Diverse Currents in Whitehead’s View of Time

by Jerome Ashmore

Jerome Ashmore is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 193-200, Vol. 2, Number 3, Fall, 1972. 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 Whitehead’s treatment of time, three stages of development may be observed. The first embodies a philosophy of space-time with a realistic position assumed and nature accepted as consisting largely of space and of time. The second and third stages respectively stress concepts of “creativity” and of the “actual entity.”


Whitehead’s view of time is multilateral, intricate, and finely drawn. It abounds in unique conceptions and undergoes considerable metamorphosis, starting as an epistemological realism and culminating in a philosophy of organism. But as a whole it may be characterized as naturalistic. At least there is no rejection or amendment of the early declaration that "there can be no time apart from space; and no space apart from time; and no space and no time apart from the passage of the events of nature" (CN 142).

In Whitehead’s treatment of time, three stages of development may be observed. The first embodies a philosophy of space-time with a realistic position assumed and nature accepted as consisting largely of space and of time (CN 33). The second and third stages respectively stress concepts of "creativity" and of the "actual entity." Throughout this theoretical succession, analysis of continuous change is a primary task. Moreover, at no point does Whitehead allow time to have the status of an independent datum. In the relativistic universe which he accepts, time as intrinsic and as self-sufficient is not an appropriate element. Any attempt to set up time as an independent terminus for knowledge is like "the effort to find substance in a shadow" (CN 66). Nor can time and space be primarily loci of simple locations, for "each volume of space, or each lapse of time, includes in its essence aspects of all volumes of space, or of all lapses of time" (SMW 104). However, in the case of an abstraction from an event, time and space are differentiable (PNK (63). They also may be distinguished by reason of an enduring pattern within some events (SMW 174-75).

Passage and creativity. Whitehead’s philosophical thinking about time begins with questions about passage as a character of nature. His method of inquiry follows a rather definite shape. He first is concerned with immediate experiences, which he believes are genuinely actual. But he quickly recognizes deductive science with its act of considering concepts which apply to the data of experience. He then proceeds to concepts which relate to the concepts under consideration. By these steps he seeks to attain concepts which are successively more abstract, and by being more abstract are more general, and by being more general are, in his eyes, less liable to exceptions. Yet he does not lose sight of the concreteness of the universe (SMW 33). Thus, although his starting point in physical nature and individual psychology is nonformal, he makes logical and mathematical departures from this position to explore formal possibilities achieved by abstraction. However, he does not relinquish his basic doctrine that time is in nature and while allowing time to have formal aspects by abstraction, he does not equate it with a lifeless form (MT 127). Time may be seen formally to the degree that its "extensiveness" and geometrical structure are subject to logical analysis, but primitively time is not formal. Primitively time has the character of process, which has "creativity" as its essence and reveals itself in the becoming of actual occasions (PR 31f).

The "creative advance" which Whitehead says is "the application of this ultimate principle of creativity to each novel situation which it originates" (PR 32) is a conception which, in its first version, is called "passage." In considering passage Whitehead assumes that a structure of events "provides the framework of the externality of nature within which objects are located" (PNK 80) and that "space and time are abstractions expressive of certain qualities of the structure" (PNK 80). In this phase of his theory time is a relation between events, and the qualities of the structure expressed in the abstractions which are space and time apparently are qualities of passage. But one time-system is inadequate to express the passage of events which is the creative advance of nature. One time-system stands as only a partial expression of the passage, the complete expression of which requires an indefinite number of time-systems. Moreover, all properties of the creative advance cannot be rendered explicitly in thought. But those that can will require a medium consisting of the whole set of time-systems derived from the whole set of space-time abstractions (PNK (81). Yet man cannot provide a satisfactory representation of this required medium. In his efforts to describe the universe he is restricted to only one time-system among many. But, according to Whitehead, there is a partial solution to such a predicament by distinguishing between the nonserial creative advance of nature and any one time series. This distinction relieves the confusion between two different conditions: one is experiencing the creative advance and knowing it is as the perpetual transition of nature into novelty and the other is using a single-time series for measurement of it (CN 178). Time merely exhibits some aspects of the more fundamental factor, that is, of passage itself. Concerning the origin of time a crucial part is enacted by the relation, of extension (CN 185), the relata of which are events (PNK 61).

There is a difference between the creative passage of nature "which is not properly serial at all" and passage in any one time-series (CN 178). At this point Whitehead sees passage as creative but not in itself atomic. Subsequently he examines creativity further and attributes to it a dimension of value The result is a conception of atomic self-creativity, whereby the sell-creativity not only is atomic but also is interrelated with all other units of self-creativity. Whitehead calls such a unit an "epochal occasion" (RM 91). These units are responsible for a conjunction of creativity and creature and each unit has two sides. On one side it is a mode of creativity and a cause of itself, thereby serving to integrate the universe. On the other it is a creature whose identity is one emergent fact having its own sell-value (RM 101f). The process of self-creation is the transformation of the potential into the actual, and the fact of such transformation includes the immediacy of self-enjoyment (MT 207).

Creative advance is the property of the universe whereby its present passes into a future. But Whitehead, in considering passage, sees also that some account must be given concerning the relationship of present to past. He summarizes his thought on this question by asserting a principle of "conformation," which rests on the point that "the immediate present has to conform to what the past is for it, and the mere lapse of time is an abstraction from the more concrete relatedness of ‘conformation’ " (S 36). The principle of conformation expresses "the stubborn fact that whatever is settled and actual must in due measure be conformed to by the self-creative activity" (S 36), and also assumes that "universality of truth arises from the universality of relativity, whereby every particular actual thing lays upon the universe the obligation of conforming to it" (S 39). Whitehead believes that the conformation of the present to the past is not doubted in practice, is implied by passage, and belongs to the ultimate texture of experience. Conformation dictates that "the how of our present experience must conform to the what of the past in us" (S 58). Creativity, then, makes an adjustment to its immediate past in the sense that the nature and character of each new instance of self-creativity undergo modification in conformity with the nature and character of the past.

A final feature of creative advance is exhibited through Whitehead’s concept of process wherein the essence of nature is transition (MT 207). By itself nature passes from itself into the future (MT 73) and the outcome of this process is an atomic pulsation (MT 120). Creativity is the most real aspect of fact, and transition of time with its included extensive relationships depends on creative transitivity.

Continuous change. A fundamental feature of Whitehead’s philosophy of nature is his analysis of continuous change. In treating questions of becoming and continuity he takes the position that "there is a becoming of continuity but no continuity of becoming" (PR 53). He holds that becoming cannot have an instant of time as a locus but must be extended and must end in an atomic occasion. Thus he faces the difficulty of explaining how continuity is obtainable. How shall he combine temporal extension and atomic unity? The resolution is elaborate but includes two cardinal points, the first being that "continuity concerns what is potential, whereas actuality is incurably atomic" (PR 95); the second is that if we admit that something becomes, then "every act of becoming must have an immediate successor . . . [and] the conclusion is that in every act of becoming there is the becoming of something with temporal extension; but that the act itself is not extensive, in the sense that it is divisible into earlier and later acts of becoming which correspond to the extensive divisibility of what has become" (PR 107). Whitehead discerns an intimacy of present to future found in the transmission of characters from an actual occasion to its successor. By definition the condition of having contiguous occasions will imply physical transmission (PR 468). The mechanics of the transmission seem to be analogous to those of contemporary quantum theory (PR 468).

It is not time but rather the atomic "actual occasion" which is the key to the solution of the question of becoming and continuity. Yet the actual occasion is the outgrowth of Whitehead’s earlier thought about "events." Our knowledge of nature is diversified into a complex of events (PNK 72). For Whitehead nature is not in time; time is in nature and the way in which time is in nature is as a system of relations amid relata (PNK 61): the relata are neither external objects nor matter; they are events (PNK 61f).

Duration and simultaneity. Closely allied to the conception of an event is Whitehead’s conception of a duration as the general fact comprising the simultaneous occurrence of all nature discernible now (PNK 68f). A duration is neither an abstract stretch of time nor an instantaneous present (CN 72), but rather "retains itself within the passage of nature . . . in other words . . . retains temporal thickness" (CN 56) and is "limited only by the property of being a simultaneity" (CN 53). It is a whole of nature simultaneous with a percipient event, a percipient event being the event to which awareness is related directly within a discerned complex of events (PNK 68). A duration furnishes awareness a percipient event; but then awareness, from its more or less absolute position, must in some manner relate itself to a duration The relationship is achieved by the condition of "cogredience" (PNK 70f). Later Whitehead defines a duration as "a complete set of actual occasions, such that all the members are mutually contemporary one with the other" (PR 491). The relation, "contemporary with," is characterized by being symmetrical and free from causal forces (PR 192). Any actual occasion is situated within an infinite number of durations (PR 487f).

Time as epochally atomic. When first treating the question of becoming and continuity Whitehead did not describe all events as atomic. In succeeding endeavors, however, he proposed that they are, and that they also are constituted as a pattern (SMW 174) in the manner of a non-uniform object, a non-uniform object being one which requires an extended locus to show its complete nature, that is, it cannot be found in any situation less than the whole situation (SMW 183). With events seen as atomic and as "the grasping into a unity of a pattern of aspects" (SMW 174); with the requirement that this pattern will have "a definite duration determined by a definite meaning of simultaneity," which "relates the pattern as thus displayed to one definite space-time system" (SMW 182); and with endurance consisting of "the repetition of the pattern m successive events (SMW 183), requiring a succession of durations, Whitehead now sees time as atomic in the sense of being epochal, though he adds that "what is temporalized is divisible" (SMW 102).

Prehensive unification. In the development of the natural context of time, Whitehead assumes that nature has two aspects: creativity and the realized products of creativity, that is, the events. In the realization of natural entities, there is an act of gathering things into the "unity of a prehension," a concept which, in the first phase of Whitehead’s treatment of it, "defines itself as a here and a now, and the things so gathered into the grasped unity have essential reference to other places and other times" (SMW 102). A prehension likewise is "a prehensive occasion; and a prehensive occasion is the most concrete finite entity, conceived as what it is in itself and for itself, and not from its aspect, in the essence of another such occasion" (SMW 104f). Prehensive unification does not merge things in themselves, but only things from its standpoint in space and time. Its central feature is the property of being a perspective. Whitehead considers it a derivative of a Leibnizian monad, restricting the mirroring function to events in space and time (SMW 102).

Features of the "occasion." But the creativity of which events are the realized products can have no pattern it is neither determined, realized, nor atomic. It is instead a pure, ultimate, and unconditioned activity, arid appears to be somewhat ineffable: "it cannot be characterized because all characters are more special than itself" (PR 47). White-head’s next step brings creativity and creature into a greater degree of unity (RM 101f). They now are seen as one atomic "occasion" (RM 100). Besides the unity of creativity and creature contained in an occasion, there is a conjunction of a physical and a mental pole (RM 118) taking place as a process of supersession (IS 240f). The supersession is supratemporal (IS 241). Moreover, the unity of creativity and creature is not apprehensible in a physical aspect, but rather through value, or realized self-enjoyment (RM 100). Both physical and mental poles contribute to this value which is innate and particularized with respect to an occasion (RM 103). From the physical pole pure perceptivity issues in a value-feeling; from the mental pole the issue of reflective perceptivity is likewise a value-feeling (RM 102). Since occasions have value they cannot be subdivided infinitely into parts like themselves.

Prehensions of actual entities. Whitehead’s endeavors to resolve questions of becoming began with physical nature as a frame of reference and an event as the primary datum in the construction, functioning, and form of nature, with the time factor of space-time constituting one of the major expressions of the relation between events. From this foundation a cosmology arose, one which included and transcended a physical world and which depended on an atomic unity found in "actual occasions" or "actual entities," these being the final real organisms composing the universe. To suit these atomic units, that is, the actual entities, Whitehead develops a second phase of his doctrine of prehensions (PR 35). Concern about space and time or about here and now is subdued in favor of the dual constitution of an actual entity and its life span, which embodies a process of transition from initial indetermination to terminal determination (PR 72). Two species of existence are found in the actual entity: one is "formal" (in the sense of Descartes’ formaliter); the other is objective. The formal existence of an actual entity consists of the prehending activity displayed as "a concrescence of prehensions, which have originated in its process of becoming" (PR 72) with all further analysis being an analysis of prehensions. When the prehending process ends, so does formal existence. After that point an actual entity has only objective existence, whereby it serves as an "object" in the constitution of a superseding actuality and becomes a datum for the creative advance (PR 72).

Actual entities may be analyzed in an indefinite number of ways, but most analysis will lead to abstractions, for example, awareness, private sensation, emotion, purpose, appearance, or causation. Whitehead calls such abstractions "ghosts of the old ‘faculties,’ banished from psychology, but still haunting metaphysics" (PR 27). But abstraction may be avoided by an analysis of an actual entity into prehensions. Prehensions maintain concreteness and yet have a subjective form and aim, and may involve emotion, purpose, valuation, and causation (PR 28’). Intrinsically prehensions are not atomic and can be divided into other prehensions and combined into other prehensions, yet "a prehension, considered genetically, can never free itself from the incurable atomicity of the actual entity to which it belongs" (PR 360).

The emphasis on actual entities and prehensions obscures the significance of time in Whitehead’s later philosophy, although it was through the development of the study of time in nature that his final position was reached. In the interim, concern for time was replaced by concern for becoming and at the end both seem overshadowed by concern for value.

Concluding comments. Perhaps no other attempt to identify time is as comprehensive as that of Whitehead. Most views of time are elaborated within a single context, such as empiricism, or mathematics, or ontology. But Whitehead’s thought is not thus limited. It embraces rationalism, the psychological function of perception, and the field of value. However, these are seen as adjuncts to the prior and primary category of creativity. Although this variety of supplementary elements is recognized, these elements are not incorporated into an ultimate living unity. They are honored in themselves and in one mode or another are implicated with creativity without having the status of a vital component of it.

In Whitehead’s own terms, philosophic discourse should produce self-evidence, but "it is impossible to achieve any such aim" (MT 67). Yet much of his philosophy is self-evident and also radiates his effort to make it so. However, there are opaque spots. Some of these occur in the case of the actual entity where there is an assertion of: the unity of creativity and creature; the concurrence of divisibility and indivisibility; the pervasion of atomicity by nonatomicity; and the conversion of something indeterminate into something determined.

But Whitehead upholds such perplexities by his conviction that recognition of a thing as a composite and also as a unity are required modes of understanding, that these two modes are reciprocal, that they presuppose each other, and that the perspective emphasizing the composite exhibits an outcome and the perspective emphasizing the unity exhibits a causal factor (MT 63). But are there not limits to this prescription for understanding and are these limits not exceeded when, in the account of the actual entity as a composite, disparate or incompatible conditions are dissolved within each other, blended, or otherwise combined, without benefit of a principle according to which incongruities interpenetrate? Can the composite side of an actual entity be something grotesque? When looking outside of his philosophy, Whitehead does not allow such composites. He will not allow Newton’s law of gravitation to result from a composite of a Newtonian notion of mass, the notion of occupancy of space, and Euclidean geometry (MT 190f). Yet he himself explicitly is committed to the concept of a whole or unity as an assembly of parts which, either in fine art or in nature, may be disjoined and reunited by logic alone (MT 85). He also refers to a presumably relevant property of human consciousness whereby, when consciousness entertains abstractions, "there is always present a preservative instinct aiming at the renewal of connection, which is the reverse of abstraction" (MT 169). But, unless instinct is either a ground for logic or one of its associates, this remark seems extraneous. Whitehead tends to ignore the point that, outside of mathematics, a whole may exceed or differ from the sum of its parts, and that adequate comprehension of it does not require reference to these parts. It may be that the acceptance of a mechanism of reversibility between a unity and its abstracted members, which is indicated repeatedly in various contexts, is the most decisive weakness of Whitehead’s philosophy.

Another way to see the suspected discrepancy in the conception of an actual entity is to note that the entity itself as a unity is a consequence of the functioning of Whitehead’s creative imagination in which intuition discloses a whole immune to vivisection or oppositions, whereas the actual entity as a composite is the consequence of the functioning of his productive imagination (in the Kantian sense of the term), which is limited to treating things discursively and is unable to include apprehension of an intrinsic whole. The question is: Do the functions of creative imagination with its alogical wholes and productive imagination with its attention to logical consistencies or inconsistencies of parts, yield results which are reciprocal or otherwise interdependent or conjoined? This question warrants more deliberation than Whitehead gives to it.

In the theoretical architecture through which he seeks to describe time, as well as in other parts of his philosophy, Whitehead emphasizes abstraction, which he interprets in various ways. It may be incomplete, relative, violent, rigid, chill, extreme, high, or special. It also may be complete, in which case it is rejected (PR 42). In this gamut of usage, confusion is not readily avoided. For the present comment, the sense of abstraction will be equivalent to that of ideal.

Consider three conjoined instances of abstraction. First, there is space-time itself which is denoted as an abstraction and is denied the status of a self-sufficient entity (SMW 96). Second, there is a set of time-systems derived from the whole set of space-time abstractions and this set of derivatives of an abstraction "expresses the totality of those properties of the creative advance which are capable of being rendered explicit in thought" (PNK 81). Third. there is the single time series or time-system which is a member of the derived set of time-systems and, in conjunction with a space-system, is used for natural measurement (CN 178). These instances seem to raise an issue of whether the datum from which abstraction is made -- concrete passage -- is not different in kind from the three successive abstractions: space-time, its derivative set of time-systems, and a single member of this derivative set serving in the activity of natural measurement. Whitehead seems aware of this issue He tacitly acknowledges it in the statement, "an abstraction does not mean that an [abstracted] entity is nothing. It merely means that its existence is only one factor of a more concrete element of nature" (CN 171). Very well, but, as such a factor, cannot the abstraction differ from its host and yet not be nothing? The instances cited appear pertinent to this question. May it be suggested that the abstractions they represent are more convincing as idealizations generated out of ordinary subjectivity to assist communication about time and passage, than as living, moving, and changing process being at once at home and away from home?

The suggestion that the three abstractions noted may be interpreted as disguised idealizations leads to a much larger question concerning the identity of relations in the context of Whitehead’s conceptions of nature. Are the relations he constantly asserts indigenous to facts or does he start with relations as ideal data and look for facts on which to impose the relations? This question will be left as resistant to resolution.

For Whitehead "the great difficulty of philosophy is the failure of language" (MT 67) and to compensate for the defects of the linguistic tradition he saturates the rendition of his thinking with terminological novelties, which leave an impression that his work is highly stylized, but also that its stipulations and theoretical definitions make it almost impregnable to objections. His pursuit of time began in the context of the assumptions and mathematics of physical science and was conducted with precision and with prodigious ingenuity. But these conditions invite some questions: Is the field of physical science an appropriate point of departure for philosophy? Are most philosophical questions adaptable to subjugation by bare precision and persistent refinement of it? Can ingenuity exceed itself to the point where its result is a tour de force? It is easier to ask these questions than to answer them and even the most likely answer remains relative to the individual offering it.