Sensa and Patterns

by Villard Alan White

Villard Alan White is a graduate student in the philosophy department at the University of Tennessee,

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 39-43, Vol. 10, Numbers 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1980. 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.


Patterns not only require sensa for their physical ingression, but the "ideal realization" of the individual essences of patterns cannot exclude sensa from their very concept.

Many interpreters read Whitehead as maintaining in PR that sensa and patterns are distinguishable in terms of their modes of ingression. This view holds that while patterns cannot ingress without some sensa, sensa can ingress independently of any pattern. For example, John Lango writes:

Sensa can ingress separately from patterns, whereas patterns must ingress together with sensa. But why can sensa ingress separately from patterns? A pattern is a manner of relatedness between eternal objects that it patterns; therefore, when it ingresses, eternal objects that it patterns must also ingress. In contrast, a sensum is not a manner of relatedness between eternal objects, but can only be a relatum in patterns; therefore, when it ingresses, no eternal objects ingress as its relata, and even though it usually ingresses together with patterns in which it is a relatum, it need not ingress together with patterns in which it is a relatum (PR 176). (PS 1:126, my italics)1

Two assumptions underlie this view. The first is that Whitehead intended to distinguish sensa and patterns on the basis of their capabilities for ingression. The second and more subtle assumption is that ingression is a simple doctrine that attempts merely to explain how eternal objects are instantiated into or withheld from actuality. In what follows I will show that the first assumption is clearly wrong and that the second assumption glosses over certain important distinctions Whitehead made about his doctrine of ingression.

Whitehead himself encountered difficulties in attempting to distinguish sensa from patterns in view of their common roles as eternal objects. A sensum, he declares, "In one sense . . . is simple; for its realization does not involve the concurrent realization of certain definite eternal objects, which are its definite components" (PR 114 / 174). Yet, "a pattern is in a sense simple: a pattern is the ‘manner’ of a complex contrast abstracted from the specific eternal objects which constitute the ‘matter’ of the contrast" (PR 115/ 175). Whitehead observes that "A pattern and a sensum are thus both simple in the sense that neither involves other specified eternal objects in its own realization" (PR 115/ 175). Whitehead envisages no basis for the differentiation of sensa and patterns thus far. "But a pattern lacks simplicity in another sense, in which a sensum retains simplicity":

The realization of a pattern necessarily involves the concurrent realization of a group of eternal objects capable of contrast in that pattern. The realization of the pattern is through the realization of this contrast. The realization might have occurred by means of another contrast in the same pattern; but some complex contrast in that pattern is required. (PR 115 / 176)

By "realization" in this passage Whitehead is often read as meaning "ingression": no pattern as a particular manner of relatedness can obtain without the simultaneous ingression of other eternal objects (sensa) that constitute its matter: "The realization of a pattern is through the realization of this contrast,"

Moreover, sensa are declared to have some form of realization that differs from that of patterns: "But the realization of a sensum in its ideal shallowness of intensity, with zero width, does not require any other eternal object, other than its intrinsic apparatus of individual and relational essence; it can remain just itself, with its unrealized potentialities for patterned contrasts" (PR 115/ 176). If by "realization" Whitehead also simply means in this passage "ingression," then apparently sensa can be realized -- can ingress -- apart from patterned contrasts, If this is true, then Lango’s case is made, and patterns and sensa are discriminable by their diverse capabilities for ingression.

It may be readily seen that Lango’s interpretation leans heavily upon a consistent usage of "realization" in these passages that is taken as univocally synonymous for "ingression," along with the further assumption that ingression is a doctrine that only deals with the admission of eternal objects into actuality in some one given way. Both these points are, however, objectionable.

In regard to his doctrine of ingression, Whitehead distinguished three different ways in which an eternal object can function in the concrescence of an actual entity: " (i) it can be an element in the definiteness of some objectified nexus, or of some single actual entity, which is the datum of a feeling; (ii) it can be an element in the definiteness of the subjective form of some feeling; or (iii) it can be an element in the datum of a conceptual, or propositional, feeling" (PR 290/ 445).

The first two modes have to do with how an actual entity is physically realized by way of the ingression of eternal objects (PR 291-92/ 445-47). The third mode of ingression, however, Whitehead views as "restricted" to the conceptual entertainment of eternal objects within an actual entity: "Now the third mode is merely the conceptual valuation of the potential ingression in one of the other two modes. It is a real ingression into actuality, but it is a restricted ingression with mere potentiality withholding the immediate realization of its function of conferring definiteness" (PR 290-91 / 445, my italics; cf. PR 44/ 70). Thus, though physical and conceptual ingression are both modes of ingression, they differ from each other in the way the eternal objects involved in each mode find access into actuality.

To return to sensa and patterns, it does not appear that the context of those passages cited in favor of Lango’s view can allow for a straightforward identification of an occurrence of "realization" to be taken as simply interchangeable with "ingression." For instance, in continuing to characterize sensa Whitehead says:

An actual entity with this absolute narrowness has an ideal faintness of satisfaction, differing from the ideal zero of chaos, but equally impossible. For realization means ingression in an actual entity, and this involves the synthesis of all ingredients with data derived from a complex universe. Realization is ideally distinguishable from the ingression of contrasts, but not in fact. (PR 115/176, my italics)

Here Whitehead is trying to make a distinction between "ideal" realization and realization as the ingression of contrasts. The respective difference between these two sorts of realization turns upon the difference between conceptual and physical ingression.

Note, however, that in this passage Whitehead does not attempt to distinguish sensa and patterns in regard to their physical ingression, for he says that sensa cannot "in fact" ingress apart from actual contrasts. The upshot of this is that no sensum can in fact ingress apart from some other sensum or sensa with which it is capable of forming a contrast.2 But, as was seen earlier, the actual formation of a contrast entails the actual realization (physical ingression) of a pattern. Therefore, since sensa cannot physically ingress individually, they cannot do so apart from patterns.

Yet, if sensa and patterns cannot be distinguished in terms of monadic versus polyadic physical ingression, how can they be distinguished? Here I recur to an earlier remark of Whitehead’s: "A pattern and a sensum are thus both simple in the sense that neither involves other specified eternal objects in its own realization" (PR 115/ 175, my emphasis). From what has gone before, the meaning of "its own realization" is obviously a part of what has been characterized as "ideal" realization, which was seen to be linked to conceptual regression (cf. PR 87/ 134). Now, it seems that such "ideal" realization primarily pertains to what Whitehead calls the "individual essence" of an eternal object (PR 165/ 251, cf. PR 44/ 70), and he means by this that every eternal object regarded abstractly as an entity unto itself -- in its individual essence -- requires no reference to other specified eternal objects. Thus, it is in their capacities as eternal objects that both sensa and patterns have individual essences by which they can be conceptually identified without reference to other eternal objects.

Yet, some conceptual difference does seem to exist between the individual essences of sensa and patterns: "But a pattern lacks simplicity in another sense, in which a sensum retains simplicity" (PR 115/ 175-76). In its individual essence, Whitehead claims that a sensum "can remain just itself, with its unrealized potentialities for patterned contrasts" (PR 115/ 176, my italics). Thus a sensum can be conceived with regard to its individual essence without reference to any other eternal object whatsoever. But, though a pattern does not require "other specified eternal objects in its own realization," its individual essence cannot be abstracted from all other eternal objects since "the realization of a pattern necessarily involves the concurrent realization of a group of eternal objects capable of contrast in that pattern" (PR 115/ 176, my italics). This means that patterns not only require sensa for their physical ingression, but the "ideal realization" of the individual essences of patterns cannot exclude sensa from their very concept. Thus, though the individual essences of neither sensa nor patterns require references to other specified eternal objects, sensa presuppose no other eternal objects in their individual essences, while patterns do presuppose sensa. In this abstract fashion Whitehead can maintain that while relata may be atomistically conceived, relations cannot be conceived apart from some potential relata that make them up. Thus Whitehead’s distinction between sensa and patterns concerns only the conceptual differences in their individual essences and is independent of the question of the physical ingression of these entities.3

It should be observed, however, that "no individual essence is realizable apart from some of its potentialities of relationship, that is, apart from its relational essence" (PR 115/ 176). Obviously, "realizable" here means something other than "ideally realizable," which need only involve the individual essence of an eternal object. This is to say that the physical ingression of all eternal objects involves their relational essences. Therefore, sensa and patterns do not differ in the respect that they must be essentially related to other eternal objects in physical ingression, and this aspect of their relational essences guarantees that no eternal object can physically ingress individually.

By considering the simplest instance of the physical ingression of eternal objects as in the case of two sensa (PR 115/176f), we see that the physical ingression of any eternal object requires the concurrent ingression of at least two other nonidentical eternal objects so that an actual contrast obtains. In the case of two sensa the simple pattern formed between the sensa can easily be seen to require the ingression of its components for its own ingression, and thus it stands in accordance with this law. But Whitehead’s stipulation that all eternal objects physically ingress only in actual contrasts yields the result that every sensum likewise requires for its ingression at least one other sensum and the consequential pattern of the contrast between them, and hence the ingression of sensa is equally governed by this law. Upon reflection it may be seen that this "law of multiple ingression" traces its roots directly from Whitehead’s attribution of relational essences to all eternal objects and is implicit in PR 114-15/ 174-76).4

Whitehead took extensive pains to distinguish his eternal objects from traditional universals, primarily because of the problems involved in traditional theories of predication.5 One desideratum of the traditional view is that qualitative universals can instantiate monadically apart from any other qualitative universal. For example, redness may inhere in an object without the necessary involvement of any other universal. Whitehead’s complaints about the oversimplifications involved in such a view led him to bestow both relational and individual essences upon his eternal objects. Since eternal objects are thus conceived to be necessarily related to one another in physical ingression by way of their relational essences, the monadic ingression of an eternal object is rendered systematically impossible. Thus the requirement for multiple physical ingression is incumbent upon sensa as eternal objects. It is this feature of sensa that distinguishes them from traditional qualities.



1 Lango makes the same point in Whitehead’s Ontology (Albany: State University of New York Press. 1972), p. 28f.

2 Since the Category of Objective Identity requires that "there can be no duplication of any element in the objective datum of the ‘satisfaction’ of an actual entity" (PR 26/39), the possibility of a sensum’s ingression with itself in some dual manner is precluded. See also PR 225/ 344.

3 It should be noted that I have carefully avoided the issue of whether any eternal object can monadically and/or polyadically ingress conceptually, and this is due to a lack of definitive reference in PR on the matter. At any rate, if "ideal realization" primarily concerns the individual essence of an eternal object as I have suggested, there is a sense in which any eternal object may ingress individually in this conscious way (PR 115/175-76).

4 During the completion of this essay it came to my attention that Paul F. Schmidt has made a similar point in his Perception and Cosmology in Whitehead’s Philosophy (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1967). P. 93: "the ingression of one eternal object in some event necessarily involves the ingression of other eternal objects." Although Schmidt derives his view from the SMW chapter "Abstraction," he evidently finds the basis for his observation in statements Whitehead made about the relational essence of eternal objects, and this buttresses my own conclusions.

5 See William Christian’s An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), p. 221f, for an excellent summary of Whitehead’s departure from traditional views on universals. I point out, however, that even Christian does not fully explicate Whitehead’s doctrine of the relational essence of eternal objects as is attempted in this paper, for he chooses to focus on the internal relatedness involved in objectification rather than the internal relatedness that also obtains between eternal objects themselves.