently, a substantivalist could raise the following objection. Space-time is something substantial; it is an assemblage of entities. In particular, space-time points or space-time regions are entities, and space-time is composed of them. Therefore, Whitehead is to be classified as a substantivalist. For each actual occasion comes into being in a basic region in the space-time continuum. And this space-time continuum is an assemblage of entities -- namely, regions.

Let me reply to this objection. A major difficulty in interpreting Process and Reality is that of reconciling his theory of extension in Part IV with his system of categories in Part I. None of those categories concerns the concept of region. In particular, regions do not fall under any of the eight categories of existence. Why, then, should we think that regions are entities?

Can the hypothesis that regions are not entities be reconciled with his theory of extension in Process and Reality? That theory is (partly) mathematical, in that it is based on "formal properties" of a relation of "extensive connection" (more briefly, "connection") (288, 294-95). Accordingly, my view is that his concept of region should be understood relationally. For regions are "the relata" of the relation of connection (294). Indeed, each region is (in a sense) extended, each has the property of being extended. But this property is relational. It is to be understood in terms of formal properties of the relation of connection (294-97). For instance, that a region is extended implies that it includes other regions as parts. And this relation of "inclusion" is defined in terms of formal properties of the relation of connection (295).

An elementary example of such a formal property is that connection is "symmetrical" (Whitehead 295): if region R is connected with region 5, then S is connected with R. In contrast, the temporal relation earlier is asymmetric: if X is earlier than Y, then Y is not earlier than X. Instead, Y is later than X. The point is that the concept of temporal order is different from the concept of extensive connection. Let us picture this difference through an illustration. Suppose that R is the basic region of actual occasion A and S is the basic region of actual occasion B. And suppose that R and S are connected. It is essential to grasp that this last supposition tells us nothing about how A and B are temporally ordered. A might be earlier than B, or B might be earlier than A, or it might be that neither is earlier than the other.

What, then, determines the temporal order of A and B? To answer this question, let us make a further supposition: when A comes into being, B has not yet come into being. Thus, when B comes into being, A has already come into being. That is, A comes into being before B comes into being. A’s act of becoming is earlier than B’s act of becoming. To generalize, the temporal order of actual occasions is the order of their acts of becoming. The order of time is the order of becoming.

III. The Difference between Time Order and Time Measurement

In discussing the concept of temporal order, I have largely ignored the concept of time measurement. One of Whitehead’s goals in devising his theory of extension in Process and Reality was to provide a theoretical basis for the measurements made by physicists. (Note that the final chapter of Part IV is entitled "Measurement.") Of course, in the theory of relativity, measurements of lapses of time are relative to the observer (or the frame of reference). However, measurements of space-time intervals are not thus relative. For the distance between two space-time points is absolute (or invariant).

Note also that the temporal order of actual occasions is not relative to the observer (or the frame of reference). The fact that actual occasion A comes into being earlier than actual occasion B is an absolute fact: it holds for every observer (or frame of reference).4

But the concept of measurement is not to be found in any of the categories of his metaphysics in Process and Reality. "Extensive quantity is," he concluded (in the chapter "Measurement"), "a logical construct (333). Thus space-time distances are logical constructs. The concept of temporal order is metaphysically primary, whereas the concept of time measurement is not.

Let me indicate, very roughly and incompletely, how the concept of measurement and the concept of region are interrelated. Suppose that T is the basic region of actual occasion C. And suppose that T is not connected with the basic region S of actual occasion B. Nonetheless, T and S are "‘mediately’ connected" (Whitehead 294). That is, there is a region Z such that T is connected with Z and Z is connected with S.

The relation of "mediate connection" is ‘symmetrical" (Whitehead 295). Hence these suppositions tell us nothing about how B and C are temporally ordered. To determine their temporal order, let us make another supposition: when B comes into being, C has not yet come into being. Thus, when C comes into being, B has already come into being. B’s act of becoming is earlier than C’s act of becoming.

What amount of time has lapsed between the becoming of B and the becoming of C? More accurately, what is the space-time distance between B and C? According to the theory of extension in Process and Reality, points in the extensive continuum are logical constructs (299). The concept of point is defined there in terms of the concept of an "abstractive set" of regions (297-98). Suppose that p is a point in B’s basic region S and q is a point in C’s basic region T. The space-time distance between B and C is (approximately) the distance between p and q. (To be less approximate, we might want to specify where in S and T the respective points are located.) The main idea is that, to state how the space-time distance between B and C is measured, we need the theory of extension; but, to state how B and C are temporally ordered, there is no need for that theory.

Basic region S of actual occasion B is connected with basic region R of actual occasion A. What amount of time has lapsed between the becoming of A and the becoming of B? What is the space-time distance between them? Basic regions do not overlap. Accordingly, to be more precise, R and S are externally connected," i.e., they do not both include a third region (Whitehead 297). Nonetheless, they do have points in common – namely, the points where their boundaries meet.5 Therefore, in terms of one of those common points, our question can be answered as follows: the space-time distance between A and B is O. The concept of space-time distance includes the distance of zero.

Is the concept of space-time distance essential to the concept of temporal order? I shall contrast two answers to this question: metricalism and ordinalism. The metricalist holds that, whenever one entity is earlier than another, there is a space-time distance between them. In contrast, the ordinalist claims that it is metaphysically possible for one entity to be earlier than another without there being a space-time distance between them. Note that the phrase "without there being a space-time distance between them" does not mean that the distance between them is 0. Instead, it means "without there being any space-time distance -- not even a zero distance -- between them."

Which was Whitehead, a metricalist or an ordinalist? The concept of temporal order is fundamental to his metaphysics, whereas space-time distances are logical constructs. Accordingly, I think that it is best to interpret him as an ordinalist, or so I shall argue in what follows.

Although I am concerned here particularly with Whitehead, I do not think that the notion of ordinalism pertains idiosyncratically to him.6 For example, the "cosmology" that he found in Plato’s Timaeus strongly influenced his metaphysics in Process and Reality (xiv). Which was the Plato of that dialogue, a metricalist or an ordinalist? The Timaeus states: "there were no days and nights, months and years [i.e., there were no time measurements] before the Heaven came into being" (37E); before the Heaven came into being, the contents of the Receptacle were in" discordant and unordered motion" (30A); nonetheless, "the different kinds [i.e., earth, water, air, and fire] came to have different regions, even before the ordered whole consisting of them came to be" (53A).7 Of course, the terms "before," "motion," and "came to have" could be construed as metaphors. On the other hand, in terms of a conception of temporal order without temporal distances, they could instead, I think, he construed literally.

IV. What did Whitehead Mean by "Physical Time"?

In this section, I shall examine some quotations from Process and Reality that lend support to nontemporalism. Drawing upon the distinction between ordinalism and metricalism, I shall give these quotations an alternative temporalist reading.

"This genetic passage from phase to phase is not," Whitehead stated, "in physical time" (283). There is a quotation from the same page that also strongly supports nontemporalism: "The actual entity is the enjoyment of a certain quantum of physical time. But the genetic process [of concrescence] is not the temporal succession" (283). A nontemporalist could interpret this last quotation as follows. The words "temporal succession" express the concept of temporal order. The terms "succession" and "order" are synonymous (or coextensive): one entity temporally succeeds another just in case the latter is earlier than the former. What Whitehead meant by "the genetic process is not the temporal succession" is that the process of concrescence is not temporally ordered.

I want now to give this quotation an alternative temporalist reading. To interpret it properly, we need to examine some sentences that immediately follow:

Each phase in the genetic process presupposes the entire quantum, and so does each feeling in each phase. The subjective unity dominating the process forbids the division of that extensive quantum which originates with the primary phase of the subjective aim. (283)

Significantly, both this quotation and the two above are from the first page of Part IV of Process and Reality ("The Theory of Extension"). Consequently, my view is that we have to understand what Whitehead meant by "temporal succession" not just in terms of the concept of temporal order but also in terms of the concept of time measurement.

The terms "quantum" and "extensive quantum" refer to the concrescing actual occasion’s "basic region" (Whitehead 283). Accordingly, I propose to rewrite the first sentence of the quotation thus: each phase in the process of concrescence of an actual occasion presupposes its entire basic region, and so does each feeling in each phase. Furthermore, a core point in the second sentence can be restated as follows: what is forbidden is the division of the basic region. Hence, to grasp what he meant by "temporal succession," we need to answer this question: how does the concept of temporal succession involve the concept of a division of the basic region?

It should prove helpful to have some terms. A region that is included in (i.e., is a "part" of’) a given region is a subregion of that region (Whitehead 295). Also, according to Whitehead, one region overlaps another region "when there is a third region which they both include" (296). In other words, two regions overlap when they share a subregion. Note that inclusion is a special case of overlapping (296); i.e., a region overlaps its subregions.

Now let us have an illustration. Suppose that actual occasion A has feelings U and V. Whitehead denied that such feelings can be in temporal succession. What is being denied? What is meant by "V temporally succeeds U"? Not only is U earlier than V. But also U does not presuppose A’s entire basic region R, nor does V. Instead, U only presupposes a subregion of R, and V presupposes a different subregion. These two subregions do not overlap. There is a division of A’s basic region into such nonoverlapping subregions. The earlier feeling U presupposes a subregion of R that does not overlap the subregion presupposed by the later feeling V. The time that has elapsed between U and V is measured by means of the space-time distance between their respective subregions.

What, then, did he mean by "the genetic process is not the temporal succession"? My answer includes the following claims. When entitles are in temporal succession, they are in nonoverlapping regions. But an actual occasion’s feelings presuppose its entire basic region. They are not dispersed in nonoverlapping subregions of its basic region. Therefore, the process of concrescence of its feelings does not involve a temporal succession of them.

Interestingly, a nontemporalist could concur with these claims, and supplement them as follows. Because an actual occasion’s feelings presuppose its entire basic region, there are no space-time distances between them. They are not separated by measurable lapses of time. But one entity cannot be earlier than another unless they are in different space-time regions. They cannot be temporally ordered unless there is a space-time distance between them. Therefore, Whitehead’s denial of temporal succession amounts to a denial of temporal order. He was a nontemporalist. Note that these supplementary claims assume metricalism.

In contrast, my view is that it is better to interpret his philosophy of time in terms of ordinalism. Consequently, I shall supplement my answer with some different claims. The concept of temporal order is fundamental to his metaphysics, whereas the concept of time measurement is not. For space-time distances are logical constructs. Accordingly, it is metaphysically possible for one entity to be earlier than another without there being a space-time distance between them. Therefore, even though there are no space-time distances between an actual occasions feelings, it is metaphysically possible for some of those feelings to be earlier than others. Even though an actual occasion’s feelings presuppose its entire basic region -- and so they are not in temporal succession -- they still can be temporally ordered. Note that my supplementary claims assume ordinalism.

Whitehead advocated an "‘epochal theory of time"’ in Process and Reality (68). His argument for that theory establishes the following conclusion:

The conclusion is that in every act of becoming there is the becoming of something with temporal extension; but that the act itself is not extensive, m the sense that it is divisible into earlier and later acts of becoming which correspond to the extensive divisibility of what has become. (69)

In light of my interpretations of the preceding quotations, it should be evident how the present quotation can be given alternative nontemporalist and temporalist readings. Admittedly, the quotation is incompatible with the claim that the process of concrescence is divisible into temporally earlier and later feelings which correspond to nonoverlapping subregions of the basic region. Hence, when metricalism is presupposed, the quotation supports nontemporalism.8 In contrast, when ordinalism is presupposed, the quotation is compatible with temporalism. For it is compatible with the claim that there are temporally earlier and later feelings which do not correspond to nonoverlapping subregions but instead have no space-time distances between them.

What, in conclusion, did Whitehead mean by "physical time"? Physical time is the time of physics. It is a time that can be measured. Therefore even though the feelings in the process of concrescence are not in physical time -- even though there are no space-time distances between them -- they still can be temporally ordered.

V. The Temporal Order of Actual Occasions

With the aim of shedding some light on the temporal order of concrescing prehensions, I shall first discuss the temporal order of actual occasions.

Central to Whitehead’s metaphysics in Process and Reality is his rejection of "the classic notion of ‘time"’ (35): "There is a prevalent misconception that ‘becoming’ involves the notion of a unique seriality for its [creative] advance into novelty" (35). Instead, he accepted "the ‘relativity’ view of time," the view of time that he found in the theory of relativity (66).

What is the classic notion of time as uniquely serial? Time involves a succession of instants. Some instants are earlier than others. Let me state the formal properties of this relation of being earlier. It is irreflexive, asymmetric, and transitive. And it is connected: any two instants are such that one is earlier than the other. The property of connectedness ensures that the succession of instants is uniquely serial (i.e., "linear"). (This use of the word "connected" is standard in the logic of relations, and is entirely different from Whitehead’s use of the word to abbreviate "extensive connection.")

Any relation with these four formal properties is a serial relation. By removing the property of connectedness, the concept of serial relation is generalized as follows: any relation that is irreflexive, asymmetric, and transitive is a strict partial order.9 Note that the concept of strict partial order is inclusive, in that a serial relation is a strict partial order that is connected. An example of a nonconnected strict partial order is the following relation among human beings: being a descendent of. Unique seriality does not abound in genealogies.

According to the theory of relativity, simultaneity is relative (to the observer or the frame of reference). There is no absolute present. And so time does not involve such uniquely serial instants.

Adopting this relativity view of time, Whitehead maintained that the temporal order of actual occasions is not uniquely serial. More explicitly; the formal properties of the relation earlier that holds among actual occasions are these: it is irreflexive, asymmetric, and transitive; but it is not connected. For some actual occasions are contemporaries, i.e., some are in unison of becoming. Suppose that actual occasion A and actual occasion D are contemporaries. A is in unison of becoming with D. In other words, when A comes into being, D has not already come into being; and, when Ii) comes into being, A has not already come into being. That is, A does not come into being before D comes into being, nor does D come into being before A comes into being. A’s act of becoming is neither earlier nor later than D’s act of becoming. The order of becoming is not uniquely serial.

Furthermore, he claimed in Process and Reality that, even though there is no absolute present, there are "durations." A "duration is a cross-section of the universe" (125). Each actual occasion "lies in many durations" (125). It does not lie in a cross-section of the universe that is unique. The temporal order of durations is not uniquely serial. Instead of instants in a serial order, there are durations in a strict partial order.10

Moreover, he held that the temporal order of actual occasions is not (mathematically) continuous (35). For his epochal theory of time is based on "the principle that every act of becoming must have an immediate successor" (69). (In accordance with his rejection of the classic notion of time as uniquely serial, every act of becoming can have more than one immediate successor.) In brief, the temporal order is discrete rather than continuous. Because of the term "immediate successor," this principle (apparently) involves not just the concept of temporal order but also the concept of time measurement. (Cf. the discussion in the preceding section of the term "temporal succession.") When we abstract from the concept of time measurement, we obtain a more general principle that involves just the concept of temporal order: the principle that every act of becoming is such that there is another act of becoming that is immediately later. Let us call it the discrete-order principle. Note that act of becoming L is immediately later than act of becoming K just in case (1) K is earlier than L and (2) there is no act of becoming that is both later than K and earlier than L. This definition does not involve metrical concepts, and so it is compatible with both metricalism and ordinalism. Consequently, a temporalist can claim that the discrete-order principle also holds of feelings in the process of concrescence.11 I shall illustrate this claim in a later section. Temporalism is coherent with the epochal theory

Finally, let us consider a question about the temporal order of actual occasions. Nontemporalism is "dualistic," in that it postulates a temporal order of actual occasions and a nontemporal order of concrescing prehensions. It might be contended that temporalism also is "dualistic," in that it postulates space-time distances between actual occasions and the absence of space-time distances between concrescing prehensions. But is this dualistic contention correct? Whenever one actual occasion is earlier than another, is there always a space-time distance between them?

I shall answer this question by means of Whitehead’s discussion in Process and Reality of our "cosmic epoch": "that widest society of actual entities whose immediate relevance to ourselves is traceable" (91). Whereas "the simpler characteristics of extensive connection" are most likely "ultimate metaphysical necessities" (288), "measurement is a systematic procedure dependent on the dominant societies of the cosmic epoch" (332). Consequently whenever one actual occasion is earlier than another -- and they both are members of these dominant societies -- there is a space-time distance between them. Note, however, that: "Beyond these societies there is disorder" (92); and that, in accordance with Plato’s Timaeus, "the origin of the present cosmic epoch is traced back to an aboriginal disorder" (95). Nevertheless, even "a state of chaotic disorder," actual occasions come into being (92). The main point is that there are actual occasions that came into being before (i.e., earlier than) our cosmic epoch. Let X be such an actual occasion. There is no space-time distance between X and any actual occasion that has come into being in our cosmic epoch. For X is not a member of the dominant societies in our cosmic epoch upon which the systematic procedure of measurement depends.

Whitehead wrote Process and Reality before the fruition of modern evolutionary cosmology, although his own "evolutionary doctrine" can, I think, accommodate that cosmology (95). In explaining the scientific theory that the universe originated in a big bang, Paul Davies remarked: "The conditions at the big bang imply an infinite distortion of time, so that the very concept of time (and space) cannot be extended back beyond the big bang" (24). And he also remarked: "It is evidently meaningless to ask (as many people do) what happened before the big bang, or what caused the explosion to occur. There was no before" (24).12 My view is that his remarks hold of the concept of time measurement. And so, in terms of a conception of temporal order without temporal distances, we can still meaningfully ask what happened before the big bang.

VI. The Order of Becoming

What, then, is the time of concrescence? Suppose that actual occasion A has feelings U and V. And suppose that, when U comes into being, V has not yet come into being. Thus, when V comes into being, U has already come into being. That is, U comes into being before V comes into being. U comes into being earlier than V comes into being. To generalize, the temporal order of concrescing prehensions is the order in which they come into being. The order of time is the order of becoming.

Therefore, there is a temporal order that encompasses both actual occasions and their concrescing prehensions. Some actual occasions come into being earlier than others, and some of each actual occasion’s prehensions come into being earlier than others. The term "earlier" expresses a relation that is irreflexive, asymmetric, and transitive but not connected (i.e., a strict partial order). Just as the temporal order of actual occasions is the order of their acts of becoming, so the temporal order of prehensions in the process of concrescence is the order of their becoming.13

It might be objected that the concept of becoming pertains only to actual occasions, that only actual occasions come into being. Note, however, that one of Whitehead’s categories in Process and Reality states: "(iii) That in the becoming of an actual entity, novel prehensions, nexus, subjective forms, propositions, multiplicities, and contrasts, also become" (22). In other words, entities in every category of existence except that of eternal objects come into being (22). And so, when an actual occasion comes into being through its process of concrescence, its concrescing prehensions also become.

Let me sketch another objection. I have ignored Whitehead’s notion of "time as perpetual perishing" in Process and Reality (128). Note that an actual occasion perishes with the completion of its "final phase" of concrescence (25-26). In terms of that notion, it should be said instead that the temporal order of actual occasions is the order of their perishing. But concrescing feelings perish together with the completion of the final phase of concrescence. None of them perishes before any other. Therefore, in terms of the notion of time as perpetual perishing, it cannot be said that some concrescing prehensions are earlier than others.

In response to this objection, my view is that the concept of becoming in Process and Reality has primacy (22). The process of concrescence of an actual occasion begins with a "first phase" that consists of the coming into being of a "multiplicity of simple physical feelings" (236). And it ends with a "final phase" that consists of the coming into being of that actual occasion as one complex, fully determinate feeling" (26). There is an order of becoming that encompasses both actual occasions and their component prehensions. This order of becoming is inherently temporal.

There is a third objection. I am interpreting the order of becoming in terms of the relation earlier. That relation presupposes the distinction between past, present, and future. However, we cannot say that some of an actual occasion’s prehensions are past, some are present, and some are future. For none of its prehensions are in its causal past, and none are in its causal future. Therefore, we cannot say that any of its prehensions is earlier (or later) than any other.14

The problem with this objection is that it ignores the adjective "causal" in the terms "causal past" and "causal future." For there also is a distinction between past, present, and future that holds of concrescing prehensions. In the above illustration, A has feelings U and V. When U comes into being, V has not yet come into being. And, when V comes into being, U has already come into being. In the preceding two sentences, the locutions "has already come into being," "comes into being," and "has not yet come into being" express a sort of distinction between past, present, and future. Using the terms "present(ly)" and "past", let me provide a rough example. During the present (actual) occasion of my experience -- the one that is (as I am writing this paper) presently coming into being through a process of concrescence -- one of my intellectual feelings is presently coming into being through the integration of past feelings (i.e., ones that came into being earlier in that process of concrescence). In short, my interpretation of the order of becoming involves both a relation earlier and a sort of distinction between past, present, and future.

In conclusion, let us consider again a key passage in Process and Reality; "(xxvii) In a process of concrescence, there is a succession of phases in which new prehensions arise by integration of prehensions in antecedent phases" (26). Utilizing the concept of becoming, I would interpret this passage as follows. In an actual occasion’s process of concrescence, new prehensions come into being by integrating prehensions that have already come into being.

The old (i.e., past) prehensions came into being in antecedent phases, and continue to exist as components in prehensions in subsequent phases. Thus the old prehensions came into being (i.e., originated) earlier than the new prehensions. There is a temporal order of becoming of prehensions in the process of concrescence. The main point is that this order of becoming is an order of beginnings (i.e., originations).

VII. The Temporal Order of Simple Physical Feelings

For the sake of illustration, I shall now state an account of the temporal order of simple physical feelings. A simple physical feeling is simple because it is the feeling of a single actual occasion. Each actual occasion has a simple physical feeling of every actual occasion that has already come into being. Each feels all of the actual occasions in its causal past (i.e., its actual world) (Whitehead 239). No matter how remote an actual occasion may happen to be in the causal past, there is a simple physical feeling of it even if it comes into being in the first second of our expanding universe.

Is a remote actual occasion felt differently than a proximate one? Let me contrast two sorts of answers to this question: mediatism and immediatism. The immediatist holds that every past actual occasion -- no matter how temporally remote -- is felt directly. (Cf. the concept of action at a distance.) On the other hand, the mediatist claims that only those past actual occasions that are neighbors are felt directly. (Cf. the concept of action by contact.) It is through the medium of neighboring actual occasions that actual occasions in the more distant past are felt.

Let us explore mediatism further, utilizing an illustration. When actual occasion E comes into being, actual occasion F has already come into being. F’s act of becoming is earlier than E’s act of becoming. Also, E’s basic region is connected with F’s basic region, and so F is a neighbor of E. Thus E’s feeling of F is direct. Furthermore, when F comes into being, actual occasion G has already come into being. G’s act of becoming is earlier than F’s act of becoming. And their basic regions are connected, and so they are neighbors. Thus F’s feeling of G is direct.

Although G is a neighbor of F and F is a neighbor of H, G is not a neighbor of E. Hence H’s feeling of G is not direct. Instead, H feels G through the medium of F. To understand this last claim more fully, note the following about the concept of simple physical feeling: the initial datum of such a feeling is a single actual occasion, and the objective datum is one of that actual occasion’s own feelings (Whitehead 236). Thus the objective datum of H’s feeling of F is (or includes) F’s feeling of G. E feels G through the medium of F’s feeling of G.

Moreover, when G comes into being, actual occasion H has already come into being. H’s act of becoming is earlier than G’s act of becoming. And their basic regions are connected, and so they are neighbors. Thus G’s feeling of H is direct. But F’s feeling of H is not direct. Instead, F feels H through the medium of G. And H feels G through the medium of F. Consequently, E feels H through the medium of both F and G. To generalize, a temporally remote actual occasion is felt through the medium of a honeycomb of interconnected neighbors.

Why, then, are simple physical feelings temporally ordered? Let me suggest how a mediatist could answer this question. In the illustration, E obtains its feeling of G through the medium of its feeling of F. Therefore, it feels F before it feels G. Its feeling of F comes into being in its process of concrescence earlier than its feeling of G. To generalize, Whitehead’s process metaphysics encompasses the following kind of process: the process of obtaining feelings of earlier actual occasions from feelings of later actual occasions. The feelings of later actual occasions come into being in the process of concrescence earlier than the feelings of earlier actual occasions.

In this way, the temporal order of concrescing simple physical feelings mirrors the temporal order of past actual occasions. Neighboring actual occasions are felt first. The later the actual occasion the earlier the feeling of it. The earlier the actual occasion the later the feeling of it. Very remote actual occasions are felt very late. To summarize, the mediatist accepts the following mirroring thesis: one simple physical feeling comes into being earlier than another simple physical feeling just in case the actual occasion felt by the former comes into being later than the actual occasion felt by the latter.15 (It is assumed that the two feelings are in one and the same process of concrescence.)

I have discussed (in Section V) a principle that is implicit in Whitehead’s epochal theory of time: the principle that every act of becoming is such that there is another act of becoming that is immediately later. I want now to show how this discrete-order principle holds of concrescing simple physical feelings. For example, in the above illustration, F is immediately later than G. And E both feels F directly and feels G through the medium of F. Thus, during E’s process of concrescence, E’s simple physical feeling of G is immediately later than E’s simple physical feeling of F. To generalize, the mediatist accepts the following thesis, which follows from the mirroring thesis and the definition of "immediately later": one simple physical feeling is immediately later than another simple physical feeling just in case the actual occasion felt by the latter is immediately later than the actual occasion felt by the former. (It is assumed that the two feelings are in one and the same process of concrescence.)

To the immediatist, mediatism is problematic. Earlier actual occasions are seen through the lens of later ones, and that lens might overly distort. Since there is no room in this paper to arbitrate between these two views, I shall limit my discussion of immediatism to a few remarks. An immediatist might claim that no simple physical feeling comes into being earlier than any other, or that earlier actual occasions are felt earlier than later ones. But my view is that the immediatist should instead claim that later actual occasions are felt earlier than earlier ones. For feelings of very remote actual occasions tend to be "vague, trivial, and submerged" (Whitehead 239). On the other hand, feelings of neighboring actual occasions are likely to be of greatest significance. (cf. the concept of action by contact.) The main point is that the mirroring thesis could also be embraced by an immediatist.

It might be objected that the mirroring thesis was not explicitly stated by Whitehead, and that not enough passages support it. But a fundamental problem in interpreting Process and Reality is that important aspects of his metaphysics are stated too compactly and thus need to be developed further. Even if not implicit in his metaphysics, the thesis is coherent with it, and hence could be added to it. Admittedly, some alternative theses also are coherent with it. At least, the mirroring thesis serves to illustrate the claim that the order of concrescence is temporal, even if some alternative proves to be preferable.

Because I am inclined to accept temporalism, I have stated an account of the order of simple physical feelings in temporalist terms. I would like now to indicate how that account can be restated in nontemporalist terms. Instead of the temporal relation earlier, we utilize a nonconnected strict partial order that is nontemporal (which we term "precedes"). Of course, the nontemporalist needs to provide an appropriate metaphysical interpretation of the relation precedes. Let us assume that this task has been accomplished. Accordingly, a nontemporalist can revise the mirroring thesis (roughly) as follows: one simple physical feeling (nontemporally) precedes another simple physical feeling just in case the actual occasion felt by the former comes into being (temporally) later than the actual occasion felt by the latter. (It is assumed that the two feelings are in one and the same process of concrescence.)

In conclusion, I have stated part of an account of the temporal order of concrescing prehensions. That account is incomplete because it does not include prehensions of the other types -- e.g., conceptual feelings and intellectual feelings. However, there is no room in this paper for a more complete account. My view is that a discussion of the other types of prehensions would confirm that the order of concrescence is temporal. For instance, conceptual feelings are derived from physical feelings, and so each conceptual feeling comes into being later in the process of concrescence than the physical feeling from which it is derived. Also, intellectual feelings come into being by a process of integration ultimately from simple physical feelings and conceptual feelings, and so each intellectual feeling comes into being later in the process of concrescence than such feelings that it integrates.

VIII. Is the Order of Concrescence Temporal?

In this final section, I shall defend temporalism by responding to some problems. First, it might be thought that I have not considered some passages in Process and Reality that show that Whitehead was a nontemporalist. But that book is complex and obscure, and thus open to diverse interpretations. In a short paper, I cannot defend my temporalist interpretation conclusively. If he was in fact a nontemporalist, my paper can be read as a proposal for revising his metaphysics.

I have not explored the development of his thought. But his earlier writings that concern the nature of time are quite difficult and significantly different from Process and Reality, and so there is no space in a short paper to discuss them adequately. Nonetheless, I will sketch a speculation. To repeat, a major difficulty in interpreting Process and Reality is that of reconciling his theory of extension in Part IV with his system of categories in Part I. His theory of extension was based on his earlier writings about the "method of extensive abstraction" (287). In those earlier writings, he was a metricalist. In writing Part IV, he continued to think (to some extent) in metricalist terms. In contrast, in developing his system of categories, he thought (or began to think) in ordinalist terms. Discordant quotations from Process and Reality about the order of concrescence reflect unresolved tension between Whitehead the metricalist and Whitehead the ordinalist. But this is just a speculation, concerning which I am quite uncertain. If it is correct, my paper can be read as a proposal for resolving the tension in favor of ordinalism.

I have been discussing the actual occasions in the "temporal world" in abstraction from Whitehead’s conception of God in Process and Reality (342). Through a "consequent nature," God feels actual occasions (31). For example, actual occasion A comes into being, and God feels A. Later, actual occasion B comes into being, and God feels B. Because A comes into being earlier than B, it is reasonable to think that God’s feeling of A comes into being earlier than God’s feeling of B. Note that there is no "mirroring," since God directly feels each actual occasion upon its perishing. God’s process of becoming is concurrent with the creative advance of actual occasions. Of course, there is a sense in which God is "outside the temporal world": God does not come into being in a basic region in the extensive continuum. But God’s feelings of A and B can be temporally ordered without there being a space-time distance between them. Even though God’s feelings of actual occasions come into being outside the extensive continuum, they still can be temporally ordered. In short, a reason for accepting temporalism is that it makes best sense of a conception of God that is epitomized by Whitehead thus: "God is fluent" (348).

With the brief exception of Plato’s Timaeus, I have not discussed the relationship between Whitehead and the philosophers who influenced him. Admittedly, such a discussion would be illuminating, but -- particularly because of the large number of philosophers that he considered in Process and Reality -- I cannot accomplish it here. Let me mention another example. Bergson claimed that there is "an order of succession in [pure] duration," an order that is "without any admixture of extensity" (101-03). Let me restate his claim in my terminology. In pure duration, there is temporal order without temporal distances. Most especially, when there is "mutual penetration" (or interpenetration) between a past psychic state and a present psychic state, there is no temporal distance between them. Nonetheless, one is past and the other is present -- i.e., they are temporally ordered. Whitehead acknowledged that he was "greatly indebted to Bergson" (xii).

I have not considered Whitehead’s method of obtaining metaphysical concepts in Process and Reality: "imaginative generalization" (5). He obtained such concepts by generalizing "particular factors discerned in particular topics of human interest; for example, in physics, or in physiology, or in psychology" (5). We have already encountered the topic of physics. He was strongly influenced by the theory of relativity, and so he held that the temporal ordering of actual occasions is not uniquely serial.

He also was strongly influenced by "Descartes’ discovery that subjective experiencing is the primary metaphysical situation which is presented to metaphysics for analysis" (160). Accordingly, my suggestion is that he obtained his metaphysical concept of the order of concrescence (at least in part) by generalizing a concept of the temporal flow of subjective human experiencing. Although there is no room to elaborate this suggestion, I want to make a few pertinent remarks. Arguably, internal time-consciousness reveals order without distance. In remembrance, memories can flow by, their order evident, but not their dates. In dreams, one event can abruptly follow another, with no discernible lapse of time between them. Ordinalism is illustrated concretely in the temporal flow of subjective human experiencing. Consequently, because he generalized a concept of that flow, it is reasonable to think that the resultant concept of the order of concrescence is ordinalist.16

 

Notes

1. Ford’s "Successiveness" was published three decades ago. He continued his classic defense of temporalism in "Coordinate" (1971). Nonetheless, nontemporalism has persisted as the dominant view in Whitehead studies; see, for example, Kraus, Nobo, Rosenthal ("Contemporary"; "Continuity"), and Wallack. More recently in "Epochal" (1997), Ford responded to Rosenthal’s "Continuity" (1996) and again defended temporalism. (Rosenthal answered Ford in "Ongoing.")

2. For a comparison of substantivalism and relationism, see Sklar.

3. I discuss how relativity theory influenced his metaphysics in my article on Whitehead in the Blackwell Guide to American Philosophy.

4. Especially helpful for understanding Whitehead’s metaphysics is the discussion of "absolute approaches" to relativity theory in Lucas and Hodgson.

5. A region has "a certain determinate boundedness" (Whitehead 301). I am assuming that this implies that a region is (topologically) "closed." For a discussion of this assumption, see Palter 106-07 (note 3).

6. More generally, I do not think that the idea of order without measurement pertains idiosyncratically to the philosophy of time. For example, some (ethical or economic) theories based on the satisfaction of preferences assume that preferences can be nonmetrically ordered (e.g., Arrow 9-11).

7. Emphases added. The quotations are from the translation of the Timaeus by Cornford.

8. See, for example, Nobo 248.

9. See Suppes 222.

10. I discuss the ideas summarized in this paragraph and the preceding paragraph more fully in "Whitehead’s" 30-33. Central to McTaggart’s philosophy of time is his distinction between the A-series (based on concepts of past, present, and future) and the B-series (based on concepts of earlier and later). In "Time," I generalize McTaggart’s notions of A-series and B-series, and contrast four theories of temporal order, one of which is illustrated by Whitehead’s conception of the temporal order of actual occasions.

11. According to Rosenthal’s interpretation of Whitehead, the "becoming of an actual entity must be prior to time precisely because it is a continuous process while the coming to be of time requires a succession of ontologically discrete units" ("Contemporary" 274). In contrast, my view is that, in accordance with the discrete-order principle, there is a temporal order of discrete feelings in the process of concrescence.

12. See also Davies 123.

13. In contrast, the answer that Ford provides in "Epochal" involves a concept of "the order of determination" (977). Since his answer is quite complex, I have no space to discuss it adequately.

14. For such an objection, see Rosenthal, "Continuity" 546-47.

15. This mirroring thesis can be restated mathematically as follows. There is an order-isomorphism between the following two sets: the set (ordered by later) of the actual occasions in the causal past of a given subject actual occasion, and the set (ordered by earlier) of the simple physical feelings in the process of concrescence of that subject actual occasion.

16. I would like to thank the anonymous referee for some insightful comments.

 

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