Philosophical Growth, Future Subjectivity, and David Pailin

by Lewis S. Ford

Lewis S. Ford is Emeritus Professor at Old Dominion University, and founding editor of Process Studies Periodical (1971 – 1995).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 147-156, Vol. 30, Number 1, Spring or Summer 2001. 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.


Lewis Ford critiques Transforming Process Theism by David Pailin. Ford discusses some Whiteheadian concepts that to Pailin seem contradictions. Also discussed is the question: Is the notion of a future subjectivity credible?

[Editor’s note: This response to David Pailin’s review of Ford book, Transforming Process Theism, was commissioned by the editor of Process Studies after David Pailin had written his review of Ford’s book. (see Reviews, this issue)]

Transforming Process Theism examines an indispensable element in Whitehead’s thinking which apparently cannot be fully integrated with the rest. I refer to the fact that the consequent nature of God cannot be prehended, and cannot, therefore, affect us. Yet it must be able to influence us if God is to be a dynamic person, loving and responding to our particular situations.

The book is complex, for it is nearly three books in one: (a) a study of the three successive concepts of God Whitehead espoused in Process and Reality, vet even the last is ultimately incomplete, prompting the possibility of further developments beyond the text; (b) a survey of previous attempts to show that in one way or another that it is possible to prehend the divine life; (c) my own approach, which recognizes that God as consequent is imprehensible. To show that God is nevertheless effective I find it necessary to introduce the unfamiliar concept of the creative future, as distinguished from our ordinary created future. The created future is what we usually regard as future, either what is to come in the course of events, or the conditions, possibilities, hopes, fears, we project upon what is to come. The creative future is that divine element which makes renders novelty possible.

David Pailin’s masterful review poses more questions and objections than I can answer in short order. Fortunately, most can be conveniently grouped together under two headings: (1) Are the inconsistencies evidence of Whitehead’s confusion, or are they clues to his philosophical growth? (2) Is the notion of a future subjectivity credible?

I. The Importance of being Inconsistent

Whitehead makes a significant distinction between inconsistency and incoherence:

logical contractions, except as temporary slips of the mind -- plentiful, though temporary -- are the most gratuitous of errors; and usually they are trivial. Thus, after criticism, systems do not exhibit mere illogicalities. They suffer from inadequacy and incoherence. (Process 6)

I find that Whitehead’s final vision is remarkably free from inconsistency, though it does suffer from one major incoherence. He writes, "Incoherence is the arbitrary disconnection of first principles" (Process 6). Two principles which should be necessarily connected are not. In Whitehead’s case, it is the lack of any effective connection between the consequent nature and nascent occasions. The consequent nature is needed in order to specify the particular appropriate aim, but only the primordial nature can be prehended (Process 245-47).

Thus I agree with Hartshorne that Whitehead’s theory must be modified, only not in the way he does it. He reconceives the notion of an everlasting concrescence as a series of divine occasions. Each divine occasion, like an actual occasion, affects others in terms of its past concreteness, and is prehensible by them. Mine is the opposite modification: I retain the notion of a divine concrescence, but radicalize the distinction between pure and hybrid prehension, so much so that hybrid prehension becomes the infusion of aim and creativity from the future.

Other interpreters believe that any appearance of incoherence can be overcome. Pailin would have us believe that they select from among inconsistent concepts. Not so. They all adopt Whitehead’s final concept and whatever other concepts they find consistent with it. In order to show that there is a real incoherence, I devoted chapter five to a critique of six attempts to show that no incoherence is involved.

As Palm indicates, there are numerous inconsistencies in the text.1 For textual purposes, it is helpful to broaden the category of inconsistency to include not only formal contradictions but any anomalies, discrepancies, conceptual conflicts, terminological variations, faulty references, in short anything a careful editor would have corrected. Admittedly, these all get in the way in trying to understand the philosophical system Whitehead ultimately achieved. But they are extremely helpful clues in determining the various levels of Whitehead’s thought. Any particular level is largely consistent; the glaring inconsistencies occur between levels. For example, the divine actual entity in the final chapter (and the insertions based on it) is an individual. But God as a formative element (Whitehead, Religion 90), a notion I find persisting throughout the earlier chapters of Process and Reality, is a universal.

Formative elements are constitutive of every actual occasion. Eternal objects are widely recognized as universals, and creativity Whitehead explicitly termed "the universal of universals" (Process 21).2 God is the third formative element and must be immanent within each occasion. It is true that Whitehead then thought that God could (not must) be transcendent as well (Religion, chap. 4). Later he appeared to have doubts on the matter.3 Thus he was reluctant to declare himself on that point until he had completed the bulk of his metaphysical cosmology. The earlier chapters were written so he could go either way. In any case, "the actual but non-temporal entity" (Religion 90) is an entity, but not an individual, even though later (in Process) all actual entities are actual individuals.

Sometimes conceptual rigor leads to textual inconsistency. Consider reversion. Whitehead came to see that his cumbersome explanation of novelty could be streamlined. Reversion replaced some concept derived from the past with a novel concept. But the relevance of the past concept with its cognate depended upon the primordial envisagement. Since the initial aim was directly derived from the primordial envisagement, it could serve as the explanation of novelty without reversion. "The Category of Reversion is then abolished" (Process 250). To avoid textual inconsistency, it would be necessary to eradicate every use and mention of "reversion" an irksome task Whitehead was unwilling to undertake.4

Inconsistency is significant as an indication of Whitehead’s philosophical growth, not his confusion. Though they get in the way of the systematic reconstruction of his position, these anomalies are invaluable clues to the understanding of his development. There are few, if any, major philosophers whom we can have such a detailed account of his creativity.

Yet if the final concept is quite consistent, why did Whitehead leave the text in such a confused and disordered state? We really cannot know. My hunch is that he wrote the vast bulk of the text for the Gifford Lectures, inserting fresh ideas along the way but not correcting it in any way. When later confronted with a huge manuscript, he found the task exceedingly irksome. Someone has said that a good author must be willing to be bored by his own ideas. If Whitehead was so excited by fresh ideas, it is reasonable to suppose that he was not willing to be bored by old ideas. In order to avoid the tedious process of correction he determined to use a device tried once before. In an earlier book he had inserted new passages and chapters while leaving the old material untouched (Science viii)5 The same method was applied here, with disastrous results. Whitehead’s philosophy is complex enough without unnecessarily burdening us with these difficulties.

Whether this is so or not is of secondary importance, as well as all a priori suppositions that Whitehead could not have written a disordered text. We must first face the fact that the text is in fact disordered, which can be readily ascertained by a close examination of the text. Theories about the text are dependent first on the state of the text itself. Pailin, however, proposes another way of understanding these anomalies. Whitehead "would only be satisfied if he affirmed a number of points that he could not at present see how to reconcile but none of which he was prepared to drop for the sake of simple . . . consistency."6 Thus if there is no textual inconsistency (since no one of his stature would allow an uncorrected text), there must be a conceptual inconsistency among the three concepts of God in Process and Reality. Those three concepts are: God as nontemporal and nonconcrescent, God as nontemporal but concrescent, God as temporal and concrescent. How are these concepts inconsistent?

The first two are so compatible that Denis Hurtubise argues we should see them as the same concept. But there is a definite inconsistency between the nontemporal actuality (or primordial actuality) and the primordial nature. In the first, nontemporality is actual in itself; in the second, it is merely an aspect of an otherwise everlasting actuality.

Classical theism also conceived of God as nontemporal yet fully actual. But it could never admit any temporality into God, since God was wholly immutable. In Whitehead’s case it was possible because God was conceived as a formative element which was both fully actual and universal. This idiosyncratic view meant that Whitehead provisionally did not regard concrete individuality to be an essential attribute of actuality. The notion of an actual formative element follows from his earlier claim: I believe there is continuity between his earlier assertion, "God is not concrete, but He is the ground for concrete actuality" (Science 178), and the formative element. Thus God, as a component of all concrete actual occasions, is actual as determining their actuality.

Process theism really stems from the recognition that God as primordial is really "deficiently actual" (Process 343). Then Whitehead could shed his idiosyncratic notion of a divine formative element that was both actual and universal. This retains all the formal features of the primordial envisagement. The addition of the temporal, contingent side made it possible to conceive of God as an individual having a primordial aspect.

There is textual inconsistency, for Whitehead did not alter his previous writing. But in the end there is no conceptual inconsistency, which would be the more serious charge. The evidence indicates that Whitehead was likely to have been too bored to correct his manuscript than that he was confused on basic points.

In his final paragraph Pailin suggests that the final chapter of Process and Reality may be taken as edifying remarks which if taken seriously would require "a serious revision of some of his earlier remarks." All that need be revised is the impression that the primordial nature was not an independent actuality by itself. I do think that something like this is the case for the fourth chapter of Religion in the Making.7 Having conceived of God as a formative element, Whitehead sought to show how Western theism could be conceived in ways compatible with his notion of God. But he then did not have reason of his own to think that God is personal. Now he did: if God is temporal, then individual, then subjective and personal. The whole of the last chapter follows with rigor as the notion of God as everlasting is explored.

II. God as the Subjectivity of the Future

Though this is a major theme of the book, the reviewer makes remarkably little mention of it. He may have wanted to avoid what many may regard as a strange and unintelligible notion. Omitting it, however, leads to serious distortions. For example, consider the way the divine creative influence impacts upon the present, which I have described in impersonal and pantheistic terms, for that influence permeates all occasions (Transforming 286). The reviewer objects: "Thirdly, if the divine creative influence on the processes of reality is impersonal and indeterminate. . . , it is a creative action that is presumably neither conscious nor intentional."8 So it would be, if it were in fact purely a present activity.

We need to distinguish between influence and activity. God’s activity is future, so only finite actual occasions are active in the present. There is no divine activity in the present. God’s influence derived from future activity, however, is felt throughout the present. God transcends the world as pure subjectivity, while influencing all present occasions. Except for the way it affects us, and transposing it from present to future, I fully adopt Whitehead’s notion of the divine concrescence. God (as future) can be personal, even though the divine spirit present in the world is impersonal.

This approach challenges the prevalent notion that the notions of past, present, and future are completely distinct domains. Whitehead redefined past and present by designating what others regard as the objective component of our immediate awareness of the present as the "immediate past" (because fully determinate). If the immediate past can be part of the present, so can the future. There is one caveat, though: for him, only the present can be active.

I extend Whitehead’s ontological interpretation of the present to apply to an active future. The divine future is creative, because it provides the conditions for creation (aim and power). Present concrescence is creation. Whitehead describes it as self-creation, but it is also becoming in the most radical sense, i.e., the bringing into being of that which had not yet being. Then what is created is the past.

Pailin’s critique against divine impersonality is well-taken, but I don’t see how it applies to me, once future subjectivity is taken into account. It is somewhat ironic to be charged this way, since I developed these ideas because I found insufficient allowance for God’s personhood elsewhere. Whitehead depends too much on impersonal nontemporal valuation as the source of initial aims. I define a person as a dynamic, responsive source of value. Nontemporal valuation is clearly a source of value, but it is not responsive to each particular situation as it arises. Future subjectivity can be both.

The future influences us differently; not like the past. The past is concretely determinate, having a locus different from ours. We prehend it. The future which influences us has the same locus as we do. Before the initiation of our becoming, this locus was part of the divine activity determining alms for the emerging world. At the initiation of our becoming, it constituted the aim (the valued possibilities) guiding our actualization and the power whereby we could prehend the past and integrate our prehensions. The past lies outside us, the future within, though not of our own making.

I see God as that which is future because the other alternatives seem to be inadequate. Traditionally, God has been taken to be timeless, but a timeless God is insufficiently active, if the timeless abstracts from time. Whitehead’s concept of God is halfway between nontemporality and temporality, but he has shown that divine power can be reconceived as divine persuasion rather than omnipotence, making it possible to think of the divine power in terms of the future.

If God is temporal, most have thought that God is effective as past, in the same way that actual occasions are. Following Hartshorne, God is conceived as an infinite series of occasions, active as present, but effective as past. This poses a series of technical difficulties, particularly with respect to relativity physics (Transforming 187-205). For our present purposes, however, let us consider only one: God should be primarily experienced as creative, but Hartshorne’s proposal means that God is prehended only as created. The creative lure is overlaid and obscured by layers of the created order derived from the world.

On my view God’s influence is like the past, however, in one respect: it comes from what is earlier than the occasion. It differs in providing the necessary conditions for the occasion, in terms of which it can prehend past occasions occupying different loci from itself. To be sure, this sense of earlier is rather different than the usual, because it derives from the phases of becoming.

To be sure, the "time" of concrescence is not physical time (Whitehead, Process 283). Many have concluded that it is not in time at all, but I see concrescence as the more primordial form of time.9 Ordinary coordinate, physical time is constructed out of the results of concrescence. In so far as the extensive continuum extends beyond the actual, it is simply projective. The continuum is derivative from physical time, which is itself derivative from concrescence.

Physical and concrescent time order time inversely. For physical rime, the past is earlier than the present, the future later; it is not yet, being merely possible. For concrescent time, however, the future is earlier. It is earlier because it is less determinate than the earliest, the initial phase of concrescence. The immediate past attained by the concrescence in its satisfaction, is not part of the concrescence (Whitehead, Process 85), and should be regarded as later than it.

It is true that I wrote that "God is not an actuality," but the qualifier I added is crucial: "in the way in which past actualities are actual" (Transforming 316). While past actualities are determinate and finite,10 Whitehead saw that (present) concrescences were also actual (see Process 32). Traditionally actuality has meant either concrete determinateness or activity. Whitehead has found a way to affirm both meanings by modal differentiation. This may stretch the meaning of "actual"; I stretch it a bit further to apply to the future: God as active is also actual, though in a different sense from the way the past is actual.

I find that when moving into uncharted territories our semantic fields must be altered. Novel concepts often need new terms, e.g., prehension" and "concrescence." If not new terms, we sometimes need new meanings to old terms such as "future." If I question whether creativity is simply inherent within actuality without question, I must have some way of describing how that creativity can come from another. Sometimes, I must admit, I have been elliptical. Instead of "the future as yet has no being" (Transforming 244), I should have clarified: "that which is future has as yet no being."

Pailin objects that I have seriously tampered with the ontological principle. It’s not so much the principle, namely, that actualities are ultimately the only reasons, but the meaning of "actuality" that I have modified. He paraphrases the principle differently: "what is not cannot act," noting that for me "the future as yet has no being" (Transforming 244) and so cannot act now.

Here the distinction between becoming and being is essential. Concrescence is an activity of unifying the many, but it does not yet have the oneness of being. Becoming is not being, although it results in being. 11 As applied to God, Tillich is correct: God is not a being, but the ground of being.12 Since both becoming and being are actual, though in different senses, that which is actual but not a being can act. This is somewhat ambiguous, since acting has two aspects: activity, and influence on others. Only becoming has creative activity, only being is effective. Thus actual occasions as concrescences are active, although only their determinate outcomes can affect others.

There is a real but qualified sense in which God is active now: God is in unison of becoming with present occasions. This is true for the divine occasions Hartshorne proposes as well, although it is only as past, as concretely determinate, that any divine occasion influences actual occasions. In my case God influences the present from the future rather than from the past.

There is a real difficulty in talking about both God and occasions acting now, if acting means decision, rendering things determinate. If there were several activities of determination with the same occasion, there could be several determinate outcomes of the same being. But any being can only have one determinate character.13 While objectified occasions are present in concrescences, no concrescence can be present in another concrescence. If it were, the larger concrescence would be divisible into smaller concrescences, contrary to the atomicity of the act of becoming.

Whitehead resolves the issue among actual occasions by arguing that only past actualities, those no longer acting, can be effective. Contemporary occasions are in unison of becoming, and so can be said to be acting now, but they are not effective; they cannot be prehended.

This solution cannot apply to God, who is ubiquitous. God is either aspatial, as Whitehead implicitly seems to hold, or omnispatial, as John B. Cobb, Jr. has proposed.14 If aspatial, the problem of effectiveness is acute. If omnispatial, then there is double determination. Hartshorne avoids it by distinguishing between the acting of the present divine occasion and the effectiveness of the previous one. I avoid it in the opposite way. Instead of understanding God’s effectiveness as in terms of the determinate past, I see it as coming from the indeterminate future.

Pailin suggests that my basic position could be regarded as Alexander’s, if it were deity that was forever future (cf. Transforming 299), and God active in the present. Alexander’s future deity might be described as the unity of all ideals, contrasted with God who acts in the world straining towards deity. He assumes with most that all activity must be present activity, so ‘God’ in pantheistic fashion names the activity of the world insofar as it is ordered toward this ideal deity. Yet Whitehead held, and I concur, that the actualization of the unity of all ideals is impossible: "Tennyson’s phrase, ‘one far-off divine event, To which all creation moves,’ presents a fallacious conception of the universe" (Process 111). All determinate actualization is finite, and some perfections exclude others (see Whitehead, Adventures 276). Alexander’s God is a present acting based on a future au-encompassing ideal. Mine on the other hand is a future acting which is influential in the present in terms of particular ideals. To this extent each position is the reciprocal of the another.

"Acting" and "activity" refer to a single actuality in a substance metaphysics of efficient causation. The cause acts to bring about the effect. But dynamics and influence must be distinguished in process metaphysics; the prehender actively prehends the causal factor. The present activity of concrescence is effective in the immediate past it produces. I am extending this paradigm to explain future activity, which is active in future concrescence but influential in present occasions.



1. See Transforming Process Theism, chapter two. The evidence on which chapter two is based is incomplete, but may be found on the web: "The Growth of Whitehead’s Theism," Process Studies Supplements vol. 1, item 1 (1-99), 26 Jan. 2000 <>.

2. The notion that creativity is an eternal object is based on the faulty assumption that only forms can be universals. Since creativity applies to every actuality without exception, it is just as universal, without being a form. In many ways it is diametrically opposed to form.

3. See my "The Riddle of Religion in the Making."

4. If Whitehead had a computer with a search key, the text could easily have been cleansed of textual anomalies. This would have been a great boon to most readers, but it would have deprived us of precious clues for genetic analysis.

5. See my book, The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, Chapter One.

6. Pailin then suggests that Hartshorne’s dipolar analysis of the panentheistic God "identifies a critical breakthrough in solving" some of these problems. It’s more likely just the other way around. Hartshorne’s early work (e.g., his dissertation of 1922) appears to have been immensely clarified by Whitehead’s distinction of the two natures of God. See Lewis S. Ford, ed. Two Process Philosophers: Hartshorne’s Encounter with Whitehead, 5-8, and especially Lad Sessions’s essay, 10-34.

7. See note 3.

8. This objection is specifically addressed in Transforming Process Theism 320ff.

9. See my essay, "On Epochal Becoming: Rosenthal on Whitehead."

10. Neglect of the distinction between kinds of actuality is at the root of the charge by some Thomists that Whitehead worships a finite God. Determinate being is necessarily finite, but for that reason I argue that God is not a being, but infinite becoming (everlasting concrescence).

11. Hartshorne and others hold becoming to be (a kind of) being, but other interpreters of Whitehead argue convincingly that "being is constituted by becoming" (Process 23) means that it is produced by becoming: Jorge Luis Nobo, "Whitehead’s Principle of Process."

12. See my "Notes Toward a Reconciliation of Whitehead and Tillich."

13. Aristotle also argued that no substance could be present in another substance. Whitehead notes that his "principle of universal relativity directly traverses Aristotle’s dictum," which holds that "an actual entity is present in other actual entities" (Process 50).

14. See Cobb’s Christian Natural Theology, 192-96.


Works Cited

Cobb, John B., Jr. A Christian Natural Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster P, 1965. 192-96.

Ford, Lewis S. Transforming Process Theism. Albany: State U of New York P, 2000.

____"The Riddle of Religion in the Making." Process Studies 22 (1993): 42-50.

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

____"On Epochal Becoming: Rosenthal on Whitehead." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 33 (1997): 973-80.

____"Notes Toward a Reconciliation of Whitehead and Tillich." Union Seminary Quarterly Review 39 (1984): 41-46.

Hurtubise, Denis. "One, Two, or Three Concepts of God in Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality? Process Studies 30.1 (2001): 78-100.

Ford, Lewis S. Ed. Two Process Philosophers: Hartshorne’s Encounter with Whitehead. American Academy of Religion: AAR Studies in Religion, number 5, 1973.

Nobo, Jorge Luis. "Whitehead’s Principle of Process." Process Studies 4 (1975): 275-84.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. 1933. New York Free Press, 1067.

____. Process and Reality. 1929. Corrected Edition. Ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York Free Press, 1978.

____. Religion in the Making. 1926. New York: Fordham UP. 1996.

____.Science and the Modern World. 1925. New York: Free Press, 1967.