Kirkpatrick on Subjective Becoming

by Lewis S. Ford

Lewis S. Ford is Emeritus Professor at Old Dominion University, and founding editor of Process Studies Periodical (1971 – 1995).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 37-41, Vol. 4, Number 1, Spring, 1974. 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.


Lewis Ford gives a response to Frank Kirkpatrick’s view that “The fundamental difficulty which the process model faces is trying to retain language appropriate only to a subject (decision, purpose, intention, action) for a process which is not yet a subject but which is becoming a subject.” Ford says this presupposes that it can be meaningful to analyze the becoming apart from (because prior to) the being it becomes.

Frank Kirkpatrick’s "Subjective Becoming: An Unwarranted Abstraction?" (Ps. 3:15-26) portrays the Whiteheadian problematic with an impressive accuracy; hence his critique deserves thoughtful response. Some Whiteheadians, I am afraid, may be tempted to evade the issue by this sort of reflection: Kirkpatrick charges, "The fundamental difficulty which the process model faces is trying to retain language appropriate only to a subject (decision, purpose, intention, action) for a process which is not yet a subject but which is becoming a subject" (Ps. 3:23). This presupposes that it can be meaningful to analyze the becoming apart from (because prior to) the being it becomes. Of course, this is a vain search for subjectivity apart from its subject. But in epochal becoming the process is not temporally prior to the outcome; it happens all at once. What becomes and its becoming are one and the same, and can be distinguished only by a distinction of reason. Insofar as we seek the subject of the process, it must be located in the being which is the outcome; the two are necessarily inseparable.

Now it is true that a process of unification cannot exist apart from the unity it achieves; otherwise what would it have unified? Nonetheless, the process and the outcome are formally distinct in the sense that the distinction is not simply one of our own making, but reflects the intrinsic character of unification. Also, it is true that the act of unification constitutes a single present moment which must include the unity achieved. Here the process cannot lie in the past of the product, for then the unifying moment would be superseded by another moment before it had a chance to complete itself. This does not mean, however, that we cannot formally distinguish between incomplete stages of unification taking place before the final unity within that single present moment, unless we maize the assumption that whatever takes place before another necessarily lies in its past. If the epochal theory is correct, however, this assumption must be false because it implies an instantaneous present. For any temporal stretch can be subdivided into parts coming one before the other, down to breadthless instants. Then if every instant down to a given instant lies in its past, and it in turn lies in the past of every succeeding instant, that instant must comprise the whole of the present. Since for Whitehead the present is momentary rather than instantaneous, possessing a temporal thickness, that moment is capable of formal subdivision in terms of what comes before another, so that it makes perfect sense to argue that incomplete phases of unification take place before the final unity. I have discussed these points in detail in "Genetic and Coordinate Division Correlated" (Ps. 1:199-209).

The more serious difficulty with this counterargument, at least for our present purposes, is its identification of the subject with the being which is the outcome of the process, i.e., with the superject. Now subject and superject are continuous with one another, since the superject is what the subject becomes. The question is rather whether the subject is nothing but the superject. Their complete identification is most tempting when questions concerning the being and unity of the subject are pressed home, as Kirkpatrick does, for if the subject does not find its being and unity in the superject, then where does it find it? Unfortunately, however, we cannot ground subjective unity in the superject, for two reasons: (1) The superject is completely determinate, and hence devoid of activity; it cannot do any of the things subjects are supposed to do. Other theories may treat subjects as beings because they conceive beings to be incomplete and indeterminate in important ways, but as Kirkpatrick correctly notes (Ps. 3:17), on the process view beings are completely determinate. (2) We run into difficulties with perishing. One might argue that while the subject cannot do anything as superject, at least it can sit back and enjoy its satisfaction. In fact, one must argue this if the subject is unified only in the final Outcome. There must be a unified subject to experience the feelings; if the subject first arises in the satisfaction, then that must be where the feelings are experienced. Moreover, since that must be where we enjoy subjective immediacy, it must be durational in order to account for our direct intuition of enduring subjective immediacy. Thus Christian can conclude: "Indeed the satisfaction contains, one might say, the whole of the temporal duration of the occasion" (IWM 30). In contrast, I agree with Robison B. James that the satisfaction is the breadthless instant of transition from concrescence to superject (Ps. 2:113f), for it is precisely in the attainment of being that the subjective immediacy of becoming perishes, as the achieved unity completes all striving for unification. Here subjectivity is wholly identified with becoming and perishes in being. If, on the other hand, we permit subjective immediacy to persist in the satisfaction after all becoming has ceased, then we must interpret perishing in different terms. If the perishing of subjective immediacy cannot be the perishing of becoming in being, it must be the perishing of being. But then nothing is left for subsequent occasions to prehend. It is this line of reasoning, I submit, which occasions the claim that God must be the ground for the givenness of the past (IWM 319-30), the claim which Sherburne and others have so vigorously contested. The whole issue would never have arisen, however, were we not tempted to ground the unity of the subject solely in the superject.

At one point Kirkpatrick writes that the process view asks us "to imagine a process of unification as having, in effect, subjective unity prior to the achievement of subjective unity" (PS 3:20). That would, of course, be impossible, but if the foregoing is correct, we are instead asked to conceive of a subjective unity for the process of unification prior to the attainment of superjective unity. This is the force of his critique: if the subject of the process cannot have the unity of a being, what sort of unity does it have? It is largely a matter of how we choose to define being whether such a subject is a being, but the subject, "conceived as coterminous with and underlying the process" (Ps. 3:19), must have sufficient unity to act as a subject without being completely determinate. What can this be?

Ivor Leclerc’s theory of the unity of compound substances in The Nature of Physical Existence may furnish us with an important clue, if we liken the many feelings of an incomplete phase with the many component elements of a compound substance. Leclerc’s premise is that "the acting of substances is a mutual acting on, whereby they are in relation, and the relation is intrinsic to their actualization" (NPE 309f).

The entities in relation act on each other reciprocally, and are thus each modified, in some respect, by the relationship, that is, by their acting. This reciprocal acting constitutes a tie or bond between them, this bond being the relation -- which exists only in the acting, and not as some tertium quid. The word ‘relation’. . . connotes both the act, the relating, and what the act achieves. The ‘whatness’ is the form or character of the relation. This means that by virtue of the mutual activity of relating, there exists a form or character common to the entities acting. (NPE 309f)

Now form must be grounded in substance, but since this is "the form or character of a relational unity, . . . it cannot be grounded in the many substances individually, but in them in relation. . . . Now when the acting of the substances on each other is fully reciprocal, . . . these actings combine into one single total act, with one single form," this relational form (NPE 311). Thus the combined activity forms a substantial unity, an actualized unity having this relational form as its "substantial form" (cf. Ps. 3:107-09).

In this theory Leclerc is challenging the common assumption "that the ultimate physical existent or substance in the strict sense of the term is to be identified with the final constituents of compounds, and that consequently no compound entity can be a substance" (NPE 284). With respect to the actual unity of the compound, "the many constituents are potential, although in themselves they are each actual substances" (NPE 311). Thus for Leclerc both the compounds and their constituent elements are both equally actual, each in its own way. At this point there is an important disanalogy with Whitehead’s theory, since the many feelings of any phase of concrescence cannot be independently actual. They are the many feelings of one subject, yet it is still the case that they can act upon one another, since they reciprocally modify one another. The concrescence proceeds by the mutual interplay of the physical feelings with the conceptual feelings derived in accordance with the subjective aim, whereby all are modified and shaped into a final synthesis. The key idea of Leclerc’s analysis which carries over is this reciprocity of acting, which does not depend upon the independent actuality of that which acts. Individual prehensions in their acting upon one another are thereby also being modified by these others. Each can act, but not independently of the other, so that their activity does not belong to the one or to the other, but takes place between them both, and thus constitutes the unity of their acting. The unity of this common acting of the many prehensions is the subject of that concrescence.

Kirkpatrick takes issue with my perspectival analysis of concrescence in terms of the interaction of its physical prehensions, asking: "If one and the same process can be viewed both determinately and freely, one is tempted to ask, which is the way it really is?" (Ps. 3:23). We may subjectively feel we are free, he adds, but if obectively all is determined, then that feeling is illusory. But I am not persuaded that my objective description entails determinism or a lack of creativity. It would entail this only if the actual entities physically prehended severally produced the outcome by their accidental union, for then the actuality is exhaustively explicable in terms of these antecedent actualities functioning as its efficient causes. But I described concrescence, objectively viewed, "as the interplay among the transcendent decisions of all actual entities prehended, progressively modifying one another" (1:220, italics added; cf. Ps. 3:22). This mutual modification is the occasion’s freedom, the work of its creativity, seen in terms of the manyness constituting the incomplete phases. What I did not see, apart from Leclerc’s analysis, is that this activity does not belong to the various feelings severally. Taking place between them, it forms a unity transcending them all as the subjective unity of the occasion.

There are problems, however, with Leclerc’s theory. How do we restrict substantial unity to natural compounds? According to his account, all substances interact (NPE 308). If Leclerc, Kirkpatrick, and I mutually interact such that each of us has his opinions modified in the interchange, does that mean we constitute together some overarching compound substance? At one point Leclerc suggests that compounds only come about when the acting is fully reciprocal (NPE 311), but there may well be more reciprocity among persons in an intensive communal experience than between the components of some compound, e.g., between some neutron in the interior of the nucleus of an atom and one of its electrons. Another problem, particularly acute from a Whiteheadian perspective, is that reciprocal interaction requires that the interacting components be contemporaries, but by the special theory of relativity contemporaries cannot causally influence one another.

As John W. Lango has noticed, "a single phase of prehensions is analogous to a locus of contemporaneous actual entities" (WO 42), so the problem of reciprocal interaction among contemporaries persists even here. If "contemporaneous" prehensions cannot directly interact, their reciprocal acting must be accomplished by indirect means. First, we note that the reason these prehensions are not simply independent contemporaneous actual entities must be found in their subjective forms as determined by a common subjective aim (PR 28f). In each phase of concrescence the subjective aim undergoes successive modification, and each such modification is termed a "subjective end." The subjective forms in the initial phase are conformal to the subjective forms of the antecedent actualities prehended, but their subsequent modifications in supplementary phases are dependent upon the subjective aim (PR 359). "The many feelings, in any incomplete phase, are necessarily compatible with each other by reason of their individual conformity to the subjective end evolved for that phase" (PR 342). Insofar as the subjective forms of prehensions in the same phase are determined with reference to this same common subjective end, they are mutually sensitive. This mutual sensitivity of subjective forms thus makes possible, indirectly, a reciprocal activity among the "contemporaneous" prehensions. By directly modifying the subjective aim, which as the subjective end for the next phase modifies them, they indirectly modify each other.

Thus reciprocal acting is possible in the presence of a common ideal. This common ideal, influencing each of the components, also insures the unity of the compound substance. The two problems posed by Leclerc’s theory are resolved by the same means.

It should be noted, moreover, that this common ideal cannot simply be identified with Leclerc’s "substantial form" for the compound substance, since that is the shape of the total reciprocal activity as a unity. This common ideal or aim must rather be conceived as a necessary addition to Leclerc’s account, shattering the independent actuality he assigns to the constituent elements. In virtue of this common aim these elements participate in an overarching subjective unity directed toward that goal. It is this total reciprocal activity so directed which constitutes the subjective unity of the concrescence. It will not do to think of the subjective aim alone as forming some sort of embryonic subject, for then all the other feelings must lie outside the subject like the unused yolk and white of a fertilized egg. Nor is the subject simply the mutual sensitivity of the subjective forms influenced by this aim. It is the total reciprocal activity of all the prehensions, but this reciprocal activity is only possible by means of the subjective aim.

This means that its unity is inherently unstable, and for that reason it is properly a subjective unity. If reciprocal acting is possible only because of the presence of a common ideal, this acting must be a progressive realization of that common ideal aimed at. The subject, since it is the unified whole of all this acting, can only exist as this process of realization. There can be reciprocal acting between components only because that acting takes place within a single process of concrescence (cf. NPE 272f, 290f, 308f). In the end the reciprocal activity of subjective unity must give way to the full, determinate realization of superjective unity. In that instant subjective immediacy perishes as that actuality becomes objectively immortal.



IWM -- William A. Christian An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.

NPE -- Ivor Leclerc. The Nature of Physical Existence. New York: Humanities Press, 1972.

WO -- John W. Lango. Whitehead’s Ontology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1972.

1. Lewis S. Ford, "Can Whitehead Provide for Real Subjective Agency? A Reply to Edward Pols’s Critique." The Modern Schoolman 47/2 (January, 1970), 209-25.