Atom, Duration, Form: Difficulties with Process Philosophy

by Wolfhart Pannenberg

Dr. Pannenberg teaches theology at the University of Munich, West Germany.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 21-30, Vol. 14, Number 1, Spring, 1984. 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. Pannenberg gives a critique of several Whiteheadian concepts: actual entities, atomism, prehension, subjective aim, superject, objective immortality.

Whoever comes in contact with process philosophy today encounters it more often than not in the form of Whitehead’s philosophy. This was the way it was for me when I was guest professor in 1963 at the University of Chicago and ran into an entire school of Whitehead adherents in the theological faculty (not, I must say, in the philosophical faculty). Consequently, for the sake of my own intellectual survival I had to come to grips quickly and intensively with the writings of this philosopher, who was at that time hardly known on the continent of Europe.

The experience was enriching. It supplemented the great tradition of German Idealism in the latter’s serious lack of a philosophy of nature or metaphysic adequate to the demands of our century, one that, from the outset, integrates the horizon of consciousness as mediated by contemporary knowledge of nature with experience as disclosed by the humanities and social sciences. The more time I spent with Whitehead the more I was shocked, however, by the very dogmatic way in which he is read in the U.S.A., in the school of process theology -- which has in the meantime become quite influential. In that school Whitehead is taken to be an entirely self-sufficient systematic thinker and, as such, authoritative, like Aristotle in the high scholasticism of the 13th century. Many people fail to see Whitehead as an exponent of a wide stream of process thinking, in the context of which his philosophical approach represents only one of the possible and, to some extent, actually explored options.

If one sees Whitehead’s philosophy in the neighborhood of thinkers such as Henry Bergson and Samuel Alexander, to name only these two, then one becomes aware of different versions of the process philosophical perspective. It becomes clear that a process philosophical approach, which dismisses the thought of a timeless, identical substance, must not necessarily be bound to specific hypotheses of Whitehead, such as his doctrine of discreet emergent "occasions" or elementary events,1 as the ultimate realities, and his doctrine of eternal objects as potentials for these "occasions’" self-realization.

Let us turn to the first hypothesis: namely, that actual "occasions" or "actual entities" form the final real things which constitute the world (PR 18/ 27). This thesis implies an atomistic ontology; Whitehead himself says: "Thus the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism" (PR 35/ 53). He calls his philosophy "an atomic theory of actuality" (PR 27/ 40). The continuum he takes to be derived from the discreetly emergent actual entities. Taken by itself, the continuum is only possibility, "potentiality for division" (PR 67/104), and it is by the actual entities divided. Whitehead thereby enters into conflict not only with Newton’s theory of absolute space and absolute time but also with Bergson. For in the type of process philosophy developed by Bergson, "duration" and with it a form of continuum is fundamental. Bergson’s "duration" is the continuum of becoming itself, while for Whitehead becoming is not continuous; in line with the paradoxes of Zeno, he asserts: "there can be no continuity of becoming" (FR 35/ 53).

On this question, Samuel Alexander sides with Bergson; although Alexander, anticipating Whitehead’s somewhat later remarks (PR 321/ 489f.), criticizes Bergson’s opposing space to time. The "spatialization" of time, which Bergson judges to be the result of the intelligence and which he goes so far as to blame for the errors of traditional substance metaphysics, Alexander takes to be the essence of time itself (STD 1143; cf. 149). It is only space that makes continuity possible, because an instant can be common to different places; above all because, inversely, many consecutive events can occur at the same place (STD I 48f.). A succession of instants in themselves would lack continuity; it would consist of perishing instants (STD I 45). Continuity, which later Whitehead secured by his subtle theory of "eternal objects" and their ingression into the world of actual occasions, is still guaranteed in Alexander by a space which had not yet been relativized. To this extent we can understand Alexander as Whitehead’s precursor.

However, Alexander’s conception of the infinity of space-time, as the condition for the determination of finitude, is opposed to Whitehead. Following Samuel Clarke and also Kant’s transcendental aesthetic, Alexander thinks of finitude and, above all, individual points/instants as limitations of infinity. "The infinite is not what is not finite, but the finite is what is not infinite" (STD I 42).

Like Levinas today, Alexander appeals to Descartes for the constitutive meaning of the infinite with regard to the thinkability of the finite as such. But then, naturally, atomism cannot be the final metaphysical truth. Alexander shares Bergson’s conception of the primordiality of movement as always holistic and continuous (STD I 149). "Motion is not a succession of point-instants, but rather a point -- instant is the limiting case of a motion" (STD I 321). The discrimination -- of point-instants is the product of intellectual abstraction. "They are In fact . . . inseparable from the universe of motion; they are elements in a continuum" (STD I 325). Alexander consequently moves close to Spinoza; space-time is the whole of existing, the infinite, which precedes all finite actuality (SID I 339ff.).

In view of Bergson and Alexander, on the one side, and Whitehead’s event-atomism, on the other, therefore, one has to do with two fundamental and alternative approaches for process thinking. To be sure, Alexander attempted to distinguish infinite space-time both from the category of substance and also from a whole of parts (STD I 338ff), the latter because such a whole in his view is always to be thought of as composed of parts. However, with regard to motion, at least, he spoke indeed of the whole of motion as prior to its individual space-time instants (STD I 321). Conversely, Whitehead proceeds from the ontological priority of discrete events or their components. Does he not thereby fall into the logical aporiae of every atomistic metaphysic? They have already been formulated in the concluding parts of Plato’s Parmenides (Parm. 165ff): without the One the others can be neither one nor many and there would be absolutely nothing.

Many ones are many of the same (in the sense of the abstract One), but also many in relationship and so parts of a whole; if they do not form a totality, then they cannot be thought of as exemplifying the same One. In any case, an enveloping unity must already be presupposed, if atoms are to be thought as unities at all.

If I am not mistaken, Whitehead nowhere discusses the logical difficulties attending the systematic concept of atomism: although he discusses in Adventures of Ideas (1933) different forms of atomism (AI 159ff.), and in so doing opposes the types of atomism that can be traced back to Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, and from which the positivist interpretation of modern natural science is derived: here the atoms are only externally related, i.e., according to the principle of randomness. These relations are no less external in Newton’s mechanics as expressions of laws imposed from without by the will of God. In contrast, Whitehead sees Plato as the originator of a way of looking at things which understands laws (AI 162) and therefore the relationships between things as regulated through them as immanent in the things (AI 156ff.). Whitehead himself is inclined to this conception.

Correspondingly, Whitehead already in Science and the Modern World (1925) opposes the description of relations between events solely in terms of external relations, which he finds in the usual accounts of space-time relations (SMW 180). Insofar as the individual events are constituted by the relationships in which they stand, these are internal to the events: ". . . the relationships of an event are internal, so far as . . . they are constitutive of what the event is in itself" (SMW 152). The acceptance of such inner relationships demands, according to Whitehead, the acceptance of a subjectivity of the individual event, as integrative of the manifold relations which constitute it (SMW 180). To that extent, these internal relations represent themselves as acts of the event itself and as such are called "prehensions." In Whitehead’s main work, Process and Reality, this concept stands in the center of his analyses, while the discussions of external and internal relations recede to the background.2 (Yet the concept of prehensions is even here still defined as "concrete facts of relatedness" [PR 22/ 32].)

Now each individual event prehends all other events of the world, which it encounters and which it must appropriate as its own: "each actual entity includes the universe, by reason of its determinate attitude towards every element in the universe" (PR 45/ 71f.).3

It may appear that the one-sidedness of atomism is thereby counterbalanced. Indeed, with the thesis that every individual event is conditioned by the totality of all the others, justice is apparently done to the constitutive meaning of the whole for the individual. Still it should be observed that Whitehead does not speak directly of a meaning of the universe for the individual, but only indirectly, on account of the relationship of every event to every other "element" of the universe. Only in this sense does he say: ". . . every actual entity springs from that universe which there is for it" (PR 80/124). Since the universe or the space-time continuum is not given as a real whole to the individual event, it is always only this individual event which must integrate into a whole the manifold relationships into which it enters. Consequently, as many perspectives of the universe arise as there are events that emerge. It is no accident that one thinks of Leibniz here. Whitehead explicitly appeals to Leibniz’s doctrine of the monads: " I am using the same notion, only I am toning down his monads into the unified events in space and time" (SMW 102). Leibniz, however, with his thesis of the "windowlessness" of monads, would have denied the concrete reality of internal relations. The monads, for Leibniz, do not stand in real relationships to each other but only mirror the primary monad and the universe created by it in refraction of their own respective finite positions.

In consequence, according to Leibniz, natural laws are as much externally imposed on the world as they were in Descartes (AI 170f.). Whitehead, on the contrary, wants to understand the laws of nature as emerging out of the reciprocal relationships of the things themselves, as expressing these reciprocal relations. Hence individuals appear to him not only as reflections of the universe but also as subjects of the creative integration of the manifold relations which constitute them, while the spatiotemporal continuum is taken to be the result of an abstraction from the concrete eventness, out of which the relationships among the actual entities" emerge (cf. already CN 78).

We must therefore hold that in the end Whitehead’s theory of prehension does not really counterbalance the onesidedness of atomnisn,, because the whole of the universe or of the spatiotemporal continuum, on his account, has no ontological independence over against the monad-like events. Leibniz felt otherwise, because the universe is pregiven to each individual creature as grounded in the thinking of God and is only mirrored by the creature. In Whitehead, however, God is not the creator but only the cocreator of the actual occasion; consequently the elemental events, as self-constitutive are at the same time the ground of the continuum expressing their nexus, and this continuum is "derived" from these events.

Through the concept of the subjectivity of individual events, seen as the integrating centers of the manifold of the relationships which constitute them, Whitehead wanted to oppose a more profound vision to the materialistic description of the natural processes, which settles for mere external relationships (SMW 151f.). But the concept of a self-constituting subjectivity of actual occasions leads into new difficulties. On the one hand, the actual occasion or entity ought to be the ultimate constituent of the physical universe. On the other hand, these final constituents of the universe are taken to be still further analyzable into the relations or "prehensions’’ which constitute them. Now, Whitehead says, the analysis of an "actual entity" is only feasible in thought. "The actual entity is divisible; but it is in fact undivided" (PR 227/ 347). If, however, the analysis of the actual occasion into the prehensions (or internal relations) which constitute it is only feasible by virtue of mental abstraction, then we are faced with a problem. How is it possible to continue to interpret the actual occasion itself as a process with different phases, in which it generates itself (PR 26/39), while asserting that the end phase of this process, on the other hand, ought to be identical with the complete duration of the event (PR 283/ 434)?

When Whitehead, in Process and Reality, presents a genetic analysis with its differentiation of various phases in the self-constitution of the event (cf., e.g., PR 26f./ 40, 248f./ 380f.), he becomes liable to the suspicion of confusing the abstract and concrete, thereby committing the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness," which he has often astutely criticized in other thinkers. If we cannot, in fact, really divide the actual occasion further but can only abstractly differentiate the relationships which constitute its identity, then we cannot, by the same token, characterize the actual occasion as being the result of a process in which these aspects which can only be distinguished in the abstract are actually integrated. This is even more difficult since these relations themselves are said to be constituted only by the actual occasion.

Whitehead assuredly needs this way of looking at things, if he wants to be able to affirm the subjectivity of actual occasions as causae sui (PR 86/ 131, 88/ 135, cf., 25f./ 38). If one conceives of the actual occasion as merely determined by the happenstance of the relations which constitute it, then it is only thought as an object, which as such cannot be separated from its field but is nothing other than the systematically adjusted set of modifications of the field (CN 190).4 It seems, however, that Whitehead must assume the subjectivity of the event in order to be able at all to assert its autonomy. It is therefore the condition of Whitehead’s atomistic interpretation of reality. If, however, the independence of actual occasions is thought of as self-constitution, then it seems to follow that the actual occasion itself must be reconceived as a process which integrates that which precedes it, thus constituting its own identity. This conception remains self-contradictory because the actual occasions are claimed to be the ultimate components of reality, not integration of more primitive components. This basic thesis cannot be reconciled with the assumptions of the actual occasions’ self-constitution.

Now Whitehead’s "genetic analysis" of the actual occasion, doubtless, amounts to an extrapolation which forces onto the interpretation of actual occasions the experiential structure of more highly organized forms of life. Whitehead himself described this procedure of his speculative philosophy as the method of imaginative generalization (PR 5/ 8, cf. 4ff/ 7ff.); it is precisely the principle of self-constitution as creativity which forms, in his own philosophy, the central instance of applying this method (PR 7/11). Whitehead’s doctrine of the subjectivity of actual occasions shares many individual features with the philosophical psychology of William James. More specifically, Whitehead’s doctrine deals, on the one hand, with the momentary character of the I and, on the other hand, with the description of each I-instant as being a momentary integration of experience and especially of the past of such I-instants. Presumably, Whitehead’s theory of the subjectivity of actual occasions can be interpreted, to a very large extent, as a generalization of this idea of the I in William James’s psychology, a generalization achieved by applying this idea to the (interpretation of the) foundations of physics.

It was not for nothing that Whitehead considered William James alongside Bergson and Dewey among the thinkers to whom his chief work is especially indebted. In Science and the Modern World he even compared James to Descartes as a founder of a new era of philosophy (SMW 20Sf.).

The demonstration of such connections is certainly not enough to substantiate our objection to Whitehead’s claims. The procedure of imaginative generalization obviously plays a considerable role in any formation of philosophical concepts. Whitehead himself says, however, that such procedure has the character of tentative formulations (PR 8/ 12) and that it requires, along with inner consistency and coherence, confrontation with facts.:" Speculative boldness must be balanced by complete humility before logic and before fact" (PR 17/25).

Measured by this yardstick, it would seem illegitimate to extrapolate the structures of subjectivity in order to interpret actual occasions, because in contrast to James’s psychology of subjectivity, which has to do with a real succession of moments of experience, Whitehead’s thought cannot claim such real succession in the genesis of the individual actual occasion. James’s psychology of the self can conceive each individual moment of experience as a new integration of previous experience, because the successive moments are really distinct and because the relation of the later to the earlier, as their integration, constitutes the special quality of human, subjective relations in the medium of experience, reflection, and memory. Whitehead, for his part, can only use the factual universal relationship of all events as a basis for applying the Jamesian model of subjectivity to the relationship that obtains between newly emerging events and all the other events and so also their predecessors. It is very questionable whether there exists here a sufficient measure of analogy. The I, which according to James always emerges momentarily, relates itself in no way to all preceding events but only to the earlier experiences made present to it by memory. The human faculty of memory, however, is a highly specialized function which cannot, without further ado, be attributed to all natural processes.

Moreover, the integrating performance of the momentarily emerging I is, in James, conditioned by the fact that neither the human body, on the one hand, nor the "social self" the sum of social expectations concerning the individual’s performance, on the other hand, emerge instantaneously; they both, rather represent continua, in relation to which each momentary synthesis of the I (die punktuelle Ichsynthese) can function as the principle of novelty and creativity.

Whitehead’s speculative extrapolation of the principle of subjective integration, momentarily achieved, may overestimate the measure of uniformity encountered in the real world. (The generalization of the structure of the human I, as understood by James [but disengaged from the problematic of the self as distinguished from the I], leads paradoxically to the reduction to the place of elementary processes.) These more complex forms of natural evolution are merely described as diversely ordered series, societies, of actual occasions, which, because of the abstract structural moments reproduced in their sequence and systematically modified, appear as stable unities without finally being such. In Process and Reality, the comparatively brief treatment of this topic already suggests that the ontological dignity of stable and perduring forms is considered secondary in contrast to the structure of actual occasions. If we were to suppose, however, that the formation of higher forms were already deciphered, in principle, with the correct description of actual occasions, of which all higher forms consist, then we would repeat the style of thinking characteristic of materialism, the very thing to which Whitehead wanted to offer an alternative.

The fact that the emergence of form cannot be derived from the actual occasions of which they might consist shows once again that the unity of the field cannot be reduced to elementary momentary events which appear in it. In view of the metaphysical relevance of the form as actuality, not merely as structure in the sense of Whitehead’s "eternal objects," we see once more how onesided the atomistic interpretation of reality is; it cannot do justice to wholeness as a metaphysical principle of equal dignity with that of individual discreteness.

Curiously, however, it is precisely Whitehead’s genetic analysis of actual occasions with all its paradoxes which offers new points of view that could help at this impasse. According to Whitehead, the phases of concrescence are not to be thought of as temporally successive, since the event is what it is as an undivided unity. Therefore, the representation describing a process of genesis appeared to us as paradoxical. But Whitehead’s analyses illuminate the understanding of processes whose phases certainly must be thought of as temporally successive, in which, however, the final aim (das Werdezeil) of the form is already present.

In any event, all life processes seem to be of this nature. In the process of its growth the plant or animal is always this plant or this animal, although its specific nature indeed comes fully to light only in the result of its genesis. By way of anticipation it is in each instant already that which it only becomes in the process of its growth. The identity of its being is assuredly not that of a momentary event but resides in the identity of its nature, of its essential form, which perdures throughout the course of some particular time. By anticipating its essential form in the process of its growth, a being’s substantial identity is linked together with the notion of process.

In Whitehead’s genetic analysis of elementary processes, the concepts of "subjective aim," and "superject" play a similar role. Already in Process and Reality Whitehead himself spoke occasionally of anticipatory feelings with respect to subjective aim (PR 278/ 424f.; cf. 214f./ 327f.). He did so above all in Adventures of Ideas (AI 25 (M). To be sure, Whitehead does not go so far as to describe the significance of anticipation for the formation of the subject, as constituting its subjectivity out of a future which already determines the present by way of anticipation. Rather in Whitehead, anticipation means that the subject, constituting itself in the present, includes also its future relevance for others (its "objective immortality") in the act of its self-constitution.

Whitehead did not exhaust the theoretical potential of the element of anticipation implied in the concept of "subjective aim." Aristotle’s analysis of motion, which forms the background to all teleological descriptions of processes, went much further in that direction. Aristotle interpreted the very anticipation of the final state of natural movement in the moved as entelechy. Although this resulted in turning the action of the future end upon the present becoming into the effectiveness of a living organism’s seed with respect to its future end, he nevertheless spoke of an effect of the end upon the process of becoming. This does not happen in Whitehead, because he sees becoming in each of its stages as self-constitutive. That is why, despite his use of telelogical language, the element of anticipation cannot really become constitutive in his interpretation of subjectivity.

The idea of the radical self-creation of each actual occasion is the reason why Whitehead’s metaphysics cannot be reconciled with the Biblical idea of creation nor, therefore, with the Biblical idea of God. To be sure, American process theology has attempted to interpret Whitehead’s concept of creativity in terms of the divine activity of creation.5 In Whitehead himself, however, the constitution of each actual entity’s subjectivity remains always a self-constitution, and this despite the dependence of each actual entity upon God, who provides it with the conditions of its self-realization through its "initial aim." This shortcoming follows from the fact that Whitehead relates the teleological structure of becoming to the elementary level of actual occasions, which are called processes but do not allow for temporal extension in the sense of a succession of phases in time, since actual occasions, of which everything else is supposed to consist, are indeed said to be momentary and undivided.

The matter would be otherwise if we limit the applicability of Whitehead’s genetic analysis to processes that take place in time, instead of using that analysis to explain the constitution of actual occasions. Then the "subjective aim" of the process would have to do with the future of one’s own essential completion in the future, a future which would be still to come. This completion could not simply be in the power of the present decision but would eventually be reached or not reached by such a decision. Correspondingly the anticipation of one’s own essential completion in the future would gain greater significance for the constitution of subjectivity; the latter could not be identified with the self-creation of present decisions but would be dependent on the manifestation of the whole of one’s own essential completion in each present.

Certainly such a conception would no longer be that of an atomistic metaphysic. It would no longer attribute subjectivity to the simplest actual occasions. Rather from the impossibility of such attribution (because it implies the paradoxical assumption of a nontemporal process), there would arise an argument to the effect that the autonomy of finite being and subjectivity can increase with the complexity of forms rather than being fully pronounced as early as in the elementary occasions. The unity of the field from which actual occasions proceed would no longer be traceable to a network of relations which is itself constituted only by these occasions. Rather the unity of the field would have to be seen along with the unity of the forms which appear in increasing differentiation on higher levels of natural processes, keeping in mind that such unity of the forms cannot be derived from actual occasions although it consists of such occasions.

Such a view of the matter would be, as I said, no longer atomistic, because it does not limit reality (in the sense of what is actual) to the undivided elementary actual occasions.

For that reason alone, however, it would not step outside the circle of process philosophies, although it would hold to the idea of an essential identity of the being which becomes in the process of its genesis, as an idea encompassing this whole process; thus it would link the fundamental intention of the concept of substance with the process perspective. It is precisely in that direction that Whitehead’s analysis of genetic processes, with his concept of the subject as "superject’’ of one’s own process of formation, has developed important impulses, even if these impulses bear fruit only after they have been liberated from the limitation to momentary actual occasions and its attendant atomism. They are thereby also liberated from the aporiae which burden them in the theoretical context of such assumptions.



STD -- Samuel Alexander. Space, Time and Deity. 1920; New York: Macmillan, 1966.


1More precisely "actual occasion," designates the primary constituents of events: an actual occasion is the limiting type of an event with only one member (PR 73/113).

2 This may be connected with the fact that now relations may be characterized as reciprocal (the complex of mutual prehensions, (PR 194/ 295) while SMW still distinguishes, in an Aristotelian sense, between internal and external relations (analogous to the difference between relatio realis and relatio rationis in scholastic philosophy). Cf. also PR 222f / 340 and 50/ 79.

3 Cf. 123: "each actual entity is locus for the universe", as early as The Concept of Nature (1920) 152. Later Whitehead relates this idea to the concept of a physical field (PR 80/123f.).

4 In The Concept of Nature Whitehead still did not view, one must remember, the point-flash or event-particle as the ultimate real component of the natural world: "You must not think of the world as ultimately built up of event particles," he expressly says there (CN 172 cf. 59). The world is rather "a continuous stream of occurrences which we can discriminate into finite events forming by their overlappings and containings of each other and separations a spatio- temporal structure’’ (CN 172f.; cf. also AI 161).

5 So, especially, John Cobb, God and the World (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965).