Human Agents as Actual Beings

by Edward Pols

Edward Pols is Professor of Philosophy and Kenan Professor of the Humanities at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 103-113, Vol. 8, Number 2, Summer, 1978. 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 concrete and reflexive circle invoked here by the author is the circle of Being, as the term "ontic power" concedes.

This article grows out of several attempts to respond viva voce to those who did me the honor of asking me to enlarge upon the view of the human agent set forth in my Meditation on a Prisoner: Towards Understanding Action and Mind (MP). The act of speaking itself suggested to me certain examples that were found helpful by my bearers, and although the examples could be transposed into the key of the act of writing, it seems to me that they are more vivid as they stand. So I venture to ask the reader to imagine me speaking rather than writing what follows.1

As I speak these words, I exercise power in the world about me. My action is an exercise of physical power, since I produce sound waves that by way of your eardrums excite your nervous systems. Insofar as my words are heard and understood, I also exercise a power of a somewhat different kind on your minds. But I shall not explore that difference just now, but simply say that by my act of speaking I exercise causal power of a complex sort on the world about me.2

But as I spoke those words, I also exercised another kind of power, more difficult to conceive of than causal power. It is the power I exercise over my brain, my whole nervous system, and indeed over my whole body, Of this power we may say, in a commonsense way and subject to later qualification, that I exercise it while acting; and that some neuron in my brain that fires in the course of the action, or some neural network through which a complex impulse passes, is subject to it. Of course the cells and indeed molecules of my larynx are also subject to it. If the action under consideration takes longer than the firing of the neuron, as in the case of uttering a sentence, then it would appear that an action can exercise power on an event that ended before the action itself ended. If this should be so, the temporality of an action requires a fresh approach to the problem of causality. In MP I try to provide such an approach.

In some actions there is an additional feature still more difficult to conceive of. It is present only in the kind of action I took as my example -- action that issues in rational speech and is therefore characterized by an intelligent understanding on the part of the agent. The variety of such actions is considerable. On the theoretical side, it ranges from the speaking or writing of sentences of modest import up to the enunciation of important scientific or philosophical truths; on the practical, it ranges from the involvement of rational speech with the ordinary tasks of daily life up to its involvement with moral decisions of the most momentous kind. If we suppose that this considerable range of acts not only is supported by neuronal activity but also exercises power over it, then it follows that what in the course of the action is understood, what is articulated, what, it may be, is postulated as a standard for the action, all contribute to the power exercised by the action over its supporting neuronal activity. Though the way in which I approach these matters is significantly different from the way of most recent writers on reasons and causes, it should be clear that what is articulated in rational actions is akin to what is usually dealt with under the rubric of reasons. In this necessarily brief statement let me simply say that the mode of power in which an action exercises power on one of its subordinate events may include the power of reasons.

Here, in the full spate of philosophical assertion, I am checked, if not by my own reflection, then at least by your response. Surely it is not proper to distinguish an I from the body and all the events in it that go on while the I lives. Surely we have no right to distinguish something called an action from all the things that are happening in the body as the action goes on. I would seem to be identical with the history of the assemblage of cells that includes my neurons; my action, in the same way, would seem to be identical with everything that is happening in my body while I perform it.

I concede to your imagined objection and say that of course this is true, so long as you do not conceive of the identity as a physicalist (materialist) would conceive of it. The identity I propose instead is an asymmetrical one: the agent is asymmetrically identical with his body and its history; and any one of his actions is asymmetrically identical with everything that happens in his body as he performs it. That is to say that although the agent’s power is dependent upon the nervous system in that it is performed in and with it, nonetheless that same power is exerted over the nervous system and indeed over any particular neuron that fires or is constrained from firing in the course of the action.

Although this view of power is an unusual, perhaps even a strange one, it appears more plausible if we focus upon just what adjustments it calls for in our habitual beliefs, for the adjustments are not in conflict with the assumptions of science about transactions in which physical energy is lost or acquired. If we compare the power I exercise by way of sound waves upon your ears (power, sense 1) with the power that I, in action, exercise upon some neuron that fires or is inhibited from firing during the action (power, sense 2), we see a marked difference. The first is an ordinary physical transaction; it takes up time, and I, distinct from you, expend energy (in the ordinary physical sense) to agitate your tympanums. The second is not a physical transaction in that sense. Under the rubric of asymmetrical identity the agent is not considered to be an entity radically distinct from his body, nor is his act considered to be a function radically distinct from the physiological processes that go on in the course of the act. Though agent and act are in one sense distinguished from what I call their infrastructures, in another sense they are not. Therefore, if the agent exercises power over some neuron or neuronal complex, if these things are subject to the power of the act, the power is not of the kind that is exercised by way of a physical transaction that takes up time and in which physical energy is expended in the production of an "effect." By the same token, the firing of the neuron or the coursing of impulses through a neural complex does not support the agent’s thought and speech by expending physical energy on them, although of course it does expend physical energy on other neurons and neuronal complexes and hence does exercise causal power on them.

In MP I developed these themes at some length in the setting of a detailed discussion of human agency and causality. My examples were acts of Socrates on his last day -- acts, I take it, that are paradigms of moral responsibility. What I here call power, sense 1, I called in that book causal power. The concept of C E causality,3 which plays so prominent a role in the book, is another way of expressing the concept of causal power. What I here call power, sense 2, I there called ontic power. Where the agent’s power over one of his neurons was under discussion, I made the latter notion more specific and spoke of supervening ontic power. This allowed me to call the neuron’s contribution to the act conditioning ontic power. An example of ontic power would be the asymmetrical interdependence of the macroscopic features of the act of speaking, including all the dynamic movement of subjectivity towards understanding that goes with the words, with a whole complex of neuronal activity. The whole-part relation of act to single neuron makes vivid the temporal distinction between this mode of interdependence and C E dependence. Thus it is possible that a single neuron might be interdependent in the mode of ontic power with a macroscopic feature of action (e.g., conscious understanding) simultaneous with it and also make a contribution by way of its causal power to a later neural occurrence in some other part of the brain.

But obviously the theme of ontic power is not so radically separated from that of causal power as the distinction might suggest. Indeed, if we return to my earliest example for a moment, if I am making any sense on the topic of action, then the causal power I exercised in vibrating your ear drums was a function of the ontic power deployed in my act. If this should be so, then supervening ontic power deserves to be dealt with under some causal rubric of its own. On the basis of what has been said so far, we cannot give a satisfactory account of it by analyzing it into the various C E transactions that can be discerned within that which is asymmetrically identical with it. Nor do we give an adequate account of supervening ontic power by listing the various conditioning ontic powers that contribute to it. For that reason, I borrowed, though with a difference of interpretation that made it clear that I was not borrowing the well-known tenets of Platonism along with it, the Platonic phrase "real (Or true) cause" to refer to the agent in his exercise of supervening ontic power. In responsible moral action, and indeed in what I called in MP originative actions in general, the agent himself is the real (or true) cause. By this I do not mean just that he is the real cause of what happens in the world as a result of his actions, although in the mode of causal power he is just that. I mean rather that he is the real cause, the unifying power, of the total act and thus of the complexity of non-acts into which analysis seeks to resolve the act. The concept of real cause, then, is simply another way of expressing the concept of supervening ontic power.

It will be obvious that I have tried to absorb and transform in the concept of real cause/ontic power aspects of causality that have long since disappeared from the concept of C E causality.4 that does service in modern philosophy of science. It should also be obvious that the concept of ontic power is intended to help renew the old close association between the category of being and that of causality.


Meditation on a Prisoner was not designed to supply a complete metaphysics. It was meant to draw attention to a feature of action that calls for a recasting of many received ideas about causality, and some other features of action that call for a recasting of some received ideas on the role of mind both in action and in human affairs in general. But I do not labor under the misapprehension that the human self can be adequately understood by holding exclusively to discourse in terms of action. I tried to make this clear both in the reference to being in the expression "ontic power" and by using the expression "fundamental entity" in the latter part of the book to refer to human beings and other kinds of entities as well.

It is now widely believed that the self-identity of the human self (or the human person) cannot be that of a substance. When the term "substance" is used in the sense current in modern philosophy, I share that belief. But some reservations are in order. The rejected doctrine is one that is, in the first place, expressed in terms of a word, "substance," that carries over very little of the Greek word, "ousia," it purports to translate; and that, in the second place, has been reworked considerably in post-Cartesian philosophy. Two important things have been lost: (1) the idea of being that is present in the Greek word by virtue of the fact that "ousia" is a substantive formed from a feminine participle of the verb "to be"; (2) the dynamic overtones present in such Aristotelian phrases as "ousia energeia" and "ousia entelecheia."5 The full account of the human ousia in De Anima and in the Nichomachean Ethics is a dynamic one, in which the rationality of the agent shapes, by virtue of his choices and his actions, his own coming-to-be. The self-integration of an entity of that kind is inseparable from the matter of self-identity. Self-integration takes a considerable time, and the outcome of it is always much in doubt. Yet Aristotle calls this human self an ousia -- an entity -- and I feel no hesitation in following him at least that far. That is not to say that I consider the human person to be a substance in most of the senses that the great philosophers from Descartes through Kant would have accepted.6 Nor, of course, do I want the whole of the original Aristotelian doctrine, since there are undoubtedly elements in it that contributed to the post-Cartesian history of the concept of substance.

Although no one who reads the unconventional view of causality and temporality set forth in MP will suspect me of trying to restore Aristotle, the dynamic side of the concept of ousia and its resonance with the theme of being have always been important to me. I tried to preserve at least those features by way of the concept of fundamental entity in the latter part of MP.

The concept of ousia, understood in this dynamic way, is by no means foreign to Whitehead’s philosophy. Indeed his expression actual entity (in what follows I shall italicize Whitehead’s technical terms) is a much better translation for ousia energeia/ousia entelecheia than actual substance" would be. But a curious thing has happened. Whitehead’s standard for what the self-identity of an actual entity must be is so atomistic and Parmenidean that nothing we can conceivably identify in experience will fulfill it. He is thus moved to postulate entities that meet the standard and are therefore proper entities to use as the basis for a reconstruction of the things we can experience. And so he is quite unwilling to apply to the human person, whose struggle with his own self-integration takes so long, is so vulnerable, is so flawed by multiplicity and what might even appear to be radical interruptions, this honorific term "actual entity." I am not at all reluctant to take this momentous step. Since he has preempted the term "actual entity" and has given it a restricted sense that I do not agree with, I used instead the term "fundamental entity" in MP. But on consideration I think it is wise to retain the resonance with the Greek terms ousia energeia and ousia entelecheia that the word "actual" gives in English, In what follows I shall therefore use the term "actual being" either in place of "fundamental entity" or to supplement it. Since I see no reason in the world why such expressions as "actual entity" and "actual being" should have only the atomistic-Parmenidean sense Whitehead insists upon, I shall say that men and women are actual beings. If there are actual entities of a Whiteheadian kind, they too would be actual beings in the sense I intend, but they would be actual beings of a less momentous kind. An appeal to an old metaphysical tradition that has shown itself to be still very much alive in this century then permits us to say that actual beings like ourselves express Being more adequately than do supposed actual beings of the atomistic-Parmenidean7 kind that White-head reserves the term actual entity for.8

Curious as Whitehead’s move was, it becomes more curious as we look at it more closely. Such actual entities are organisms that undergo growth; they are subjects and have feelings with more or less subjective intensity; they engage in a self-creation that is an integration; they make decisions; they have aims; they may or may not accept persuasions; they may entertain propositions; they form societies; they enjoy satisfactions; and some of them are even conscious. Any Whiteheadian can easily add to this list of anthropomorphic terms. Whitehead has deemed the features of human life upon which these italicized technical terms are based so important that much of his philosophy is designed to protect their authenticity from materialistic attacks. But at the same time he is unwilling to ascribe to the creature in whom he has found these features the kind of extreme self-identity he feels any ontologically fundamental entity should have. He therefore postulates actual entities that have the requisite absolute self-identity, and he ascribes these features to them. The actual entities being what they are, however, these features undergo the sea-change that italicizing them as technical terms indicates.

Going back to the "ordinary" organisms in which the original important features were found, Whiteheadians must now deal with them in a truly extraordinary way. They can no longer attribute to them these same important features, for their standard for those features is now given by those italicized technical terms. The features they were originally interested in are now only to be found in the strict technical sense in the postulated actual entities. Thus, if decision is something carried on by actual entities, human decision takes on a Pickwickian sense: we can at best only reconstruct human decision as a derivative of decision. The result is a profound confusion in our understanding of human nature. Designed to protect the reality of human subjectivity from materialistic encroachment, this philosophy now tells us that a human subject is not a subject but rather a society of actual entities, these latter being true subjects. The ordinary organism from which our root metaphor comes is not an organism, but once more, a society of organisms. A man’s feelings cannot be feelings, because feelings are what organisms (actual entities) have, and the man is a society rather than an actual entity; feelings do not belong to the society but to the actual entities that make it up.

I have a good deal of faith in human ingenuity. If philosophers are persuaded that they must give an account of human nature, and, ultimately, responsible human action, in terms of Whiteheadian actual entities, societies, and the like, I am sure they will produce some ingenious constructions. Given the strange restrictions under which their makers must work, the constructions already produced are marvels of ingenuity, although a creature so constituted is probably more plausible as a sensitive observer of sunsets than as the creative agent who, in a surprisingly short burst of intense activity, produced Process and Reality. But marvel as we may, we shall still be puzzled about why one should have to undertake such an Aufbau of something that was originally deemed so important that in a very real sense the postulated actual entities are in fact constructions out of it.

Meditation on a Prisoner is not in the least directed at Whitehead. Its target, like his own, is a materialistic view of nature and of human nature. But I have taken a quite different course about human nature, calling the agent himself an entity, or being, and furthermore an actual one. And since we cannot call him an actual entity without confusion, we call him an actual being. His actions, including those in which rational and responsible decisions are taken, are acknowledged to be ontologically fundamental, which means that they are not dealt with reductively and need not enter our philosophy by way of an Aufbau. This does not hinder our use of the term "action" in metaphor. Thus, if I call some microevent act-like or ascribe act-temporality to it, it is the natural home of the term in its human context that provides the sanction for the metaphorical extension of it to the microevent.


The connection between the view of action set forth in MP and the concept of a fundamental entity (actual being) needs to be developed in greater detail. Peter Limper is right to point out, in his perceptive review of MP, that my handling of that theme in the latter part of the book is too sketchy (PS 6:214-20). Here it is only possible to call attention to a number of respects in which I am very far from attributing to the human subject the kind of excessive Parmenidean unity that White-head attributes to his subjects (actual entities) -- a unity that in his case makes becoming an entirely internal adventure.

The controlling principle in MP that prevents one from ascribing an unrealistic kind of self-identity to the human person is that of asymmetrical identity, which is of course a One/Many principle. Its application is very wide, so wide that it does not merely provide a way of reconciling discontinuities with continuity within the human person, but also calls into question our right to think of the unity of one of his acts, or indeed the unity of his person, as merely his unity. The unity of any finite particular is regarded as a share in unity -- so much unity, so to speak, as is consistent with being the unity of that particular manifold it is asymmetrically identical with. In short, the principle of asymmetrical identity, pursued far enough, leads me to reject a radical pluralism. This in turn leads me to reject the concept of an absolute individual. The unity of the most well integrated person is a participant unity; the power exercised in the unifying process of self-integration is a participant power. I do not know why Whiteheadians should object (PS 6:219) to this monistic theme, since they are committed to think in terms of a God who supplies the initial subjective aim of each actual entity, and of the completion of the development of the actual entity by "the final reaction of the self-creative unity of the universe" (PR 75 -- italics supplied).

In MP the principle of asymmetrical identity functions in various ways, of which those relevant to the concept of fundamental entity (actual being) are least developed. Central to all of them is the theme of act-temporality, which it is not possible to go into just now.

(a) A fundamental entity (actual being) is asymmetrically identical with its infrastructure, an act asymmetrically identical with its infrastructure. One, but only one, aspect of an infrastructure can be expressed in terms of subordinate actual beings in reciprocal communication by way of the causal power they exercise. This obvious principle of discontinuity, or discreteness, is balanced by the fact that all such elements are caught in the one ontic power of the superordinate entity and, where action is at issue, in the act-temporal power of one of his acts. (b) The structure of acts exemplifies both discontinuity and continuity. Acts ramify in sub-acts, so that there is a principle of discontinuity within them. There may also, as we shall see in (c), be discontinuity between them. On the other hand any act is asymmetrically identical with its sub-acts and so is continuous as over against their multiplicity. Furthermore, any act may in principle be caught up in a new act of greater temporal sweep and more purposive moment, as when, having intended only a sentence, I may, even while uttering it, find myself going on to develop a paragraph to which it is subordinate. Acts may also overlap, one beginning in the middle of another, as when, in the middle of conversing with a friend, I might stand up to put a log on the fire or pour a drink.

(c) Bemused by the relation between acts and sub-acts and by the agent considered as an act-source, I allowed myself in MP to suggest that the whole sweep of an agent’s life might be as seamless as the act-temporality I ascribe to any act. So it might be if we were, as actual beings, only agents. But of course we are not, and Peter Limper was surely right to object to it in his review (L 218). Acts that are neither subordinate nor superordinate with respect to each other do not always overlap.. They succeed each other and are in some sense distinct. Though an agent comes-to-be by virtue of (among other things) his acts, he does not always act. Nor indeed is he always what he ought to be. The self-identity of human beings, at least, is in that sense a normative notion. But of course the principle of the asymmetrical identity of a unity and a multiplicity allows for more than one sense in which there are discontinuities in the human subject.

(d) The infrastructure of an actual being or of one of his acts is a discontinuity principle to just the extent that it is a multiplicity. The infrastructure mediates inheritance (for instance, in cell division or in the repetition of similar circuit patterns in the excitation of the brain), and inheritance thus has in it that same discontinuity. The principle of asymmetrical identity, however, allows for a correlate principle of continuity. Thus it is I who call upon remembered words as I think, and my thought has a unity that is not cancelled by the reiteration of electrochemical events of the same pattern that (for the sake of the argument we may suppose) mediates certain kinds of memory.

(e) But the most important reservation about the absoluteness of the self-identity of an agent is the principle expressed in MP in the contrast between participant power and common formative power (MP 331-35, 344f). Paradoxically, it is my refusal to accept a radical pluralism of distinct actual beings that exculpates me of the charge of regarding the whole coming-to-be of the human agent as an unqualified unity. Though any finite agent is an act-source, I take it that he has that status only because his ordering power is, both as to the power and the order, an instance of an ordering power that is not exclusively his. I do not pretend to be utterly clear about this, but I take it that self-identity is as fragile a thing as self-integration, and as dependent as the latter is on resources that lie outside the individual qua individual.

Consider the example I began with. There are various reasons for thinking that the power I exercise in speech is not unambiguously mine. Set aside cultural heritage and biological heritage; do not consider them as contributing to the ambiguity. What I mean is that even if one concedes that an act of that sort is in some sense mine and that it exercises power over an infrastructure asymmetrically identical with it, there remains something ambiguous about that "mine." For one thing, I come-to-be by virtue of this and other acts, and I, considered just as a finite being, do not therefore preside as a completed being over my own coming-to-be. In that sense the unity of the power I exercise in an act that contributes to self-integration is not fully explicable on the basis of the I that existed prior to that advance.

The self-identity of a particular is never absolute, and it is least so in the responsible and rational activity of self-integration, in which the individual power of the act is commanded by a power that is anything but particular. On the one hand the tides of the body and its final dissolution render the agent’s self-identity ambiguous. On the other hand the normative roots of responsible action also render it ambiguous. But I do not mean to leave out of these qualifications the notion of power itself. To think of the agent, an act source that comes-to-be and passes away, as a self-sufficient power would surely be to assign him a self-identity of too momentous a kind. For this reason he is called in MP a participant power: his self-identity, then, is as relative to a power he draws upon to come-to-be as it is relative to the standards he is responsible to. On the matter of unity we can still learn from Plato’s reaction to Parmenides and from the reaction of Plotinus to both. I do not think this is any reason for denying the human self the title of fundamental entity, or actual being. The human being is as fundamental as any finite entity in the universe: its continuity massive, though not absolute; its unity a participation in unity and always vulnerable at that, but never merely that of a series of discretes; its self-integration fragile and uncertain, but still so much our exemplar for integration that it is self-defeating to reduce it to the self-integration of postulated entities.


What is the evidence for all this? Does this theoretic structure help us to interpret our experience in the broadest sense of "experience"? Questions about justification are certainly in order, but for a number of reasons I think these are not the right ones.

First, what has been said about originative acts -- that is, about the power exercised in an act by virtue of the asymmetrical identity of action and infrastructure -- contains an implicit view about the relation between the "rational" and the "empirical" poles in any rational act that issues in articulate understanding. What was said about action in general says in effect of rational action that, however fine-grained your analysis of the infrastructure may be, extending even to the details of its mediation between the world outside an agent and the agent himself, you will not find there the full story of the act itself. Your perusal of the infrastructure and its mediation of the physiological basis of experience will yield you neither the experience itself nor the rational insight that takes place in and with it. The term "innate" comes to mind as an apt expression (after due qualification) of the fact that reason, sharing the general structure of action, exercises a supervening ontic power that cannot be resolved into the conditioning ontic powers that mediate its relation with the world. The act will be seen to have something "innate" about its unity as that unity issues in understanding, even though it is an "innate" feature that would not operate without the mediation of the infrastructure, and even though it turns out to be also a way of experiencing something.

Second, the view of action presented is reflexive in that the discovery and presentation of the view also purports to be an example of action.

Third, the implicit epistemology of the view is naïve, close to common sense or to the natural standpoint, realistic in one sense of that chameleon word. In more technical language, reason in presenting this view of action is self-transcendent and knows itself to be so. Its self-transcendence, while not confined to its reflexive grasp of action, nonetheless extends also to that.

Fourth, the view here presented, since it does not proceed by way of reduction followed by reconstruction, can take actions seriously for what they purport to be, including in this case rational action.

These brief observations in section IV, some of which state in too compressed a form arguments developed in my The Recognition of Reason (1963), do not demonstrate the correctness of the present view. What they do suggest, however, is that it does not belong to the class of speculative theories that are then to be brought to the bar of experience. For better or worse, one accepts or rejects views of this sort in a more immediate engagement, I will not say with experience but with the facts of reason-involved-with-experience. To put it in the language appropriate to MP, one undertakes the action of reasonable thought to try to see what action, including that kind of action, is. And it is right before our reflexive gaze to be seen for what it is -- or at any rate as much to be seen as anything can be seen for what it is. I do not mean that the language of action is there to be analyzed, but rather that action itself is there, available as a mode of being to that fundamental, that actual being, the responsible and rational agent. The concrete and reflexive circle I invoke here is the circle of Being, as the term "ontic power" concedes. The reflective genesis eis ousian we exercise in the philosophic act is not out of touch with the Being it exemplifies.



MP -- Edward Pols. Meditation on a Prisoner: Towards Understanding Action and Mind. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975.

RR -- Edward Pols. The Recognition of Reason. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963.



1. The argument of this paper was presented at the meeting of the Society for the Study of Process Philosophy on March 18. 1977, in connection with the meeting of the Metaphysical Society of America at Vanderbilt University. Peter Limper’s paper "Action, Responsibility, and the Problem of Personal Identity," which expressed a view of the agent closer to that of Whitehead’s, was also discussed. I was able to read his paper before my own was quite finished, and the final form of my paper owes a good deal to the need to respond to his perceptive criticism of my views in that paper, in his review of MP, and in conversation and correspondence.

2. Although there is no space here to deal with Hume’s views on causality and power, they are discussed extensively in MP.

3. In MP I distinguish between the official version and the working version of CE causality. It is the working version that is equivalent to the concept of causal power.

4. 1 refer here to the official version of C E causality.

5. See Metaphysics, 1042b 9-11, 1043a 19-21, 1050a 22-24; De Anima, 412a 12-31.

6 There is a return to this dynamic view of substance in Leibniz, but another view more suited to the requirements of his logic, dominates the dynamic view more often than not.

7. By "Parmenidean" I mean the epochal treatment of a unit of becoming. Although temporal language is often used about actual entities in PR, it is not intended in its usual sense. The durations that supply the ontological foundations of time in PR are also epochs in the root sense of "arrests, or "stops." Human becoming is clearly not "Parmenidean" in that sense. In MP, however, I have preserved some echoes of the epochal theory in the notion of act-temporality.

8. I mean actual entities other than God.