Social Differentiation and Class Structure: Some Implications of Whitehead’s Metaphysics

by Randall C. Morris

Randall C. Morris received his B. A. and D. Phil. degrees in theology from the University of Oxford.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 256-264, Vol. 15, Number 4, Winter, 1986. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr. Morris reveals some possible implications of Whitehead’s metaphysics for social and political thought, in particular the issue of social differentiation and class structure.

I. Whitehead’s Theory of Social Differentiation

In AI 58-60 Whitehead distinguishes between Instinct, Intellect, and Wisdom. Instinct is "the mode of experience directly arising out of the urge of inheritance . . . ." Intellect is the mode of experience arising from the entertainment of ideals. Wisdom "determines the mode of coalescence of instinct with intelligence"; it is "a modifying agency on the intellectual ferment so as to produce a self-determined issue from the given conditions." Whitehead concludes that "for the purpose of understanding social institutions, this crude threefold division of human nature is required: Instinct, Intelligence, Wisdom" (AI 59). I suggest Whitehead is drawing an analogy from the microscopic level to explain social institutions on the macroscopic level. Such institutions are the product of three forces: a physical force, a mental force, and a regulative force which produces a "self-determined issue" from the previous two forces. These forces seem to correspond to the physical pole, the mental pole, and the subjective aim of an actual occasion.

Now AI 85 further gives the impression that at least Instinct and Intellect characterize different social classes. The "fortunate classes," which are oblivious to the basic needs of life, concentrating instead on "long-range" and "abstract" interests, are the source of society’s novel, ideal aims. They direct society and represent on the social level the mental pole of the occasion of experience. The "masses of mankind" are identified with the physical pole, and their experience is characterized as ‘Instinct.’ Whitehead concludes that "the great convulsions happen when the economic urges on the masses have dove-tailed with some simplified ideal end. Intellect and Instinct then combine and some ancient social order passes away" (AI 85). In society, Wisdom represents this dove-tailing of physical urge and ideal end. The fortunate classes provide ideals for the society that are subsequently grasped by the lower classes -- which in general are "intellectually quiescent" -- in a "simplified" form. Perhaps Whitehead is envisaging a type of ‘social proposition’ in which society’s mental pole introduces a novel idea which serves as the predicate and acts as a lure to society. The diverse feelings of society possessed by both classes (physical/economic; conceptual/ideal) are united into a determinate satisfaction, i.e., social order.

Since these passages imply an analogy between social institutions and actual occasions, it is clear that for Whitehead human societies exemplify the basic features of his metaphysics. I now want to pursue this analogy through an exegesis of Whitehead’s texts so as to uncover its implications for social structures.

II. Instinct

Instinct, we recall, is "the mode of experience directly arising out of the urge of inheritance" (AI 58). Instinctive action is thus ‘backward looking’; it arises directly out of the contribution of the past to the present. Whitehead appears to imply that instinctive action, which characterizes the masses of mankind, is the product of efficient causation. Instinctive action is ‘conformal.’ This comes out clearly in S 92:

Pure instinctive action is that functioning of an organism which is wholly analyzable in terms of those conditions laid upon its development by the settled facts of its external environment. . . . This pure instinct is the response of an organism to pure causal efficacy.

Instinct, which corresponds to the physical pole of an actual occasion, is the experience of efficient causation. Moreover, efficient causation is the means by which order is maintained. Consequently one would expect that a society in which Instinct was dominant would be a society where order prevailed over novelty. In fact, the most successful examples of community life are found in the inorganic world where "pure instinct reigns supreme" (S 97).

Human societies1 also can be dominated by Instinct. In AI 61 Whitehead describes the role of instinct in earlier societies:

We now discern a certain simple-mindedness in the way our predecessors adjusted themselves to inherited institutions. To a far greater extent the adjustment was a matter of course, in short, it was instinctive . . . . Instinctive adaptation was so pervasive that it was unnoticed. Probably the Egyptians did not know that they were governed despotically, or that the priest limited the royal power, because they had no alternative as a contrast either in fact or in imagination. They were nearer in their thoughts to the political philosophy prevalent in an anthill.

Whitehead refers to "instinctive" adjustment within such a human society: Instinct (efficient causation), as opposed to Intellect (final causation) predominates almost exclusively. There is little conception of autonomous freedom. Individual Relativity rather than Individual Absoluteness (AI 54) is stressed; social functions are given to the members by their environment. "Action and mood," he argues, "both spring from an instinct based upon ancestral co-ordination. In such societies, whatever is not the outcome of inherited relativity, imposing co-ordination of action, is sheer destructive chaos" (AI 61). On the microscopic level, when the novelty originating in the mental pole of an actual occasion is largely absent, the power of efficient causation escapes modification by conceptual ideals. The same principle is operative in human societies in which Instinct is dominant. The ancestral social coordination imposes itself upon the present members of society. Instinct is thus the basis of order in society.

This conclusion is supported by Whitehead’s admission that his main thesis is that "a social system is kept together by the blind force of instinctive actions, and of instinctive emotions clustered around habits and prejudices" (S 81). He agrees with Burke’s premise that ‘prejudice’ is important as a binding social force (S 84).2 It is prejudice that transforms a mere group or crowd into an organized community. There is an echo of Whitehead’s metaphysics here. A society of occasions is not constituted by the mere fact that a number of occasions display the same feature (PR 89/ 137). There must be a genetic relationship between the occasions so that they impose on one another that defining characteristic. Thus, whereas for Burke a crowd becomes a society because of shared prejudice, so for Whitehead a group becomes a society through an inherited social order. This is ‘custom’ or ‘tradition’ by which an occasion is ‘bound’ to a line of ancestry.

Whitehead’s emphasis on custom also resembles Hegel’s connection between the form of a state and its customs (Sitten) and ethical life (Sittlichkeit). A people form a genuine community only when their interrelations are suffused by Sittlichkeit. Although Hegel incorporated individuality as a moment in the modern state, he opposed the atomistic, general will theory of the state as a contract built upon an a priori foundation. Hegel constructed an organic conception of the state. The abstract individualism of Enlightenment political philosophy, in Hegel’s opinion, merely leaves one with an ‘aggregate’ or ‘heap’ and not a state.

Whitehead, too, adopted an organic conception of the state. What Sittlichkeit in many ways was to Hegel, ‘Instinct’ is to Whitehead. It is the customary; traditional inheritance which is at the base of society. In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead again refers to social custom and social contract:

The environment which the occasion inherits is immanent in it; and conversely it is immanent in the environment which it helps to transmit. The favorite doctrine of the shift from a customary basis for society to a contractual basis, is founded on shallow sociology. There is no escape from customary status. This status is mere1y another name for the inheritance in each occasion. Inevitably customary status is there, an inescapable condition. (AI 80f.)

This recalls the central features of Whitehead’s doctrine of causation and freedom, now applied within the context of sociology. The basis of human society is customary; social life is founded on routine. This is so regardless of whether, like the ancient Egyptian society, there is almost no contractual qualification of society, or, like modern societies, institutions arise through the entertainment of some idea. By custom, or routine, Whitehead means the inheritance immanent in the occasions constituting that society. This is the mode of efficient causation, i.e., social immanence. Custom is the obligation which society lays upon its members. In practice, custom is transferred unconsciously; hence Whitehead appropriately speaks of "the blind force of instinctive actions" (S 81; emphasis added). Custom is inescapable; and where novelty is sparse, as Whitehead believes it is among the masses who are too busy procuring the necessities of life to be intellectually active, custom tends to perpetuate itself. Hence for Whitehead the masses are predominantly the bearers of custom. But custom limits contract; the past limits the freedom of the present; the masses limit the ideals of the minority.

III. Intellect

The second factor involved in the constitution of society is Intellect, which corresponds to the mental pole and represents the force of originative novelty in society. To appreciate the sociopolitical function of Intellect one should note the similarities between the laws governing social interaction among humans and the laws of nature. Whitehead’s doctrine of law as immanent assumes neither the inviolable nature of natural laws nor their permanence. Natural laws are statistical regularities and they evolve by the transformation of the entities whose interrelation they express. There is an obvious similarly between this account of the laws of nature and Whitehead’s assertion that "the ideals cherished in the souls of men enter into the character of their actions. These inter-actions within society modify the social laws by modifying the occasions to which those laws apply" (AI 52; my emphasis). As with natural laws, social laws are immanent rather than imposed; they are the product of those members constituting that society and are perpetuated by ‘tradition.’ Social laws are "communal custom" (AI 22) and are inherited by the individual from society. Inasmuch as inheritance involves efficient causation there is an element of imposition. But we now see that this imposition is not simply the restrictions which the natural environment places upon society, but there is also the inheritance of social custom. Social laws are at once expressive of the members’ interrelation and are imposed upon the members, thereby promoting that particular order. Social laws, however, evolve and ideals function as a standing criticism of existing laws: "The ideal in the background is promoting the gradual growth of the requisite communal customs, adequate to sustain the load of its exemplification" (AI 26).

This brings us back to AI 85. The lower class functions on the macroscopic level in a way analogous to the physical pole of an actual occasion. What we are being provided with is a general caricature of this social class which is a statistical fact rather than an inviolable law On the whole the actions of this class exemplify modes of behavior determined by their social environment. In older societies this mode of response characterized almost the entire community; therefore, such communities were relatively stable. In modern societies Instinct has given way somewhat to Intellect, which is represented by the middle class, and novelty is no longer viewed as sheer destructive chaos, but as the basis for possible contractual modifications of communal custom. The minority who constitute the middle class, whose minds are set free from immediate physical concerns, are presented as the fountainhead for most of society’s novel ideals, which serve as a lure for social reform.

The origination of conceptual novelty is what Whitehead has in mind when he speaks of ‘life.’3 This suggests that he saw the middle class as the source of life in a society, apart from which society would be ‘bound’ to its traditions. The consequence of an actual occasion’s failure to introduce novelty is that when the conceptual feelings are reintegrated with the physical feelings from which they were derived there is the preservation of the dominant types of inherited order. This is true analogously of a society in which Intellect is feeble. Where there is minimal creative novelty owing to an absence of mental activity, order is preserved and progress is impeded.

For society to advance it must be structured so as to provide a suitable environment for the emergence of novelty which must then be coordinated with the background that gave rise to it. Whitehead maintains that a modern response to that need involves the differentiation of society so that it includes the maintenance of a "wide distribution" of professional institutions, or ‘guilds’ (AI 72). The metaphysical justification of such an articulated society is clear. God’s aim at maximum depth of intensity of feeling necessitates the emergence of highly complex structured societies. Such a society is "favorable to intensity of satisfaction for certain sets of its component members. This intensity arises by reason of the ordered complexity of the contrast which the society stages for these components" (PR 100/ 153). Inordinate identification, or homogenization, results in ‘vagueness’ and a consequently feeble satisfaction. Too much order compels "uncreative reiteration of the overdominant pattern, thus robbing the perspective of its originality."4

We have seen that the persistence of social institutions through time is due in part to a lack of conceptual novelty which through reintegration (coordination) with its environment thereby modifies the structured society. Instinct must be modified by Intellect. To encourage the production of novelty Whitehead advocates an articulated society in which the subsocieties possess a degree of autonomy from the state. Tolerance is shown in order to encourage discord within limits, which is productive of adventure. Thus a complex structured society provides the requisite environment for heightened satisfaction by some members of the society; and in turn the emergence of novelty enables that society to make thoughtful adjustments of its social structure to meet novel situations. Life emerges from society and "turns back into society" (PR 107/ 163).

IV. Wisdom

A society requires the coordination of its parts. We have seen that ancient societies realized an instinctive coordination. A unity exists between the individual and society; consequently’ the society is dominated by an urge toward some general end shared by all its members. The liberal sociopolitical theory of the Enlightenment, on the contrary, was "utilitarian in its ethical outlook, and atomistic in its social philosophy."5 The idea that society was founded on custom gave way to the social contract theory according to which absolute individuals enter into a prudential agreement with other individuals in order to maximize their own welfare.

Whitehead repudiates the laissez-faire individualism of the Enlightenment.6 Whereas ancient societies failed to perceive man as an individual, social contract theory neglects man s essential sociality, which is more primal than his individuality: contract presupposes custom. Whitehead’s social theory supercedes without destroying both types of social coordination. These previous types are ‘moments’ which are in Hegel’s terminology aufgehoben (sublated) in the third inclusive mode. Instinct and Intellect are moments which achieve a synthesis in Wisdom.

Life is the origination of conceptual novelty, and the broadest definition of a living society is one which includes living occasions. In a society dominated by Instinct social order predominates at the expense of novelty and life. There may be flashes of free thought, but more often than not the novelty derived thereby is not coordinated with the background order. The result of such a social arrangement is a diminished level of satisfaction experienced by its members.7 Conversely, a society dominated by Intellect has novelty, and is therefore living, but lacks order and stability. In such an environment spontaneity tends to be mutually inhibiting. Consequently there is triviality because of the lack of coordination.8 Both extremes must be avoided if nature is to achieve intense satisfactions. "We require," writes Whitehead, "both the advantages of social preservation, and the contrary stimulus of the heterogeneity derived from freedom" (S 17). The coordination of order and novelty is what Whitehead means by Wisdom. Wisdom’s function is "to act on the intellectual ferment so as to produce a self-determined issue from the given conditions" (AI 59). Wisdom is the ‘subjective aim’ of society in which order and novelty are united; it expresses society’s ideal of itself. Wisdom is the attainment of a harmony through the effective coordination of the two principles inherent in society: the spirit of conservatism (Instinct) and the spirit of change (Intellect). "It is the case of the whole emerging from its parts, and the parts emerging within the whole" (AI 60).

Did Whitehead envisage a particular social group as being characterized by Wisdom? There are no explicit statements to this effect, yet I believe that such an identification would remain consistent with his approach to social structures outlined thus far. The coordination of society should be entrusted to those who have an appreciation of the variety of values. Education should aim at an improvement of our "directive wisdom" (SMW 246). While Whitehead’s comments on education in SMW have applicability to professional people generally, I suggest they also have derivative, but perhaps more significant application to statesmen. Although professional people have a vision of the general ideal, their primary concern is with their particular profession or business to which the general ideal is applied. But such people can only give "limited application" to the general ideal, and in its particularization the ideal is distorted.9 The statesmen, however, have as their aim the whole of society. Therefore they continually remind the middle class of their omission (AI 60) and regulate the implementation of the ideal in this ‘universal’ context. With the professions the general gets lost in the particular; but the statesmen work to recover the general ideal for its application to the whole.10

Statesmen are required by Whitehead for the coordination of society. While the state must not presume to trespass in the sciences or professions, some passages suggest that the state was still regarded as the ultimate regulative power. For example, Whitehead implicitly repudiates the "hidden hand" of which Adam Smith speaks when he claims that "no one now holds that, apart from some further directive agency, mere individualistic competition, of itself and by its own self-righting character, will produce a satisfactory society" (Al 44). Whitehead realized that political philosophy could not escape an element of compulsory coordination. Some compulsion may be supplied by the professions; they can restrict the freedom of the members of their own profession. But it is doubtful whether Whitehead saw the various professions as succeeding where individuals failed and thus happily cooperating apart from any transcendent compulsory coordination. It is in the nature of things that ideals are not all compatible. Therefore inasmuch as each profession is a source of novelty, a regulatory agency is required to ensure some coordination among them.

Even as Instinct and Intellect are characterized by the masses and the fortunate classes, so Wisdom finds expression with the statesmen, which we might term the ‘universal’ class. Each of these classes reflects a particular mode of consciousness: conservatism, individualism, and universality11 The masses display an unreflective adherence to the nation’s Sittlichkeit. These shared values and customs are an integrative force in society. While the cohesive power of a shared culture dominated earlier societies, a predominant feature of the modern state is the tendency towards individualism. This mode of consciousness, according to Whitehead, is displayed primarily by the fortunate classes, whose economic position allows them the freedom to reflect upon the inherited values, laws, and customs. Unchecked, this tendency is towards the disintegration of society. For society to both survive and advance it is necessary that these dialectical forces of integration and disintegration be synthesized in the state. This is accomplished by the statesmen, whose mode of consciousness is properly that of ‘universality.’

Within living structured societies one finds three ‘levels’ of occasions. First, there is the "inorganic apparatus" which is a complex system of interaction conducive to the emergence of novelty (PR 103/ 157f.). Secondly, "certain sets" of a society’s members experience intense satisfactions because of the "subservient" nexus. These occasions are the source of life in a society. Thirdly, there is the "living person," which combines "individual originality with the safety of the material organism on which it depends" (PR 107/ 163). This third ‘level’ canalizes the originality produced by the living occasions so that it is not destructive of the society as a whole. This level ensures that "life turns back into society: it binds originality within bounds, and gains the massiveness due to reiterated character" (ibid.).

I suggest that Whitehead saw human societies as displaying a similar articulated structure. First, there is the social order which is inherited from the past. This order is rooted in the customs, culture, laws, and institutions of the nation. It is the product of efficient causation and is what binds society together. This level of society is that which characterizes the lower class, the masses who are ‘bound’ by custom. ‘Certain sets’ of human society, i.e., the minority who constitute the fortunate classes, are the locus of the novelty, or life, of the community. Finally, the statesmen are responsible for combining the originality produced by the ‘living’ members of society with the social order transmitted unreflectingly by the ‘inorganic’ members. Originality thereby gains the massiveness due to reiterated character. Thus the three moments, or forces, constitutive of a living human society both parallel the ‘levels’ found in a living structured society and find expression in an articulated community. Moreover, the historical life of a society is found in the dialectical movement in which the nation’s order, or in Hegelian terms its Sittlichkeit, undergoes a separation and a return. Order becomes alienated in its generation of novelty, but returns to itself via coordination. Or perhaps we would say that the life of a nation in its history experiences self-alienation and reconciliation. But in the recovery of order, in the return or reconciliation, the nation has progressed to a new ideal.

V. Conclusion

The aim of this paper has been to reconstruct Whitehead’s general attitude towards social differentiation and class structure. Owing to the absence of extended comment on this topic by Whitehead, we have had to rely on our general knowledge of his philosophy in order both to exegete and build upon those occasional suggestive comments and allusions scattered throughout his writings. The success of this project will be judged in part by whether or not the final product is in agreement with his metaphysical system. It is important to add that I have not tried to defend Whitehead’s position, nor to suggest that this is the only stance possible for a process theologian to take on this issue; I have only sought to establish that Whitehead did possess a discernable theory of social differentiation. Perhaps we could consider this an exercise in uncovering the ideological roots of Whitehead’s philosophy -- a task too long overlooked by process theologians concerned with political theology.



1Instinct is also a feature of insect communities. In Symbolism Whitehead says, "the important binding factor in a community of insects probably falls under the notion of pure instinct, as here defined. For each individual insect is probably such an organism that the causal conditions which it inherits from the immediate past are adequate to determine its social actions" (S 96). Whitehead was a bit careless in saying that ‘pure’ instinct is the binding factor in an insect community, for in S 97 he says that the only examples of pure instinct are inorganic societies. Cf. AI 62.

2 Burke, in advocating prejudice as the basis of social order, departs from the theory of the original contract. That Whitehead sympathizes with Burke is evident from his judgment on Locke and the advocates of a contractual basis for society: "Such a doctrine seeks the origin of the state in a baseless historical fiction. Burke was well ahead of his time in drawing attention to the importance of precedence as a political force" (S 85f.).

3 See PR 102/ 156: "In accordance with this doctrine of ‘life,’ the primary meaning of ‘life’ is the origination of conceptual novelty -- novelty of appetition."

4 Elizabeth Kraus, The Metaphysics of Experience (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979), p. 62.

5 Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 69.

6 See AI 80: "The whole concept of absolute individuals with absolute rights, and with a contractual power of forming fully defined external relations, has broken down."

7 This massiveness of order without the influx of novelty is what Whitehead terms "The Gospel of Uniformity" in SMW 258f.

8 This situation of novelty without the requisite background of order to preserve it is what Whitehead terms "The Gospel of Force" in SMW 256-58. He specifically points out its relevance to human society when he refers to the "watchwords of the nineteenth century," viz., "struggle for existence, competition, class warfare, commercial antagonisms between nations, military warfare" (SMW 256). Individual Absolutism reigns supreme with the result that the weak are eliminated.

9 See AI 17.

10 It appears that there is a two-fold disintegration in the middle class: (1) custom disintegrates in the pursuit of individual ends, and (2) the general ideal disintegrates in its particularization, again by its application of a ‘finite’ section of the community.

11 Whitehead appears to base his differentiation of social classes primarily on the different modes of consciousness they represent and not on economic considerations such as forms of labor (Hegel). Thus while Whitehead believes it to be generally true that the masses are, as he puts it. "intellectually quiescent" and by implication conservatively minded owing to their impoverished economic position. this is not necessarily the case. Nor is it necessarily the case that the middle classes are actively seeking reforms (SMW 259). But Whitehead does maintain a general correlation between one’s economic condition and one’s mode of consciousness. Furthermore it might he argued that Whitehead would find all three modes of consciousness necessary for a healthy, adventurous society, and this might have implications for the vision of a ‘classless’ society.