Aristotelian and Whiteheadian Conceptions of Actuality: I

by Reto Luzius Fetz

Reto Luzius Fetz is Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Eichstaett, West Germany. He has recently published a book about Jean Piaget and is organizing an International Congress on Edith Stein for 1991.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.15-27, Vol. 19, Number 1, Spring 1990. 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.


The relationship of Whitehead’s metaphysics to the traditional philosophy of substance, and especially to Aristotle’s concept of entity, is the central point not only for any systematic exposition of Whitehead but also for his historical interpretation.

(Note: This article is translated by James W. Felt. James W Felt S.J., is Professor of Philosophy at Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA 95053. Independently of Fetz’s book he had published in Process Studies 14/4 (Winter 1985) an essay along some of the same lines: Whitehead’s Misinterpretation of ‘Substance’ in Aristotle."}

(*This is Section 3.1 of Fetz’s book, Whitehead: Prozessdenken und Substanzmetaphysik [Friburg/Munchen: Verlag Karl Alber, 1981]. Two other chapters of this work are in subsequent issues of Process Studies. }

Whitehead and the Tradition of Substance Metaphysics

Aristotle had raised the fundamental question about being [on],and in the seventh book of the Metaphysics he makes it the question about "entity" [ousia]2 -- about "substance," as it will be called in the Latin tradition. Whitehead explains in the Preface of his chief work, Process and Reality, that he is concerned with "the becoming, the being, and the relatedness of actual entities"’ (PR xiii/xiv). Like Aristotle’s substances they constitute "the final real things of which the world is made up" (PR 18/27). Nevertheless Whitehead does not want to identify his [actual] entities with Aristotle’s "first substance." Rather, his concept of [actual] entity is meant to stand the traditional concept of substance on its head (PR xiii-xiv/vii-ix; 154-155/234). Whitehead’s whole metaphysics must be understood not only as a destruction of the previous concept of substance but also as a reconstruction of a more adequate concept of [actual] entity. The relationship of Whitehead’s metaphysics to the traditional philosophy of substance, and especially to Aristotle’s concept of entity, is thus the central point not only for any systematic exposition of Whitehead but also for his historical interpretation.3

Viewed historically that relationship is far less clear-cut than would appear from Whitehead’s own presentation and from his critique of substance. This is a result of the history [210] of substance metaphysics, with its multiplicity of historical approaches.4 The notion of a uniform, simple concept of substance must itself be viewed as the product of a critique of substance that began with Locke and was generalized in the nineteenth century. Such a notion moreover does no justice at all to the complexity and historical variability of the fundamental concept of substance. But the same charge must be leveled against Whitehead insofar as he carries on the same line of criticism. His criticism, however, is not only original in many ways; it turns out also to be ambivalent, as is especially apparent in the stance he takes toward Aristotle.

When Whitehead speaks of "substance," he has in mind the concept of substance that derives from Aristotle’s logic, that passed from the middle ages to modem times, that is dominant in Descartes, and, finally, that has been constantly criticized since Locke and Hume. It is the concept that defines substance as self-contained and as the enduring bearer of qualities. As Whitehead points out, this concept of substance mirrors the ordinary concept of a thing, according to which reality consists in "things" that are ‘simply located,’ are isolated from one another, and manifest an unchanged, enduring essence, their very "substance," that underlies their fixed or changeable determining conditions or "accidents."5 Whitehead shows how this concept of a thing, a concept that grew out of practical dealing with the actualities of the world, entrenched itself in the subject-predicate structure of language and from there made its way into Aristotle’s theory of the Categories. In the modem era, then, the originally logical schema of substance-quality was raised to the level of the fundamental structure of all reality -- with catastrophic [211] results that should allow us to recognize that in metaphysics this concept is "sheer error" (PR 79/122). This moves Whitehead to construct a radically transformed concept for his ‘actual entities.’ In it, enduring substances are reinterpreted as ‘events,’ and the previously dominant qualities are superseded by constitutive relations.

Doubtless Whitehead has hit upon a main strand of the substance tradition, and his rejection of this concept of substance is absolutely justified.6 At the same time, though, Whitehead points out that Aristotle himself, who in his Categories (a work of his youth) stands at the beginning of this development, does not allow his own metaphysics to be dominated by the explicitly logical thought structure of the Categories. Thus Whitehead can even go so far as to say, paradoxically, that "probably Aristotle was not an Aristotelian" (PR 51/81), insofar as the thought structure of the Categories is supposed to be the hallmark of the Aristotelian substance tradition. Thereby, however, Whitehead in principle leaves unanswered how this concept of an ‘actual entity’ is related to the genuinely Aristotelian concept of entity as found in the Metaphysics. For Whitehead is silent on this point.

Historically Whitehead is certainly right that the initial scheme of Aristotle’s Categories proved to be much more influential than the more profound but more complex descriptions in his Metaphysics which were in large part obscured by the former.7 This state of affairs has its repercussions in interpretations of Whitehead which usually [212] facilitate the historical comparison of the Aristotelian and the Whiteheadian concept of entity by subsuming it under the concept of substance found in the Categories.8 But such a procedure not only fails to take account of genuine aspects of the Aristotelian concept of entity, it scarcely gets beyond the comparison Whitehead already made.

If we are to create new possibilities for comparison we shall, in my opinion, have to draw upon just that part of Aristotle’s works in which Whitehead conjectures the presence of another way of thinking of substance, but without analyzing it. That idea gives the following interpretation its direction. We raise the question, to what degree can equivalents to Whitehead’s movement of thought be discovered in Aristotle’s philosophy of nature and metaphysics? We come to the perhaps surprising conclusion that Whitehead’s criticism of previous substance thinking and his own conception of an "actual entity" can in decisive points be regarded as a retrieval and a radicalization of the genuinely Aristotelian concept of entity.

Natural Entity: Neither Logical Subject nor Material Substrate

Whitehead’s critique of substance thinking is parallel to the genuinely Aristotelian approach to the problem insofar as Aristotle too rejects as inadequate a logical kind of consideration that orients itself only on the subject-predicate schema. For that would lead to the identification of entity with the underlying material substrate of the actualities of the world. True, the ultimate substrate seems most to be entity precisely because in any statement it always remains the subject to which all determinations are ascribed as predicates though it itself is never a predicate. But this way of looking at it is inadequate since, with the removal of all the predicated determinations, an utterly undetermined "primary matter" would remain as entity. Entity would become equivalent to matter.9 Whitehead’s suggestion that the concept of substance provided the basis for scientific materialism (PR 73/120) stands out as an historical confirmation of this train of thought.

But why, according to Aristotle, should matter not be entity? Because matter, the fundamental substrate of actuality, does not yet constitute something self-sufficient, a "that-there" bearing the mark of an individual. And so entity must be looked for in a principle that has the power to determine -- in "form," that is, rather than in "matter" (1029 a 27-30). What Whitehead conceives as the subjectivity of an ‘actual entity,’ its self-determination, has to do, in Aristotle’s doctrine, with his principle of "form." To inquire seriously about entity, one must begin with the recognition that it is "a principle and a cause," that is, the decisive reason why something is what it is, and as it is.10 The answer to this "Why?" is entity (i.e., ousia or "substance"). But this apparently simple question, "Why?" has to be broken into two parts to be asked meaningfully. The question, say, "Why is this a house?" has to be formulated explicitly, "Why are these things, namely bricks and stones, a house?" Here we are not inquiring into the purpose or the effective cause that produced the house, but rather into the kind of cause that makes material such as bricks and stone to be a house.

So analyzed, the question. "Why?" yields the question why such and such a character advenes to something else that did not previously exhibit it. For the things that develop naturally, indeed, as distinguished from artifacts, it is not completely obvious just what it is that takes on such a character -- as when one asks why that is a human being. But even here the question clearly aims at asking why some material thing displays this determinate character. To ask about entity is at once [214] to ask about the cause that makes stuff to be something definite, and this cause is its formal determination. Whatever we concretely call "entity," therefore, must display an intrinsic formal determination as the first reason of its being (1041 b 28). We can even give this determination the name "entity" (ousia) since in its relation to matter it is the proper reason why something concrete can be called "entity" (1043 b 13; 1037 a 29).

But besides the stuff, is this formal determination a cause in its own right?11 Just as the house can be taken apart into its bricks, so a natural thing can be reduced to its elements. But wherever something composed of elements is more than a mere heap, there must be something present besides the elements. This is already clear in the example of the house, which is not constituted by its bricks and their arrangement. For the latter is not itself something added to the elements as still another element that is their arrangement, but it is something different that determines how the elements are ordered to one another. That is most obvious if we pass from artifacts to the sort of thing that has grown and developed as a unity and as a whole. For when such a whole disintegrates into its elements, they no longer constitute that whole that had been formed out of them, no matter how they are arranged. Thus the separated parts of a living being have only the name in common with what they once were (1035 b 24). And so we must assume, in addition to the elements, a proper pervasive actuality that is not itself an element nor composed of elements. (Otherwise the problem would simply repeat itself.) But this Other, this proper contrast to the elements, is entity considered as formal determination; this is what many thinkers overlook, and speak only of "stuff’ (1043 b 12). Here it is quite clear that Aristotle differs, just as Whitehead does, from the idea that one can reduce entity to the mere function of a substrate, overlooking the formal principle of its own proper self-existence.

[215] For Aristotle, indeed, this stress on formal determination as the ground of entity leads also to his limitation of what can be called "entity" in the full sense of the word. Typically it is just those pragmatically constituted "things" that drop out of consideration -- "such as house or utensil," as Aristotle says (1043 b 20). Of the things that exist in nature, that thing cannot finally count as entity which does not exhibit a genuine unity: "earth and fire and air." These are only in potentiality to being entity, insofar as they could be the elements making up a genuine unity (1040 b 5).

In the concrete, then, what can be called "entity"? That which has a "nature" and exists by reason of nature (1043 b 22). For "nature," with its structuring power manifests itself in the actualities of the world as that which is not an element but a principle, and to that extent, entity (1041 b 29). The manifestation of a "nature," then, marks off where we are concretely dealing with entities and where we are not. So that is not entity in the full sense that does not yet manifest a "nature" and thereby a final form, such as the elements mentioned above. Neither is that an entity in the full sense that has lost its "natural" way of being and has been worked up into a "thing."

In this respect Aristotle and Whitehead are at one in rejecting "things" as entities. Moreover they also agree that our thinking about entity must be determined by just those wholes that manifest themselves as organic. Thanks to modern natural science these wholes can for Whitehead be much more closely investigated than they could for Aristotle with his rudimentary means of observation. Thus Whitehead can discern structured wholes that exist independently, or are integrated within a greater whole, where for Aristotle, in the case of "elements," there is nothing much more than mere material that only potentially counts as entity.

As a consequence of the new knowledge of nature Whitehead followed to a radical conclusion the road opened by Leibniz. He shifted "entity" to ultimate event-unities that constitute only a minimal [216] ‘event’ within what Aristotle, operating on the plane of the everyday world, accepts, and ontologically interprets, as one entity. What is at stake in this for Whitehead is the achieving of a new concept of entity that he believes can reside only in these ultimate events. Since Aristotle and Whitehead are at one in distancing themselves critically from entity understood as substrate, since they both have in mind the existence of a "self " as the decisive characteristic of entity, and since moreover they both turn in the direction of organic unities and not of "things," it becomes all the more urgent to ask just how the Whiteheadian concept of an ‘actual entity’ is related to the Aristotelian concept of "entity."

Natural Entity as Process Being

How Aristotle thinks of entity can best be judged by the way he links it to his concept of "nature" as dwelling in concrete things. It is nature, indeed, that allows something concrete to be "entity" in the full sense. Now it is decisive that this concept of "nature" includes precisely what Whitehead holds to be so essential, namely, "that aspect of self-production, of generation, of physis, of natura naturans" (PR 93/143). Aristotle states explicitly that of the many senses of the word, "nature," the first and most proper is that by which "nature" means that principle that allows an entity, over and above its adventitious processes, itself to grow)12 "Nature" is entity in the sense of form, with the additional condition that it is now regarded as "in some sense the factor which initiates movement and rest"13 of just those processes that take place within the concrete being itself that "has" the nature. In a natural being processes can be evoked by the influence of other beings, and the being can itself have an effect on others in virtue of its efficacy. "Nature" differs from this kind of "efficacy" in that it is not a ground [217] of the becoming within another, but within that very being in which it dwells.14 "Nature," so understood, is "form" as the determining ground of its own becoming.

This distinction between the naturally determined stages of becoming within the being itself, and its processes which call forth an effect in another, already approaches the thinking of Whitehead who in fact eliminates causally efficacious "transitions" from the very concrescence itself that constitutes the "formal inner constitution" of an ‘actual entity.’ If Whitehead emphasizes the process character of an ‘actual entity,’ so too Aristotle’s concept of a "natural" entity comprises its process of becoming. For "nature," or more exactly, "physis," designates for Aristotle the very process of becoming that leads to a fully developed "nature."15 Thus the decisive question is posed: How does Aristotle conceive the relation between "natural" processes and "natural" entity?

It is indispensable to a "natural" process that it have a natural aim in which the process finds its conclusion. For nature, according to Aristotle, is a principle of activity that develops toward a goal. When nature is called a "principle of change and endurance," we can catch in this "endurance" a glimpse of the naturally given conclusion of a natural process. The process comes to rest because it has achieved its aim. Thus for the natural entities of Aristotle there is something analogous to the ‘subjective aim’ and to the final stage of ‘satisfaction’ of Whiteheadian ‘actual entities.’

The Aristotelian concept of a natural entity, then, includes both its own processive becoming and its own aim for that process. A natural being is one which, by reason of an intrinsic principle constantly maintained in process, has achieved a definite goal of its process. This goal of its process is the complete development of its proper nature. If "physis" also denotes "becoming," and this becoming is the "way to physis" or "nature" (193 b 12), it becomes clear that [218] "physis" is a process that received its name from what stands at the end of the process, that is, the fully developed "physis" or "nature." But that is the natural entity in its mature form; this mature form is the developed and thus "true" nature (193 b 18). "Hence, also, we say of things that are or come to be naturally, that even though they contain the source of their being, they do not have their nature until they have their form or shape."16

Thereby the decisive distinction is evident by which even for Aristotle a natural entity -- entity in the full sense of the word -- is regarded as a subject’ and ‘superject’ of its own process, to use Whitehead’s language. That which underlies the process of natural becoming proceeds from an initial form to a final form. 17 But what is its proper form, its full entity? "Not what it is growing out of but what it is growing into" -- the final form that develops in the process (193 b 18). The form is that for the sake of which (199 a 31), the (complete) being and the final goal are one and the same (198 a 25). It could hardly be said more explicitly that the complete entity is not found in the whence of its own process but in the whither -- in the resulting ‘superject’ of Whitehead.

But in the same passage Aristotle also emphasizes that the form, as formal principle, must be intrinsic to the processes that lead to it. Even when something does not yet have its full nature, that is already present from which it will naturally come to be. For the naturally becoming entity already "has" a nature, and that nature is, then, that according to which it comes to be.18 The aim, as the "for the sake of which" of the process, must be intrinsic to the process itself.

These assertions, linked mainly to Aristotle’s concept of nature, are confirmed and deepened where Aristotle in his metaphysics explicitly asks about the actuality 1219] of the actual. Aristotle thinks of it in terms of the two concepts, energeia and entelecheia. Energeia is the efficacy of the actual that carries within itself and educes the "work" -- ergon. But the "work" is the aim -- telos. The complete actuality is thus that which contains the aim as actualized within itself -- the entelecheia. When Aristotle deliberately expresses the commonality of energeia and entelecheia, and when he further asserts that energeia, as the efficacy of the actual, strives toward entelecheia as toward its fulfillment,19 it seems to us that the decisive point of convergence between these concepts and Whiteheadian thought has been hit upon.

But Whitehead is part of the historical development of these concepts, at least in his terminology. Surely it is more than a mere accident that Whitehead so conceives the "actuality" of his actual entities in such a way as to fit the Aristotelian sense of energeia and entelecheia, both of which are rendered by the Latin actus and its derivative forms.

The Polarity of Entities

Aristotle deals with the complexity of natural entities in terms of the concepts matter and form. Of itself matter yields no definite "entity" and no "this-something"; it is that which, "though it is not actually a this-something, yet it is potentially a this-something."20 One can first speak of a particular thing only by reason of its form. The unity between matter and form, which always results in a single entity, is secured by this relationship between potentiality and actuality. For the stuff that immediately constitutes entity, the "proximate matter and the form, are one and the same: the matter as its potentiality, the form as its actuality (1045 b 18).

[220] What corresponds to this in Whitehead? As analogous to "proximate matter" we can take the objectified other ‘actual entities’ which -- or more exactly, whose prehensions -- the newly arising entity takes over.21 The "proximate matter" is then the many prehensions of the initial phase insofar as we abstract from their ‘subjective unity’ and their directedness toward the ‘subjective aim.’ It is true of them, as it is of Aristotelian matter, that they are potentially identical with the newly arising entity whose ground of possibility they constitute.

What is the aspect that corresponds to Aristotelian form? Whitehead denies to what is ‘objectified’ any ‘formal’ existence, by which he means, that which formally constitutes entity. That exists formally, however, which governs the process of its own concrescence, imparts to its components ‘subjective unity,’ and thereby directs them toward the ‘subjective aim.’ This subjectivity of an ‘actual entity’ has its concrete ground in the ‘mental pole’ in virtue of which it is able to devise and strive after its own self-identity. Thus the ‘mental pole’ can serve as the analogue of Aristotelian form, while the ‘physical pole’ takes on the role of the "matter" of the ‘actual entity.’ This exactly fits in with equating matter with the objectively given, inasmuch as the "physical pole" is the essence of ‘physical feelings’ in which the given is prehended. That leads us to ask how the similarity goes between the Aristotelian relation of matter and form and that of the ‘physical’ and the ‘mental pole.’

First of all, it is as true for Aristotle as it is for Whitehead that in dealing with natural actuality we always encounter both principles or ‘poles,’ which together constitute one natural entity, whose duality or bipolarity is part of its essence. Thus both of these principles will be thought of as strictly ordered to each other. They are co-principles which in their mutual relationship enable entity to become actual in such a way that this actuality -- again by reason of the two principles -- is itself processive. Just as determinable matter becomes entity in the full sense [221] only by reason of its intrinsic, determining form, so for Whitehead that which is physically pre-given enters into the self-identity of an ‘actual entity’ first through the reaction of the ‘mental pole.’

Aristotle and Whitehead also agree in ascribing to "form" or to the ‘mental pole,’ respectively, different properties than to "matter" or to the ‘physical pole’ (see PR 283-285/434-436). Continuity and divisibility are properties that, for Aristotle as well as for Whitehead, belong to an entity by reason of its "matter" or its ‘physical pole.’ There must correspond to them a principle of an altogether different sort, one that is not spatial and not divisible, in order for a genuine unity to arise.

Here it should be noted, however, that Whitehead’s ‘mental pole’ also includes in its concept what has traditionally been called spirit [Geist]. For Whitehead the polarity of ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ pole is primarily intended to supersede Cartesian dualism that posits spirit and matter as separate substances. For Aristotle it is an open question whether the human "spirit" ought to be identified with the human "form" -- that is, whether the human soul, considered as "form," can at the same time be a spiritual soul.22 With his ‘conceptual’ prehensions Whitehead unequivocally attributes to the ‘mental pole’ functions that encroach on the sphere of what according to Aristotle belongs to spirit. He can thus be regarded as standing in the line of that Aristotelian tradition that attempts to think of "form" -- yes, even "form" in its relation to "matter" that it informs -- simultaneously as "spirit." What Thomas Aquinas requires, namely that the human must be essentially conceived as soul and matter, so that the one spiritual soul is at the same time the form of the matter,23 is now elevated by Whitehead to the fundamental structure of every single entity. Here Whitehead proves himself to be the thinker who radically carries forward the true beginnings of the Aristotelian tradition.

Whitehead’s thoroughgoing transfer to the whole of natural reality of a polar, spirit-matter conception such as was attempted by Thomas Aquinas for the human [222] is not so astonishing inasmuch as Whitehead takes the human self as the model case of an ‘actual entity.’ Relative to the human person Whitehead can be regarded as the Aristotelian who restores the original spirit-matter unity of the human person that had been sundered in Descartes’ dualism of spiritual substance and material substance. Whitehead, too, argues as Thomas did that human spiritual existence always manifests itself as embodied. (That Whitehead ends up dissolving the human person into a multiplicity of ‘societies’ of ‘actual entities’ is another question.) But Whitehead goes decisively beyond every previous form of the Aristotelian conception of unity when he posits, at least as a genuine potentiality in every ‘actual entity,’ what in the human person manifests itself as "spirit" in its full actuality. For all ‘actual entities’ exhibit the same principles of reality and these same fundamental polar structures, and the differences in the ‘mental pole’ are of a gradual rather than a fundamental sort. Thomas Aquinas, indeed, saw in the human soul as form the high point and conclusion of the hierarchically ordered formal principles in nature. But as "spirit" the human soul simultaneously belongs to another realm of being, the realm of immaterial forms, and as such is contrasted with other formal principles of nature, so that its ontological status is altogether different.24

This generalization indicates the decisive point at which Whitehead’s transformed understanding of nature breaks with that of the ancients: the word that sums it up is "Evolution." Whitehead endeavors to think of nature as a coherent, self-developing whole in which there are no longer spirit and matter as mutually isolated realms. What happens in the human person as the culmination of nature’s development must be posited of the whole of nature. The entities of nature are therefore always to be conceived as spirit-matter and as developing toward consciousness. In this connection it is decisive how Whitehead takes up the Aristotelian distinction between potentiality and actuality and at the same time provides a new solution to the problem that goes clear back to Plato, that of an ideal realm. [223] And so the question arises: what place does Whitehead himself occupy in the European tradition that he characterized as a "series of footnotes to Plato" (PR 39/63)?

The Relation of the Possible to the Actual and the Problem of the Ideal

Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, the problems of potentiality and actuality, of reality and ideality, meet in the problem of form. In this tradition "form" applies to the definiteness that belongs to a being and makes it what it is. But Aristotle also calls "form" the real principle in which the definiteness of an entity is grounded. Insofar as "form," thus understood as a real ground, brings a natural entity, or more exactly, its "matter," to its requisite definiteness, it must be regarded as the ground of the actuality of the entity. The form relates to the matter as actuality to potentiality. But for Aristotle that means that form itself must be conceived as actuality, as act.

In Whitehead these aspects show up rather differently. What for Aristotle does the work of "form" as real principle, is accomplished for Whitehead by the ‘mental pole,’ through which an entity in process achieves the actuality of its self-identity. This comes about because the ‘mental pole’ structures the entity in accord with its ‘subjective aim’ that settles the form of the entity as the determination properly belonging to it. But this form, as such, is not in itself actuality, act, but potentiality. Thus Whitehead appears to break here with the fundamental Aristotelian identification of form and act.

This impression is strengthened when we take a look at what corresponds in Whitehead to Aristotelian "matter." As the analogue of "proximate matter" we have to take the objectified other entities, or more exactly the ‘physical’ prehensions of them that are objectified in the newly arising entity. Whitehead [224] interprets such a transition as the reenaction of the old in the new. It is a matter of a causal act in the sense of efficient causality. From this it is clear that the ‘physical’ prehensions corresponding to "proximate matter" should by no means be conceived as something passive that requires the influence of form in order to become active. The prehensions are already in themselves activity, and what the ‘mental pole’ contributes to them is not an efficacy that of itself raises the activity to a higher level but the aligning of the given "forces" toward a ‘subjective aim.’

Finally, Whitehead’s explicit statement has to be treated as authoritative, namely, that for him ‘creativity’ takes the place of Aristotelian "primary matter" as the inclusive ground of unity of all realities in the world. But "creativity" implies pure activity and no longer a passive receptiveness for an actualizing form (PR 31-32/46-47). In any case ‘creativity,’ which takes the place of "primary matter" and which is supposed to be in itself just as indeterminate as the latter, constitutes the actuality of an actual entity’ -- its reality for itself and finally, as an ‘objectified’ entity, its reality for others.

But with this the Aristotelian equivalence of form with actuality and of matter with potentiality now seems to fail altogether, yes even to shift into its opposite. In the place of a potential matter we have an actual creativity as the ground of the unity of the world’s actuality, and the determination or form that belongs to the individual entities is interpreted as potentiality instead of as actuality. Is this a true "reversal" of the Aristotelian position, as has already been maintained?26

To answer this question we must consider more exactly the concepts implied here. For one thing Whitehead’s distinction between different concepts of potentiality becomes important. Potentiality’ for Whitehead has two meanings.27 In the first place Whitehead speaks of the ‘real potentiality’ of given ‘actual entities’ to enter into a new entity in one way or another. This potentiality [225] is conditioned; it depends on the conditions of what in fact is already "given." Yet it always continues to imply an indeterminateness with respect to the concrete determinateness that arises in the new ‘actual entity’ by the process of its concrescence in which it settles its self-identity in accord with its own subjectivity.

From this it is clear that the above equivalence of the process of objectification and of ‘creativity’ with actuality needs to be narrowed. Even though the objectifications, as early phases, make up the actuality of the newly arising entity, they must at the same time be regarded as potentialities insofar as the form of their ultimate incorporation into the new entity is not yet fully determined, and will experience its determination only in the process of concrescence. This interpenetration of actuality and potentiality is above all characteristic of the Whiteheadian boundary-concept of ‘creativity.’ In it, becoming is comprised purely as such, and as becoming it must count as activity and therefore as actuality. But insofar as in this boundary-concept becoming is thought of as lacking all determination (although in the concrete there exists only a determinate becoming), it is, in its relation to form, just as radically to be thought of as potency, as Aristotelian "primary matter."

Beyond these so-called "real" potentialities there are for Whitehead ‘general’ potentialities rooted in the ‘eternal objects’ and their interrelations. In them we are dealing with ‘pure’ possibilities that have not yet been subjected to the conditions of already completed realizations. Now insofar as Whitehead thinks of these ‘eternal objects’ as forms, we have in fact a case of a radical identification of form and potentiality. For as "forms of definiteness," ‘eternal objects’ are, by their very mode of existence, "Pure Potentials for the Specific Determination of Fact." And so the properly Platonic problem has now to be [226] taken up -- the question, that is, of how the relation of form and entity is to be conceived.

Whitehead’s originality stands out when his solution to the problem is thus compared with Plato’s and with Aristotle’s. For the question whether Whitehead is a Platonist or an Aristotelian does not, at first sight anyway, admit of an unambiguous answer. Whitehead can count as an Aristotelian insofar as he too does not take forms to be entities. His ‘ontological principle’ precludes that, for according to it, ‘actual entities’ must be regarded as the only real things; all forms therefore can exist only as forms of entities in which they are grounded. Whitehead explicitly calls this principle Aristotelian (PB. 40/64) together with its application to the problem of form, and in this judgment he is doubtless correct. On the other hand Whitehead’s "forms," or more exactly his ‘eternal objects,’ transcend the reality of the world in a way that reminds one more of Plato than of Aristotle. For Whitehead does not, like Aristotle, take his forms to be exhausted by the world’s actuality. The potentialities given with the ‘eternal objects’ are more varied and richer than what is actualized in the actualities of the world. In this additional function of potentialities in his revised account Whitehead takes account of a modem scientific revolution in virtue of which he reconceives the whole problem. This was above characterized by the word "Evolution." A comparison with Aristotle should in conclusion clarify their fundamental differences in understanding the world and nature.

Aristotelian Dynamics of Nature and Whiteheadian Evolutionary Thought

Aristotle always takes that which is identical in kind -- a human individual, say, as a kind of being -- to be actuality when he wants to explain the transition from potentiality to actuality in the single individual.28 Even if temporally the individual, as such, represents a potentiality -- as does every living being in its seed -- nevertheless the full actuality of the species must simply be supposed to exist earlier: the seed is ordered to reconstituting a fully developed living being. For a natural being "becoming" means coming to be out of something and through something; matter calls for a cause if it is to produce a natural being. But this cause must be identical in kind with what is produced, and must have that distinguishing form as its actuality.

If for Aristotle the fundamental thesis of the absolute priority of actuality over potentiality holds with respect to time, it thereby holds also with respect to entity (1050 b 4). An actual being of a certain sort precedes its possible successors, and the actuality of the entity grounds its reproducibility and thereby its potentiality. Thus, too, Aristotle finally posits the form of the entity primarily as actual in order to ground its potentiality in a succeeding entity.

What is the significance for the problem of form of this dynamic, but non-evolutionary, Aristotelian view of natural actuality? It means that form, and in particular the various forms of entities, are always situated within what really exists in nature as actual. That is why Aristotle is not forced to suppose that his forms transcend the actuality of the world: they are the forms of actualities in the world that actually are. So Aristotle can reject the absolutizing of the "Ideas" that he is critical of in Plato. The ‘ontological principle’ that Whitehead called Aristotelian is employed by Aristotle himself in such a way that every form of being can always be found in previously existent entities.

Aristotle viewed the forms of natural beings as held in a continuity such that every higher form presupposes the actualization of its proximate lower form. For Whitehead, too, the forms are thought of as belonging to a continuously connected whole. But differently than for Aristotle, this connected whole extends beyond what is previously given in the formal determinations of actual beings. In the place of stable beings of a particular kind already fully in act, we have an [228] extended stream of individual events, and the stream in its universal conditions makes up a ‘cosmic epoch.’ This stream of events is characterized by creativity; it ceaselessly enriches itself, and in the course of time ever more complex and superior entities arise. Evolution therefore means the emergence of newer and higher entities. It is no accident that in the Preface to Science and the Modern World Whitehead expressly refers to Convy Lloyd Morgan and Samuel Alexander.

For Whitehead this means that the complex form that informs a new entity exists previously as possibility rather than as actuality, and that in an absolute sense. One must conceive the being of such an entity as first of all a pure possibility -- as a ‘complex eternal object.’ It will be actualized in time, but only when the requisite conditions for entity are realized in a given situation. Time is what first makes a ‘real’ potentiality out of what was always possible only as a ‘pure,’ general potentiality.

The emergence of new forms in time thus implies that at any particular moment of evolution the possibilities are more varied than those that have been actualized up to that time. For actuality -- which for its part always presupposes the possibility of itself -- further possibilities always lie open. Whitehead made of this possibility for actuality a separate category of existence -- the category of ‘propositions’ that mediate between ‘actual entities’ and ‘eternal objects.’ 29 More perhaps than do ‘eternal objects,’ these ‘propositions’ show how far Whitehead has come with his new solution to the problem of form: he has provided a free space for the unfolding of creativity in world-process. But in Whitehead, ‘propositions’ are inconceivable without ‘eternal objects;’ these can be possibilities for actuality only because there is an inclusive realm of pure possibilities to begin with.

This manifest transcendence of the possible in the emergence of new forms of actuality is accompanied in Whitehead by [229] still another form of transcendence. The realm of possibilities transcends any particular actuality not only insofar as the latter is open to new possibilities, but also insofar as particular actuality is itself only one of the many possible forms of its own actualization. This holds just as well for the stream of becoming within a ‘cosmic epoch’ and its history: the history could have fallen out quite differently, and it cannot be wholly understood why just these forms of actualization came about (PR 47/74-75). The possibilities of the relations of ‘eternal objects’ to one another (their ‘relational’ essence, therefore) are far richer than the one possibility that we encounter in the concrete as actualized. Thus for Whitehead the ‘eternal objects,’ or pure "forms of definiteness," as such, precisely do not constitute actuality. It is, rather, described by a different operation than the simple determinations of form. It is a ‘decision’ by virtue of which one possibility among many becomes actuality and is "given" (PR 42f/67f). Against the background of forms as possibilities Whitehead achieves a new concept of facticity as that of the act of a ‘decision’ among possibilities.

Whitehead thus emphasizes the transcendence of forms in a way that prevents him from treating them only as forms of entities -- at least, entities of the world’s actuality.30A strictly Aristotelian exposition of the ‘ontological principle,’ according to which all forms are situated in the world’s actuality, is thereby excluded. Will Whitehead then become a Platonist, giving forms an absolute status as "Ideas?" Once again that would not agree with the ‘ontological principle’ according to which everything must be grounded in an ‘actual entity.’ So the only remaining conclusion is that the ‘eternal objects’ have their ground in a supertemporal entity, in God, who ‘conceptually’ holds within God’s ‘primordial nature’ the totality of possibilities for creation.

In the broader historical perspective Whitehead thus stands in the neo-Platonic tradition which situated Platonic "Ideas" in God and [230] interpreted them as God’s ideas for creation. Yet also here a radical shift of meaning is immediately apparent. For while neo-Platonism and the Christian metaphysics of creation modeled on it regard God and the ideas as efficacious, Whitehead rather ascribes all efficacy to the becoming entities themselves. It is not God and God’s ideas that are creative; the properly creative act, the transition from possibility to actuality, belongs to the ‘actual entities’ themselves. That is just what constitutes their actuality. As the ‘principle of concretion’ God is the ground that makes this creation possible inasmuch as God already holds the possibilities within God’s self as a structure of meaning participating in God. But God is no longer the effective cause that gives these possibilities their actualization. The actualities of the world do that themselves, inasmuch as creativity is their decisive, fundamental character. This creativity is itself an ultimate that cannot be traced to a cause transcending itself with the exception of its formal determination which arises in the creature from God’s ‘primordial nature’ but which the creature again freely takes over.

Creation as Whitehead thinks of it is thereby a process of solidarity carried out in different ways by God and the world. If the Middle Ages allowed the creature to participate in creation as a "secondary cause," for Whitehead creatures become the immediate bearers of their own process of self-creation. They take from God only the possibilities of their own self-identity, and indeed as mere possibility, not as something that God calls into being. This is Whitehead’s way of expressing his conviction that with respect to all-encompassing creativity, evolution is itself the creative process that is supported by entities arising within it. Whitehead thus wants to secure for temporal creatures a new measure of autonomy, freedom, and self-sufficiency, and at the same time relieve God of the function wrongly imputed to God, of being an oppressive ruler of the world who governs with force and not with the attractive power of love.31



1Page numbers from the original text appear in brackets here. The translation has been reviewed and approved by the author. In order to remain close to the original, endnotes instead of parenthetical references have sometimes been used for documenting sources.

In the original title of the chapter, "Aristotle und Whiteheadscher Wesenheitsbegriff" lurks a problem of translation that haunts the whole chapter. The author consistently renders Whitehead’s ‘actual entity’ as ‘wirkliche Wesenheit.’ If, however, the word Wesenheit were here everywhere rendered as ‘entity,’ clarity would be sacrificed to consistency. For in the very first sentence of the text it is manifest that the focal point of the chapter is not entity in general, but that primary entity that Aristotle called ouisa and Whitehead called ‘actual entity.’ On balance, "actuality" has been chosen as the most feasible English rendering of "Wesenheit" in the title of the essay.

2Met VII, 1 1028 b 2. Translator’s note: All direct quotations from Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics are taken from the translations by Richard Hope.

3See especially I. Leclerc, "‘Whitehead’s Transformation of the Concept of Substance, The Philosophical Quarterly (St. Andrew’s) 3 (1953), 225-243; "Being and Becoming in Whitehead’s Philosophy." Kant-Studien 51 (1960), 427-437; "Form and Actuality," The Relevance of Whitehead (ed. Leclerc; London: 1961), 169-189; R. Rorty, "Matter and Event," The Concept of Matter (ed. F. McMullin; Notre Dame: 1963), 497-524; G. Bohme. "Whiteheads Abkehr von der Substanzmetaphysik," Whitehead. Einfuhrung in seine Kosmologie (ed. E. Wolf-Gazo; Freiburg/Munchen: 1980); also D. Bidney, ‘The Problem of Substance in Spinoza and Whitehead," The Philosophical Review 45 (1936), 574-592; A. W. Levi, "Substance, Process. Being. A Whiteheadian-Bergsonian View," Journal of Philosophy 55 (1958), 749-761.

4Despite numerous particular studies, no inclusive history of substance metaphysics has yet been written. With reference to our problem one should note especially W. Stegmaier (Substanz. Grundbegriff der Metaphysik (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, 1977], 19f) which deals with the development of the concept of substance in Aristotle, Descartes, and Leibniz. There too one can find all the pertinent literature grouped together In a systematic list.

51t is easy to recognize how that global notion of substance, characterized by Paulsen as Isolated, fixed bits of reality," also holds Whitehead’s thought fixed. See W. Stegmaler (1977), p. 20.

6For a discriminating assessment one could consult Cassirer’s classic work, Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (1910). and H. Rombach, Substanz. System, Struktur: Die Ontologie des Funktionalismus und der philosophische Hintergrund der modernen Wissenschaft (2 vols.; Freiburg/Munchen: 1981).

71t should be pointed out that Leibniz once again proves to be a big exception, for with respect to the usual descriptions of substance as the ultimate subject and enduring substrate he explicitly invokes the Aristotelian definition of entity as the originative ground of its own activity. Proofs of this are in G. Martin, Leibniz. Logik und Metaphysik (Berlin: 1967), 144-147.

8G. Böhme says this explicitly in "Whiteheads Abkehr von der Substanzmetaphysik," p. 46.

9Met. VII, 3, 1029 a 1-27. See also A. Parmentier, La philosophie de Whitehead et le problème de Dieu (Paris: 1968), p. 190, who insists on this difference.

10Met. VII, 17 1041 a 6ff.

11For what follows, see Met. VII, 3 1041 b 11ff.; VIII, 3 1043 b 5 ff.

12Met V, 4.

13Phys. II. 1 192 b 21.

14Met. IX, 8 1049 b 5-10.

15Phys. II, 1 193 b 12; also Met. V, 4 1014 b 16.

16Met. V, 4 1015 a 3-5.

17Phys. II, 1 193 b 17.

18Met VII, 7 1032 a 22.

19Compare Met. 1047 a 30 and 1050 a 22, and the commentary on these passages by W D. Ross, Aristotle Metaphysics. Vol. II (Oxford: 1953). 245.

20Compare De An. II. 1 412 a 7 and Met. VIII, 1 1042 a 27.

21R. Rorty speaks similarly in "Matter and Event," p.512.

225ee De An. II, 2 413 b 25 and the difficulties about De An. III, 5.

23See Sum. Theol. 1,76, 1 and parallels, especially the "Tractatus de unitate intellectus contra Averroistas."

24See S.C.G. II, 68.

25On the whole issue, see PR 236-239/361-365.

26See I. Leclerc, "Form and Actuality," The Relevance of Whitehead, p. 178; R. Rorty, "Matter and Event," p. 508.

27See PR 45f/71f; 65/101-102; 22/32; SMW 198.

28See Met. IX, 8 1049 b 17 ff.

29The ‘propositions’ constitute the sixth ‘Category of Existence.’ See PR 22/32-33.

30PR 150/227-228; 222/340; 25/38.

31See PR V.


List of Abbreviations

Referring to works of Aristotle:

Cat. -- Categories

De An. -- De Anima (On the Soul)

De Gen. et Corr. -- De Generatione et Corruptione (On Generation and Corruption)

Met. -- Metaphysics

Nic.Eth. -- Nicomachean Ethics

Phys. -- Physics

Referring to works of Thomas Aquinas:

S.C .G. -- Summa contra Gentiles (Summa against Unbelievers)

S.T. -- Summa Theologiae (Summa of Theology)