On Applying Whitehead’s First Category of Existence

by Joseph E. Earley

Joseph E. Earley is Professor of Chemistry at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 35-39, Vol. 11, Number 1, Spring, 1981. 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. Earley is concerned about issues raised by Felt against Wallack’s confounding "ontological" and "epistemological" aspects of actual entities.. "He has failed to clarify how satisfaction of subjective aim is connected with being perceived as a unitary whole."

F. Bradford Wallack (ENP 7) has called for a revolution in Whitehead scholarship. She argues that it has been a serious mistake for interpreters of Whitehead "to limit the application of his basic ontological category of existence -- his actual entity -- to just two kinds of existents: subatomic entities, such as electrons, protons, photons and the like, and human percipient experience." It is her contention that the category of actual entity (actual occasion) should be taken to refer to "any concrete existent whatsoever." In a review (PS 10:57), James W. Felt, S.J. admitted that Wallack’s call has attractions, but declined to join her on the barricades. Felt raised a number of serious problems for Wallack’s thesis, not least of which is extensive textual evidence that Whitehead, in his final synthesis, was closer to the position of the orthodox interpreters than to Wallack’s position.

Wallack contends, for instance, that the Castle Rock at Edinburgh is an actual entity (a moment of the Castle Rock, a "Castle Rock occasion") (ENP 16). Felt points out that Whitehead makes a clear distinction between single actual entities and corpuscular societies (PR 112), and since composite entities, such as the Castle Rock, fall in the latter category, they must be excluded from the former. Felt claims that Wallack as confounded "ontological" and "epistemological" aspects of actual entities and has failed to clarify how satisfaction of subjective aim is connected with being perceived as a unitary whole.

In his final synthesis, Whitehead clearly distinguished "simple" prehensions from "transmuted" ones (PR 256). In the latter, a nexus is felt as one actual entity, whereas in the former the object of the prehension is one actuality. Since Whitehead required that his categories be "applicable" (PR 3), this distinction implies an affirmative answer to the question posed earlier "whether there are primary organisms which are incapable of further analysis" (SMW 103).

It should be noted that the concept of the "elementary" (noncomposite) particle was then being shown to have great power in rationalizing both chemistry and nuclear physics. The situation in current science is quite different. Particle physics offers no definite answers as to which particles (if any) are elementary and which are composite. "Elementary" is used in an operational sense and varies with the circumstances.1 Particles which may be regarded as noncomposite in low-energy experiments show definite structure in high-energy ones. As a leading physicist has put it, "Belief in the ‘simplicity’ of the microscopic belongs to the past" (BB xv). The question then arises how it might be possible for a composite entity to function as one actuality. What I want to propose is that recent progress in science suggests a resolution of the issues Felt raises against Wallack, which allows retention of her main point. I will attempt ("impossibile aut potius infinitum est"2) to provide a clear nontechnical summary of the scientific concepts from which the suggestion arises, but the point can be understood without that background.

It was one of Newton’s great achievements to show that a uniform massy sphere acts, insofar as gravitational interaction with an external object is concerned, as if the entire mass were located at the center. The sphere might be large or small, made of lead or of balsa wood, and these characteristics would influence some of its properties (whether it cast a large shadow or a small one, for instance), but insofar as gravitational interaction with an external object is concerned, only the total mass and the position of the center is important. In this case, the many components of the sphere have been unified into a single source of gravitational interaction, though for other purposes the extension of the sphere is important -- that is, complete unification has not occurred.

Recently, new sorts of organization have been discovered: dissipative structures in chemistry and in physics. These are similar to Newton’s sphere in that, so far as at least some interactions with the outside world are concerned, effective unification occurs. They are different from structures such as the sphere in the important respect that the formation and maintenance of the structure requires exchange of matter and energy with the surroundings.

All the structures that have previously been treated in physics and in chemistry belong to the class of "equilibrium structures"; that is, they could persist indefinitely in closed systems (regions separated from the rest of the universe by impermeable walls). In contrast, dissipative structures can only persist in open systems (that is, it is necessary for their existence that matter and energy be exchanged between the system and its surroundings). Such systems are called dissipative because their existence entails the generation of entropy (dissipation of energy). These dissipative systems are called structures because their existence involves generation and maintenance of both spatial and temporal order. Sequences of specific states repeatedly reoccur over large regions of space and long periods of time. In certain chemical cases, for instance, an initially homogeneous solution will spontaneously develop a discrete pattern of color. The pattern will be maintained for many minutes, but during that time it will undergo a regular and repetitive series of color changes. The origin of these dissipative structures is well understood. In the chemical cases certain patterns of interrelationships of catalytic (nonlinear) chemical reactions give rise to cooperative interaction of molecular species. This result gives rise to what is known as a "limit cycle." What this means is that, in favorable cases (suitable chemical composition of the system and of the surroundings), there is a closed set of states such that the existence of one brings about another, and then the successor states, so that the system eventually returns to a state which is the same as the starting state.3 (As James Joyce put it, "Finagin. ") Certain clearly specifiable sets of relationships can give rise to a sequence of states which recur in a regular (spatial and / or temporal) pattern. This is a kind of structure, but one which exists far from the equilibrium condition of zero rate of production of entropy. In fact, the existence of such structures depends on dissipation of energy. Prigogine has pointed out some of the general philosophical consequences of these scientific developments (EB 214).

Observing devices, either within the region of the dissipative structure or outside of it, may detect regular oscillations caused by variations of components of the structure, or, if their temporal or spatial resolving power is not high enough for that, they may detect only a new, averaged reading, corresponding to a novel state of affairs brought about by the closure of the set of relationships which defines the dissipative structure. That is, some percipients will interact with the system as a multiplicity, but for other percipients the system, as a whole, is the source of an effect. The closure of the network of catalytic processes has made a difference for the rest of the world. The unicity of the effect depends both on the closure intrinsic to the system and on the characteristics of the percipient. This is a type of transmutation related to, but in a sense more general than, the transmutation brought about in the case of Newton’s massy sphere. The dissipative structure manifests unitary efficacy only over time-periods that are significantly longer than the characteristic time-parameter of the structure (usually the period of a complex oscillation).

Networks of physical, chemical, or biological interactions can give rise to situations in which some (but not all) external observers perceive a unified source of effective action. This might be regarded as a kind of transmutation which, however, is highly dependent on the characteristics of the percipient entities. It should be noted that Whitehead’s identification of the epoch of a single human occasion as a fraction of a second depends on the response-time of neural networks. This is an example of the characteristics of a percipient being involved in the definition of an actuality (e.g., MT 220, AI 183).

Both the "principle of relativity" (PR 22) and the "reformed subjectivist principle" (PR 167) indicate that any conception of an actuality apart from its interrelations with other actualities, or apart from its satisfaction of subjective aim, would be high abstraction. As Felt points out, the problem is to show how epistemological and ontological aspects of particular actualities can be understood together. Whitehead once wrote (S 28): "Whenever the ‘all or none’ principle holds, we are in some way in with one actual entity, and not with a society of such entities, nor with the analysis of components contributory to one such entity." Subjective aim may be identified with the intrinsic ability of a system to set itself off from its surroundings.4 Dissipative structures in chemical and physical systems involve all-or-none closures of networks of relationships that, in turn, give rise to self-definition of discrete, organized regions, cut off from each other by regions of little or no order. Attainment of such organized states provides the basis for well-founded discriminations of unity.

This suggests that it would be coherent with contemporary science to regard an entity as one of the res verae if, and to the extent that, an all-or none closure of relationships provided a basis for discrimination of that entity as a unitary source of effective action. Each such case would involve a matching of spatial and temporal scales between the defining network of relationships (subjective aim?) and prehending capabilities of percipient actualities. It is clear that on this basis the related notions of elementary entities and of simple prehensions are idealizations. All prehensions are somehow transmuted, and all entities are somehow composite. The distinction between nexus and actuality is not univocal, but depends on the detailed nature of the interactions involved.5

This reading is more restrictive than Wallack’s version of Whitehead.6 It is less restrictive than the orthodox interpretation, which does seem to be the position at which Whitehead himself finally arrived. Adopting this interpretation would require major change in some aspects of process thought, but seems likely to permit additional development of great value. Whitehead had good reasons for adopting the final position that he did adopt, but there now seems to be reason to move beyond it. After all, "in philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly" (PR xiv).



BB -- Ilya Prigogine, From Being to Becoming. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1980.

ENP -- F. Bradford Wallack, The Epochal Nature of Process in Whitehead’s Metaphysics. Albany: SUNY Press, 1980.



1A nontechnical discussion of this point is included in B. Rajaraman’s article in Mesons in Nuclei, Vol. 1, M. Rho and D. H. Wilkinson, editors (Amsterdam: North Holland, 1979).

2 Quintillian, Inists. Orat. V. 10, 18.

3 An important characteristic of a true limit cycle is that there is a single sequence of states that is eventually reached no matter what (within wide limits) the starting state of the system. This has the consequence that if the system be driven, by some perturbation, into a state which lies off the cycle, it will return to the original sequence of states. Intrinsic capacity for self-restoration after disturbance is the defining characteristic of structures in general.

4 This concept is suggested by J. Burgers, Experience and Conceptual Activity (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1965), p. 69.

5 Unless this be true, either the first category of existence is not applicable, or some entities are elementary (noncomposite). Such entities are not identifiable among subatomic particles, among human persons, or elsewhere.

6 Justus Buchler has elaborated a ‘natural complex’ metaphysics which seems related to the interpretation Wallack favors (Metaphysics of Natural Complexes [New York Columbia University Press, 1966]). Ivor Leclerc has suggested a concept of how compound entities may function as "one substance," The present interpretation is consistent with, but somewhat more specific than, Leclerc’s proposal (The Nature of Physical Existence [New York: Humanities Press, 1972] esp. p. 311).