Perception and Causality: Whitehead and Aristotle

by Shielah O’Flynn Brennan

Sheilah O’Flynn Brennan received her Ph.D. from Laval University, Quebec, with postdoctoral study at Oxford. She has taught at St. Mary’s College and now at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 273-284, Vol. 3, Number 4, Winter, 1973. 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.


Aristotle took objects to be peculiar to conscious experience and the causal efficacy to be the more general factor lying at the base of consciousness. Whitehead took the subject-object structure as general and fundamental and interpreted causal efficacy in terms of it.

The examination of human experience for factors which could be used to account for other natural occurrences presents itself as a normal method of procedure for one who rejects the Cartesian type of dualism. This, of course, was Whitehead’s chief approach in the establishment of his speculative cosmology. The analysis of human experience, or to be even more specific, subjective experience, Whitehead believed, would yield certain factors and patterns of factors susceptible to being converted into a general theory broad enough to embrace the findings of physics and other natural sciences. It would be a case of looking downward from the most complex product of nature rather than of looking upward from the least complex. One of the chief advantages of such an approach is the reduced likelihood of overlooking some real components of nature which in the simplest natural entities are minimal to the point of indiscernibility. But there are liabilities as well. There is always, for instance, the danger of paying attention to these facets of our experience which present themselves with a certain obviousness, to the neglect of other more submerged facets. Generally speaking, what is most distinctly obvious is what is least likely of generalization, being proper to more highly developed forms of consciousness. Furthermore, since even these items that might indeed be susceptible of generalization are realized differently in different types of entities, there is always something peculiarly human about their mode of realization in human occurrences. It is precisely these peculiarly human factors and modes of realization that must be dropped for the sake of greater generality. Just what these peculiarities are, however, is far from easy to determine. Yet the success of a metaphysics such as Whitehead’s depends upon this discrimination being made with accuracy.

No one is more aware than Whitehead himself that the generalizable factors are not to be found in the more developed stages of human experience, but rather in the most basic, most primitive levels. If human experience is to give us some clue as to what nature in general is like, we must descend to the very threshold of consciousness. Indeed, it is precisely in this respect that he diverges from the traditional subjectivist approach: his insistence on a more primitive mode of experience than is generally recognized as the starting point for metaphysical investigation. This emphasis on a basic form of experience to serve as ground and source of evidence as well as final arbiter for the metaphysical venture is one of the most, perhaps the most, distinctive features of Whitehead’s philosophy -- and, at least in my opinion, one of the most attractive. Nevertheless, I would like to raise the question whether Whitehead is not after all guilty of emphasizing and generalizing some factor that may indeed be peculiar to man and the higher animals, at the expense of another factor which could offer more genuine grounds for generalization. The discussion of this question will constitute the substance of the present study.

Let us briefly indicate the generalizable factors that Whitehead found in human experience and which form the central concepts of his philosophy. Our most fundamental conscious experience has generally been taken to be the perception of sensa, i.e., of relatively clear and distinct objects such as red, bitter, etc. Whitehead disagrees. The most basic conscious experience is emotional rather than cognitive, an affective response (expansion or retreat) to some vague presence dimly felt (AI 225f, PR 246-48). It is, Whitehead maintains, at a higher level of experience that the object disengages itself from emotional associations and appears to us simply as an object, i.e., as a cognitive object. It is this "crude," or "nonsensuous," perception, Whitehead believes, that we find in more elementary forms throughout nature. The jellyfish advances and withdraws; the plant reaches down to the moist soil (PR 268); everything throughout the universe "feels" its world and responds. Thus perception is generalized into "prehension," a term which drops consciousness as an essential element. Furthermore, prehension is identified with causality. Indeed, the more primitive form of perception is called by Whitehead "perception according to the mode of causal efficacy." (The more elaborated form, e.g., the perception of "red there," he called "perception according to the mode of presentational immediacy." Normal perception, we might add, is a synthesis of the two.) Our basic perceptions of the world, Whitehead insists, are feelings of causal efficacy. That we feel the world does not mean primarily that we entertain bare sensa (or universals, such as red, bitter) that represent the world. It means that we have the world within and, as occasions of experience, are constituted by the particular, concrete objects of our experience. It means that we derive from the world and are determined by it; that we conform to the world and reproduce it; that we inherit the world. Thus, it is though prehension that the world leaves its mark on us, exerts on us its causal efficacy.

What we experience in perception according to the mode of causal efficacy is precisely this causal inheritance. When it comes into consciousness, Whitehead tells us, it is already integrated with factors of a later stage, but it is nonetheless there to be discovered if we but avert to it. There is the sense, for instance, of the derivation of one mental state from that of the immediate past. In the experience of anger, we have the sense of the anger of a fraction of a second ago welling up into the present, exacting some degree of conformity with the past. Even more significantly, we have the sense, vague but insistent, of derivation from the body: the very dim awareness of the eye being causally involved in seeing and the stronger sense of the hand, or other part of the body, being involved in touch. This sense of derivation from bodily events, Whitehead reminds us, finds full corroboration in modern physiology. But the body fades off into external nature. At no fixed point does one’s body end and external nature begin. There is no reason not to believe that the sources of derivation extend beyond the body. What we have, then, is a series of actual occasions -- or a complex strand of many such series -- in which each occasion prehends and responds to the entities of the immediate past. Thus prehension is inheritance. Inheritance is causation. Causation is experienced, Whitehead insists against Hume, but is not a sensum or perceptum in any ordinary meaning of the terms. And it is just this causal element in primitive experience that extends into the fundamental scheme of the universe.

Accordingly, the world is made up of actual occasions or entities, each of them actively prehending the actual entities of the immediate past and conforming to them -- at least in the initial stages of formation. Each actual entity is a process of "concrescence," moving towards a synthesis of prehensions. But since the past entity too is constituted of its prehensions, what the new entity prehends and conforms to are prehensions of past entities. Thus the qualitative characters ("subjective forms") of the prehensions (feelings, energies) of the past occasion are reproduced in the prehensions (feelings, energies) of the present occasion. Reproduction and inheritance are therefore effected through the intermediary of form, or in Whitehead’s term, "eternal objects." In this way, "the qualitative energies of the past are combined into a pattern of qualitative energies in each present occasion. This is the doctrine of causation" (MT 226f).

Whitehead opposes the idea that perception involves no more than the bare entertainment of universals. In its basic form, perception is not of universals but of concrete singular entities, and it is not a bare, passive entertainment but an active response. Perception in its primitive mode, as we have seen, is perception of causal efficacy, that is, the causal efficacy of concrete singular entities, and, as a subjective response to such influence, it is emotional rather than cognitive. What is important to notice in Whitehead’s analysis of experience, however, is that although he substitutes "the emotional" for "the cognitive" as the primitive form of experience, this does not mean that he rejects the subject-object relation. To the contrary, he accepts it as a basic structure of experience beyond and below the purely cognitive level, and ultimately beyond the level of consciousness altogether. Actual entities are causally efficacious with respect to other actual entities only insofar as they are felt, i.e., only insofar as they are objects. The prehending subject, now in process of concrescence, in turn will leave its mark on the world insofar as it will solidify into an object for some future subject. Indeed, for Whitehead, causation is "objectification." Thus, what the analysis of experience brings to light is the subject-object relation, and on this foundation the whole Whiteheadian structure is built.

This is not to say, of course, that we have discussed here all the fundamental elements of Whitehead’s metaphysics. There is an entirely other side to the actual occasion: that aspect which falls into the area of final, rather than efficient, causality -- of freedom as against determinism -- and includes conceptual prehension of eternal objects envisaged as unrealized possibilities (as distinct from physical prehensions of concrete actual entities, which we have been discussing). This side we have passed over merely because it is not pertinent to the points we wish to make in this study. It must be noted, however, that this aspect also of the actual entity is entirely to be understood in terms of subject and objects.

The Whiteheadian philosophy is undoubtedly extraordinarily comprehensive, bringing together the most diverse areas of human experience -- religion, science, aesthetics, ethics, history -- into one comprehensive scheme. But, as Whitehead himself insists, "the ultimate appeal is to naive experience" (SMW 129f). Hence the question that remains before us is twofold: first, whether this subject-object scheme covers everything "naive experience" has to tell us, and second whether it is the factor that is truly basic and pervasive.

To test the soundness of his theories, Whitehead is wont to go beyond his own experience in order to measure it against the testimony of others: scientists, of course, but poets also, and obviously, other philosophers. We might follow his example and approach the question of sensory experience from another philosophical perspective. After all, again as White-head frequently reminds us, facts come to view in the light of a theory. Hence, if there are other facts to be seen, they will the more likely be observed if we look through the lenses of a different metaphysics. Let us take up the standpoint of a philosophy against which Whitehead so frequently and so radically contrasts his own, namely, the Aristotelian. As is well known, there are many significant points of divergence between the two philosophers, but we shall keep to our topic of human experience as manifested in its basic mode, primitive perception.

In Aristotle’s treatment of perception, we find two general characterizations perception (or sensing) is (1) a certain "being acted upon" (DA 416b33), and (2) a reception of form without matter (DA 427a17). Let us take the second point first. According to Aristotle, sensing is a way of having the object within. But the object obviously is not within in its physical being. Its inner presence is effected by the reception of its form (DA 432a1). In sensation, moreover, it is the individual object that is sensed, the individualized form that is received (DA 417b23). Only in the later stages of the cognitive process does a form become disengaged from association with the individual and thus reach the level of an abstract universal. It is to be noted, further, that with sensing Aristotle includes pleasure and pain, i.e., the affective response to the object, as a concomitant factor (DA 414b5f). Moreover, at certain basic levels of sensory experience, especially evident in the case of touch, this affective side is closely associated with bodily involvement and assumes a particularly dominant form. To this point we shall give further attention below.

Despite Whitehead’s protestations against Greek conceptions of perception (and he obviously had Aristotle principally in mind), we seem to have here, so far at least, a theory of sensing in many respects quite similar to the Whiteheadian. In both, the object is immanent in the perceiving subject and this, moreover, is effected through the intermediary of forms (eternal objects). There is a striking resemblance, be it witting or unwitting on Whitehead’s part, between his remark: "In one sense the world is in the soul" (MT 244), and Aristotle’s: "The soul in a way is all existing things" (DA 431b21). There can be no doubt that in the case of sensation for Aristotle one substance is in another just as much and virtually in the same way as it is for Whitehead, despite the latter’s claim to the contrary (cf., e.g., PR 79).1

In both, furthermore, what is perceived is a concrete individual entity, not a universal and not a sensum representing the entity, and the form by which this is effected is an individualized form of the concrete individual object. True, for Aristotle the object is present in the sentient subject not in its entirety but with respect to some aspect, e.g., as red. Hut the case is quite similar for Whitehead: the actual entity is never prehended (objectified) as a whole but according to one of its component prehensions. And finally, for both, perception, especially in its basic forms, involves an element of affective response to the object -- a response that is an integral part of the basic experience rather than "a reflective reaction derived from the original perception" (AI 228). Without ignoring the very great differences that exist between the Aristotelian substance philosophy and the Whiteheadian process philosophy, it still must be affirmed that for the Greek also perception is truly a case of immanence of individual things, not a case of "individual substance qualified by universal quality" and not, absolutely not, a case of "subject qualified by predicate" (cf., e.g., PR 240-42).

The immanence of the thing perceived in the percipient, for Aristotle, is the result of the percipient’s "being acted upon" by the object. And this brings us now to the first Aristotelian characterization of sense perception: sensing is a type of "being acted upon." In other words, it is through the causal influence of the external world that form is received, the object is possessed and sensation takes place. Perception, consequently, is ultimately rooted in causation. Now this is precisely what Whitehead is telling us. He is, however, also saying something more: he maintains that at the lowest levels of experience we perceive the causal efficacy of the external world. Was Aristotle’s claim also based on an awareness of "being acted upon"? Or was it a result merely of a metaphysical preoccupation to tie up all elements of reality into one consistent scheme? There are a number of indications that Aristotle took certain forms of sensory experience to include not only awareness of an object but awareness of being acted upon by the object as well. He did not press the point, but there was no need to do so since when he came on the scene it was generally accepted that sensing is "a sort of being acted upon. What he had to insist on, against this wholly bodily account, was the psychic aspect.2 Whitehead, on the other hand, in the wake of Cartesian dualism, was faced with the necessity of bringing his readers’ attention back to the bodily implications in perception.

That Aristotle included in some forms of sensing experience an awareness of being acted upon becomes fairly obvious when we compare his account of sight with that of touch. Indeed, he appears to be very much aware of the point made by Whitehead concerning the difference between the two senses. In the case of sight, Whitehead states, the bodily feeling is virtually absent; in touch, however, the feeling in the hand is dominant (PR 181). Aristotle most certainly had noticed this characteristic of sight. What else, indeed, could have led him to speculate that sight involves no bodily disturbance -- at least none of any ordinary type -- except the fact that he did not feel any. Indeed he went to great lengths, grappled with the formidable problem of the nature of light, made incredibly subtle distinctions between various types of change, all to explain the fact that in sight consciousness is consciousness of an object, pure and simple, apart from any feelings of bodily involvement. Surely this fact of experience was the given requiring explanation, rather than the other way around.

On the other hand, the case is quite different for touch. Touch, for Aristotle, is the sense of bodily contact (DA 435a17, 434b12f, 432b27). It is the sense of being bodily affected by other bodies. This experience of being affected must certainly have reinforced, if it did not suggest, the hypothetical, but by no means arbitrary, identification of the natural powers with the tactile qualities. He knew certain of these to be active, because he felt them acting on him. Touch, for Aristotle, is the most basic of the senses: the minimal sensory requirement for animal life, the sense of food (taste, for Aristotle, is a sort of touch), as well as the most universal and most bodily form of pleasure and pain (NE 1118a24-b4). Thus at the lowest level of sensory awareness what one becomes conscious of is the activity of bodies on one’s own body. The awareness of the stone is nothing other than an awareness of being affected by the stone. In the other senses, the feeling of being affected diminishes; indeed "being affected" diminishes, or, more accurately, and, assumes a more re. fined form, and in proportion the object gains in clarity and distinctness. It is certainly with this in mind that Aristotle asserts that sight is superior to touch in purity (NE 1176a1) and, as a cognitive power, is the most perfect of all the senses (NE 429a3, M 98a21). There seems little doubt, therefore, that Aristotle recognized in sensory experience, in varying degrees of prominence, both the perception of an object, as such, and also the sense of being physically affected.

What we have here is something very close indeed to Whitehead’s primary mode of perception. The sense of "being affected" is certainly nothing other than, in Whitehead’s terms, the "consciousness of the causal efficacy of the external world" (PR 184). As such it is to be distinguished from the perception of an object merely as passively situated in the external world and not experienced as affecting the sentient. (This, of course, would be Whitehead’s perception in the mode of presentational immediacy.) Such would be most perfectly illustrated in Aristotle, as in Whitehead, by sight taken merely as the sense of color. Touch, furthermore, as the sense of bodily pleasure and pain, involves to a high degree the effective response that, according to Whitehead, is more primitive than the clear perception of a distinct and definite object. The sense of "being affected," moreover, though it is strongest in touch, is not to be identified in Aristotle with any particular sense any more than is the feeling of causal efficacy in Whitehead. Each sense has its peculiar object, but the sense of being affected by the object is an integral and basic part of sensing in general -- at least in its more basic forms. The fault of philosophers since the time of the Greeks, Whitehead claims, has been that they have started with the visual rather than the visceral (PR 184), and have claimed a priority for the cognitive over the emotional. Where Aristotle started from is not the purpose of this study to determine. But this much is clear: those factors found on the most basic level of conscious experience are precisely those that he attributes to the world at large. And what Aristotle found was precisely what Whitehead found: causal efficacy.

Nevertheless, Aristotle’s first characteristic of sensing ("being acted upon") involves a radical difference from the Whiteheadian view. Where the divergence lies is not in what they saw in their examination of experience. It is rather in how they saw it. For Aristotle, being acted upon is being passive: sensing thus implies passivity. For Whitehead, the percipient is in no sense passive; he does not passively receive, he actively prehends. The object exerts its causal influence not by acting upon the subject, but solely as being inert, stubborn fact exacting conformity. Indeed, there is no activity apart from the subject, and here activity is not that of acting upon something but rather the inherent activity of internal synthesis or self-creation. As for passivity, there is none whatsoever in the Whiteheadian scheme, at least not in the Aristotelian sense of the term. If anything may he termed passive, it is the object in perception according to the mode of presentational immediacy, which is passive merely insofar as it is not felt as exerting a causal influence on the percipient.

With Aristotle too, as with Whitehead, sensing is an activity. Indeed, it is the actualization not of matter but of a psychic power. It is, moreover, an activity that remains within and is constitutive of the subject -- though it is not, as with Whitehead, a process of self-creation. Perception is certainly an activity for the Greek, but it also essentially involves passivity, i.e., being acted upon and altered by the entities of the physical world. Indeed, sensing for him is aroused by the active stimulation of the environment, and, as such, it is a response to the world not merely by reproduction of mode or character but with regard to its very existence. Objects, consequently, are more than objects: to be objects, they must first be agents. There is activity, therefore, not only on the side of the subject but on the side of the object as well. But in each ease the activity is of an essentially different sort. Whereas the activity of the subject is a fulfillment and perfecting of the subject, and thus an end in itself, the activity of the sensible object is an "acting upon" and, as such, presupposes a passive factor that is acted upon and thereby changed. This latter activity is not so much an actuality, simply, as the process of actualization of something else. It consists in the giving of form and has its source in the impulse of form to communicate itself. It thereby essentially involves a process of assimilation in some respect, to some extent, of patient to agent. In Whitehead, too, as we have seen, there is transmission of form and assimilation; however, the subject in no sense passively receives but actively prehends and conforms.

For Aristotle, then, sensing involves a passive-active relation between certain parts of the body and certain agent-objects of the physical world. Where sensing differs from any purely physical process is that on the sentient, as such, the agent-object has a twofold effect: the sense organ is not merely physically altered, but is also mused to the psychic activity of sensing. That is, the form is received in matter as it is in any physical change, but also the form is received without matter, that is, it is possessed in disassociation from the sentient’s material constitution.3 In virtue of this second mode of reception, the sensible thing is something more than an agent; it becomes an object for an experiencing subject -- though this is not, of course, how Aristotle expressed it. It is thus that sensing is a "movement through the body" (P 244b11), the bodily change giving rise to the psychic activity. It is precisely this bodily passivity that explains why, for Aristotle, the sensation of the stone is also and at the same time a sensation of being bodily affected by the stone.

With Whitehead, on the other hand, for whom perception is a wholly active prehending, precluding all passivity, the feeling in the hand is but part of the final datum prehended. That is, a "feeling" in the stone is prehended as a feeling, with reference to the stone, in the hand, which in turn is prehended as a feeling, with reference to the hand, in the final percipient occasion in the brain. It is only with the final percipient, of course, that consciousness supervenes.

Sensing, therefore, for Aristotle, is an activity that presupposes passivity or being acted upon and physically altered -- the passivity of matter -- and the passivity of pure receptivity -- the passivity of a psychic potency, the actuality of which is a psychic activity. In virtue of the first, knowing and feeling take their origins from the workings of basic nature. And thus sensation in Aristotle, also, most certainly has what Whitehead calls a "vector character." In virtue of the second, a natural being rises above the more primitive manifestations of nature to the immanent world of feeling -- a world reserved in Aristotle, but not in Whitehead, for conscious beings.

By this distinction of two modes of passivity -- of receiving forms-Aristotle sets off the world of conscious experience from the world of nature, but in such a way that not only the objects but the very workings of nature are included as part of what is felt. Consequently, though he does not include the activity of experience in unconscious nature, as does Whitehead, he does include the activity of unconscious nature in experience. Thus, for Aristotle, experience involves a factor that runs down beyond perception to the depths of nature. However, this factor is not part of the essential structure of experience as such; it lies rather at the base of experience. Though it enters in as experiencer, it is not strictly speaking an object as it is for Whitehead; it is rather the felt activity of the object-agent. The object of conscious experience presupposes the agent and the transmission of forms. But as object it is not agent. As object, it is form entertained in physical disassociation from matter. Because this disengagement in the lowest levels of experience is never total, perception involves the dual factors of object and "being acted upon." At the basic levels, indeed, the subject is, and must be, also patient, and thus the object is also experienced as agent. But what is essential to conscious experience as such, for Aristotle, is subject immanently entertaining object. And though the thing that is an object is at some point and in some respect an agent, there is no corresponding necessity for an agent to be an object. Below conscious experience, therefore, there are agents but no objects; there are forms transmitted and received, acting and being acted upon, inheritance of a sort, reproduction and assimilation, but there are no forms received and entertained as objects and there is no immanent activity.

With Whitehead the matter is quite otherwise. Though both philosophers found the same things in experience -- objects and causal efficacy -- they differ as regards what they took to be basic and general. Whereas Aristotle, as we have seen, took the first factor to be peculiar to conscious experience and the second to be the more general factor lying at the base of consciousness, Whitehead took the subject-object structure as general and fundamental and interpreted causal efficacy in terms of it. Thus, while Aristotle saw the object as in some respect an agent, Whitehead saw the agent as in every respect an object.

The root of the difference, of course, lies in their metaphysical approach. Though it is not at all impossible that Aristotle took certain clues from the examination of subjective experience to guide him in his investigation of nature at large, what he clearly did not do was take the subjective experience as a model for the essential constitution of the basic entities of the universe. And this, of course, was precisely Whitehead’s procedure. Any occasion of experience involves the objects felt and the subjective response to these objects. The first factor is especially obvious on the higher levels of experience, but the affective response, as integral part of the experience (rather than as reflective reaction), predominates in the more primitive forms. It is indeed in the more basic levels that the object appears to be exerting an influence to which the experient responds. But in what does this influence consist? For White-head it is in the influence of a world that is there for perception, stubborn fact not to be avoided, the ground from which the experient occasion must arise, the elements that must be taken into account. It is the iron hand of the given. The causal efficacy of the object, therefore, is its character of givenness exacting conformity. And this precisely is the facet of the object that extends beyond conscious experience, for it is doubtless true of any arising entity that it must take, and perhaps even take in, the world as it finds it. Thus any actual entity of the universe becomes for Whitehead a subject prehending objects.

The givenness of the established world as affecting the internal constitution of a developing being is not, of course, something extraneous to the Aristotelian metaphysics. It is accounted for in terms of the previous determinations of matter. The givenness of the actual world as objects of experience is also perfectly in accord with the Aristotelian view. But for Aristotle, there is, besides, this other factor of being at the receiving end of the activity of the external world, a factor which lies quite outside the subject-object structure, even with Whitehead’s extended meaning. For whereas the term "object," it seems, could quite legitimately be extended to include not only sensible objects as given but the given in general (its etymological meaning would indicate as much), the experience of being affected by an active world, as understood by Aristotle, on the other hand, is something quite irreducible to the experience of the merely passive given.

What we are left with is the very basic question of whether or not there is such a factor in experience. Interestingly enough, if we have regard for the way Whitehead speaks of experience rather than the way he interprets it, we would certainly be led to believe that he is including something more than inert objects actively prehended by a subject. Everywhere he speaks of the world as actively exerting an influence on the percipient. It is only when he comes to account for what he finds in experience that the percipient becomes full activity, the active world becomes the world of inert data, and the whole is thus reduced to the fundamental structure of experience: a complex of subject and object. The question specifically with respect to Whitehead, consequently, is whether he has accounted adequately for all that he himself appears to find in experience.

This is the same philosopher, it must be remembered, who wrote: "Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject of study" (FR 16). Could not somewhat the same charge be made against a philosopher who actively fills page after page to construct a metaphysics which leaves no place for real agents? For in excluding passivity from our experience, he has eliminated activity from the world -- at least any form of what might be called transient activity.

The question of whether we experience ourselves as passive leads therefore into its opposite: Do we experience ourselves as agents, i.e., as actively affecting and changing other things which relative to our action are passive? That we affect the course of history by what we become is not denied. And that this fact can be wholly accounted for by the Whiteheadian subject-object structure is also to be granted. But the question we are asking is whether experience does not also testify to ourselves as sources of action directed outwards to the world, that is, as engaged in an active doing and making that involves more than active self-creation. The point must be made that our doing and making in the sense indicated are at least as much a part of our experience as doing and making for a purpose. And it is to be noted that Whitehead himself appears to assert as much (SMW 130f). But once again when he comes to metaphysical theory, all activity dissolves into subjects prehending objects.

Perhaps it will be said that we do indeed appear to have the experience of being agents in the sense given above, but really what we experience is a phenomenon of a large-scale, highly organized entity, a phenomenon which on the level of the basic constituent entities could ultimately be explained purely in terms of subject and objects, entirely without recourse to agency. However, it is precisely this sort of "explaining away" of "widespread, recurrent experience" (PR 25f, SMW 268) that Whitehead himself finds repugnant. Obviously, there are certain factors of experience that are basic and the others, less basic, are to be explained in terms of these first. But when the account appears to distort some factor beyond recognition, the question must be raised as to whether the basic categories are not too narrow to embrace the whole of experience.

Could it be that Whitehead recognizes and insists on a very basic factor of experience but fails to capture it in a theory derived from factors less basic? The subject-object structure, as he himself indicates, stands out clearly only in the upper reaches of conscious experience. The lower levels bring something else into prominence: causal efficacy and subjective response. He insists, however, on understanding the latter entirely in terms of the former. In his concern to avoid reducing the higher to the lower, has he succumbed to the opposite temptation -- a reductionist theory in reverse? Despite his insistence on the primitive in experience and his remonstrances against Hume et al, for overlooking what is genetically prior (PR 85), did he not perhaps himself in the end rely too exclusively on what is characteristic of the upper echelons of experience to the point of losing much of what he had gained?

These questions bear on the very foundation of Whiteheadian metaphysics. What Whitehead wanted was "a more concrete analysis, which shall stand nearer to the complete concreteness of our intuitive experience" (SMW 97). The crucial question then is what precisely that experience reveals to us. If the general testimony appears to be that experience does indeed reveal passivity with respect to an active world (and for my part I am inclined to think it does), the Whiteheadian philosophy would have to face up to a charge of serious inadequacy -- an inadequacy moreover, not easily remedied, since the admittance of activity, in the Aristotelian sense, would result in total disruption of the Whiteheadian scheme. Whitehead’s own speculative system would thus appear to be but another case of "misplaced concreteness" (PR 11), and as such another target for philosophy functioning as "critic of abstractions" (SMW 86).

This, of course, is not to minimize Whitehead’s enormous contribution to speculative thought. He himself never claimed to have formulated the definitive system. On the contrary, he consistently reminds us that speculative philosophy is an ongoing adventure which is never finalized but "in which even partial success has its importance" (PR 14). Conscious of the tremendous novelty and scope of the Whiteheadian metaphysics, we might well agree that "[p] hilosophy never reverts to its old position after the shock of a great philosopher" (PR 16).



DA -- Aristotle, De Anima

NE -- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

M -- Aristotle, Metaphysics

P -- Aristotle, Physics


1This way of being present in a subject, moreover, in no way contradicts what Aristotle has to say in the Categories. In that treatise he is saying that one substance cannot be present in another in the way an accident is present in a substance. In the De Anima we learn that in perception the object is present in the percipient insofar as its form is in the percipient. But the form is the form of the sensible object. It therefore has a twofold character: as form of the percipient it is an accident, but as form of the sensible object it introduces the other substance within the knower. This is how Aristotle distinguishes perceiving from merely being determined by a quality.

2 That is, sensing as the actualization not of matter but of a power of the soul; sensing as the reception of form without matter.

3 For a discussion of this way of understanding the reception of form ‘without matter, see my article "Sensing and the Sensitive Mean," The New Scholasticism 47/3 (Summer, 1973), 279-310.