Metaphysical Principles and the Category of the Ultimate

by Archie Graham

Archie Graham teaches aesthetics, ethics, and metaphysics at the Ontario College of Art, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 108-111, Vol. 7, Number 2, Summer, 1977. 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 outlines twenty-seven items in his Categories of the Ultimate. Dr. Graham declares the ultimacy of three of these: The ‘one’ (the ontological principle), the ‘many’ (the principle of relativity), and ‘creativity’ (the principle of process).

Whitehead’s method of the working hypothesis, according to which philosophy begins with the observation of particular experience and the tentative formulation of its general features, testifies to the fact that the Category of the Ultimate is Whitehead’s initially provisional statement of the ultimate or most general conditions for experience. These conditions are exemplified by that experience. They are what Whitehead called the "more abstract things" which emerge from the more concrete things" (PR 30), the former being universals, or more accurately, patterns of eternal objects which it is the task of philosophy to explain, or in Whitehead’s more empirical manner of expression, to describe. With this in mind Whitehead carried out the detailed development of the Category of the Ultimate in terms of twenty-seven Categories of Explanation (CE 1-27). It is my contention that three of these categories are of primary importance in this regard.

My working hypothesis is that the Category of the Ultimate declares the ultimacy of three concepts, the ‘one,’ the ‘many,’ and ‘creativity,’ and that it thereby entails the ultimacy of three corresponding principles. The ‘one’ is developed in the eighteenth Category of Explanation (CE 18) as the ontological principle, the ‘many’ as the principle of relativity (CE 4), and ‘creativity’ as the principle of process (CE 9). In this way, the Category of the Ultimate entails the ultimacy of these three principles signifying that they are necessary conditions for experience.

The Category of the Ultimate. The term ‘one’ refers to the ‘singularity’ of an entity. The entity is singular because it is definite in its unity. This unity consists in the conjunction of many other entities in the environment of the entity in question. It is a synthesis of many other entities experienced as data into a new entity, namely, the singular ‘one’ which is synthesizing. This synthesis is a complex of relations creating ‘one’ out of ‘many.’ The newly created entity consists of such a complexity. This is the ultimate notion of the ‘one’ involved in the Category of the Ultimate.

The term ‘many’ refers to another such notion. It is the concept of a plurality or multiplicity of entities which itself is not an entity but a relational condition entailed by the character of the actual entity. The ‘many’ "conveys the notion of disjunctive diversity; this notion is an essential element in the concept of ‘being.’ There are many ‘beings’ in disjunctive diversity" (PR 31). The actual entity, because it is ‘one’ and singular, is distinct or disjunctively diverse from others,

The idea of ‘creativity’ denotes the interrelation of the ‘one’ and the ‘many.’ Creativity is "the advance from disjunction to conjunction creating a novel entity other than the entities given in disjunction" (PR 32). It is the process whereby a plurality of entities become a new unit of experience. "The many become one, and are increased by one" (PR 32). In this way, Whitehead distinguishes the notion of advance, which he variously calls creativity, creative advance, or process.

Creativity is a concept involving ‘one’ and ‘many,’ but is distinguishable from both, Although they are analytically distinct, these three notions are inseparable in fact. In other words, the concrete experience or complete fact is a single process which is fully analyzable in terms of three distinct but interrelated concepts, unity, plurality, and advance.

The Ontological Principle. The singularity of an actual entity refers to its conjunctive unification or syntheses of other entities in its own constitution. This, in effect, describes the becoming or concrescence of the actual entity. Concrescence is the process whereby the actual takes on individual form, the process which is the actual taking that form. The essence of this entity is its synthetic individuality, its conjunction of other entities as data in such a way as to produce a definite actuality which is itself a new unity of experience. The actual entity in concrescence is at once an individual unity and that which is related to others.

That experience functions under this condition described by the Category of the Ultimate is precisely what is expressed by the ontological principle (CE 18):

Every condition to which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance, has its reason either in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence, or in the character of the subject which is in process of concrescence. This category of explanation is termed the ‘ontological principle.’ (PR 36)

Whatever is, directly or indirectly, derives from the internal constitution of an actual entity. That is to say, whatever is real is, or is derived from, a singular experience. This notion is further analyzed by Whitehead in terms of prehensions. But the point relevant to this essay has already been made: that the Category of the Ultimate proclaims the ultimacy of the condition of concrete experience by the ontological principle. Thus this principle is an ultimate one for Whitehead’s metaphysics.

As we will see however, the ultimacy of the ontological principle does not preclude the ultimacy of other principles.

The Principle of Relativity. The actual entity concresces and perishes. Such an entity by concrescence becomes an individual unity which, in ceasing to become any further, acquires ‘being.’ The ‘becoming’ of the actual entity and its ‘being’ are analytically distinguishable but inseparable in fact: they constitute two conditions of the one process which is the actual entity. The concrescence is its attainment of individual unity, and the perishing its acquisition of objective status as an available datum for inclusion in other actual entities. The latter idea defines the ‘many’ in the Category of the Ultimate. The character of the actual entity as an objective datum available for other actual entities establishes it as a distinct member of a plurality.

The principle of relativity (CE 4), however, also describes the objective character of the actual entity:

The potentiality for being an element in a real concrescence of many entities into one actuality, is the 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.’ This is the ‘principle of relativity.’ (PR 33)

This principle asserts that the objective character of the actual entity constitutes the data it makes available for inclusion in other actual entities. But as we noted above, this communicates the ultimate notion of the ‘many’ in the Category of the Ultimate. Hence the principle of relativity may be said to be an ultimate principle expressing the general condition of plurality.

The Principle of Process. The Category of the Ultimate states that ‘creativity’ is an ultimate notion. It denotes a process of advance from an unordered state of affairs to a unique occasion of togetherness. Many disjoined entities become one new actual entity distinct from the many it unifies. ‘Creativity’ is a complex principle according to which the ‘many’ are related with the ‘one’: "The many become one, and are increased by one" (PR 32).

Elsewhere the same idea is expressed in different terms by White-head: "the very essence of real actuality -- that is, of the completely real -- is process. Thus each actual thing is only to be understood in terms of its becoming and perishing" (AI 274). Creativity is process, and process involves the interrelation of the ultimate notions of becoming and perishing. This expresses the principle of process (CE 9): "How an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’ This is the ‘principle of process (PR 34). Thus, the ‘creativity’ of the Category of the Ultimate is analyzable in terms of the principle of process, which is therefore an ultimate principle in Whitehead’s metaphysics.

The principle of process involves interrelation of the ontological principle and the principle of relativity. For the "two descriptions" which are "not independent," one of the ‘being’ of the actual entity and the other of its ‘becoming,’ refer, respectively, to the principle of relativity (CE 4) and the ontological principle (CE 18). This correspondence is even more apparent in the preceding Category of Explanation (CE 8):

Two descriptions are required for an actual entity: (a) one which is analytical of its potentiality for ‘objectification’ in the becoming of other actual entities [i.e., the principle of relativity], and (b) another which is analytical of the process which constitutes its own becoming [i.e., the ontological principle]. (PR 34)

Whitehead omits mention of the principle of process when he specifies those categories directly explanatory of the doctrine of process or ‘unrest’:

The first, the fourth, the eighteenth, and twenty-seventh categories state different aspects of one and the same general metaphysical truth. The first category states the doctrine in a general way: that every ultimate actuality embodies in its own essence, what Alexander terms ‘a principle of unrest,’ namely, its becoming. The fourth category applies this doctrine to the very notion of ‘entity.’ It asserts that the notion of an ‘entity’ means ‘an element contributory to the process of becoming.’ We have in this category the utmost generalization of the notion of ‘relativity.’ The eighteenth category asserts that obligations imposed on the becoming of any particular actual entity arise from the constitutions of other actual entities. (PR 42f)

That the principle of process (CE 9) is not specified here is a rather glaring and inexplicable omission, especially since it is a more explicit general statement of the doctrine than is the first category which simply asserts "that the actual world is a process, and that the process is the becoming of actual entities (PR 33). For process also involves both ‘becoming’ and ‘being,’ which entails interrelation of the ontological principle and the principle of relativity. The final category Whitehead also mentions (CE 27) is simply a more detailed expression, in terms of prehensions, of the eighteenth Category of Explanation.

Whitehead appears to have appreciated in some sense the special role of these three Categories of Explanation. They alone, the three which jointly explain the Category of the Ultimate, are specifically designated as "principles."

[Editor’s note: In a forthcoming essay delineating the process challenge to Thomism in terms of creativity and esse, David L. Schindler appears to have independently discovered the intimate connection between these three Categories of Explanation and the Category of the Ultimate.]