Cartesian Roots of the Ontological Principle

by Juliana Geran Pilon

Juliana Geran Pilon is assistant professor of philosophy at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 249-254, Vol. 6, Number 4, Winter, 1976. 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.


In attempting to answer some of the basic questions about the nature of causality, actuality and the mental and physical poles, Whitehead is seeking a system that unifies knowledge, and is keeping alive the Cartesian approach to science and philosophy.

In his article "Analysis and Cultural Lag in Philosophy" (1), Hartshorne notes that Whitehead is one of few modem philosophers, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, who have taken seriously and even adopted many tenets of classical philosophy. Whitehead is free from "cultural lag" -- that is, he, "far more than most recent writers, [is] acquainted with the relevant history of ideas and with the results of analytic exploration" (1:111). Unlike Wittgenstein, Whitehead does not dismiss precontemporary philosophy as simply a series of mistakes, as unsuccessful attempts to exit from bottles whose necks any sober fly could easily find.

This is not to deny that Whitehead approaches the history of thought with a critical eye, given his concern to diagnose modern conceptual ailments originating centuries ago. Like Wittgenstein, Whitehead is not, of course, opposed to the concept of a "philosophical illness;" the difference lies in the seriousness with which the two thinkers approach traditional philosophical issues: Wittgenstein seems to see no legitimacy in questions that science or common sense cannot answer, while Whitehead struggles with classical metaphysical problems, stepping beyond the strict boundaries of the scientific method.

A simple if slightly facetious. answer to the ancient question "What is there?" along Quinean lines is "Everything," but this will not do for Whitehead. He looks for guidance to the seventeenth century, specifically to Descartes, whose philosophy was meant as a handmaid of science and whose physics -- developed much more fully by Newton -- became the foundation of the new cosmology. Metaphysics took a radical turn with the Scientific Revolution, and some of the questions it asked then are still relevant today. This is certainly Whitehead’s view.

As an example, consider the ontological principle, which Whitehead spells out in several ways, one of which is: "actual entities are the only reasons; so that to search for a reason is to search for one or more actual entities" (PR 37). I have analyzed this principle elsewhere; in this paper I deal only with those aspects of it that Whitehead believes to have been rooted in Descartes’ philosophy. The study will thus serve to support and illustrate the claim that Whitehead is a "traditional" philosopher -- one aware of classical metaphysical problems, critically yet seriously willing to entertain them as basic to intellectual inquiry.

But first a point of clarification: the ontological principle is no simple concept, for Whitehead spells it out in different contexts by emphasizing different shades.1 Without a doubt, Whitehead considered it to be an Aristotelian principle at root; at the same time, however, Locke, Hume, and certainly Descartes are given due credit for helping him formulate it. Descartes’ role in particular seems to me especially worthy of attention, considering the significance of epistemological considerations in Whitehead’s cosmology. Whiteheadian scholarship appears to have done less than full justice to Descartes in this respect. Consider for example Ivor Leclerc’s otherwise excellent book Whiteheads Metaphysics, where Descartes’ contribution to the ontological principle is mentioned all too briefly, if not misleadingly:

Thus, Whitehead points out, the ontological principle ‘underlies Descartes’ dictum: "For this reason, when we perceive any attribute, we therefore conclude that some existing thing or substance to which it may be attributed is necessarily present."’ In this dictum Descartes is inconsistent with the subjectivism which dominates his thinking. (WM 27, citing PR 64)

This last statement could certainly use some elaboration, for it seems actually to contradict a later section in Leclerc’s book, where White-head’s praise of Cartesian subjectivism is cited:

Descartes, Whitehead maintains, made a most important philosophical advance when he "laid down the principle, that those substances which are the subjects enjoying conscious experiences provide the primary data for philosophy, namely, themselves as in the enjoyment of such experience. This is the famous subjectivist bias which entered into modern philosophy through Descartes." (WM 119, citing PR 241)

So Descartes’ subjectivism was a positive contribution. Leclerc goes on to cite a Whiteheadian passage praising "the advent of Cartesian subjectivism [for as a result] the substance-quality category has lost all claim to metaphysical primacy" (WM 120, citing PR 243). Explication is in order regarding Whitehead’s indebtedness to Descartes.

To be sure, Descartes’ subjectivism was not "reformed" in the manner required by Whitehead, since Descartes failed to apply adequately the objectivism implicit in his own cogito. But the fact that such objectivism was detectable (and detected by Whitehead) in Descartes throws a clearer light on the ontological principle’s legacy.

Whitehead claims that his ontological principle was all but spelled out by Descartes:

Descartes does not explicitly frame the definition of actuality in terms of the ontological principle . . . that actual occasions form the ground from which all other types of existence are derivative and abstracted; but he practically formulates an equivalent in subject-predicate phraseology. (PR 116)

He points out that Descartes was the first modern philosopher to address himself to the problem of justifying ontological assertions in general, having asked questions such as these: When can I correctly and legitimately say that something persists over a certain time interval? When can I be sure that I know the correct answer, if ever? Could I be deceived all the time by a demonic prankster? Descartes’ skepticism was laid to rest by an elaborate, now well-known decision to trust "clear and distinct" ideas. This was more than a strong conviction in personal judgment and trust in oneself -- it accompanied a complex set of metaphysical principles. One such principle asserts that only substances (one, two, or more, it is not always clear) can truly be said to exist. Substance alone is truly actual because it needs nothing else in order to exist. It follows that clear and distinct ideas, insofar as they reveal to us what exists, what is real, are ideas regarding substance. We learn about substance through attributes which "depend upon" it or "are rooted in" substance.

Whitehead sympathizes with Descartes’ approach to actuality:

Descartes does not explicitly frame the definition of actuality in terms of the ontological principle, . . . [namely] that actual occasions form the ground from which all other types of existence are derivative and abstracted; but he practically formulates an equivalent in subject-predicate terminology when he writes: ‘For this reason, when we perceive any attribute, we therefore conclude that some existing thing or substance to which it may be attributed is necessarily present.’ (PR 116, quoting H&R 1:240)

This same passage from Descartes is mentioned in another context in Process and Reality where the "true general [Aristotelian] principle" which underlies Descartes’ statement in the passage is spelled out by Whitehead as follows: "apart from things that are actual, there is nothing -- nothing either in fact or in efficacy" (PR 64).

Descartes’ statement deserves closer analysis, especially since White-head has quoted it Out of context. The sentence begins with the words "for this reason;" what reason? Turning to Principle 52, we find that Descartes believes the existence of a substance cannot be discovered merely from the demonstrated, rational principle that it exists, for discovery must somehow involve observation (H&R 1:240). The existence of substance must be discovered by means of its attributes available to sense-perception. It is a common notion, claims Descartes, that there must be something which possesses those attributes or qualities (an attribute is an attribute of something). This is (to Descartes) the obvious "reason for" the statement quoted by Whitehead, namely, that perception of an attribute is ipso facto perception of a substance.

Whether such an idea is truly obvious has been debated at length and denied by many. It may be argued that Descartes is prejudicing the whole issue by formulating it as he does. Whitehead, for example, argues that Descartes is assuming an unacceptable dichotomy between the attributes or qualities we perceive and something which truly exists but cannot be ("directly") perceived. Why not collapse the dichotomy and restrict reality to what is perceived, allowing only for inferences involving observed data? Descartes might have said: what is conceived or perceived is grounded in something actual. By appropriately stretching the italicized expression, Descartes might be considered to be in the same philosophical camp as Whitehead.

To emphasize their common intentions, Whitehead cites another perhaps more appropriate passage from Descartes:

‘For every clear and distinct conception (perceptio) is without doubt something and hence cannot derive its origin from what is nought. . . .’ [Quoting H&R 1:1781 This general principle will be termed the ‘ontological principle.’ It is the principle that everything is positively somewhere in actuality, and in potency everywhere. (PR 64)

Thus Whitehead claims that his ontological principle is in fact "the true general principle which [also] underlies" this passage quoted from the Meditations, part IV (PR 64). Whitehead clearly accepts the Cartesian principle that what is perceived or conceived is necessarily something real, originating in substance. The statement that "everything is positively somewhere in actuality and in potency everywhere," however, seems to have no obvious relation to Descartes’ words. Has Whitehead been engaging in extrapolation?

Whitehead’s ontological principle plays a basic role in his philosophical system which presupposes that the universe is a "solidarity" of actual entities, solidarity made possible by "feelings." Everything in the universe is supposed to be connected in an intimate, organic fashion; whenever there is causal interaction among two entities, whenever something "feels" something else, both entities involved are actual. The organic connection among all things suggests that everything is in potency everywhere; the actuality of causally interacting entities may imply that everything exists somewhere in actuality at some time -- that is, whatever is felt ipso facto exists. This may be what Whitehead argues, but is it Cartesian philosophy?

Perhaps so. To support this claim, Whitehead cites the following passage from Meditations, part II:

‘Let it be so; still it is quite certain that it seems to me that I see light, that I hear noise and that I feel heat. That cannot be false; properly speaking it is what is in me called feeling (sentire); and used in this precise sense that is no other thing than thinking.’ (PR 65, quoting H&R 1:153)

Descartes seems to believe that there is an element of reality in everything we feel, everything we "think." Mind or the thinking substance is constantly confronted with perceptions; ideas or perceptions are actual when an outside object is present and being perceived, and merely "in potency" when the mind is dormant. To put it differently, more in accordance with Cartesian terminology, the mind, whose essence is thinking, potentially feels or thinks at all times because that is what it means for it to be a mental (rather than a physical) thing. Similarly, an extended thing is at all times manifesting its essential quality of "extension or matter, whatever its various modes may look like to the various observers at various times. Whitehead’s principle, therefore, "that everything is positively somewhere in actuality, and in potency everywhere," seems not to be inconsistent with Descartes’ system.

Nevertheless, it must seem strange that Whitehead could have found the ontological principle foreshadowed in the work of as staunch a mind/body dualist as Descartes. Whitehead’s broad theory of perception is above all an attempt to eradicate the distinction between causal interactions and perceptions as ordinarily understood. Descartes, on the other hand, seems to have established a clear dichotomy between the two, mirrored in the mind/body dualism for which he is famous.

In truth, however, Descartes’ dualism is no insuperable obstacle to Whitehead, since Descartes does acknowledge that interactions between mind and body exist -- they are discussed in considerable detail in The Passions of the Soul. Descartes attempts to explain such interactions -- in particular, sense perception -- by appealing to the unusual powers of the pineal gland. Despite Whitehead’s opposition to Descartes’ overall dualism, therefore, he finds many aspects of Descartes’ approach to the problem of perception most interesting and says of him that

in his effort to guard his representative ‘ideas’ from the fatal gap between mental symbol and actuality symbolized, he practically, in some sentences, expresses the doctrine of objectification here put forward. Thus: ‘Hence the idea of the sun will be the sun itself existing in the mind, not indeed formally, as it exists in the sky, but objectively, i.e., in the way in which objects are wont to exist in the mind; and this mode of being is truly much less perfect than that in which things exist outside the mind, but it is not on that account mere nothing, as I have already said.’ (P11 118, quoting H&R 2:10)

This ad-hoc assumption of the sun itself "existing in" the mind, though questionably clear, appeals to Whitehead. The fact that Descartes seems to see a need to assert that a perceived object is quite literally incorporated into the perceiver seems highly significant; it indicates that Descartes must have felt that a proper account of perception -- of conscious perception in particular, and of causality in general -- has to assume that real interaction of actual entities takes place. This is precisely Whitehead’s view; he therefore considers Descartes to have had an early glimpse of the ontological principle (PR 116).

Descartes’ major error, however, lies in his "unquestioned acceptance of the subject-predicate dogma [which] forced him into a representative theory of perception, involving a ‘judicium’ validated by our assurances of the power and the goodness of God" (PR 77f). For Whitehead believes that a sensationalist theory is by no means necessary to a system based on the cogito. The subject-predicate dogma, the scholastic dualism Descartes seemed unable to reject, only obscures some of the truly important aspects of the cogito which inspired Whitehead’s ontological principle.

Whitehead sees the cogito as the paragon of clear and distinct ideas, involving a fusion if not identity of knower and known. The necessity of one’s existence is evident from the fact of experiencing doubt, since doubting (indeed, thinking in general) is a part (Or "an attribute") of the self. It seems natural, then, to apply the same reasoning, the same model, to all knowledge, all perception I suggest that Whitehead reasons as follows:

The paradigm case of knowledge is self-knowledge which involves self-awareness or perception of one’s thoughts (doubts, etc.). All knowledge must involve such perceptions -- indeed, everything that we experience becomes in a sense part of us, becomes an intimate component of our two-poled (mental/physical) being. Conscious knowledge is only a small, surely not the most important part of experience. To think is "to feel oneself," but this applies not only to introspection -- rather, it is meant to include all activities of the mind, of "the mental pole." Therefore to experience something other than oneself is still to "feel oneself." To put it differently, feeling something (interacting with another entity) involves having (experiencing) that thing as part of oneself, indeed as oneself. This is not to deny that what we feel is "external" to us, or real; on the contrary, by emphasizing the intimacy of our interaction with the world, the reality of that world is therefore manifest. Epistemology thus becomes naturalized, and realism is placed on a solid foundation.

If this is Whitehead’s actual interpretation of Descartes -- and it certainly follows the pattern of arguments in Process and Reality, though it is nowhere spelled out quite in this form -- its originality may compensate for its less than perfect faithfulness to scholarly accuracy. There can be no doubt that Whitehead’s understanding of Descartes involves a serious concern with the Cartesian problem of justifying our belief in realism: Whitehead’s debt to tradition is not inconsiderable.

To the objection that tradition is a fickle mistress to pursue, the answer is that some traditions are of course more worthy of attention than others. Descartes’ interest in analyzing the foundations of scientific knowledge, an interest Whitehead shares, is still with us, as it well should be. By working toward a realistic metaphysics -- in line with common sense -- Whitehead is attempting to answer some of the basic questions about the nature of causality, actuality, the mental and physical poles. And by seeking a system that unifies knowledge, Whitehead is keeping alive the Cartesian approach to science and philosophy.



H&R -- Elizabeth S. Haldane and C. R. T. Ross, eds. The Philosophical Works of Descartes, two volumes. London; Cambridge University Press, 1968.

WM -- Ivor Leclerc. Whitehead’s Metaphysics. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1958.

1. Charles Hartshorne, "Analysis and Cultural Lag in Philosophy," Southern Journal of Philosophy, 11 (1973), 105-12.



1. For interesting suggestions regarding the place of the ontological principle in the hierarchy of Whiteheadian metaphysics, see the essays by William I. Garland, "The Ultimacy of Creativity," and Robert C. Neville, "Whitehead on the One and the Many," in Southern Journal of Philosophy 7 (1969-70), 361-77, 387-95.