Is Whitehead’s Actual Entity A Contradiction in Terms?

by Robison B. James

Robison B. Jamesis Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Richmond, Virginia. He received the Ph.D. from Duke University in 1965.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 112-125, Vol. 2, Number 2, Summer, 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.


Whitehead has a more fluid understand of existence than many interpreters realize caused by some terminological ambiguity in Whitehead’s terms.

In the present paper I attempt to make two different but intimately related cases. One of these is a substantive case, and the other is a terminological case. I want to make a substantive case to the effect that Whitehead has a more fluid understanding of existence than his interpreters sometimes realize. That is, I wish to make a case for a highly processive understanding of the "final realities" or res verae which are Whitehead’s ultimate existents.

My difficulty with Whitehead scholars who interpret him in a less fluid or a less processive way is that they clutter up his universe with a vast number of actual entities which continue in existence like hard little nuggets, even after their spurt of creativity has terminated. For William Christian, actual occasions endure for a tiny but extended moment of time (for a "pause") after they have completed their becoming;1 and for John Cobb, these completed occasions appear to linger, intact, forever.2

As against all this, I hope to show that, once actual occasions are firmly formed and finished, they are drawn instantly into a creative onflowing which is thereafter ceaselessly making something partly new of them. Actual occasions do impose their achieved character upon the creativity which rushes through them and drives beyond them; but they make their immortal mark in this fashion precisely in the act of exhausting their own creativity. And in this same act, which is their terminal act, they surrender their status as "final realities." They are thenceforth dependent for further existence upon the subsequent occasions which grasp them and are partly shaped by them.

If I am correct in this, one might ask why the highly processive quality of Whitehead’s ultimate existents has not been more universally recognized. One reason, I believe, is the presence of some ambiguity in Whitehead’s crucial terms. I should call it a broad sense only in which Whitehead uses these terms when he refers to past, completed occasions as "actualities" or as "actual entities" (cf. PR 101, 326f). This broad use of the terms can make problems. If a completed occasion is called an "actual entity" in this fashion, then the conclusion would seem to follow that this completed occasion has the capacity to exist in its own right indefinitely. This conclusion seems to follow because an "actual entity" is by definition a "final reality" or a res vera (PR 32). I do not think Whitehead intended this, however, and if an interpreter accepts this conclusion he seems to me to he well on his way towards populating Whitehead’s lithe universe with a host of stolid, unintended entities, each of them gazing cow-like at us from a frozen past.

Since a terminological ambiguity in Whitehead seems to have contributed to obscuring the substantive point I wish to make, I shall make a terminological case as well as a substantive case. In fact, I shall argue my substantive case in and through my terminological case.

The main points in my terminological case are these. I hope to show that, besides his broader senses of the terms, Whitehead needs and uses the terms "actual," "actuality" and "entity" in strict senses as well. If one uses these terms purely in their strict senses, however, the following curious situation results. With the exception of a breadthless instant at the end of an occasion’s concrescence, an occasion is "actual" (meaning that it is actively self-creative and existent in its own right) only so long as it is not yet an "entity"; and an occasion becomes an "entity" (meaning that it becomes singularly one and relative) only with the expiration of its "actuality." In other words, "actual entity" comes very close to being a contradiction in terms when, as in the preceding sentence, these terms are strictly construed. The accompanying diagram shows the outlines of the terminological case I wish to make.

"Actual" in the usual, broad sense

"Entity" in the frequent, broad sense

"Actual" in the strict, ontologically basic sense "Entity" in the strict or proper sense

^ ^

Formal constitution of an occasion -- its concresence Objective constitution of that occasion -- as determinate and concrent


Breathless instant of transitiion at which the occasion

is still strictly actual, yet already strictly an entity


Though Whitehead distinguished a "proper" sense of ‘entity," as will be explained, I doubt that he deliberately intended or that he was even distinctly aware of the strict sense of "actual" and "actuality." I hope to show, nonetheless, that this strict, ontologically basic sense is required by his position, that it is present in his writings, and that he even used "actual" and "actuality" purely in this strict sense from time to time.

How does my terminological case serve as the vehicle of my substantive case? It does so in that the fluidity of Whiteheadian existence is epitomized in the strict senses of the two key terms. The actuality underlying everything is fluent because this basic actuality is comprised of instances of becoming. It is made up of concrescences. It is not an array of fully formed, concrete "entities." On the other hand, no entity, as proper entity, possesses "actuality" in the basic-existent sense. Rather, every proper entity, in order to continue to exist at all, must be suspended in ontologically more basic droplets of still uncongealed becoming. In Whiteheadian existence thus described, the strict notion of "actuality" repels the proper notion of "entity," and the proper notion of "entity" repels the strict notion of "actuality." Otherwise put, "actual entity" is some sort of a contradiction in terms. And the quickest way to affirm the fluidity of ‘.Whiteheadian existence is to put stress on these strict senses by stating that there is a contradiction at this point.

Though this quick way of stating the matter is highly suggestive, it does require some supplementation, especially in that this hasty statement ignores the "instant of transition" mentioned above. This instant of transition not only rescues Whitehead from the alleged contradiction in terms. (It rescues him thus because every occasion, as it passes from its formal to its objective status, is both strictly actual and strictly an entity -- for a breadthless instant) It is also the case that the transitional instant keeps the highly fluid Whiteheadian existence from being an inscrutable blur. The recurring transitional instants, that is to say, are the moments of fully formed, determinate actuality, without which existence would indeed be "without form and void."

Notwithstanding all this, these transitional instants do not obstruct or clog up the cosmic flow. Since they are breadthless or unextended, they constitute not the slightest stutter in the onrushing current of the creative process. At bottom, existence remains fluid.

What exactly is one of these transitional instants? A transitional instant is the point of arrival at an actual entity’s satisfaction. Since the "notion of ‘satisfaction’ is the notion of the ‘entity as concrete’" (PR 129), this transitional instant is the precise point at which the occasion congeals, so to speak, into a concrete entity (cf. PR 71). Now, a concrescence would not be a whole or complete concrescence without this termination of itself (cf. PR 38, 335). For that reason the arrival at concrete entityhood is one aspect of the concrescence itself. And thus, since an occasion has strict actuality during its entire concrescence, the breadthless instant of barely attained concrete entityhood is an instant still of strict actuality.5

The reason this transitional instant must be breadthless is that it is a transition between two stages which stand in sharpest contrast to each other, one stage active and the other static (PR 126), one stage not determinate and the other determinate (PR 38), one stage requiring genetic analysis and the other requiring coordinate or morphological analysis (PR 334-36, 433f, 448). Squeezed from both sides, as it were, the transitional instant is forced to be two things at once: the termination of an active concrescence, and the establishment of an objectively immortal entity. As Whitehead puts it, "The terminal unity of operation, here called the ‘satisfaction,’ embodies what the actual entity is beyond itself" (PR 335).

It might be added that, although a good bit of the language of the present article assumes that a concrescence has temporal breadth, my case would remain basically unchanged if it were recast in language free of this assumption.6

I. Arguments for the Strict Sense of "Actual"

As noted, "actual" and "actuality" are used in Whitehead in their broad sense to characterize past and determinate occasions as well as present and concrescent occasions. Furthermore, the use of these terms in this broad sense is probably more prevalent in Whitehead than is their use purely in the strict sense for which I am arguing. So much I concede.

I concede more as well. Even though the broad use of "actuality" can lead to that less-processive reading of Whitehead against which I have protested. this broad usage is by no means to be written off as a quirk or a laxity on Whitehead’s part. This broad use of "actual" makes an important point. It makes the point that an entity’s actualness is its decisional quality, and that the entity is decisional, or ‘actual" in this broad sense, whether the entity be concrescent and thus still deciding, or whether the entity be concrete and thus already decided. As Whitehead puts it: "‘decision’ -. constitutes the very meaning of actuality.... The real internal constitution of an actual entity progressively constitutes a decision conditioning the creativity which transcends that actuality" (PR 68f).

Thus the broad, decisional sense of "actual" has to be recognized as quite significant and as altogether unobjectionable7 -- in itself. Trouble arises only when the strict sense of "actual" is left out of the picture.

I turn now to the first of six arguments for this strict sense of "actual."

1. From the ontological principle’s second corollary. The ontological principle has at least two corollaries. Whitehead has distinguished them, but not enumerated them. We shall call them "first" and "second" according to their order in the passage in which he distinguishes them. The passage reads:

The scope of the ontological principle is not exhausted by the corollary that "decision" must be referable to an actual entity. Everything must be somewhere; and here "somewhere" means "some actual entity." Accordingly the general potentiality of the universe must be somewhere. . . . This "somewhere" is the nontemporal actual entity. (PR 73)

Since Whitehead construes the ontological principle "as the definition of ‘actuality’" (PR 123, cf. 116). the following question is pertinent: Do the two corollaries of the ontological principle define "actuality" in two different senses? Apparently they do. We have already seen Whitehead’s broad definition according to which "actual" means "decisional" (PR 68). In propounding that definition Whitehead is clearly drawing upon the first corollary "that every decision is referable to one or more actual entities" (PR 68). This is clear from the way the "decisional" definition emerges directly out of his statement "the ontological principle asserts the relativity of decision" (PR 68).

By contrast with this "decisional" definition of "actual," my proposed strict definition is that "actual" means "existent in its own right." or "being a basic existent." Precisely this meaning is dictated by the second corollary, for it says, "Everything must be somewhere; and here ‘somewhere’ means ‘some actual entity’" (PR 73). According to this corollary no entity could qualify as "actual" except one which is a basic existent. Two further examples of this second-corollary form of the ontological principle are as follows: ‘... apart from things that are actual, there is nothing -- nothing either in fact or in efficacy" (PR 64) and "thus the actual world is built up of actual occasions; and by the ontological principle whatever things there are in any sense of "existence," are derived from actual occasions" (PR 113)8

The argument thus far has established only one of two points which are needed, namely, that one meaning of "actual" is "being a basic existent." Will the ontological principle also provide my second point, that an occasion is a basic existent only during its formal, concrescent-to-concrete stage? It seems so. Articulating the principle in its second-corollary form, Whitehead says, "The ontological principle can be expressed as: All real togetherness is togetherness in the formal constitution of an actuality" (PR 48, emphasis added). And again, in a statement which is closely similar, but which is not said to be an expression of the ontological principle: "No things are ‘together’ except in experience; and no things are, in any sense of ‘are,’ except as components in experience or as immediacies of process which are occasions of self-creation" (AI 304). In the preceding quotation I understand the following two phrases to be referring to one and the same thing: "components in experience," and immediacies of process which are occasions of self-creation" (cf. PR 38, Cat. Expl. xxii-xxiii). On this basis I reason as follows. If no things "are" except as immediacies of Process and if a now-completed occasion has lost the immediacy of its own process ("completion is the perishing of immediacy," PR 130, cf. 336), then a completed occasion, so far from being a basic existent, is dependent for any further existence it may have upon its being included as a datum within the immediacy of present concrescences. Thus a completed occasion does not qualify as one of those "actual entities" to which the ontological principle refers in its second-corollary form. And since a completed occasion is unquestionably an "entity" (see Part II below), the thing which keeps it from being an "actual entity" in this connection must be that it is not "actual," i.e., not "actual" in the sense intended by the second corollary.9

2. From Whitehead’s use of "actual" and "actual entity" in Cartesian senses to mean "existence in the fullest sense" and "res vera." Whitehead quotes a lengthy passage from Meditation I in which Descartes acknowledges that what he thinks he is perceiving he may only be dreaming. As the quoted passage continues, Descartes reassures himself with the thought that the representations In a dream "‘can only have been formed as the counterparts of something real and true [ad similitudinem rerum verarum],’ " and that the images of things within our thoughts are formed from " ‘other objects yet more simple and more universal, which are real and true (vera esse)’" (PR 115) 10

Referring directly to this passage Whitehead observes that "Descartes uses the phrase res vera in the same sense as that in which I have used the term ‘actual.’ It means ‘existence’ in the fullest sense of that term, beyond which there is no other" (PR 116). This obviously is the ontologically basic sense of "actual" in which I am particularly interested. It is to be noticed that what are res verae, or what are "actual" in the sense of this particular passage, are occasions in their formal reality (cf. PR 117f). As the context makes patent, completed occasions, or entities objectively considered, or (in Descartes’ language) things "existing in the mind, not indeed formally... but objectively" (PR I l8) -- all these are being contrasted with res verae, so that the implication seems inescapable that they are not "actual" in the sense here at issue. I conclude that this particular passage gives me the two points I need: (a) that one of the meanings of "actual" is "having existence in the fullest sense," or (as I take it) "existing in its own right," and (b) that occasions are actual in this sense only in their formal reality.

The importance of these conclusions is vastly increased by the fact that the particular passage involved (PR 116) is anything but an isolated phenomenon (cf. PR 64). In his first category of existence, when he is giving a definition of his "final realities," Whitehead provides the Cartesian phrase, res verae, as one of the synonymous technical terms for his ultimate existents (PR 32). This leads one to expect that wherever the term "actual entity" appears, it will have the Cartesian sense indicated above, if it is being used "strictly," or as a technical term for an ultimate existent. Whitehead states this quite explicitly: "An ‘actual entity’ is a res Vera in the Cartesian sense of that term; it is a Cartesian ‘substance,’ and not an Aristotelian ‘primary substance’" (PR viiif, cf 116). Whitehead rejects the Aristotelian notion because Aristotle would not allow that one substance or entity could be present within another; and Whitehead discards that particular side of Descartes’ notion of substance which derives from Aristotle. namely, Decartes’ doctrine that a substance is "an existent thing which requires nothing but itself in order to exist" (PR 79). But these are qualifications, not retractions. The crucial Cartesian connotations of Meditation I remain in Whitehead, even sometimes when they are not announced, as in the following: "‘Actual entities’. . . are the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real" (PR 27f).

So an occasion in its formal reality is, though in its objective reality it is not, "actual" or existent in the fullest sense.

3. From the fact that the ultimate cell of actuality has an unequalled "completeness of actuality." "The philosophy of organism is a cell-theory of actuality," Whitehead writes. "Each ultimate unit of fact is a cell-complex, not analyzable into components with equivalent completeness of actuality" (PR 334, emphasis added). Here Whitehead distinguishes a sort or a degree of actuality -- an unequalled completeness of actuality -- which is the peculiar possession of ultimate units of fact. This appears to be, once again, the ontologically basic sense of "actuality" I am in search of. The passage quoted yields another point as well. Occasions in their objective reality are components within concrescent actualities, and these components, according to the passage, fall short of the completeness of actuality possessed by their hosts. Occasions in their objective constitutions thus lack the sort or degree of actuality possessed by occasions in their formal constitutions.

4. From the incurably atomic character of actualities. The philosophy of organism is "an atomic theory of actuality" (PR 40) as well as a cell theory of actuality. The two sorts of theory come very nearly to the same thing: "Each actual entity is a cell with atomic unity" (PR 347). But Whitehead has the indivisible character of actual entities particularly in mind in calling them "atomic" (cf. PR 359). And one might also speak of the "discreteness" as well as of the "indivisibility" of actualities: "Continuity concerns what is potential; whereas actuality is incurably atomic" (PR 95).

What this means is that datum entities are not "actualities" in the sense at issue, because as determinate and objective they are not atomic; they are divisible (PR 337, 435), jointly constituting the continuous, "real potentiality" of the extensive scheme (PR 107f, 441f). Here once again is the sense of the term in which an occasion formally is. but objectively is not, "an actuality."

Whitehead uses and illuminates this sense of "actuality," which I believe to be my strict sense, in the following passage.

The notion of "satisfaction" is the notion of the "entity as concrete abstracted from the "process of concrescence"; it is the outcome separated from the process, thereby losing the actuality of the atomic entity, which is both process and outcome. (PR 129, emphasis added)

This seems to say that, as together with the process which produced it and ended in it, a concrete entity or satisfaction retains the actuality of the atomic, undivided entity. But apart from its originating concrescence -- that is, as objectified in superseding occasions -- this concrete entity has lost this actuality.

5. From the prima facie meaning of "perishing." It does not seem to be necessary to provide samples here of Whitehead’s vivid descriptions of the way in which an actual entity, in completing its concrescence, "perishes." or loses its own living immediacy," and precisely thereby assumes the role, as a "dead datum," of objectively conditioning the creativity vested in superseding actualities (cf. PR ix, 38, 124, 126, 129f, 249, 320, 336, 340, 448; AI 238, 305).

What all this language about perishing means is a vexing question, to be sure; but I believe it says something for my view that my view finds an important sense in which living entities are "actual," and perished entities are not "actual," since this is the very sort of thing the perishing language implies.

6. From some indications that, as Leclerc argues, an actual entity is an acting entity. In his "Form and Actuality" (RW 169-89), an article which has been recognized as definitive in some important respects," Ivor Leclerc gives a detailed explanation of that ontologically basic sense of "actual" for which I am arguing He says that

the "being or actual existing of an ousia is constituted by an epochal prehensive act of becoming, at the termination of which the "actual" existence of the entity ceases -- the entity, as Whitehead puts it, "perishes." Its "actual" existence is its existence as a subject acting. Since it exists "as actual" only in the acting, when its act of becoming has achieved its end its "subjectivity" as an "actual" (i. e. acting) existent terminates, and it is then capable only of "objective" existence. It exists then as an "object" for superseding prehending subjects; that is, it exists "objectively." as immanent in the constitution of the superseding actualities.12

This line of thought in Leclerc’s article is epitomized in his thrice-repeated judgment that Whitehead, by contrast with Aristotle, "decisively rejects any identification of form and act." Leclerc goes on to say, "For Whitehead form does not in any respect ‘act’; for him all activity belongs to actuality" (RW 178, 180, 188). To say that form and act must not he identified is one way of saying that an occasion’s actualness and its determinateness are not to be identified; for the "form" with which "act" must not be identified in this case is "structure, pattern, character, definiteness" (RW 189).

If Leclerc believes form and acting must not be identified, one might ask what the relation is between form and acting, in his view. He explains that "we have to think of the acting as an ‘enacting of a certain character’. . . . the individual ‘as actual’ is the enacting of a form; the enacting of the form is the ‘real internal constitution’ of the actuality" (RW 187).13

So much for Leclerc’s view itself. Is there an adequate textual basis for it? An affirmative answer seems to be justified by the following texts, about half of which Leclerc himself has used.

Whitehead says that "the stuff constituting those individual things which make up the sole reality of the universe" is "the interplay of subject with object" (AI 228). That this interplay is activity is stated in the same general context "An occasion of experience is an activity, analyzable into . . . the total experience as active subject, and into the thing or object with which fin each case] the special activity is concerned" (AI 226).

To speak of the actual entity as an activity in this fashion is in keeping with the notion of the very essence of the actual entity. That "essence," Whitehead says, "consists solely in the fact that it is a prehending thing" (PR 65), and prehending is patently an activity. Directly stated: "Each actual entity is conceived as an act of experience arising out of data" (PR 65, emphasis added). Or again, Whitehead speaks of the "many operations" which comprise an actual entity’s process, and then adds: "The process itself is the . . . ‘real internal constitution’ of the actual entity" (PR 335) On such bases I conclude that actuality in the ontologically basic sense, as belonging to the formal constitution of actual entities, is activity.

A textual basis for Leclerc’s further judgment that the actuality’s activity is the enactment of form is found in Whitehead’s statement that "definition is the soul of actuality: the attainment of a peculiar definiteness is the final cause which animates a particular process; and its attainment halts its process, so that by transcendence it passes into its objective immortality" (PR 340). Thus, quoting Whitehead again, "an actual entity has ‘perished’ when it is complete. The pragmatic use of the actual entity, constituting its static life, lies in the future" (PR 126, emphasis added).

It follows from such considerations that an actual entity is required to expend precisely all the actuality it has, in this basic or acting sense of "actuality," merely in arriving at its determinate satisfaction (PR 380. It has no residue remaining with which it might sustain itself further in existence, even momentarily. If the actual entity were not immediately grasped from all sides by the rising generation of actual occasions, it would have defined itself right into the void.

As grasped, though, the expiring occasion is objectively there, stubbornly imposing itself upon every concrescence which sustains it. For and in every one of the subsequent occasions it fills the region of space and time which it finally managed to atomize, or to bring into being as a whole, coincidentally with its expiration (PR 96, 104f, 112, 124, 4340. We might say that, in the same instant in which it "goes static" (cf. PR 126), the actual entity also goes public" (cf. PR 443f), or makes itself available as data for all. But it has thereby made itself dependently existent, or actual only in the broader sense.

Other arguments for the strict sense of "actual" could be offered.14 The six which are provided above may suffice, however, since the complete success of any one of them would presumably establish the relevant part of my case, and since they are mutually independent of one another.

II. Arguments for the Strict Sense of "Entity"

Although Whitehead does sometimes refer to concrescences or instances of becoming as "entities" (cf. PR 321), it seems quite possible to understand this as his use of the term "entity" in a broad sense. Such a broad sense of the term Whitehead takes note of where he writes, "The notion of ‘entity’ Is so general that it may be taken to mean anything that can be thought about" (SMW 206f). In addition to this broad sense of the term, however. White-head sets forth the stricter sense of a "proper entity" (PR 45, 338, 342, 348).

What is, and what is not, a proper entity? "Every entity should be a specific instance of one category of existence," Whitehead says (PR 31). But the converse of this statement does not always hold. Whitehead states that multiplicities are not entities in the proper sense, even though they comprise one of his eight categories of existence. A multiplicity or a class is not a proper entity, he explains, because it lacks the unity of an entity, and does not itself enter into the process of the actual world." Only the multiplicity’s individual members enter, severally, "into process in this way" (PR 44, cf. 44f).

Implicit in the preceding remarks from Whitehead is a well-conceived idea of a proper entity. In the six arguments which follow, I shall undertake to spell out what is involved in this idea in order to show that it is not only a multiplicity, but also an actual occasion, which fails to be a proper entity. Or rather, more precisely, an actual occasion fails to be a proper entity in its pre-terminal concrescent phase A proper entity is exactly what an occasion becomes at the terminal instant of its concrescence; and this is doubtless an additional reason, over and above his broad use of "entity," why Whitehead is able to speak occasionally of a concrescence as an entity.

I. From the assertion that an actual entity "becomes a being." Whitehead states that "thing," "being" and "entity" are "synonymous terms" (PR 31, cf. 68, 321). Thus he is saying that an actual entity becomes an entity when he says, speaking of an occasion which has entered upon its superjective phase, "It has become a being’" (PR 71). If Whitehead so explicitly says that it is an "entity" which the concrescence becomes, he is at least implicitly saying that the concrescence, as an unfinished process, is not an entity. A similar line of reasoning might be applied to Whitehead’s statement that an actual entity "becomes itself" (PR 228).

2. From the question, Which entity? If A is an entity, then surely there is in principle a precise answer to the question, Which entity is A’, even if no one is in a position to give or even to know that answer. But In A’s concrescent phase there is in principle no precise answer to this question. The reason is that A has not yet decided which among a range of possible alternative entities it is to be: "The actual entity, in becoming itself, also solves the question as to what it is to be" (PR 227, emphasis in the original). Thus, insofar as A is in becoming or is incompletely concrescent, A is not an entity.

3. From the singularity of an entity. Does the use of the question, Which entity?, smuggle in some metaphysics via the grammar? And if so, does that metaphysics comport with Whitehead’s own? Both questions seem to have an affirmative answer. In Whitehead’s "category of the ultimate" the term "one," which is paired with the term "many," stands for "the singularity of an entity" (PR 31). And the singularity of an entity, Whitehead further explains, is "the general idea underlying alike the indefinite article ‘a or an,’ and the definite article ‘the,’ and the demonstratives ‘this or that,’ and the relatives ‘which or what or how’ " (PR 31).

During its concrescence the occasion is not yet a "one" among the "many." Since it is not yet the complete "togetherness of the ‘many’ which it finds," it is not yet "one among the disjunctive ‘many’ which it leaves" for the simple reason that it has not "left" yet. It is still the vessel for a partially disjunctive "‘many’ in process of passage into conjunctive unity" (PR 32). There thus is no way even in principle to "get at" this particular concrescence with a demonstrative "that one." This means that, in the sense intended by the category of the ultimate, the concrescence is not singularly one. So the concrescence is not an entity, or not until the terminal instant of its concrescing, in any case.

4. From the requirement of the ontological principle that "every entity is felt by some actual entity" (PR 66). What actual entity could possibly feel a concrescence? Clearly other concrescences could not feel it. That is the meaning of "the causal independence of contemporary occasions" (AI 251). But neither can the concrescence feel itself. Anything a concrescence feels is a component contributing to that concrescence. Yet Whitehead explicitly says that the satisfaction, which is the concrescence as a complete whole, "cannot be construed as a component contributing to its own concrescence; it [the satisfaction] is the ultimate fact, individual to the entity" (PR 129, emphasis added). If every entity is felt, and an uncompleted concrescence cannot be felt, then such a concrescence is not an entity.

5. From the prima facie inapplicability of Whitehead’s definition of "entity" to a concrescence. Some version or portion of the following, which is Whitehead’s "principle of relativity," recurs like a refrain through the pages of Process and Reality.

That the potentiality for being an element in a real concrescence of many entities into one actuality, is the one general metaphysical character attaching to all entities, actual and non-actual; and that every item in its universe is involved in each concrescence. In other words, it belongs to the nature of a "being" that it is a potential for every "becoming." (PR 33, cf. 43, 44, 68, 71, 101, 321, 324, 371)

One vivid expression of the above refrain is the assertion that the term "thing" or "entity" means "nothing else than to be one of the ‘many’ which find their niches in each instance of concrescence" (PR 321).

Now it is not saying the same thing to say that A is a concrescence, and to say that A is something which by nature finds its "niche" in a concrescence. Thus when Whitehead strictly uses the term "entity," it is by no means apparent that he is talking about, or could be talking about, a concrescence.

This apparent non-fit of the term "entity" in reference to a concrescence crops up also in the numerous places where Whitehead brings out this aspect of his definition "‘potentiality for process’ is the meaning of the . . . general term ‘entity.’ or ‘thing’" (PR 68, emphasis added; cf. 44, 71, 101). Is it appropriate or informative to say that a process (a concrescence) is a "potentiality for process"? Surely not. Yet this is what one means if he calls a concrescence an entity in the strict sense of that term.

I conclude that, if a process or a concrescence is an entity, then the proper Whiteheadian sense of "entity" leaves it very much to be shown that this is so, and how this can be so.

6. From the antithesis between the relativity of an entity and the intrinsically private or absolute status of a concrescence. The Whiteheadian texts quoted in the preceding argument make it clear that a Whiteheadian entity is defined so as to be radically relative. To take the actual entity as an example, we observe that once it has privately decided which entity it will be, it imposes itself as entity upon every then-arising concrescence without exception. It imbeds itself in absolutely every accessible process of becoming. The actual entity is as relative as that. But every other category of entity is equally relative, even if it jacks the dynamics of the actual entity. For Whitehead’s "principle of relativity" is explicitly framed so as to cover "all entities, actual and non-actual" (PR 33).

By abrupt contrast, a concrescence is qualified by a thoroughly unrelated and insular privacy. If it is the case that "an actual occasion . . . is the whole universe in process of attainment of a particular satisfaction" (PR 305), or if "each actual entity is a locus for the universe" (PR 123), and "has to house its actual world" (PR 124), then from what quarter could there possibly come any intrusion upon the privacy of that occasion? The concrescing occasion has the entire universe, its universe, and that is all there is for that occasion. "This subject-superject is the universe in that synthesis, and beyond it there is nonentity," at least for it (PR 41).

To be sure, there are contemporary occasions transcendent to the present concrescence. But they do not abridge the privacy of the concrescence in the slightest. They only loom as a future which must be reckoned with -- but not now, and not directly by this concrescence. "The vast causal independence of contemporary occasions is the preservative of the elbow-room within the Universe. It provides each actuality with a welcome environment for irresponsibility" (Al 251). As noted in argument II, 3, just above, a concrescence cannot be "got at" (cf. PR 322).

Of course, and in the nature of things, once an actual entity’s "own process, which is its own internal existence, has evaporated, worn out and satisfied" (PR 336), then (but only then) it is relative. Then it "goes public" as I have termed it in argument 1, 6, above. Thus: "The creative process is rhythmic: it swings from the publicity of many things to the individual privacy; and it swings back from the private individual to the publicity of the objectified individual" (PR 229).

The formidable amount of language which Whitehead expends upon this notion of "privacy" (PR 32, 130, 232f; 443-48) is augmented by other language concerning the "absoluteness" of the concrescent occasion.

The individual immediacy of an occasion is the final unity of subjective form, which is the occasion as an absolute reality. This immediacy is its moment of sheer individuality, bounded on either side by essential relativity. (AI 227, emphasis added; cf. PR 81, 94)

It should be noted that the required counterpart of "relativity" is what I am calling "intrinsically private status" or "absoluteness," and not merely "privacy." The need to make this distinction will be apparent from an objection which would otherwise apply at this point: Within the privacy of a concrescence, novel entities of all categories except that of eternal objects come into being. Are these not entities, and yet private? Or even more pertinently: A subjective form is by definition a private matter of fact (PR 32), but still it is an entity in the strictest sense (PR 45). How then can I deny that a concrescence is an entity, merely because a concrescence is private?

But of course I don’t. It is not the private nature, ha the intrinsically private nature of a concrescence which bars it from being an entity. Except for eternal objects, which are not born at all, all entities are "born privately," yet "have public careers," as Whitehead says explicitly of prehensions (PR 444). They emerge into their public life as exactly the same things -- entities -- which they have been since birth. Indeed, it is precisely because they are entities that they must emerge, a necessity which is laid even upon subjective forms (PR 444-47).

On the contrary, it is only by becoming non-concrescent that a concrescence is able to go public.15 Concrescences are the womb of the universe, the intrinsic and absolute privacy in which every non-eternal entity is wrought.

In a rather inelegant epitome of the public-private rhythm, one might say that an actual entity’s growing is followed by its showing; that while it grows it does not show; and that when it shows it no longer grows.16 But, however elegantly it may be expressed, an uncompleted concrescence is not properly an entity. For an entity is relative, and an unfinished concrescence is intrinsically private or absolute.

Thus the strict senses of "actual" and "entity" which may be pried out of the foundations of Whitehead’s ontology reveal the following situation: Whitehead’s ultimate existent is designated by a technical term, "actual entity," which is almost a contradiction in terms, in the strict senses of its terms. The only thing which rescues "actual entity" from this fate is that breadthless transitional instant at which the existent is both strictly actual and properly an entity. This is the instant at which the basic existent "pivots," so to speak, from private to public.

This breadthless instant of the pivot is the point at which the creative process plucks the individual being from its microcosmic privacy and holds it up as macrocosmically public, fleetingly available to the graspings of all. But the rush of the cosmic process is such that the being itself cannot hold on to its fullness, once attained. It is quite true that, as grasped, it is forever referent to the place where it grew up. But its place knows it no more, for that place is no more -- except in the enjoyment of the later experiences. To them the satisfied occasion has surrendered itself. And gladly, as I view it. For where would be the freedom or the satisfaction of the past being if, once it wrought, it were caught in what it wrought, like a bear in a trap, immortally?

Whether the past surrenders itself to the present gladly or sadly, however, the past does in fact depend upon each new present for the fact that it exists. That is part of what I have argued here. It might be put thus: there is no existence apart from presently creative actuality. But so far as this past-present issue is concerned, I have also argued another point, one which runs something like this: there is nothing completely determinate but the past; there is no wholly concrete entity but a past one. In that connection, what I have argued makes the present dependent upon the past for most of what the present is. Since no present has ever, in any given instance, quite decided what it is, and could not fully so decide without becoming past, then anything completely determinate in the present, or any fully definite "whatness" which the present may have, must be a legacy of the past. This is especially the case, though it is not solely the case, at the outset of each new present.

On this past-present question, therefore, I am proposing counterbalanced points: much of the whatness of the present is a function of the past just as surely as the thatness of the past is a function of the present. That is the way it must be if the ongoing creative process is to be vested in not-yet-defined heady little occasions which are at first self-creatively actual, and then determinately entitative, but never (or almost never) both of these at once.




IWM -- William A. Christian. An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

RW -- Ivor Leclerc (ed.) The Relevance of Whitehead. London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1961.

1. A. H. Johnson. "Whitehead as Teacher and Philosopher," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 29, 3 (March, 1969).


N o t e s

1 IWM 29f. In 1936 Whitehead told A. H. Johnson that he (Whitehead) rejected the idea that (in the words Johnson placed before him) "for a ‘split second’ the complete actual entity pauses to enjoy itself as fully complete -- before passing on" (1:363).

2 John B. Cobb, Jr., "The Finality of Christ in a Whiteheadian Perspective," in The Finality of Christ. ed. by Dow Kirkpatric (Nashville and New York: Abingdon Press, 1966). pp. 148-54.

3 "The ‘formal’ constitution of an actual entity is a process of transition from indetermination towards terminal determination" (PR 72, emphasis added).

4 "The ‘objective’ Constitution of an actual entity is its terminal determination, considered as a complex of component determinates by reason of which the actual entity is a datum for the creative advance" (PR 72).

My employment of "concrete" in the diagram and hereafter is in keeping with Whitehead’s normal usage. The term has the meaning for him of "already become" or "completely concresced." In his words, "Genetic Consideration is Analysis of the Concrescence. The Actual Entity Formaliter; Morphological Analysis is Analysis of the Actual Entity as Concrete, Spatialized, Objective" (PR 331; cf. PR 359, 66, 129, 448, 433, 108). George Kline differs at this point. Without citing any texts in support, he states that "concrete" has "the double sense of ‘experient’ and ‘self-significant.’ " See Kline, "Form, Concrescence. and Concretum." Southern Journal of Philosophy, 7, 4 (Winter, 1969.70), p. 353; cf. pp. 353-55.

If I stay close to Whitehead’s vocabulary in my use of ‘‘concrete," this is because I fear that the concrescing, experient occasion will almost inevitably be invested with some thing-like qualities if we follow Kline and call it "concrete." In Whitehead and in English generally, "concrete" carries some connotations of "firmness" and "settledness."

5 Elsewhere I have argued that this breadthless transitional instant is the occasion as initial datum. But that issue is more complex than can be dealt with at this point.

6 If my case were recast in this way, the transitional ‘instant," instead of being a breadthless instant in a temporal series, would be treated as a limit between two aspects of every basic existent. It would be a single limit which, in the appropriate senses, belongs to both aspects of the existent and to neither aspect. That is to say, this "instant" would be the terminus of a concrescence. a terminus which is at once both involved in the very nature of a concrescence as its conclusion, and yet excluded from the concrescence as the establishing of something non-processive. For the difficulties which lie in wait when one says that a concrescence has temporal breadth, see John Cobb, Edward Pols and Lewis S. Ford in the Southern Journal of Philosophy. 7. 4 (Winter, 1969-70), 409-25, and Robert C. Neville and Ford in Process Studies (PS) 1, 3 (Fall, 1971).194-209.

7 John Cobb has also made this point against Donald Sherburne, who had written, "it is antithetical to Whitehead’s whole scheme of thought to hold that past occasions are actual." But in saying this Sherburne was overlooking she past, already’decided meaning of "decision." lie was taking "decision" only in its "still being decided" sense. (PS 1, 2 [Summer, 1971], 107).

8 Without mentioning a "second corollary," Donald Sherburne shows himself aware of it when he says, "the ontological principle demands that everything have its being as, in, or through actual entities." (PS, 1. 2, [Summer, 1971], p. 105).

9 Part of the inspiration for this particular argument has come from the Sherburne-Cobb exchange mentioned in the two preceding notes. I believe I have mediated their differences, at least with respect to one of the questions at issue between them. I have agreed with Cobb that past occasions are meaningfully and properly called "actual" (in the broad sense). I have agreed with Sherburne that only concrescent, acting occasions are "actual" in a sense implicit in the ontological principle (in its second-corollary form).

10 I quote verbatim from PR 115. Whitehead himself has inserted the Latin in that place in square brackets.

11 Richard Rorty praises it as the point of departure for any future Aristotle-Whitehead comparisons, and expresses regret at not having read it prior to writing his own related essay, "Matter and Event," in The Concept of Matter, ed. by Ernan McMullin (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press. 1963), pp. 477 ff. See p. 477n.

12 RW 184, emphasis and parentheses in the original. Leclerc makes the same point in his Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New York: Macmillan, 1958), p. 70. 1 am indebted to Leclerc’s article for first suggesting this meaning of "actuality" to me.

13 In the preceding I have drawn upon only one of two opposite points Leclerc makes in this article. In his last five pages he argues that, to be Whiteheadian, we must not only (a) reject any identification of form and act, as has already been shown; we must also (b) identify form and actuality. When he explains what he means by identifying form and actuality in two respects (pp. 185f, 187), it seems clear that it is actuality only in my broader sense with which form is to be identified, viz., actuality in the sense of formed, enacted actualities. But Leclerc himself does not distinguish these two senses of "actual" in the article. I believe the coherence of his essay would have been more marked had he done so.

14 One could argue (1) from the first category of explanation, which states "That the actual world is a process, and that the process is the becoming of actual entities" (PR 33); (2) from the statement that "the very essence of real actuality -- that is of the completely real -- is process" (AI 354, emphasis in the original); (3) from the categoreal statement that "an entity is actual, when it has significance for itself" (PR 38), taking the "when" in this statement to mean "only when," given its context: (4) from the "principle of process" that an occasion’s "‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming’" (PR 34f); and (5) from Whitehead’s repudiation of the notion of "vacuous actuality," that is, his repudiation of "the notion of a res vera devoid of subjective immediacy" (PR 43, 253).

15 Whitehead conceded to A. H. Johnson in 1936 that concrescences do not provide data until they are complete (1:363).

16 So far as this "showing" or "revealing" is concerned, see Whitehead’s comment about an occasion’s "objectifications in which it transcends itself" Such transcendence, Whitehead goes on to say, "is self-revelation" (PR 347).