Lewis S. Ford and Traditional Interpretations of Whitehead’s Metaphysics

by Denis Hurtubise

Denis Hurtubise is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Saint Paul University, 223 Main Street, Ottawa, Canada, K1S 1C4. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the concepts of God in Whitehead’s Process and Reality.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 168-174, Vol. 29, Number 1, Spring-Summer, 2000. 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.


Dr. Hurtubise shows that Lewis Ford’s genetic approach to Whitehead’s metaphysics rests on some key points differing from the traditional interpretations.

In "The Approach to Whitehead: Traditional? Genetic? or Systematic?," Jorge Luis Nobo offered what is, to date, the most articulate critique of Lewis S. Ford’s genetic approach to Whitehead’s metaphysics. On the basis of some remarks made by Whitehead himself about his thought and writings, Nobo proposes to refute Ford’s claim that the views expressed in Process and Reality have been preceded by anterior stages of metaphysical systematization. On the contrary, says Nobo, Whitehead always held the same metaphysical system, though expressed in more or less compressed and applied ways in his various books (62). Even more problematic according to Nobo, however, is one of the consequences of Ford’s approach. It is said to have had "the unfortunate and dangerous effect of lulling adherents of the traditional approach into a false sense of security regarding the adequacy of the interpretations they have arrived at by means of that approach" (60). Ford, indeed, does not see those interpretations as being threatened by his views;1 according to him, Whitehead expressed his final metaphysical position in the last revisions he made to his manuscript of Process and Reality, and the traditional interpretations of Whitehead’s metaphysics would precisely be based on the parts of Process and Reality that resulted from those final revisions. Given Nobo’s claim that an adequate interpretation of Whitehead’s metaphysical system ought to be based on all his metaphysical books, Ford’s approach and the traditional interpretations it confirms are deemed insufficient (60).

Ford replied to Nobo’s critique in a recent issue of this journal. On the one hand, he defends his genetic approach to Whitehead’s metaphysics, though he admits that his interpretations should be supported by more evidence. On the other hand, he maintains his endorsement of traditional interpretations of Whitehead’s metaphysics:

Nobo regards my approach as a dangerous hypothesis insofar as it fosters complacency about the traditional approach. ‘What this means is that it tends to justify that approach, which is as it should be if Whitehead’s metaphysical system is to be found mainly in Process and Reality. Insofar as the traditional approach bases itself upon what I take to be his latest writings, my account endorses this as the perfected system. ("Partial" 334)

That there is a strong similarity between traditional interpretations and what Ford presents as "the perfected system" is hardly disputable. However, Ford’s passage-by-passage approach to Whitehead’s texts, Process and Reality in particular, has systematic consequences that he himself may have overlooked. Indeed, the interpretation Ford gives to certain passages in that book is such that his reconstruction of Whitehead’s final metaphysical stance ends up being, on several key aspects, at variance with traditional interpretations. The purpose of this note is to illustrate, in a brief fashion, the difference between Ford’s presentation of Whitehead’s metaphysics and its traditional interpretations. Two notions in particular are at stake here, both having to do with the important question of the relationship between God and the world.

I. Two Notions, Key Passages

One of these notions is the objectification of the consequent nature by the world. Easy to locate in the writings of the interpreters Nobo associates with the traditional approach, it appears, for example, on page 164 in A Christian Natural Theology, where John B. Cobb claimed that "it is demanded by the principle of universal relativity that just as God in his consequent nature prehends us, so also we prehend God’s consequent nature."2 The other notion is the involvement of God’s consequent nature in the derivation of initial aims. Held by many representatives of the traditional approach to Whitehead’s metaphysics, either its pioneers (e.g., Christian 307-08; Cobb 167) or more recent contributors, (e.g., Franklin 341) this notion is particularly well exemplified in Sherburne:

In his primordial nature God prehends the infinite realm of possibilities; in his consequent nature he prehends the actualities of the world his superjective nature is a result of weaving his consequent prehensions upon his primordial vision. As actual fact is thereby brought into juxtaposition with the realm of possibilities, relevant, but novel, possibilities for that factual situation emerge into important contrast with what has in fact occurred. [. . .] He therefore -- and this is God functioning superjectively -- offers as a lure to each actual entity as it arises that subjective aim the completion of which, in that entity’s own concrescence, would create the kind of ordered, complex world that, when prehended by God, would result in maximum Intensity of satisfaction for him. (227)

Those notions, namely the objectification of the consequent nature by the world and the involvement of that consequent nature in the provision of initial aims, have also made their way into process theology, becoming foundations for the image of a creative and responsive God. In The End of Evil: Process Eschatology in Historical Context, for example, Marjorie H. Suchocki holds the following views:

Whitehead has suggested at the beginning of Process and Reality that both the primordial and consequent natures of God are involved in the initial aim, but he gives little explicit attention to the role of the consequent nature. However, it would appear that the reality of the world as felt through the consequent nature establishes the relevance of the possibilities from the primordial vision to the ongoing world. (116)

Traditional interpreters base the above mentioned views on specific passages taken, in general, from Process and Reality. In the case of the objectification of the consequent nature by the world, the key passage consists of the short development on the fourth creative phase of the universe’s accomplishment of its actuality. Whitehead writes in Process and Reality: "In the fourth phase, the creative action completes itself. For the perfected actuality passes back into the temporal world, and qualifies this world so that each temporal actuality includes it as an immediate fact of relevant experience" (351)3 Some interpreters refer also to Whitehead’s reference to the "superjective nature" of God in Process and Reality: "The ‘superjective’ nature of God is the character of the pragmatic value of his specific satisfaction qualifying the transcendent creativity in the various temporal instances" (88).4 In this case, however, the actual warrant lies again on page 351, as it is under the light of that particular passage that the "superjective character" on page 88 is interpreted as a reference to the objectification of the consequent nature.

With regard to the involvement of the consequent nature in the derivation of initial aims, three passages from Process and Reality are used as warrants by traditional interpreters sampled here. One of them is the passage from page 88 of Whitehead’s magnum opus quoted above. Sherburne uses it in conjunction with another passage excerpted from Process and Reality "The primordial nature is conceptual, the consequent nature is the weaving of God’s physical feelings upon his primordial concepts" (345). According to Sherburne, the passage from page 88 has to be interpreted in the light of the one from page 345, in such a way that a close link is established between the consequent and superjective natures.

The other passage in Process and Reality that is perceived as calling for the involvement of the consequent nature in the derivation of initial aims may be found in Chapter III:

The initial stage of its aim is an endowment which the subject inherits from the inevitable ordering of things, conceptually realized in the nature of God. [. . .] This function of God is analogous to the remorseless working of things in Greek and Buddhist thought. The initial aim is the best for that impasse. But if the best be bad, then the ruthlessness of God can be personified as Atè the goddess of mischief. The chaff is burnt. (244)

God and the actual world jointly constitute the character of the creativity for the initial phase of the novel concrescence. The subject, thus constituted [italicized by Christian], is the autonomous master of its own concrescence into subject-superject. (245)5

II. Ford on the Key Passages

Let us examine, now, how Ford interprets these passages on the basis of his genetic approach to Whitehead’s texts. From the outset, it is very clear that Ford gives the remarks in Process and Reality 351 on the "fourth phase" an interpretation that differs strikingly from the Ones proposed by the traditional approach. Indeed, and although he admits that given their poetic character those remarks do not lend themselves to an easy interpretation, one thing is nevertheless clear to him: the "fourth phase" should not be understood as an implicit statement made by Whitehead to the effect that the consequent nature is prehended by the actual occasions. Commenting on that "fourth phase" in The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, Ford says:

We are not told, however, how God as an everlasting concrescence can ever be objectified for the world in a system where concrescences must be completed in determinate unity before they can he prehended. This is an example of Whitehead’s proleptic writing, where his intuitions outrun his concepts. (229)6

In other words, Whitehead may have wanted to be able to say that the consequent nature has an impact on the temporal world, but his conceptual system did not allow him to, Ford contends. The concept of objectification, in particular, is of no use in the case of God’s consequent nature, since the latter never reaches satisfaction.

As one should expect, given the interpretation Ford gives of the remarks on the "fourth phase" in Process and Reality 351, his understanding of the "superjective nature" passage from Process and Reality 88 differs from traditional interpretations. He, in fact, contradicts them as he rejects the common view according to which that particular passage speaks of the objectification of the consequent nature. Rather, says Ford, God’s superjective character pertains to the primordial nature in Process and Reality 88:

We may like to suppose that by the superjective nature Whitehead intended the objectification of the consequent nature, but that is not specified by the text, either here or in the fourth phase, with which it is often identified. For it could equally well be the objectification of the primordial nature, and that we know is capable of objectification. ("Growth" 77)

In sum, Ford’s interpretation of the passages on pages 88 and 351 is such that his reconstruction of Whitehead’s final position in Process and Reality cannot include the notion of the objectification of the consequent nature by the actual occasions. That it actually does not is confirmed by the following comment Ford made in one of his most recent articles:

Yet it would seem that the consequent nature cannot be prehended [. . .] Yet is seems that if the consequent nature cannot be prehended, it cannot be effective. It could have no influence on any actuality of the world. [. . .] The issue is a difficult one. [. . .] Whitehead was hard pressed to find an adequate solution, and his successors have tried with little success. ("Consequences 134)

What of the passages used by representatives of the traditional approach as warrants for their views on the involvement of the consequent nature in the provision of initial aims? On the one hand, Ford does not interpret Process and Reality 88 from the standpoint of page 345, as Sherburne does. He does not establish any linkage between the consequent nature and the superjective nature -- quite to the contrary, as we have seen, Ford associates the superjective nature in the passage on page 88 with the primordial nature. As a result, he does not consider this passage as evidence for an involvement of the consequent nature in the provision of initial aims. Similarly, Ford does not even come close to presenting Process and Reality 345 as evidence for an involvement of the consequent nature in the provision of initial aims. He simply interprets it as a passage where Whitehead introduces the notion of a physical pole in his concept of God and presents the consequent nature as a synthesis of conceptual and physical feelings ("Growth" 61). There remains, then, Process and Reality 244f, to which Ford devoted a whole section (18-20) in "Subjectivity in the Making." Most interesting for our purposes is the following remark: "At this juncture, I believe, Whitehead does not anticipate any difficulty working out the particulars as to how God could influence the world, but then he has not yet proposed the consequent nature with its everlastingness that will pose the major problem" (19). The key element here lies in the last part of the quotation, where Ford relegates the composition of the passage on page 244 to a time where the consequent nature had not yet been conceptualized. In Ford’s classification of the layers of Process and Reality, the material on 244 belongs to G, stemming thus from the second revision prior to I, the one that brought along the consequent nature of God. When G was composed, God was still conceived as the non-temporal actual entity consisting in the conceptual realization of eternal objects. At the time 244 was written, then, the provider of initial aims was God thus conceived. This means that in the reinterpretation of the previous layers of Process and Reality brought by the insertions from 1, 244 pertains to the primordial nature. In Ford’s interpretation, then, that passage has nothing to do with the consequent nature and in no way can be seen as evidence for an involvement of the consequent nature in the provision of initial aims.

The interpretation Ford gives to Process and Reality 88, 244f and 345 suggests that he does not see Whitehead considering at any time in the composition of Process and Reality an involvement of the consequent nature in the provision of initial aims -- 88 and 345 are indeed, according to Ford, very late insertions to Process and Reality. In reality, Ford contends that Whitehead solved the problem of the particularization of aims in a way that differs significantly from what has been customarily held in traditional interpretations. Indeed, says he on the basis of 244 and 344, Whitehead held that God could provide particularity even when he had not conceptualized the consequent nature. In Whitehead’s final position in Process and Reality as reconstructed by Ford, then, the provision of initial aims would be a matter that concerns the primordial nature only, and not the consequent nature, as traditional interpreters have thought for a few decades: "Concrescent occasions prehend only initial aims from God, and these are purely conceptual. No direct prehensions of divine physical feelings were contemplated" ("Growth" 67).

From the standpoint of theology and religion, the problem of the relationship between God and the world is a crucial one. On that matter, process theology proposes quite provocative views that are based on traditional interpretations of Whitehead’s metaphysics. As it turns out, Ford’s reconstruction of, in particular, Whitehead’s final position in Process and Reality -- Whitehead’s definitive metaphysical stance, according to Ford -- challenges core aspects of traditional interpretations of Whitehead’s views on the God-world relationship. Indeed, many believe on the basis of those interpretations that God’s creative response to the world involves the consequent nature’s selection of appropriate aims for specific situations, and/or that such a response is experienced through objectifying the consequent nature. Ford contends that, quite to the contrary, Whitehead never said that the consequent nature was part of our experience and that he never spoke of any involvement of it in the provision of initial aims. If Ford is right, then, a whole chapter in process theology’s discourse on God is threatened at its very foundation.

Ford’s genetic approach, it seems, has the potential to do more, and in fact already does more than simply tracing the successive shapes taken by Whitehead’s metaphysical system during the composition of Process and Reality. This "archeological" task rests on a reinterpretation of key passages that in turn fosters a reconstruction of Whitehead’s metaphysics that differs significantly, at least on some key points, from the traditional interpretations. Besides revealing an evolving Whitehead, then, the genetic approach may show us a Whitehead that is quite different from the one we have been presented by the traditional interpretations of his metaphysical writings.



1. Nobo quotes from page xi of Ford’s preface of The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics: "This study will probably disturb prevailing interpretations of Whitehead’s philosophy less than might be imagined, for the interpretations have largely been based on what I call [...] the final revisions" (60).

2. See also William A. Christian’s An Interpretation of Whitehead’s metaphysics 323; Donald W. Sherburne’s A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality 227; Ivor Leclerc’s Whitehead’s Metaphysics 206. Apparently shared by most of those who pioneered the traditional approach to Whitehead’s metaphysics four decades ago, the idea that actual entities objectify the consequent nature seems to have become common among Whitehead scholars. Forrest Wood’s Whiteheadian Thought as a Basis for a Philosophy of Religion is only one among many recent interpretations of Whitehead’s metaphysics where that idea resurfaces:

One hardly expects, even in Whitehead, to find a new idea in the next-to-last paragraph of a 350-page book. Yet that is the case. His fertile mind kept developing his principles. Whitehead saw a new implication in the principle of universal relativity. [...] This principle applied to God as an actual entity means that God’s consequent nature is prehended by actual occasions. (50)

3. John B. Cobb, for example, quotes that passage after deriving from the principle of universal relativity the position that the world objectifies the consequent nature (see the quote above from Cobb 164).

4. See Sherburne 190n15; also Christian 323.

5. See Christian 308.

6. Or again, in "God at Work: The Way God is Effective in a Process Perspective" Ford writes:

That paragraph envisions a "fourth phase" whereby God’s experience of the temporal world affects the world. "What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world" (PR 351). Whitehead never showed how this was possible. (334)



Christian, William A. An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.

Cobb, John B. Jr. A Christian Natural Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965.

Ford, Lewis S. "The Consequences of Prehending the Consequent Nature. Process Studies 27 (1998): 134-46.

-- The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. Albany: State U of New York P, 1984.

-- "God at Work: The Way God is Effective in a Process Perspective." Encounter 57 (1996): 327-40.

-- "The Growth of Whitehead’s Theism." Process Studies Supplement 1.2 (1999). <http://www.ctr4process.org/pss/>.

-- "In Partial Response to a Tribute." Process Studies 27 (1998): 332-44.

-- "Subjectivity in the Making." Process Studies 21(1992): 1-24.

Franklin, Stephen T. Speaking from the Depths: Alfred North Whitehead’s Hermeneutical Metaphysics of Propositions, Experience, Symbolism, Language, and Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.

Leclerc, Ivor. Whitehead’s Metaphysics. London: Allen and Unwin, 1958.

Nobo, Jorge Luis. "The Approach to Whitehead: Traditional? Genetic? Or Systematic?" Process Studies 27 (1998): 48-63.

Sherburne, Donald W. A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966.

Suchocki, Marjorie H. The End of Evil: Process Eschatology in Historical Context Albany: State U of New York P, 1988.

Wood, Forrest. Whiteheadian Thought as a Basis for a Philosophy of Religion. Lanham: UP of America, 1986.