On the Formation of Ontological Concepts: the Theories of Whitehead and Piaget

by Reto Luzius Fetz

Reto Luzius Fetz is Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Eichstaett, West Germany. He has recently published a book about Jean Piaget and is organizing an International Congress on Edith Stein for 1991.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 262-272, Vol. 17, Number 4, Winter, 1988. 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.


The author compares Piaget’s genetic theory of cognition with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. He discusses Whitehead’s metaphysical theories versus Piaget’s naturalistic theory, genetic ontology versus genetic epistemology, "organism" versus "thing."

Translated by Carolyn Wolf Spanier and John M. Sweeney

The present paper is an attempt to investigate connections between Whitehead’s work on ontological theory and Piaget’s genetic theory of cognition. Although Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an explicitly metaphysical theory and Piaget’s genetic theory of cognition is markedly a naturalistic theory, the first part of this paper contends that an extensive relationship exists between the two theories. The second part addresses, in a more limited sense, another issue, namely, the emergence of a "genetic ontology" from a "genetic epistemology." What a genetic ontology can contribute to questions posed by Whitehead is illustrated in the third part regarding the complex problem of the concept of "organism" versus the notion of "thing."

I. Whitehead and Piaget: Metaphysical and Naturalistic Process Thinking

That Piaget’s genetic theory of cognition should stand in a real relationship to Whitehead’ s philosophy of organism is no longer surprising if one thinks that the former represents a naturalistic variant of the same process thinking that Whitehead had developed in a metaphysical form. The general assumption of both theorists has been expressed by Whitehead as the "principle of process": how an entity becomes constitutes what an entity is (PR 23/28). Whitehead came up with the result that the description of the "being" of an entity ultimately cannot be formulated independently from the description of its "becoming." This does not exclude the possibility of both analyses being carried out largely independently of one another. A cell-unit of reality, or "actual-entity," is analyzable, according to Whitehead, "genetically" as well as "morphologically" (PR 219/256), and he himself carried out these two analyses in two separate parts of his main work (PR sections III, IV). Nevertheless, the analyses are related intrinsically because the process which leads to an "actual occasion" makes up its inner constitution. The "morphology" of such an occasion does not reflect anything other than its objective "satisfaction," or, as we might say, the statically observed result of the process which constitutes the occasion. Each "morphology" -- even when it results in the form of a static description of structure -- is capable of finding a more profound explanation only with the help of the genetic analysis, which alone can show how and why a structure has become that which it is.

If one moves from here to the foundation that Piaget gave for his genetic theory of cognition, then it is easily recognizable that his theory can function as the applied cognitive theory for Whitehead’s process principle (IEG I). Piaget perceived that the disadvantage of all traditional theories of cognition is that they have viewed cognition too often as a state and not often enough as a process (PE 7f.). This applies especially to Kant, who saw sciences like logic and physics as definitely fixed; therefore, Kant’s inquiry into the possible foundations of logic and physics, presupposed as invariable, did not take into account the fact that his own Aristotelian logic and Newtonian physics were historical, and therefore changing, forms of these sciences. The understanding of the process character of cognition, in the history of humankind as well as in respect to the individual, brought Piaget to renew decisively the issue of cognitive theory. His research departed from the claim of the Neo-Kantians, particularly of the French historical-critical school, and understood the development of cognition as an historical process, within which the history of science continues to bring forward new approaches and new conceptual methods. As a revolutionary achievement, contrary to the traditional interpretation that the child has in principle at its disposal the same means of cognition as the adult, Piaget discovered that the development of the individual from child to adult must also be seen as a sequential building-up process of more and more complex structures of cognition.

Thus, the psychogenesis of the structures of cognition became the central part of Piaget’s work. Just as Whitehead, in his phases, wanted to analyze the "genetic process" constituting an "actual occasion" (PR 26/31), Piaget tried to understand the most important stages of development of the (active) "epistemic" subject and the mechanics of their construction. Analogous to Whitehead’s process principle, in the formation of the structures of cognition, Piaget saw more than simply the conditions which allow for cognition (EG 115f.). He intended to show the genetic construction of the cognitive forms by the subject as actually constitutive of these forms. Also because the cognitive forms of the subject are the foundations of possibility of its cognition, Piaget could say that the cognition’s "Being" is constituted by its "becoming." The basis on which the genetic cognitive theory stands and which actually gives the genetic question its meaning is consequently nothing more than a specification of Whitehead’s process principle: how cognition becomes constitutes what cognition is, so that both analyses, relative to cognition, ultimately include one another. What Whitehead called the "genetic" and the "morphological" manner of thinking, Piaget summarized in the idea of the general method and interpretation of "genetic structuralism" (ESH 7); both explicitly assert that structure and genesis are interdependent: each structure, from the biological to the cognitive, is to be understood as the result of a process of formation, which conversely can only be understood as the continuous development of potential structures (BC 193; S 121).

Piaget approached the psychogenesis of cognition specifically by means of an empirical psychology (cf. EG 6f.) -- and thereby became a developmental psychologist. Nevertheless, Piaget’s psychology must itself be seen as a fundamental shifting of paradigms within the humanities, which puts the humanities into a new relationship with philosophy (cf. PPE). Psychology, as Piaget pursued it, does not aim merely in a positivistic sense to bring empirical data under a general form of law and, therefore, to make possible the predictions like the if-then sentences of the behavioristic stimulus-reaction-pattern. Rather Piaget dealt here primarily with the uncovering of structures as holistic forms of organization, which underlie the behavior and more especially the cognitive capabilities of the subject in question. "Structure" is thereby understood as the scientific parallel to the philosophical concept of form or of essence (S 7). Piaget fell into the same tradition as Kant when Piaget allowed each cognition to be dependent on cognitive forms previously developed (cf. EG 120). Moreover, Piaget also fell into the tradition of Aristotle when he conceived the cognitive forms genetically as a continuation of the biological organization of the natural subject, which interacts with its environment (cf. BC 73).

Within the history of psychology, structuralism goes back particularly to Gestalt psychology, which, with the discovery of unities of perception, broke most decidedly with the interpretation of cognition as a mechanical association of elementary impressions and ideas. Whitehead, who spoke of "the great merit of the ‘Gestalt’ people," had apparently recognized and welcomed this change (letter to Hartshorne, KE 199). The structuralism of Piaget stands even closer to Whiteheadian thought, however, just because of its explicitly "genetic" character. What Piaget criticized about Gestalt psychology is its one-sided reduction of perceptive forms to physical laws of the field (S 51f.). Formulated another way, Gestalt psychology does not give sufficient consideration to the structuring activity of the subject, which continues to produce, in addition to the forms of perception (which themselves undergo a development), new cognitive structures and especially thought structures, which in the end have little in common with perceptive figurations. The naturalism of Piaget is, according to his own explanation, just as far removed from positivism as from an excessive reductionism (EG 10, 121f.). Without being an idealistic theory, the genetic theory of cognition emphasizes the activity of the (active) "epistemic" subject, since this theory sees in cognition particularly a continuous construction of the subject.

In regard to metaphysics, however, Piaget departed fundamentally from Whitehead’s position. In expressing his naturalism Piaget kept his theory on a level of pure immanence, unlike Whitehead, who appealed to a timeless transcendent realm of ideas ("eternal objects"), Piaget saw "forms" only as the constructions of natural subjects, and he wanted to explain this construction as a process of self-regulation. Nevertheless, as paradoxical as it sounds, underlying this difference is also a relationship between Piaget and Whitehead, i.e., Piaget presented a strictly naturalistic interpretation of the Whiteheadian "ontological principle." In sharp contrast to the French structuralists (particularly Foucault), Piaget was not ready to let structures exist independently of real subjects. Structures, whether concrete or abstract, could, according to Piaget, exist only as resultants of effective construction (S 120) and, thereby, only in a subject which is constructing them -- a subject that, as for Whitehead, in no way is to be equivalent to a conscious "I ," but rather which is initially to be understood as an "organic" subject. So the appeal to a realm of ideas existing independently was not a consideration at all for Piaget.

With this concept of natural subjectivity oriented to the living, Piaget pursued the philosophy of organism of Whitehead on the level of natural and social sciences. Piaget said that Whitehead had recognized the inadequacy of mechanical means of explanation and had set forth the distinctive importance of the concept of organism (ESH 312). In overcoming the opposition of mechanism and vitalism within biology, Piaget referred to Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s organicism (BC 218f.). For Piaget, as for his predecessors, the living organism was the prototype of a holistic structure and the connecting link between, on the one hand, physical-chemical systems and, on the other hand, the thinking subject (S 40). In the living organism he saw the key to a genetic structuralism; what the genetic theory of cognition wants to analyze by the term psychogenesis is specifically the emergence of the so-called knowing, intelligent subject from the preliminary stages of biological organization; that is, the step-by-step ensuing construction of symbolic conceptual structures and thinking structures, following from the sensori-motor performance basis of cognition.

Accordingly, fundamental correspondence would appear relative to the development of cognition itself. As Whitehead allowed cognition to be grounded in real prehensions, which occur between a subject and its object world, so also it was for Piaget: the "epistemic" subject, as an organism, previously an "open system" which simply lives in interaction with its environment, acts -- and finally, thinks (BC 477).

2. Genetic Epistemology -- Genetic Ontology

Further, we pose the question of how the research results of Piaget’s genetic theory of cognition could be significant for a critical review of Whitehead’s position on the origin and range of ontological concepts. Questions of origin are genetic questions, as far as they concern the experience of reality of the "epistemic" subject, out of which that subject’s interpretation of reality emerges. So it may be expected that Piaget’s research can empirically clarify and perhaps confirm or refute Whitehead’s contention. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that the genetic theory of cognition -- in the form proposed by Piaget (IEG) -- was not applied, at least not primarily, to ontological issues. In order to consider ontological issues within the perspective proposed by Piaget, we would like to examine in what sense a "genetic ontology" could be a welcome addition to the Piagetian "genetic epistemology."

The expression "épistémologie génétique," coined by Piaget, has not the same connotation and extent as the English term "epistemology." The rendering of "genetic epistemology" for "épistémologie génétique" is, therefore, misleading because it calls to mind the idea of a theory of cognition, which, according to the traditional philosophical connotation, has to do with the development of cognition in a broad sense, in all its forms and possibilities. According to the prevailing usage of "épistémologie" in French, Piaget was primarily concerned with the development of scientific thinking in a narrower sense, as it is met in logic and mathematics and in natural and social sciences. According to the intention of its founder, genetic epistemology should examine how scientific thinking, as it pertains to the established sciences, becomes possible in the development of the individual from child to adult; genetic epistemology should further ask about the relationships between this ontogenetic process and the phylogenetic process of the history of humankind as the history of science. Genetic epistemology was thought to be a keystone, which would round out the sciences. The very process of formation of the sciences should be first of all disclosed by means of scientific research, research available to developmental psychology.

According to this goal of studying genetic epistemology, the psychologist looked chiefly at the development of logical-mathematical structures in the developing "epistemic" subject, and further, at the application of these structures as instruments for the explanation of the physical world. Ontological questions were, thereby, only indirectly raised and not explicitly addressed. Already Piaget had been thinking about bringing the ontological issue to discussion in the form of a "genetic ontology" and had, in an early work, differentiated between the "logical" and the "ontological" development (CPE 338), that is, between the development of the "formal" and the "real" categories, as this development is referred to by Hoeffding. The clarification of the development of our perception of reality, of concepts, and of ideas of being would, therefore, generally fall, for purposes of investigation, into the realm of genetic ontology. This Piagetian idea is discussed below and brought into connection with Whiteheadian issues.

First we shall attempt to sketch more closely the idea, the presuppositions, the possibilities, and the boundaries of a genetic ontology. The term "ontology" has received a double meaning in the course of its history: it means, in its different applications, not only the philosophical theory of being but also the consideration of the human’s statements about reality. In particular Heidegger had moved this second aspect to the foreground in the reconsideration of the human being as the originally onto-logical being, by claiming its illumination in a "fundamental ontology." A genetic ontology wants to and can concern itself only in this second sense with the question of Being; it poses the question of how the perception of reality develops, that is, how "beings" at the different stages of development are "expressed" or "categorized." The statements about reality, which genetic ontology wants to look at, can be explicit or implicit. Next to, or in front of, the explicit reflected ontology of philosophers, we may already assign to the natural subject an implicit ontology, as the implicit ontology is chiefly comprehensible in the natural language; the ontology of scientists takes an intermediate position, which scientists explain to the extent that they become aware of the perception of reality, which their concepts and models presuppose. The differentiation between "implicit" and "explicit" ontologies is meant to be a gradation -- from the statements about reality by the natural subject to those of the scientist and on to those of the philosopher. Also the ontologies of philosophers can only partially be taken as explicit. They, too, have their own unstated assumptions, which can exist in direct relationship to those assumptions which the natural subject makes. Even more so the same is true for the historical forms of the sciences, which have their own pre-forms in the natural subject. The clarification of the relationships between historical, philosophical, and scientific ontologies and the spontaneous perception of reality of the natural subject, which is itself developing, proves to be the central area of questions in a genetic ontology.

The two principal assumptions of genetic ontology are clear. As the name "genetic ontology" indicates, one general assumption is that the human’s statements about reality express the experience of a genesis of being -- and to be sure in a phylogenetic as well as in an ontogenetic sense, that is, in the form of an historical-evolutionary as well as an individual process. In the history of philosophy the assumption of a sequence of ontologies is undisputed. More and more, however, such a sequence is also accepted in the history of science. To be sure, in the history of philosophy as well as in the history of science, opinions diverge radically about the direction or lack of direction of the process and, specifically, about the "progress" which has been perhaps the goal of the process. Less obvious is the second assumptio4l, that the development of the individual from child to adult also points to a sequence of implicit ontologies, which differ quite basically from one another. Whoever is familiar with the results of Piaget’s research will scarcely doubt that the perception of reality of a five-year-old child is basically different from that of a ten-year-old and that the fifteen-year-old interprets reality again quite differently. Further, the relationship of correspondence, in which some of these stages of development parallel the historical forms of science and philosophy, is astonishing. Thus, the results of Piaget’s work suggest that a genetic ontology really opens a large area of research for investigation. Genetic ontology would be nothing else than the attempt, analogous to genetic epistemology, to investigate the genesis of ontologies2 as humans experience and express this genesis. Genetic ontology would study the development of ontologies in an individual subject and bring these ontologies, where possible, into relationship with the historical sequences of ontologies.

Such a research program carried out in the methodological manner of Piagetian psychogenetic research, does not mean that psychology can dictate for itself, out of those categories of actual development, answers to the question of how adequate are our categories of reality. Also, for a well-understood genetic ontology the limitation, as suggested in Heidegger, that this ontology is "only one way," is also true for fundamental ontology (SZ 436). For the deeper task of an ontology is the working out of categories adequate to reality; genetic ontology is capable only of leading in that direction in a preparatory way. Genetic ontology cannot really say anything about how "beings" should be expressed, that is, what is the adequate ontology possible in the present day context in the sense of a theory of beings. Perhaps -- and this is something only the performance of genetic ontology can decide -- genetic ontology is capable of better explaining to us how beings are always understood in the natural development of the human subject, whence our concepts of Being come, under which mode of meaning these concepts stand, and what their relationships are to historical ontologies.

As we know Whiteheadian philosophy already contains a genetic ontology (although not based on empirical proofs) and has broached its problems as almost no other philosophy has done. A decisively critical function in the development of Whitehead’s own ontological scheme of categories moreover belongs to both the historical-critical and the psychogenetic components. Whitehead worked over this scheme of categories in discussion with the historical ontologies, in weighing their successes and mishaps; however, he substantiated this scheme in the end from the self-experience of the subject as his point of departure, as the "reformed subjectivist principle" shows. The evaluation of our elements of experience results from the criteria of originality and depth; decisive for the value-setting of the elements of experience is nothing less than that which one could call their "genetic place" in the whole of experience. Thus, the thing-concept of reality is rejected as superficial because Whitehead thought he was able to show that the thing-concept of reality corresponded to a high grade of abstraction and represented a late derivative concept. For his own organismic concept of reality Whitehead pointed consciously to the originally ordered experience of our selfhood in interaction with the world. What original and derivative moments of our experience are and how they relate to one another in the whole of experience is better explained again in connection with a genetic analysis, i.e., with that of the formation of consciousness. Whitehead’s conception of philosophy is, therefore, not thinkable outside of this genetic perspective. Philosophy is understood as the self-correction of consciousness, which tries to integrate those elements of experience which consciousness, as it is developing itself and advancing selectively, leaves largely unconsidered in its focusing on a pragmatically arranged reality consisting of a world of things. Thus, a way of conceptual work is indicated for philosophy; this way leads back from the late, clear but superficial abstractions to the original, confused but deeper aspects of our concrete experience of reality (cf. PSM).

In its entirety Whitehead’s philosophy offers not only an original ontology, in the classical sense of the word of a theory of being, but includes also -- as a critical basis of the former -- an abundance of statements having to do with the genesis of ontological concepts. The status of these statements is diverse; along with highly gifted intuitions, and also often constructions, there are to be found descriptive analyses of experience which go into detail. Whitehead returned quite unquestionably to experience, without, however, having given his theories a systematic empirical basis in the sense of empirical human science as we now understand it. However, as historical coincidence in the second half of the Twenties, in which Whitehead completed his metaphysics, Piaget published his first books on the world-view of the child. Therein for the first time a body of empirical material was collected and interpreted, confirming at least empirically some of the theses of Whitehead and certainly confirming empirically an organismic conception of reality as opposed to a notion of ‘things." The next, and last, section illustrates this by starting with Piaget’s early research, which could contribute a genetic ontology as a basis for and continued development of Whiteheadian theory.

3. A Genetic Study of the Concept of "Organism" Versus the Notion of "Thing"

In his early research into the child’s world-view, Piaget showed that the thing-concept, as Whitehead criticized it, actually appears rather late in a child’s development and represents an abstraction from earlier and more concrete perceptions (RME) Not until around ten years of age does the child come to see "things" in reality in the way the adult sees "things" in reality and uses the thing-concept consciously, that is argumentatively. If one asks the child if an object feels anything, then the child answers: No, because it is a thing and has no life" (RME 181). From this and other examples it is clear that the ten-year-old child, for the first time, connects with the thing-concept those ideas which Whitehead had laid out as characteristic for the notion of "thing." If it is said of a "thing" that it "doesn’t feel anything" and "has no life," then the child denies the "thing" its own movement and spontaneity; a "thing" is something that is simply there and that, without any initiative from itself, endures movements and changes. Everything suggests that the child first accepts a "simple location" relative to "things"; prior to this acceptance the child grants universal relationships unequivocally to all beings.

What is particularly important to point out in our context is the circumstances that this thing-concept and the associated ideas of lifelessness, of lack of feeling, of passivity, of obstinacy, and of "simple location" pretty much represent the exact opposite of that spontaneous and general perception of reality which belongs to younger children. The small child proceeds universally from the idea of an all-governing life; whatever moves and insofar as it moves, the child thinks, in the beginning, is alive and feels something. Each movement is thereby conceived implicitly as a movement produced by the entity itself. Then a differentiating process sets in, by which the child begins to distinguish between self-movement and movement received from outside. As a result of this differentiation life is kept in reserve for beings with self-movements, and around the tenth year these movements become ultimately limited to animals and plants (prior to that time water and the constellations are considered as living because self-movement is imparted to them) (RME 166-200). But even when the child has learned to distinguish between the self-movement and movement being received from outside, that still does not mean that the child accepts, in the last analysis, a pure passivity of the moved thing. More so, the role of the mover is compared to that of an initiator of movement; the initiator "makes" something move, whereby the movement includes the participation of the moved (RME 404). Here it becomes clear that the concept of a passive thing, which is only moved from the outside, represents a type of limitation in the development of the child’s cognition; the child first comes to this cognition by disregarding each spontaneous movement which has been primary for the child. Analogous to this are also feelings, consciousness, and intentions, which the child initially attributes to all beings and eventually limits to animals and humans; typically, as the previous statements about passivity and self-movement indicate, feelings, consciousness, and intentions are explicitly taken away from "things." Also the corresponding idea of an unrelated juxtaposition, as in the Whiteheadian notion of "simple location," appears, of course, late in a child’s development; in the beginning the child believes spontaneously in an interconnectedness among all beings, that is in their reciprocal participation and ability to be influenced by each other. (The moon follows us, and we are that which causes it to follow us.) Similarly, just as with primitive people, the child accepts, in the beginning, a universal "participation," as Piaget said, referring to the work of Lévy-Bruhl.

It is not necessary to give here a more exact description of the psychogenesis of the ideas and concepts of reality since we are much more interested in the sense of direction than in the details of this development. The few above-mentioned examples might have already shown that the natural development of cognition in the child in no way corresponds to the process which Whitehead called "clear-cut philosophy" (PR 209f./242). The child does not proceed from the simplest, rudimentary notion of "thing" of the real, which the child would then enrich in further steps by the addition of other conditions like "life," "feeling," and "will," so that the conception also fits the more complex areas of reality. The opposite is the case: from the beginning the child looks at a confusing pattern which presents all these aspects in each and every reality, and slowly the child learns to comprehend these aspects in concepts and to limit their area of validity. Said another way, the child adds no new aspects to a rudimentary notion of reality, but rather separates out differentiated aspects like self-movement and feeling from realities recognized as more impoverished. The thing-concept is then the left-over product of such a separating process; it is, as Whitehead contended, a late abstraction.

Let us ask ourselves now why the psychogenetic development runs this way and not the opposite way. Piaget found an explanation in the fact that initially the childlike subject does not yet differentiate between itself and the object world (RME 155f.). Therefore, the child comprehends the whole reality as corresponding to its own self-experience -- a self-experience which, according to the naive realism of the child, is simultaneously the experience of other entities. Piaget chose the expression of "ontological egocentricity" for the early childlike method of interpretation. The term "egocentricity" can be misleading in this context because this term is usually related to the acceptance of a conscious "I" which is projected onto reality. The idea of such a projection is to be rejected, nevertheless, in the case of the small child since this idea presupposes a separation between the inner world and the outer world, a separation which does not yet exist. For Piaget, the ontological egocentricity of the child was due primarily to the fact that the child does not yet differentiate its selfhood from the Being of the universe (RME 110, 241); therefore, the child is not yet conscious of itself as being other over against the world and, therefore, interprets the whole reality according to its own experience. The unquestionably primal reality of the child is the interaction with the environment which the child perceives as it experiences itself in its relationship to the environment. To me it appears not misleading to see, in this ontological egocentricity, a natural first pre-form of that statement of interpretation which Whitehead has brought to a new importance with his "reformed subjectivist principle" on an entirely different, theoretical level -- and, therewith, naturally under completely different conditions (PR 160/186). This principle, which views the real subject of the self-experience as standing in real relationships to a real object world, emphasizes again that the self-experience as experience of interaction is correct. For the child who sees spontaneity, feeling, and intention everywhere, the central sentence of Whitehead is applicable in its own way: "Apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness" (PR 167/194).

What then, in a process of development which stretches itself out over several stages, produces that rethinking which brings a child to differentiate between spontaneous movement and movement received from outside, reserving the former for organisms and thing-ifying the rest of reality? That artifacts, and especially simple machines, are first separated from that which has life, seems important; here is where spontaneity is missing, and the role of outer momentum is most evident. For simple machines like a bicycle we also find the earliest stages of an explanation, which can be classified as mechanical and which looks away from a self-propelled movement and switches over to external influences; from seven to eight years of age the child is, in the realm of mechanical things, capable of understanding movements in function of transmissions (RME 221-266). Subsequently a gradual general alteration of the perception of reality takes place, in the sense of an increasing mechanization of the explanation of nature which is, as Piaget surmised, internally dependent on the initial correct understanding of machines (CPE 263f.). The machine appears consequently as prototype and paradigm of a new model of explanation. The concept of an inactive and feelingless "thing" appears parallel to this first concept of a mechanical causality. Accordingly, Whitehead might have been completely correct in relation to psychogenesis if he considered the object perception of reality as the result of human practice, that is, of the understandable association with artifacts and particularly with machines. What one can historically describe as the "mechanization of the image of the world" is, at any rate in an environment formed by machines, a process which is also being looked at psychogenetically; this process advances the same object categories and ideas of movement, if only in a rudimentary, pre-reflexive manner, which might, especially for that reason, influence thinking so much more persistently.

The analysis of the psychogenesis of the concepts and ideas of reality appears thus to confirm completely Whitehead’s notion according to which the concept of substance, which is determined by the idea of the thing, represents a late abstraction which has sacrificed important aspects of our original experience of self and the world. What becomes evident then is the similarity which exists between the genetically early forms of the understanding of reality and the explanations of the philosophy of organism. There seems to be no doubt that Whitehead’s organismic conception of reality stands closer to the child’s early image of the world than to the later phase of thing-ification.

Nevertheless, the above comparative analysis must not be completely misunderstood. In no way is it contended that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism comes close to a "return" to early childlike perceptions. Such a contention would be absurd; it would completely misconstrue the differences between early natural thinking and the theoretical work of conceptualization. Such an absurd contention would reduce fundamentally different levels of thought to a single level.

We do not have to decide at this point if, and in which regard, the early childlike interpretation of reality in the mode of "ontological egocentricity" is more adequate or more inadequate than the later object-oriented perception of reality. Overall one can say that the early childlike interpretation continues to hold those aspects, which are known to the child’s self in the experience of its self, to be present everywhere, aspects which later in the thing-ification of reality and the mechanization of explanation are let go from many areas. In this sense the early childlike image of the world is without doubt richer than the later, thinglike-mechanical thinking. Not in vain does the charm of lost childhood move poets -- just as it is not an accident that Whitehead reached back to the nature poetry of romanticism for a fuller understanding of Nature. On the other hand, that which Piaget called "childlike animism" -- the equipping of all areas with magical powers, with life and feeling, even those areas which are unequivocally "lifeless" for adults -- is most certainly an excessive, that is an overly anthropomorphic, understanding of reality (RME 158). Compared with these childlike deformations Whitehead’s philosophy works with distinctions which are not at all thinkable in the pre-reflexive, pre-theoretical niveau of a child.

The close association, as argued above, of the philosophy of organism to the spontaneous childlike interpretation of reality, which occurs prior to the thing-ification of reality, is not rendered meaningless by the recognition of these differences. There is a basic difference between two ways of thinking. One way follows the tendency of abstracting towards simplification, as this tendency appears preliminarily sketched in the psychogenetic development right down to the concept of "thing" and in the mechanization of the explanation. The other way of thinking wants to consciously correct the one-sidedness of this strategy of simplification (which is without doubt necessary) by trying again to apprehend those aspects which the self-developing consciousness splits from the more basic categories and, primarily, from the conception of "thing." Whitehead’s greatness actually lies in that he knew these two possible ways of thinking as probably no other philosopher before him and decided unequivocally for the latter. Here again one is reminded of Whitehead’s analysis of the origin of a hitherto dominant, superficial concept of substance out of the pragmatic arrangement of reality and especially of the explicitly formulated thought that logical simplicity, distinction, and clarity may not be equated with ontological originality and depth (PR 54/69; 162/188). From this analysis emerged Whitehead’s own interpretation of philosophy, whose job, as he saw it, was not to continue to carry further the discrimination made by our consciousness, but rather, conversely, Whitehead required that philosophy connects the later abstractions of consciousness with the original totality of experience (PR 14f./18f.). Now it is understood why he was so against every form of the "Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness" as well as why he was for a philosophical "critique of abstractions."

From the above perspective it appears more than coincidental that Whitehead’s path from the abstract to the concrete, from the notion of "thing" to an organismic conception of reality, led him again into the arena of those ways of understanding which are themselves found in the psychogenetic development before the stages involving the thing-ification of reality and the mechanization of explanation. As Piaget spoke of animism for the early stages of the child’s development, so also Whitehead has often been reproached as a "Panpsychist." This reproach is clearly superficial, even if it is not completely unfounded: as emphasized previously, seeing a return to genetic early forms in a philosophy of organism would be absurd, just as seeing a return to animism in the proposals of Piaget would be absurd. In both cases, however, the dominance of similar means of understanding is unmistakable, as both are based on biocentricity; in this perspective it appears then completely valid to look at Whitehead’s philosophy of organism as a purified and newly founded resumption of that which appeared previously as animism, before being overlaid by thing-ification. Similar relationships could be established in regard to teleological thinking and participatory thinking.

In conclusion, it would be important to ask whether or not, with its claim to a return to concreteness, the philosophy of organism moves eo ipso in a circle of understanding, which leads the philosophy of organism back -- on a higher level or according to a known image in a spiral form -- to genetically earlier stages of understanding than those of the average adult. The development of cognition in general is conceived in Piaget’s genetic theory as a reconstruction of earlier forms of cognitive organization with new means and on a new level; the best known example of this development is the transformation and reconstruction of sensori-motor activity schemata into symbolic-conceptual thinking operations. Such reconstructions incorporate earlier constructions; they point, however, quite unequivocally beyond these constructions (cf. BC 458f.). Similar developmental laws might also be valid for our understanding of reality. The above established relationship between the philosophy of organism and the genetic early forms of our perception of reality say nothing against the philosophy of organism, but rather say something for it, on the condition that the existence of essential niveau differences, the integration of necessary differentiations, and the rejection of anthropomorphic formations, point to an obvious need for a whole new conceptual elaboration.



BC -- Jean Piaget. Biologie et connaissance. Essai sur les régulations entre les régulations organiques et les processus cognitifs. 2nd ed. Paris: Gallimard (Idees), 1973.

CPE -- Jean Piaget. La causalite physique chez l’enfant. Paris: Alcan, 1927.

EG -- Jean Piaget. L’épistémologie génétique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1970.

EPW -- Ernst Cassirer. Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Vol. 1. Hildesheim: Olms, 1971.

ESH -- Jean Piaget. Epistémologie des sciences de I

lEG -- Jean Piaget. Intruction à l’épistémologie génétique. Vol. I-III. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950.

KE -- Alfred North Whitehead. Essays on His Philosophy. Ed. George Louis Kline. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1963.

KrV -- Immanuel Kant. Kritik der reinen Vernunft. 2nd ed. 1787.

PE -- Jean Piaget. Psychologie et épistémologie. Paris: Denoel-Gonthier, 1970.

PHG -- George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Phänomenologie des Geistes. Ed. Johannes Hoffmeister. Hamburg: Meiner, 1952.

PPE -- Reto Luzius Fetz. "Piaget als philosophisches Ereignis." Piaget und die Folgen. Ed. George Steiner. Die Psychologie des 20. Jahrhunderts. Vol. VII. Zurich: Kindler, 1978, 27-40.

PSM -- Reto Luzius Fetz. Whitehead: Prozessdenken und Substanzmetaphysik. Freiburg/Munich: Alber, 1981.

RME -- Jean Piaget. La représentation du monde chez l’enfant. Paris: Alcan, 1926.

S -- Jean Piaget. I.e structuralisme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968.

SZ -- Martin Heidegger. Sein und Zeit. 10th ed. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1963.



1Whitehead’s "ontological principle" is central to his process theory which posits quanta of experience as he fundamental basis of what humans understand as reality. In Whitehead’s terms, "Actual entities -- also termed ‘actual occasions’ -- are the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real. . . . The final facts are, all alike, actual entities; and these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent." (PR 18/27-28)

2 Ontologies or basic ontological categories such as "idea," "thing," "object." "self," "God," "process," etc.