Genetic Succession, Time, and Becoming

by Robert Neville

Robert Neville is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York, College at Purchase, and on the Staff of the Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 194-198, Vol. 1, Number 3, Fall, 1971. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


This article attempts to clarify the problem of succession. One of the most important problems is whether the genetic process within an actual occasion from initial data to satisfaction involves some kind of real or temporal succession.

Whether Whitehead’s cosmology is a plausible and useful view of the world depends in large measure on the cogency of his distinction between genetic and coordinate divisions of actual occasions. Philosophically, this distinction is his way of reconciling the claims of inner subjective life with those of objective experience and knowledge. It has specific application, for instance, in reconciling the claims of depth psychology with those of physiological psychology.

Whitehead’s exposition of the distinction is not without its problems, however. One of the most important problems is whether the genetic process within an actual occasion from initial data to satisfaction involves some kind of real or temporal succession. This paper will attempt to clarify the problem of succession.

Lewis S. Ford has addressed himself directly to the claim for nonphysical (but still temporal) successiveness in the genetic process in his article "On Genetic Successiveness: a Third Alternative" (1 :421-25).1 Ford begins by pointing out that the differences between phases in a single occasion cannot be mere differences in complexity of integration. Although the eternal objects descriptive of the different phases may differ only by complexity of integration, to identify the genetic process with its definite eternal objects is to miss the dynamism of the decisions involved in the succession of phases (Ford quotes PR 342). The proposal, then, is that there is a phase of genetic development beyond the initial one for each modification of the initial, divinely given, subjective aim. ‘The subjective aim at each phase provides the subjective unity of all the data at that phase; subjective unity at every phase means only that the data are compatible for synthesis, not that they are completely integrated. Lack of complete integration means the phase is an incomplete one in the whole genetic process. The final phase of satisfaction consists in complete determination where the subjective unity is fulfilled with complete integration or synthesis.

Earlier phases, according to Ford’s hypothesis, causally influence their successors but do not completely determine them precisely because "being later" means making further decisions. But what about the sense in which the occasion is supposed to be causa sui as a whole? Ford writes: "Now there is only one act of self-actualization, but this one act is genetically (not actually) analyzable into successive decisions having within their particular phases the same properties Whitehead ascribes to the occasion as a whole with respect to decisions" (1:4220. The critical point, of course, is the claim for genetic but not actual analyzability. Ford’s position is clear. Each phase is causa sui in itself through its decisive modification of subjective aim; the final phase or satisfaction completes the sui generis creativity of the occasion. But if each phase including the last is causa sui, is the occasion as a whole causa sui? Of course, answers Ford.

If we think of the occasion as a whole, we may distinguish between the totality of causal influences inherited from the past actual world and its causa sui which is finally expressed in the way it has completely integrated these causal influences (by inclusion and/or exclusion) in the satisfaction. Antecedent phases of concrescence are not additional causal influences the occasion must integrate, but the means whereby the causa sui expresses itself in this process of actualization. In this sense, then, they are not antecedent causes for the self-causation expressed in the mode of integration of the satisfaction, but the agency whereby that self-causation becomes effective. (1:423)

But this is to interpret "the occasion as a whole" to mean the complete set of phases in the occasion, not the occasion as a singular actual entity whose phases are abstractly, that is, analytically, contained in it.

My interpretation of Ford’s position, therefore, is that he construes the temporal character of an extended linear series of occasions to be a series of phases punctuated by demarcations of discontinuity. Some phases are completely determinate, but these are continuous with each other by virtue of mediating phases of incomplete determination moving toward penultimate determination. A single actual occasion is the set of phases beginning with an incompletely determinate phase and ending with the next completely determinate phase, termed the occasion’s satisfaction. This interpretation is supported by Ford’s terminological suggestions regarding Whitehead’s doctrine of supersession. Whitehead said time is one species of supersession, namely, that in which the physical pole of one occasion (its completion in satisfaction) supersedes the physical poles of others and is in turn superseded by later occasions. But another species of supersession, according to Whitehead, is that in which there is supersession of mental and physical poles, i.e., of phases, within each occasion. The moral Whitehead draws is "that the category of supersession transcends time, since this linkage (of physical and mental poles within an occasion] is both extratemporal and yet is an instance of supersession" (IS 241). Ford’s terminological suggestion is to identify time with supersession as such distinguishing two species, physical and genetic time (1:424). I take this to mean physical time is the measure of serial order from satisfaction to satisfaction and genetic time is the measure of the phases beginning with the first incompletely determinate one after a satisfaction and moving through the next satisfaction. The advantage Ford urges by this revision of terms is the giving of prima facie weight to the temporal connotations of Whitehead’s language about earlier and later phases.

There are two important reasons for believing Ford’s interpretation is not what Whitehead meant. The first is it misconstrues what a genetic division is supposed to be and the second is it neglects the distinction between becoming and being, between appearance and reality. I shall deal with these in turn.

According to Whitehead (PR 28f) the analysis of an actual entity into prehensions exhibits the most concrete elements in its nature, and such an analysis is called a division. Genetic analysis is one such kind of division. Now a prehension in any division, including genetic, has all the features of an actual entity itself with an important exception:

by reason of a certain incomplete partiality, a prehension is only a subordinate element in an actual entity. A reference to the complete actuality is required to give the reason why such a prehension is what it is in respect to its subjective form. This subjective form is determined by the subjective aim at further integration, so as to obtain the ‘satisfaction’ of the completed subject. (PR 29)

I take this to mean, first, that a genetic division is not the analysis of an occasion into phases but the analysis of an occasion into prehensions. Since a prehension, because of its "certain incomplete partiality" cannot be understood by itself, its subjective form must be explained by reference to the place of the prehension in the whole occasion as determined in phases. In other words, the reference to phases in a genetic division is essential only because this is what accounts for the character of a prehension’s subjective form; coordinate division, neglecting subjective form, need make no reference to phases.

Second, the thing being divided is the actual entity as a whole; prehensions are that into which it is divided. Of course, we may think of the completed occasion as one harmonized prehension; but this is what is to be analyzed, not an analytical component. The sense in which a prehension is a concrete element divided out of an actual entity requires the prehension to be partial with respect to its subjective form. A complete prehension is undivided and can only be physically felt.

It follows from this, I believe, that incomplete phases of an occasion are themselves abstractions from satisfied occasions. They have no existence in themselves so as to be able to exist earlier than the satisfaction phase. Furthermore, phases are abstract elements of the satisfaction called upon to explain prehensions, and themselves are more abstract than prehensions. If prehensions are partial and require the whole occasion in order to have completely determinate subjective form, so much more do the earlier phases need the completed occasion to exist at all. To speak of an occasion’s satisfaction as itself a phase, the last in the genetic process, is only an abstraction derivative from the intention to give a genetic analysis; apart from any division of it, the occasion itself just is its satisfaction or complete determination coming to be and being.

Now it might be argued (although Ford does not do so) that each phase in a genetic process is a pattern of prehensions, the later differing from the earlier in containing certain novel conceptual prehensions. But the prehensions of each phase must be different from those of the other phases by virtue of different subjective forms, just as on Whitehead’s view the prehensions of each occasion differ from those of each other by virtue of the same reason. I believe Whitehead wanted to avoid just this proliferation of prehensions beyond necessity in his doctrine of epochal time. The point of the appeal to phases in an epoch is to explain the subjective form of prehensions divided out of the satisfied actual entity. The explanation begins with the whole satisfied entity plus the previous entities that entered into it, and explains the former by phases of decision transforming the latter into it.

My objection to Ford’s claim that an earlier phase exists before a later phase, in a genetic sense of "exists before," does not conclude that the difference between phases is merely a matter of complexity of eternal objects. He is certainly right about the dynamism of the process of coming to be, a dynamism not expressed at all in coordinate division except by measurements of energy. Rather, my objection is that he construes earlier phases to be just as real in a temporal sense as the concrete occasion itself albeit the phases are real in genetic time, not physical time.

The second reason for doubting Ford’s interpretation, therefore, picks up at this point. The genetic process is one of becoming; the temporal process one of being. Time measures real change; genesis measures the appearance of reality. These are important themes for Whitehead not registered by Ford’s interpretation in sufficient depth.

The early phases of concrescence are only the becoming of the concrete fact; therefore they are not anything yet, only the becoming of something. They are not real earlier than the satisfactions because they are not by themselves real. The reality ingredient in early phases is only the reality attained by previous occasions present as prehensive data; all the differences between the early phases of an occasion and previous occasions are constituted by the concrescent occasion s appearances plus the elimination of some initial data required for objectifying the appearances. What does in fact appear is the new reality in the physical satisfaction of the concrescent occasion; but in the early phases it has not completely appeared and is therefore only mere appearance.

Our language, of course, makes it very difficult to speak of phases of becoming or stages of appearance. The language reflects the Aristotelian bias that subjects must be real substances. In the Aristotelian scheme growth and development are primarily the unfolding of principles in successive phases, each phase of which is itself substantial reality; a squirrel killed before reproducing is no less a substance because it ceased to exist before fulfilling the final cause of being a squirrel. It is with philosophical metaphors like Aristotle’s in mind that Ford’s interpretation of genetic successiveness gains its force. But Whitehead, at least at this point, was more Platonic. Coming to be is not the same as, or composed of, being. To be in a world of change requires coming to be, and having-come-to-be in a world of changes requires instant perishing. Being cannot dwell in change except as goal or past fact. These rather general remarks do not prove anything, of course; they only suggest one must live in an Aristotelian world to draw genetic successiveness so close to physical time as to call both time. This is not Whitehead’s world.

Now the genetic process is indeed dynamic, a matter of decisions. But this is to say, from the standpoint of existent occasions, that occasions can be analyzed as having come to be through dynamic decision. From that standpoint there is no dynamism left: everything has been decided except what the future will do. Whitehead’s point is not that the dynamism we feel characterizing our experience is an illusion. It is rather that our dynamic experience, our subjective immediacy, is not fully real but only the appearing of reality.

Ford would agree with this last point if only there were no elimination during concrescence. Elimination (which both of us agree does happen) requires a real diminution or perishing of that which is real, he argues. But this diminution or perishing is ambiguous. What happens in elimination is that some datum is eliminated from objectification in that particular concrescing occasion. This in no way diminishes the objective immortality of the datum as a potential for objectification; it is a potential quite apart from being actually objectified, and is so forever even if always actually eliminated. In no sense does elimination cause the datum to perish as a potential. The only thing diminished is the concrescing occasion which no longer can objectify the datum; but even this presumes (falsely) that the occasion "exists" at an early stage possessing the datum, which is lost to a later stage. It is better to say merely that a potential datum is not in the end objectifiable in this particular occasion, given its final determinate character; the reason for this is the decision to eliminate.

When an occasion has appeared, when it has fully come to be, it loses its subjective immediacy, its process of decision, its feeling of self-possession; for the feeling of self-possession consists precisely in deciding on the appearance of one’s own reality. Is this to say the realm of decisive, dynamic change is only appearance, not quite real? The answer is yes, if care is taken not to substantialize "realm" or to infer there is no reality to appearance. Is this to say that the objects known, the actual occasions which are known by subjecting them to divisions, are realities, not appearances, in the realm of being, not becoming? Yes. Is it to say the only "knowledge" we have of appearances, of the genetic process of decision and change, is hypothetical, derived as one of an indefinite number of possible divisions of the actual entity (cf. PR 28)? Yes. Familiar Platonic themes.


1. The special Whitehead issue of the Southern Journal of Philosophy, 7, 4 (Winter, 1969), particularly John B. Cobb, Jr., "Freedom in Whitehead’s Philosophy: A Response to Edward Pols," pp. 409-43; Edward Pols, "Freedom and Agency: A Reply," pp. 415-19; and Lewis S. Ford, "On Genetic Successiveness: A Third Alternative," pp. 421-25.


1 The first two alternatives alluded to in Ford’s title are (1) John Cobb’s theory of epochal becoming to the exclusion of real genetic successiveness (with which the present paper is in general sympathy), and (2) Edward Pols’s claim that Whitehead’s theory of genetic successiveness is inconsistent with the theory of epochal becoming.