A Monistic Interpretation of Whitehead’s Creativity

by John R. Wilcox

John R. Wilcox is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Spalding University in Louisville, KY 40203. The article which appears here is a companion to an earlier article, “Whitehead on Values and Creativity,” which was published in Philosophy & Theology.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 162-174, Vol. 20, Number 3, Fall, 1991. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr. Wilcox questions the philosophical and textual motivations of a pluralistic interpretation of Whitehead. He presents an explicitly monistic interpretation which holds that there is a sense in which creativity exists apart from its plurality of instances.

Whitehead’s creativity often has been interpreted as existing only pluralistically, that is, existing only as numerically many in the plurality of actual entities by virtue of which it is actualized. Apart from its existence in the plurality, it has been thought to have absolutely no ontological status whatsoever. The object of this essay is to question the philosophical and textual motivations for such a pluralistic interpretation, and then to philosophically articulate and defend an alternative interpretation that is explicitly monistic. An explicitly monistic interpretation is one that holds that there is a sense in which creativity exists apart from its plurality of instances.

The argument of this essay is not that Whitehead himself clearly affirmed a monistic view of creativity as his final considered position. I believe that a careful examination of the texts will bear out that, although Whitehead’s thinking about creativity clearly underwent significant shifts, in the end his position is neither explicitly monistic nor explicitly pluralistic. Possibly, Whitehead himself intended that creativity itself be thought of as neither monistic nor pluralistic. Nonetheless, this essay will attempt to show that a monistic interpretation is consistent with the texts. Furthermore, it will argue that a monistic interpretation is philosophically preferable to a pluralistic interpretation. That is to say, it will argue that a monistic interpretation results from completing an analysis that Whitehead himself never fully pursued.

The claim that there are important internal unresolved questions within Whitehead’s metaphysical system should not be too startling. The massiveness of the system relative to the short amount of time spent on developing it should lead us to suspect that there would be gaps and loose ends.

The situation with respect to creativity makes it even more open-ended in that Whitehead never presented anything like a chapter-length or intensive sustained treatment of it. Perhaps the most famous discussion of creativity in the texts comes in the description of the "Category of the Ultimate" in Part One, Chapter Two of Process and Reality. Lewis S. Ford, in his genetic analysis of Whitehead’s writings, suggests that this passage was one of the last from Process and Reality to have been written (EWM 240). Furthermore, as we will see below, there are clear indications that Whitehead’s thinking about creativity underwent significant changes from the time of Science and the Modern World through to Adventures of Ideas. A case can therefore be made that Whitehead’s creativity remains a somewhat open field for scholarly interpretation.

I. A Review of the Case for a Pluralistic Interpretation

Creativity in Whitehead is analogous to prime matter in Aristotle in that it is the counterpart of form. As the "ultimate notion of the highest generality at the base of actuality," it is "without a character of its own" and "cannot be characterized because all characters are more special than itself" (PR 20/30). Creativity is the "ultimate behind all forms" (PR 20/30).

There is, however, a crucial difference between creativity and prime matter in that whereas prime matter is passive with respect to receiving the actuality of the forms, creativity is pure activity. Creativity is "divested of the notion of passive receptivity, either of ‘form’ or of external relation" (PR 31/46). For Whitehead, it is not the material, but the formal principle that is passive or potential; the "eternal objects are the pure potentials of the universe" (PR 149/226).

Perhaps the strongest textual evidence for a pluralistic interpretation comes from passages that are not explicitly about creativity at all, but rather from passages where Whitehead clearly affirms his commitment to ontological pluralism. If creativity were in some way universally ontologically one over and above the plurality of actual entities, then Whitehead’s system would seem to be very close to ontological monism. The plurality would seem to be reduced to superfluous adornments of the one ultimate creativity. But Whitehead is unequivocal in his rejection of ontological monism; "the philosophy of organism is pluralistic in contrast with Spinoza’s monism" (PR 73-74/114). The plurality of actual entities are "the final real things of which the world is made up" and there is "no going beyond actual entities to find anything more real" (PR 18/27-28).

Whitehead’s ontological pluralism is also clearly affirmed through his "ontological principle" This principle affirms that "whatever things that there are in any sense of existence’ are derived by abstraction from actual occasions" (i.e., actual entities) (PR 73/113). Thus, "actual occasions form the ground from which all other types of existence are derivative and abstracted" (PR 75/116).

While these statements about actual entities are not explicitly about creativity, they have suggested to many interpreters a way to understand Whitehead’s description of creativity as an "ultimate." Creativity is held to have no existence whatsoever apart from the plurality of actual entities, but within the plurality, it is seen to exist as their most basic feature or essential character. It is the most general thing that all actual entities have in common, and it is what makes them what they are, i.e., instances of creative activity.

II. Two Representative Pluralists: Christian and Leclerc

One of the main proponents of this interpretation is William A. Christian. He interprets creativity as merely a generalized concept for referring to the fact that each individual actual entity is for Whitehead in some way self-created or internally free. Whitehead likens actual entities to "drops of experience" (PR 18/28), and what he means to say is that each actual entity is essentially its own center of subjective feeling. Whitehead also believes that the internal subjective reactions of actual entities are free or self-caused. This self-caused subjective feeling is the actual entity’s essential identity. "An actual entity feels as it does feel in order to be the actual entity that it is. In this way an actual entity satisfies Spinoza’s notion of substance: It is causa sui" (PR 222/339; see also 150/228).

Christian takes Whitehead to mean that actual entities are analogous to divine and human acts of free will in being radical sources of "original and originative activity" (IWM 113). The essential identity of each and every actual entity is its self-caused subjective feeling. This self-caused subjective feeling is creativity. Thus, creativity exists in each separate actual entity as individual self-creativity, where each instance of self-creativity is ontologically diverse from every other.

But, Christian points out, the concept of creativity can also serve as a general or universal notion to refer to this common feature or character of the plurality of actual entities. Creativity in this sense is merely "the name for a general fact" (IWM 403), namely that the world consists of self-creative actual entities. Christian’s interpretation of creativity as a general name squares well with an extreme nominalist’s interpretation of Whitehead’s designation of creativity as the "universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact" (PR 21/31).

A second notable representative of a pluralistic interpretation is Ivor Leclerc. For Leclerc, creativity in itself is "a generic activity conceived in abstraction from the individual instantiations of that activity" (WM 84). Leclerc is also explicit in addressing the sense in which he regards creativity to be "ultimate." He insists that creativity "is not merely a common feature of the individual actual entities" (WM 86), since it accounts for their very existence, which is something more than what a mere feature can do. "Each actual entity is (i.e., exists as) an ‘act of becoming"’ (WM 82) and creativity is its "basic activity of self-creation" (WM 84).

Leclerc is particularly concerned that the ultimacy of creativity not be over-stressed. He fears that if we concentrate on the ultimacy too much, "there is a strong tendency to conceive it as itself ‘actual,’ as somehow ‘more real’ than the individual embodiments" (WM 83), which if it were taken that far would, of course, amount to ontological monism.

III. A Pluralistic Interpretation and the Problem of On-Goingness

It is clear that if a monistic interpretation of creativity is to have any success, it must not turn Whitehead’s system into an ontological monism. But before trying to support a monistic interpretation with textual evidence, I should point out that the pluralistic interpretation suffers from what is clearly a very serious philosophical weakness. Perhaps the easiest way to see this problem is to reconsider the difference between creativity and prime matter. While both principles serve as the counterpart of form, prime matter is passive, whereas creativity is pure activity. We must now consider how this difference is further reflected through their different analyses of on-going change.

Aristotle invokes prime matter as an underlying something that remains the same through change. It upholds the change in the sense that it does not go away. Change is thereby analyzed as prime matter undertaking a change in forms.

Since creativity is pure activity, its role in change is not to underlie it, but to drive it. But what happens when creativity is interpreted as existing only pluralistically? The genetic analysis of actual entities holds that actual entities come into existence, pass through a series of phases, and then perish. If creativity exists only pluralistically within the plurality of actual entities as the principle of their individual identity, then, when each individual actual entity perishes, so too does its creativity perish with it. But, then, where is there any more creativity to drive the next set of actual entities? Under a pluralistic interpretation, creativity has absolutely no status apart from actual entities. How, then, is creativity in turn supposed to give rise to those actual entities? Thus, in order for creativity to drive the universe, there must be some sense in which it precedes the plurality.

This same problem has been raised by W. Norris Clarke. Accepting the pluralistic interpretation of creativity as a "generalized description" of the "individual bursts of self-creativity which . . . are the only ground or referent for the term ‘creativity,’" Clarke asks why this creativity "should bubble up unfailingly and inexhaustibly all over the universe through endless time" (L 1:17). He sees no reason "why this creativity continues to spring forth endlessly and inexhaustibly, all over the universe, from no actually existing source" (L 1:17). Clarke sees that the root of the problem comes from basing creativity exclusively within the plurality, and he seems to assume that a pluralistic interpretation is the only kind available. "Creativity seems to be an ultimate primordial many, with no unifying source" (L 1:16).1

IV. Garland’s Interpretation

From the fact that a pluralistic interpretation of creativity fails to explain how the universe is on-going, does it follow that a monistic interpretation can succeed? To get a better handle on this question, let us discuss an important article by William J. Garland, "The Ultimacy of Creativity." Garland stresses creativity’s role in explaining on-goingness without explicitly addressing the question of whether creativity is to be interpreted pluralistically or monistically. A careful examination of Garland will show, however, that he invokes an interpretation of creativity that is implicitly monistic. We will at that point see the importance of trying to advance an interpretation of creativity that is explicitly monistic.

Garland sees universal temporal on-goingness as standing in need of "ultimate explanation" (EWP 221). He argues against Christian that it is not enough to try to explain the connectiveness implied by universal temporal on-goingness in terms of individual actual entities being self-creative. For Garland, not only are actual entities self-creative, but earlier actual entities are "other creative" of later ones. To explain how, Garland takes creativity to be an active receptacle of the actual entities of the past. Creativity "receives" the completed actual entities of the past and "passes them on as data" to the becoming of new actual entities of the present (EWP 228).

Garland reasons that because creativity is ultimate, the process by which actual entities are other-creative is unitary throughout the universe. That is to say, there is only one successive universal creative advance, not several unconnected ones. "All actual entities are related to their predecessors . . . because there is but one creative process from which they all arise and to which they all make their final contribution" (EWP231).

Thus, under Garland’s interpretation, creativity has, so to speak, a universal job to do. It literally "gives past actualities to present ones" (EWP 231) and thereby "drives the universe forward" (EWP 230). How can it do these things unless it has its own agency? Furthermore, how can it have this agency if it is identified exclusively with the individual self-creativity of the plurality? "Over and against all entities . . . there stands a dynamic creative activity" which "can never be reduced to any set of these entities" (EWP 232). Clearly, for Garland creativity can be understood in some sense as a universal agency in some measure separate from the plurality. Garland does not ask, however, how such an interpretation of creativity is consistent with Whitehead’s unequivocal rejection of ontological monism.

Two other interpreters besides Garland who also emphasize creativity’s explanatory role with respect to on-goingness should be mentioned here briefly. Jorge Luis Nobo sees individual instances of creativity as manifestations of "the one ultimate creativity of the universe," and this one creativity is "eternally real" (WMES 174) as "an inexhaustible metaphysical energy at the base of all existence" (WMES 175). Nobo maintains that "without the eternal creativity no creature could ever become" (WMES 174).

The second interpreter is Jan Van der Veken, who proposes that "creativity first and foremost be conceived as substantial or universal activity -- in a real and proper sense, and not merely in a formal sense" (WMC 184). His disclaimer that he is not speaking of a "formal sense" would seem to be a reference to the fact that creativity is analogous to Aristotle’s material principle; so it is not enough to see creativity merely in terms of its being a generic feature or character the way Christian and Leclerc seem to. Creativity is rather "some legitimate form of agency or active principle" whose function is to be general or "all-encompassing" (WMC 182).

In general, then, it seems that a monistic creativity would be able to explain on-goingness so long as it meet the following conditions. It must extend as a continuous unity from the past to the present. It must lead into the future. It must be inexhaustible and imperishable. It must not underlie the change, but drive it. So it must be ever active. Finally, it must in some sense be identical with, though separate from, the plurality of self-creative actual entities by which it is instantiated.

V. The Textual Basis for a Monistic Approach

Finding a basis within the texts for an approach to creativity that is generally monistic is not difficult. In Science and the Modern World, where Whitehead has not yet come up with the concept of creativity as a technical notion, he speaks of a substrate activity" which he sees as analogous to Spinoza’s one substance; it is "one underlying activity of realization individualizing itself in an interlocked plurality of modes" (SMW 70). "There is nothing with which to compare it: it is Spinoza’s one infinite substance" (SMW 177). This one substrate activity admits of "modal differentiation" into a plurality of individual "events." "Each event is an individual matter of fact issuing from an individualization of the substrate activity" (SMW 70).

In Religion in the Making, Whitehead introduces the technical concept of creativity, but he clearly has revised his position to where creativity is not to be taken as itself an "actual entity," since "its character lacks determinateness" (RM 90). By Process and Reality, Whitehead has backed away from giving any indication that he thinks of creativity as "substantial." Creativity is "an ultimate which is actual in virtue of its accidents"; but Whitehead carefully points out his difference from monistic philosophies such as Spinoza’s or absolute idealism in that he does not allow his ultimate a "final ‘eminent’ reality, beyond that ascribed to any of its accidents" (PR 7/10). Nevertheless, Whitehead can still say in the context of this same discussion of creativity as an ultimate that his philosophy is "closely allied to Spinoza’s scheme of thought" (PR 7/10). Even though creativity is no longer substantial, it may still be one. The plurality of individual actual entities are at various places said to "condition" (PR 43/68-69); 237/362), or to "qualify" (PR 88/135), or to "characterize" (PR 108/165) the creativity which "transcends" them.

A further set of texts that lay a basis for an interpretation of creativity as monistic are ones where creativity is invoked to explain on-goingness. Creativity is designated as a technical notion for "passing on," which is itself said to be "more fundamental than that of a private individual fact" (PR 213/324). Thus, it is "inherent in the constitution of the immediate present actuality that a future will supersede it" (PR 215/327). Creativity in itself is described to be a universal agent; the ‘"creative advance’ is the application of this ultimate principle of creativity to each novel situation which it originates" (PR 21/32).

By Adventures of Ideas, the appeal to creativity to explain on-goingness is even more pronounced, possibly because Whitehead himself was beginning to sense the need for it. Each actual occasion is said to emerge from an "initial situation" which "includes a factor of activity which is the reason for the origin of that occasion" (AI 179). The "factor of activity" is creativity, and because of it, the situation out of which an actual occasion emerges is "active with its inherent activity" (AI 179). Thus, creativity "drives the world" (AI 179); it is the "throbbing emotion of the past hurling itself into a new transcendent fact" (AI 177).

After looking over these various passages, it seems evident that Whitehead was never really too sure about how creativity was supposed to relate to the plurality. He started out in Science and the Modern World with a strong notion of an "underlying substantial activity," but in Religion in the Making he drops the idea that creativity can be an actual thing with a determinate character. In Process and Reality he apparently saw that he also would have to drop the idea of creativity as "substantial" if he was to hang onto ontological pluralism and not reduce the plurality to accidental accompaniments. But then, in Adventures of Ideas, he saw clearly that he needed to emphasize the explanatory role of creativity with respect to on-goingness. What he never seems to have done adequately, however, is to explain how a creativity that is conceived strongly enough to explain on-goingness is at the same time found actualized only through the plurality of actual entities.

VI. Creativity and the Many: Dynamic Differentiation

An analysis of the concept of a monistic creative activity can reveal a close relationship between a monistic creativity and a plurality of individual creative events. Such a relationship Whitehead himself seems never to have explored, and perhaps never to have noticed. A monistic creativity would be unlike a monistic substance in that it would imply the existence of process. Creativity would be something that by its very nature proceeds onward, giving rise to a process of spatial and temporal differentiations through a sequence of stages or episodes. These stages or episodes would be the multiple manifestations of the monistic creative activity. Without them, a monistic creativity just would not be creativity.

Whitehead’s criticism of Spinoza seems not to be that he sought unity through a monistic approach, but that once he invoked the monistic intuition as indicating substance, he was unable neatly to accommodate the plurality. Spinoza’s initial move to one substance satisfies a theoretical demand for "coherence." But in addition to the demand that our theories be theoretically coherent, they must also be "adequate" to experience (PR 3/5). Spinoza’s problem, as Whitehead sees it, is that when he introduces the plurality of individualized modes, he gains adequacy with respect to the undeniable plurality of our experience only to lose coherence. If, as Spinoza holds, reality or nature is essentially one substance, then the introduction of the plurality of modes is an arbitrary or incoherent "gap in the system" (PR 7/10). Thus, the most that Spinoza can say about the ontological status of the modes is that they are "accidents" of the one real substance.

I propose that once the monistic intuition is taken as indicating, not substance, but creative activity, the problem of any arbitrary disconnection between the one and the many immediately disappears. A monistic creativity necessarily would give rise to plurality of stages or episodes, and it could not exist as creative activity apart from the many stages by which it proceeds onward through space and time. These individual steps are all stages or episodes of the one. They derive from the monistic creativity, and are the actual manifestations of its dynamic quality. A monistic creativity is ontologically one as the same reality existing dynamically, and its plurality is the differentiated stages or episodes that fall out along the way as marking creativity’s dynamic driving progression.

Thus, the notion that creativity is a creative activity of process elucidates how the one creativity and the many stages or episodes belong to each other. The monistic creativity and the plurality of stages or episodes are inextricably connected in that the monistic creativity is a creative activity of process and as such requires pluralistic differentiation. The plurality are the creatures or the offshoots of the one, while the one is the active creativity of the offshoots.

VII. A Monistic Creativity and Whitehead’s Critique of yhe Subject-Predicate Form of Discourse

The relationship between a monistic creativity and a plurality of individual creative events can be further explored by reflecting upon Whitehead’s criticism of Spinoza for accepting the subject-predicate form of thought as metaphysically adequate. Although Whitehead sees himself in regard to creativity as "close" to Spinoza, he differs from him "by the abandonment of the subject-predicate forms of thought, so far as concerns the presupposition that this form is a direct embodiment of the most ultimate characterization of fact. The result is that the substance-quality’ concept is avoided; and that morphical description is replaced by description of dynamic process" (PR 7/10).

Elsewhere in the text, Whitehead gives indication that he thinks ontological monism, of which Spinoza’s philosophy is an example, results from an adherence to the subject-predicate form of thought; "every respectable philosophy of the subject-predicate type is monistic" (PR 137/208-9). Consider, then, that if creativity is analogous to Spinoza’s one, yet differs from it insofar as Whitehead rejects the metaphysical adequacy of the subject-predicate form of expression, would it not seem that creativity could be adequately represented by a single ultimate verb -- that is, by a verb standing on its own without the need of a subject-noun expressing an agent? Such a verb -- we might call it ". . . creates . . ." or ". . . activates . . ." -- could be taken to represent a single universal activity that runs throughout the entire universe.

To see the monistic creativity in terms of Whitehead’s rejection of the subject-predicate form of thought allows us to explore the point that the plurality of creativity’s stages or episodes do not inhere in creativity as do accidents in a substance. Since Spinoza’s modes are marked out by accidental predicates, they are not necessary to the one, and they have no significant status as individuals unto themselves. But stages or episodes of the monistic activity could be determinate individuals represented as marked out by adverbial modifiers of the one verbal activity. The monistic creativity in itself is neither determinate nor actual. To be made determinate, it needs to take on particular forms; it needs to be adverbially modified by the eternal objects.2

The eternal objects as adverbial modifiers represent the how of the monistic creativity’s pluralistic differentiation; they represent how creativity is actual in the form of a plurality. The monistic creativity is not an underlying passive substance in which adjectival-accidents happen to inhere. Instead, creativity acts to assume adverbial modifiers in its route to complete itself as actual. The eternal objects are not accidental to a substance; they are essential to the individual acts they determinately constitute. Creativity completes itself as actual by becoming a plurality of determinately formed individual acts.

VII. Subjective Aim and the Self-Creativity of the Many

Does the plurality of stages or episodes which would derive from a monistic creativity constitute a plurality of ontologically separate individuals? Why would not a plurality of stages or episodes just be diverse aspects of a single all-encompassing actual entity? Such an all-encompassing individual could be analyzable into separate stages or episodes in the same way Whitehead takes a single actual entity to be analyzable into a plurality of diverse prehensions. Prehensions are not the full-fledged individuals that actual entities are, since a prehension "cannot be abstracted from the actual entity entertaining it" (PR 221/338). Why should a monistic creativity give rise to a plurality of atomic selves?

This question is related to the problem of how a monistic interpretation of creativity would handle Whitehead’s claims that each actual entity is in some measure self-creative or causa sui. The point is whether or not a stage or episode of a monistic creativity is a real individual. If it is a real individual, then there ought to be a way to analyze out the point at which it breaks off from the one.

To address this question, we must be clear that what it means to be an individual for Whitehead is to be a center of subjective feeling or experience. So the question we are looking at here is how the monistic creativity could give rise to a plurality of separate centers of individual subjectivity. Why do the plurality of stages or episodes constitute many separate such centers, instead of just being aspects or facets of a single all-encompassing center? Furthermore, can the concept of being a separate center of subjective experience be used to understand Whitehead’s concepts of self-creativity and causa sui?

Since Whitehead understands individuality in terms of subjectivity, a key concept in Whitehead’s analysis of individuality is teleology. Subjective experience is the experience of purpose. Thus, to be an individual, for Whitehead, is to be a separate center of purposive experience. Each individual is structured in terms of its own teleological aim at its own satisfaction or completeness. It is a unique center of experience because it aims at its own subjective fulfillment. Thus, the stages or episodes of a monistic creativity would have to be organized into a plurality of separate individuals by means of a plurality of separate subjective aims.

Our task then, is to see whether the concept of subjective aim can be used to explain Whitehead’s special understanding of self-creativity and causa sui. We will look first at passages where Whitehead discusses actual entities as causa sui, and then at passages where he discusses self-creativity. Sometimes when he speaks of an actual entity as causa sui, he is referring to an actual entity’s "modification of subjective aim" (PR 47/74) through its "decisions"; "the admission into, or rejection from, reality of conceptual feeling is the originative decision of the actual occasion. In this sense, an actual occasion is causa sui"(PR 86/131). "To be causa sui means that the process of concrescence is its own reason for the decision in respect to the qualitative clothing of feelings" (PR 88/135). These passages mean that an actual entity is causa sui because it makes decisions on how the subjective aim or the "lure for feeling is admitted to efficiency" (PR 88/135). Decision is thus the basic activity by which an actual entity is causa sui, and it is the unique way in which the actual entity feels and reacts to its subjective aim; it is, indeed, the very experience of subjective aim.

The concept of causa sui shows up again when Whitehead discusses actual entities in terms of their internal processes of final causality. Whereas efficient causality pertains to the actual entity insofar as it must conform to the actual world of its immediate past, final causality belongs to the actual entity by virtue of its own "internal process whereby the actual entity becomes itself" (PR 150/228). This "becoming of the immediate self" is the "immediate actual process" (PR 150/228). With respect to the initial phase of the actual entity, with its conformation to the past, an actual entity is "the product of the efficient past," but with respect to the later phases it is "causa sui" (PR 150/228). Causa sui thus refers to a process of final causality by which an actual entity is an individual experience.

These passages which connect causa sui first with decision and then with final causality make essentially the same point as some other passages which directly connect self-creativity with subjective aim. "The concrescence is dominated by a subjective aim" and this "subjective aim is this subject itself determining its own self-creation as one creature" (PR 69/108). "In its self-creation the actual entity is guided by its ideal of itself," where the "enjoyment of this ideal is the ‘subjective aim’ by reason of which the actual entity is a determinate process" (PR 85/130). "The immediacy of the concrescent subject is constituted by its living aim at its own self-constitution" (PR 244/373).

The reason, then, why the stages or episodes of the monistic creativity constitute a plurality of separate centers of subjective experience, instead of just being aspects of a single all-encompassing subjective experience, is that they are organized into separate such centers by a plurality of subjective aims. Self-creativity turns out to mean the creativity of a self, an individual, in the sense of being a novel atomic unity with its own final causality. The self-creativity of the individual actual entity is the monistic creativity of the universe as felt subjectively by the actual entity through its subjective aim.

It is possible to ask at this point the further question of why there should be a plurality of subjective aims. The answer is to be given in terms of the unique kind of activity that springs from God, for God is the source of all subjective aims. At each moment that the monistic creativity differentiates itself into a plurality of stages or episodes -- a plurality of mere facets or aspects not yet differentiated into full-fledged individuals -- God is there to issue to these stages or episodes a plurality of subjective aims by means of which they are variously gathered into separate individual or self-creative experiences. God’s role of supplying the world with a plurality of teleological visions is a process of giving rise to a plurality of separate teleological experiences. Such a role for God makes God out to be a creator, not in the sense of ex nihilo, but in the sense of causing the plurality to exist as separate individuals. God has the unique power, as well as the goodness, to share or to spread teleology.

IX. The Permanence of Creativity

By now it should be clear that the interpretation of creativity being advanced here takes creativity to be a permanent structure of the universe, similar to the way Aristotle regarded matter to be a permanent structure. As something permanent, creativity endures the change from the past to the present. In this sense, permanence may suggest something stationary, or unchanging, and these notions may further suggest something passive. But such is not the case with creativity; creativity is permanent activity. The activity comes to it from within as self-activating activity, causing temporal change. Thus, as something permanent, creativity itself does not suffer or undergo change, but as self-activating activity, it gives rise to change. Creativity in this sense may be considered to be "pre-temporal."

Whitehead’s category of the ultimate relates creativity to the succession of novel concrescences which "it originates" (PR 21/32). Each new actual entity arises as a novel concrescence of the many actual entities of its immediate past. Although these past actual entities have perished in the sense that they have lost their subjective immediacy of experience, the qualitative character of that experience is to some degree saved in that it is re-experienced by the novel concrescences that come after them. According to the monistic interpretation being advanced here, what is also saved is the creativity of those past actual entities. When the subjective immediacy of the past actual entities went out of them, the creativity continued on into the present.

The sense in which creativity is being interpreted as monistic is to be located precisely in its continuation from one set of self-creative individuals to the next. To say that the creativity lives on after the past actual entities have perished is to attribute to creativity a status apart from its existence as the creativity of the past. It is the same creativity that is preserved from the entire past to the entire future. To say that it is ontologically one means that there is no significant sense in which it is preserved as many. Although it exists as many at each moment in the plurality of self-creative individuals by which it is differentiated, those individuals are continually perishing and being replaced by new ones. Creativity can never be preserved as the same many as it was once in the past, since those individuals never continue.

Nor would it make sense to suppose that creativity was preserved as many in the sense of there being many separate strands of creativity weaving in and out of each other, for then those enduring strands would be the most basic plurality of Whitehead’s ontology, and not the actual entities that would be variously composed of them. Creativity in itself cannot be many because it is without determination, and is found determinate only in its separate units. In its units, it is made determinate by the eternal objects and the subjective aims, but in itself it is indeterminate, and so, if there is any sense at all in which it is, then it can only be one. There would be just no way in which separate units of undetermined creativity could be distinguished from each other.

On the other hand, the sense in which creativity is held to be one must not be over-stressed. Since creativity in itself is indeterminate, it cannot be one actual thing. The only unity being attributed to creativity is that required for us to be able to refer to it in its explanatory role as it.

The interpretation being offered here seems to differ from Nancy Frankenberry’s in that it attempts to analyze out a sense in which creativity has a status apart from the pluralities of either the past or the present. Frankenberry interprets Whitehead to explain the emergence of the present by means of a continuation of the creative energy of the past into the present, and in this way her position and the one being argued here are very similar. But her understanding of this transformation of energy seems to be that the creativity of the past is active in the present. It is thus possible for her to speak of "transitional creativity" -- that is, the creativity involved in the transition from one set of actual entities to the next -- as "the power of the past" (PS 13:140). The past, for her, remains active, even after it has perished.

The interpretation presented here, on the other hand, is not that the past is presently active, but that creativity is. A major point of Frankenberry’s discussion of the creativity of the past seems to be to emphasize that the present is very close to the immediate past and heavily shaped by it, so much so that the present and the immediate past form an "indisoluable unity" of the sort that can be broken only by an "extremely abstracted intellectual analysis" (PS 13:141). This cautionary note about abstract analysis being heeded, the question seems to remain as to how the past can have a role in shaping the present, if the past is truly perished. It seems that it may play a role only through the agency of something that by its very nature extends into the present. The analysis seems to lead to a monistic creativity which both persists through change and gives rise to it.

X. Comparison With Ford

Before closing this discussion, a final comparison should be drawn with Lewis S. Ford’s novel approach of identifying the source of present creativity with future becoming. Ford believes that Whitehead’s system taken as given is simply unable to explain the emergence of present creativity. He believes that on-goingness can be explained only by modifying Whitehead. He argues that creativity cannot come from the actual entities of the past, because they have perished. Neither can it come from the actual entities of the present, since their emergence is the very thing that is to be explained. This argument, of course, is essentially the same as the one that was used above in criticizing the interpretation of creativity as existing only pluralistically. So, Ford asks, why not say present creativity comes from the future?

Ford draws a distinction between "the order of being," which is settled and determinate, and "the order of becoming," which is forward-moving and open-ended. When Ford identifies creativity with the future, he is speaking in terms of the order of becoming; he means by the future "not what will be, but what might be" (NEM 179). In the order of being, the past is earlier and the future is later. But in the order of becoming, these positions are reversed; the future is earlier and the past is later. When analyzing the order of becoming, we find a succession of phases of determination. The "latest" or most recent phase is also the "most determinate," which "verges on the past," while the "earliest" one is "least determinate," and "verges on the future" (NEM 188). Ford proposes that if the future is creativity, then there is creativity "earlier than" or before the present. Present determination is possible because the undetermined future laid out before the present gives it an openness within which to operate. This undetermined region before the present can be taken to mean that the "novel possibility" realized in the present is "received from the future" (NEM 193). Ford sees future creativity as flowing out to the present as the present becomes determinate. Creativity, on his view, is "bequeathed to the present by a retreating future" (NEM 195).

Ford’s interpretation of future creativity is markedly similar to the monistic interpretation presented here in the way it explains the plurality of present actualities as arising from a single source; "the present activity of finite occasions constitute many pluralized modes of the creativity flowing from the one future source" (NEM 187). Undetermined monistic creativity flowing from the future to the present becomes determinate and plural.

The major difference between Ford’s approach and mine seems to be that I take the singular source of present creativity to be permanent instead of future. In placing the monistic creativity in the future, Ford seems to be thinking that the activity of a monistic creativity must be simply contained within some temporal location. Since the past is ruled out on the grounds that it has perished, and the present is ruled out on the grounds that creativity must be somehow prior to the present to explain how it emerges, the future is the only temporal location left.

The interpretation offered here, in contrast, is that a monistic creativity that is permanent is not simply contained within any temporal location; rather, it is a unique sort of activity that results in temporal location. One might be tempted to prefer Ford’s approach on the grounds that it better honors Whitehead’s commitment to "take time seriously"; but a permanent monistic creativity hardly fails on this score, since it necessitates by its very nature that there will be time.

As we have mentioned, Ford thinks that the emergence of present creativity can be explained by Whitehead’s system only if the system is modified. The argument of this essay has been that Whitehead’s system is so rich that it contains internal resources of which Whitehead himself seems unaware. Thus as original and highly imaginative as Ford’s modification of Whitehead is, one wonders whether Ford does not give up on Whitehead too quickly. What the system seems to need is not modification, but more analysis and elucidation along the same lines that have been offered here.3



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

EWP -- William J. Garland. "The Ultimacy of Creativity." Explorations in Whitehead ‘s Philosophy, Ed. Lewis S. Ford and George L. Kline. New York: Fordham University Press, 1983.

IWM -- William A. Christian. An Interpretation of Whitehead s Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.

L 1 -- Norris W. Clarke. "Christian Theism and Whiteheadian Process Philosophy: Are They Compatible?" Logos: Philosophical Issues in Christian Perspective, 1 (1980), 9-44.

NEM -- Lewis S. Ford, "Creativity in a Future Key" New Essays in Metaphysics, Ed. Robert C. Neville. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

PS 13 -- Nancy Frankenberry. "The Power of the Past." Process Studies, 13/2 (Summer 1983): 132-42.

WM -- Ivor Leclerc. Whiteheads Metaphysics. London: George Allen and Unwin ltd., 1958.

WMC -- Jan Van der Veken "Creativity as Universal Activity." Whitehead ‘s Metaphysics of Creativity, Ed. Friedrich Rapp and Reiner Wiehl. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

WMES -- Jorge Luis Nobo. Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Extension and Solidarity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.



1A question of creativity’s ability to explain on-goingness has also been raised by John B. Cobb, Jr. in A Christian Natural Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965). pp. 203-14. Cobb’s discussion is particularly helpful in the way he sees this question as emerging from a comparison of creativity with prime matter. However, like Clarke, he too seems to assume that creativity is be interpreted only pluralistically. Thus, his question does not necessarily have force against an interpretation of creativity as monistic.

2The suggestion that individuals of creativity can be understood in terms of adverbial modifications has been made also by William A. Christian in An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1959), p. 230. Of course, Christian’s construal of this suggestion would be different from the one proposed here in that his interpretation of creativity is pluralistic.

3Sections 1-8 of this article are based largely upon my doctoral dissertation, "A Monistic Interpretation of Whitehead’s Creativity," completed in 1986 at the University of Notre Dame under the direction of Sheilah O’Flynn Brennan. Sections 9-10 grew out of discussions between myself and Lewis S. Ford. I am grateful to both Brennan and Ford for their helpfulness.