A Rejoinder to Justus Buchler

by Ivor Leclerc

Ivor Leclerc is Professor of Philosophy at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, having previously taught at Glasgow.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 55-59, Vol. 1, Number 1, Spring, 1971. 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.


Ivor Leclerc discusses his disagreement with Professor Justus Buchler’s criticism of Whitehead’s metaphysical position of "ontological priority" as well as "ontological parity."

Professor Buchler’s paper, "On a Strain of Arbitrariness in Whitehead’s System," which appeared in Journal of Philosophy (66, 19 [October 2, 1969], 589-601) and an abstract of which appears on page 70 of this issue of Process Studies, is an important and a very challenging one. It is challenging not only to Whitehead, but to the entire metaphysical tradition which has maintained the position of what Professor Buchler terms "ontological priority." He has in his work called this metaphysical position into question, and in the paper under consideration he specifically attacks Whitehead’s adherence to it. His challenge to Whitehead has the more point since he sees Whitehead as also, and indeed more fundamentally, maintaining what Professor Buchler holds to be the contrary position -- one which he himself advocates -- that of "ontological parity." In his view Whitehead’s attempt to adhere to these two positions involves him in serious discrepancies in his statements, even to the extent of casting "a shadow of crude myth upon a remarkably intricate issue of distinctions and generalizations." (p. 591) But his most serious charge is that the consequence of Whitehead’s adherence to these two positions is a deep-seated arbitrariness in his system, that some of the characteristic features of his doctrine are without adequate foundation, that his insistence on them must in the end be convicted of gratuitousness.

Now I will accept that there is something in Whitehead’s thought which Professor Buchler, from the perspective of his philosophy, discerns as two "trends." But the acceptability of his characterization of these two "trends" is one of the points at issue in this discussion. This is of direct consequence for the issue which he has made central; namely, whether there is a lack of coherence, an arbitrariness, in Whitehead’s system. But whether one agrees with Professor Buchler or not about his characterization, he has certainly raised a general problem of quite basic import in metaphysical thinking.

In Trend I, as Professor Buchler has put it, "Whitehead seeks to define and justify a set of major concepts, together with their derivatives," and he goes on to point out that "these concepts are designed to distinguish ‘types of entities’ (types of ‘existence’) and to explain their interrelation." (p. 590) I would agree that this is what Whitehead has done and, moreover, that he has recognized this as a basic philosophical task.

Whitehead’s summary delineation of these types of "entities," types or kinds of "existence," is listed in Chapter II, Section 2 of Process and Reality as the "Category of the Ultimate" and the eight "Categories of Existence."

Now the fundamental issue is not concerning the exhaustiveness of this list of "categories," nor indeed that of Whitehead’s distinction of these particular types or kinds rather than others. The former would relate to the question of the completeness of Whitehead’s system, and the latter would concern the justification of Whitehead’s particular delineation of these kinds vis-à-vis that of other systems. The quite fundamental issue and that which specially concerns us here -- for it is that which Professor Buchler’s discussion has brought to the fore -- is the problem of the basis upon which a distinction into "kinds" or "types" of "entities" or "existence" is made at all. That thinkers have been compelled, implicitly or explicitly, to make such distinctions, for example, as between "actuality" and "possibility" is manifest -- and Professor Buchler, it seems to me, accepts this. But the question is as to the ultimate basis of such distinctions.

The basis upon which Whitehead has made his distinction into his nine "categories" is, I submit, that which Aristotle was the first to have clearly and systematically brought out. This is, first, that the primary concern of metaphysics is "being," and secondly that "being" is used in many senses. In other words, metaphysics is the concern, in the most fundamental respect, with "what is," and when this inquiry is entered into it emerges that not all which is "is" in exactly the same sense.

The problem which then presents itself is to distinguish the different senses in which entities "are" and to classify them accordingly. The outcome has been different metaphysical systems. Whitehead’s nine "categories" mentioned represent his discrimination of the different senses of "to be" and the "entities" which "are" in these senses. That is, what I am maintaining is that the ultimate basis upon which Whitehead has distinguished the different "kinds" or "types" of entities is the different senses in which they "are."

Now the reason for my insistence upon the issue of the basis upon which the distinction into types or kinds of existence is made is because it is of the greatest relevance to Professor Buchler’s charge of incoherence and arbitrariness in Whitehead’s system. His contention is that Whitehead’s move from Trend I, the delineation of types of existence, to Trend II, in which Whitehead has assigned some order of "priority" among the types, is incoherent, that it involves the arbitrary introduction of some other principle not required by, and indeed inconsistent with, that upon which the distinction into types is made.

My argument will be that Whitehead’s move from Trend I to Trend II does not involve arbitrariness, that on the contrary this move is not only entirely coherent, but that it is indeed necessitated by the basis upon which he proceeded in Trend I.

Professor Buchler sees the basis of Whitehead’s procedure in Trend II to be the adoption of a principle of "degrees of reality." I should like to say straight away that I find myself in much agreement and sympathy with Professor Buchler in his strictures on terms like "reality," the "concrete," the "abstract," etc.; his criticisms are important and ought to have a salutary effect. On the other hand, however, it seems to me that he does not sufficiently take account of the very genuine metaphysical problem which lies at the base of the use of these terms. The respect in which his strictures are legitimate and valuable is in so far as they are directed against these terms when their use constitutes an evasion of the problem which is at issue, that is, when their use involves the tacit presupposition of a position in regard to the problem without a recognition that that very position is what is in question.

I do not myself think that Whitehead is as guilty of this uncritical use of these terms as Professor Buchler considers him to be. Rather, it seems to me that the contrary is the case, that Whitehead has very definitely concerned himself with the problem in question. This problem could be put here as that of the basis of his procedure in what Professor Buchler has delineated as Trend II.

This, I submit, for Whitehead arises out of and follows from that which constitutes the basis upon which the distinction into kinds or types of entities or existence is made. For Whitehead has definitely recognized that when the distinction is made into types of entities the problem requires to be faced not merely as to how they are related to each other, but how they are related in respect of "being."

The outcome of Whitehead’s reflection on this problem was to bring him into essential agreement with Aristotle in his solution to this problem. This is that the different senses of "being" are not on a parity, that the various senses ultimately have reference to one sense as basic. Whitehead has referred to this as the "Aristotelian principle" and the "ontological principle." For Aristotle the sense in which ousia "is" is distinctively different from that in which, for example, a quality "is" or a quantity or a relation "is:’ For Whitehead the sense in which an actual entity "is" is likewise distinctively different from that in which eternal objects, propositions, nexus, etc. "are." The "ontological principle" is not only that each of these kinds "is" in a distinctively different sense, but that there is a certain primacy in the sense in which ousia "is" or an actual entity "is."

The primacy of the sense in which these entities are is grounded in what in the philosophical tradition has been termed "act." The term goes back to the Aristotelian energeia (from ergon, work, doing): en-ergeia. "in-work," "in-doing," "in-act." It is significant that the Latin verb ago was selected to render the Aristotelian sense; its literal meaning is "to drive, lead, impel, put in motion. For the fundamental import of the Aristotelian energeia is not a mere abstract "state of being in work," but that the entity in question is that which inherently has the driving, the moving impulse; it is that which has the power, force, to initiate the work, the doing; it is that which is the primary spring, or source of the doing. The Aristotelian doctrine is that there is one type of entity or being which "acts" in this sense of itself initiating and carrying out the "work," the "doing," the "moving," by its own inherent power. Whitehead shares this position with Aristotle. The kind of entity which acts in this sense he has termed "actual entity." In Whitehead’s philosophy "acting" in this sense is peculiar to actual entities. Only actual entities are in this fundamental sense "agents."

An adequate formulation or expression of this, free from objections, is fraught with immense difficulty because of the inevitable ambiguity of words, which is not easy to eradicate even in technical usage. This is the more so in an area so fundamental as that in which we are here involved. For the terms do not have a technical meaning antecedent to theory, but only with and as integral to theory, and differences in theory or even in interpretation affect the meaning. Thus, for example, consequent upon a particular interpretation of the Aristotelian contrast of dynamis and energeia the term "act," actus has come to have the meaning not only of a "a doing," but also of "a thing done," i.e., that which is the outcome of the doing. Then too, while the word "act" as a philosophical technical term refers primarily, as I have indicated, to the "doing," "moving," "working," of an entity which has the inherent power and is the spring or source of that "doing" or "moving," the word is readily used in an abstract sense, and also derivatively as pertaining to other than these entities. The same is the case with the word "agent," which in its primary sense refers to the entity with the power to and which does "act," but which in derivative senses can be and is used to apply to other than these entities. Thus human beings are agents in the primary sense, but derivatively corporations, societies, etc., and even feelings and fears and attitudes too are spoken of as agents. Also in some theories "passive" agents are distinguished from "active" agents. Closely related to this etymologically and in philosophical usage is the word "efficacy," which in its primary sense refers to the power of acting of the kind of entity I am discussing, but which also is used derivatively of other entities.

Certainly with these different senses of words it is possible to fall foul of equivocation, but it does not seem to me that Whitehead has been guilty of that. It is true, as Professor Buchler points out, that Whitehead says that "agency belongs exclusively to actual occasions" and that he also speaks of an eternal object as being "an agent in objectification." But it is clear, when one takes account of the different senses in which the word "agent," "agency," is used, that there is no inconsistency here. The same holds for all the other instances which Professor Buchler has brought forward such as "efficacy" and "functioning." In each case cited the words are used in different senses, and it seems to me that Whitehead is well aware of this and has committed no fallacy. On the other hand I do not feel sure that Professor Buchler has himself avoided this when he insists "that efficacy belongs to all natural complexes whatever," and seemingly disregards the significance of the different senses of "efficacy"

For it is precisely the difference of sense which is of the greatest relevance in the issue before us. If we do not allow ourselves to get caught by the equivocal senses of terms, then it is clear, I think, not only that the sense in which Whitehead ascribes "activity, agency," "efficacy," "functioning," to actual entities is different from that in which he ascribes these to eternal objects, societies, etc., but also that there is a definite respect in which the sense of "act," "efficacy," etc. of actual entities is prior to that of the other senses.

Thus the respect in which and the ground upon which Whitehead. with complete consistency, accords priority to actual entities is that it is only actual entities which are agents, in the primary sense I have endeavored to elucidate, all other entities being "agents" or "efficacious" only either as factors in actual entities, i.e., as contributory to the "act" of actual entities (e.g., eternal objects, prehensions, subjective forms, propositions) or as derivative from actual entities (e.g., nexus, societies). This is "ontological" priority because "act" is fundamental to "being" in the respect I have tried to indicate.

But this "ontological" priority is to be distinguished from the priority of archai. principles or sources. In respect of this there is a most important divergence between Plato and Aristotle, and Whitehead is with Aristotle in this. For Aristotle, for example, eidos and hyle are prior to ousiai as archai. For Whitehead creativity and eternal objects are in this respect prior to actual entities. It is the inheritance of the Platonic position, strongly augmented by Christian philosophy from the Patristic period onward, which in the modern period has continued the acceptance of the identification of "being" and "principles." It seems to me that Professor Buchler’s philosophy is a protest against this inheritance. But Whitehead has freed himself from this identification. When this is clearly seen the apparent arbitrariness which Professor Buchler claims to find in Whitehead disappears.