Spirit and Society: A Study of Two Concepts

by Joseph A. Bracken, S.J.

Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., is Associate Professor of Theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 244-255, 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.


Professor Bracken relies upon the careful work done by Lucas in the concept of Spirit in Hegel’s philosophy and the concept of society in Whitehead’s thought to illuminate each another’s potentialities for development in the direction of still another, more comprehensive process-oriented system of thought.

In the final paragraph of his recent study of the philosophies of G. W. F. Hegel and Alfred North Whitehead, George Lucas concludes that they represent "two schools or variations of one tradition of process philosophy" (TVF 136). With that judgment I basically concur, since I agree with Lucas that both men were ultimately guided by a common insight into the "organismic" character of reality. On the other hand, I also believe that efforts to compare the two philosophies will always remain tentative and incomplete since the governing concepts in each case are not readily divorced from their overall function within the system as a whole. Lucas, to he sure, offers in his book several points of contact between the two systems. He compares, for example, Spirit (Geist) in Hegel with Whitehead’s Creativity, and the Concept (Begriff) in Hegel with Whitehead’s Principle of Concretion (TVF 71). Elsewhere he compares Hegelian dialectic with the Whiteheadian notion of concrescence (TVF 72). Finally, at the end of the book he compares the Hegelian Concept from still another perspective with the Whiteheadian subjective aim (TVF 135). Clark Butler in his review of Lucas’s work is critical of the "looseness of such translation" in terms from one philosophy into another (PS 11:53). Presumably more preferable would he an attempt to move beyond Hegel and Whitehead in the direction of a new system which would incorporate key insights out of both philosophies hut which would ultimately have to be judged in terms of its own logical consistency and correspondence to reality.

In any case, that goal will guide my thinking in the following essay. That is, relying upon the careful work already done by Lucas in comparing the two systems, I will try to show how the concept of Spirit in Hegel’s philosophy and the concept of society in Whitehead’s thought seem to illuminate one another’s potentialities for development in the direction of still another, more comprehensive process-oriented system of thought. Naturally, Hegelians will complain that the resultant notion of Spirit is no longer in the strict sense Hegelian; likewise, Whiteheadians may well demur that my understanding of society is at best an extension of Whitehead’s thought on the matter. But, as I see it, one must take this risk in order to move beyond polite conversation between exponents of different schools of thought. I will, accordingly, first summarize and critique Lucas’s interpretation of Spirit in Hegel’s philosophy; then I will analyze his exposition of Whitehead’s philosophy with special attention to his comments about the Whiteheadian "self" as a personally ordered society of actual occasions. Finally, in the third part of the article I will compare Spirit in Hegel’s philosophy with society in Whitehead’s thought with an eye to their assimilation into a more comprehensive philosophical scheme. In this way, my own point of view should gradually become clear as the essay unfolds.

Lucas’s understanding of Spirit in Hegel’s philosophy can perhaps best be captured by citation of the following passages ont of his book. Spirit, he says, "is Hegel’s manner of expressing organic holism, in which any given ‘whole’ (family, church, humanity, or whatever) may be said somehow to transcend the sum of its ‘parts’ (the finite, atomic individuals of which that whole is comprised)" (TVF 67). A few lines later, he adds:

"Spirit" occupies the central position in Hegel’s thought; it is that "ultimate principle" which, as Whitehead suggests (PR 10), is present in any philosophical system and is actual by virtue of its accidents. Spirit manifests itself: (a) in finite (human) minds; (b) in select human communities and their cultural, moral and political institutions ("objective spirit"); and (c) in an "Absolute" or universal sense -- "Spirit in its infinitude" -- as revealed in art, religion and finally in philosophy. . . . In all of its manifestations, Geist is what is self-actualizing. Its "substance is freedom." It is the principle of striving, becoming, process and creativity. . . Spirit creates itself according to the inner pattern of its own essential Concept (TVF 68).

As already noted, Lucas thus identifies Spirit with Whiteheadian Creativity, since like the latter it exists only in its concrete "instantiations."’ It is, in other words, a principle of existence or activity, not an entity in its own right. I both agree and disagree with this contention. For I too believe that Spirit is primarily an activity, the activity of internal self-organization whereby a multiplicity of parts or members become a unified whole. But I further propose that in virtue of this unifying activity a composite whole comes into being, and that this whole or totality of parts or members is a concrete instantiation of Spirit. Spirit, in other words, is not just the activity of unification but that activity as incarnated in concrete wholes.

In this respect I am quite consciously drawing a parallel between Spirit in Hegel’s philosophy and what I understand to be substantial form or entelechy in the philosophy of Aristotle. Careful reading of Book Z of the Metaphysics, to be sure, makes clear that there are at least two conceptions of substantial form in Aristotle’s philosophy: one more Platonic in character whereby the form possesses its own substantial unity and communicates that unity to the material elements (stoicheia) from the outside, so to speak; the other apparently originating with Aristotle himself according to which the substantial form comes into being as it unifies the elements into an organic whole (cf. TKT 67-120). In this way, the unity of the composite is not primarily the unity of the substantial form taken by itself, but the unity of the form and material elements taken together as an organic whole. In any event, this latter understanding of substantial form in Aristotle’s philosophy is carried forward, albeit with suitable qualifications, in my interpretation of Hegel’s doctrine of Spirit. That is, I propose that Spirit is not only at work within and among human beings but likewise inchoatively present in the world of nature as the operative principle for the existence and activity of material entities (both animate and inanimate). Admittedly, it only becomes aware of itself as such an operative principle at the level of human existence and behavior. Moreover, as Hegel makes clear in the Phenomenology of Spirit, even within the human organism it undergoes many stages of growth before it reaches full self-consciousness as a participant in the reality of Absolute Spirit. But at every stage of development in the world process Spirit is both the underlying activity of unification transcending all its instantiations and a concrete existent, a given ontological unity of parts or members.

It might be objected here that I am confusing Spirit with Concept in Hegel’s philosophy. That is, every ontological totality is intelligible in and through its concept which is simultaneously its immanent principle of existence and activity (cf., e.g., EPW 159). But the same ontological totality is not necessarily a manifestation of Spirit since Spirit presupposes at least some minimal form of self-consciousness within the individual entity and thus is confined to the human and interhuman spheres of existence and activity. Granted the legitimacy of this distinction, one should not forget that Concept and Spirit within Hegel’s philosophy (like nature and person within classical Trinitarian theology) are, in the end, only logically distinct from one another. That is, within the Absolute the Concept is hypostatized as Spirit, and Spirit exercises its being through the totalizing activity of the Concept. Hence, wherever in finite entities the Concept is operative as principle of being and activity, there, too, Spirit is at least inchoatively present as the source (both immanent and transcendent) of that same activity of unification within the individual entity.

In the chapter of his book dedicated to Whitehead’s philosophy, Lucas focuses chiefly on the latter’s doctrine of actual entities to support his overall hypothesis that both Whitehead and Hegel see reality in "organismic" terms. He points out, for example, that actual entities are instantiations of Creativity because within each actual entity "many elements of the past are synthesized into a unique occasion of experience" (TVF 20). Furthermore, he defends Whitehead’s understanding of the free or self-creative character of the individual actual entity against Edward Pols’s objection that it is determined from the outside either through the initial aim of God or through the intrinsic interrelatedness of the eternal objects which it prehends (TVF 36-40). With all of this I am in agreement. I too believe that the Whiteheadian actual entity is an organism in miniature; that is, it exhibits in its self-constitution the same basic teleology or purposiveness which characterizes physical organisms on the macroscopic level of existence. Thus it was indeed Whitehead’s "particular contribution" through his reformed subjectivist principle to make freedom and self-determination a necessary characteristic of all actualities, "from God to the ‘most trivial puff of existence in empty space (TVF 41, 24; cf. also PR 18/ 28).

My only reservation with his exposition is the focus on the individual actual entity rather than on the society (societies) to which it belongs as the basis for comparison with Hegel in the matter of an organismic understanding of reality. That is, while actual entities, to be sure, are the building-blocks, the ultimate constituents, of the Whiteheadian universe, yet, as Lucas himself notes, "none of our direct experiences are experiences of individual actual entities" (TVF 41). Hence, to deal properly with Hegel, whose organismic understanding of reality is grounded in the analysis of macroscopic organisms, the true point of comparison should be the Whiteheadian notion of a society, not the doctrine of actual entities. Lucas might well defend himself here by noting that for Whitehead "society" is a derivative notion, whereas "actual entity" is an elemental concept (like "Spirit" in Hegel’s philosophy). To this I would reply that, granted various texts out of the Whiteheadian corpus might be brought forward in defense of this contention, the inner logic of the latter’s position demands that "society" be an elemental concept coequal in importance with "actual entity" in order to sustain a consistent organismic interpretation of reality. For, as Whitehead states quite clearly in Process and Reality, "[t]he point of a ‘society,’ as the term is here used, is that it is self-sustaining; in other words, that it is its own reason. Thus a society is more than a set of entities to which the same class-name applies. . . . To constitute a society, the class-name has got to apply to each member, by reason of genetic derivation from other members of that same society" (PR 89/ 137). There is, in other words, a dynamic interrelatedness of the actual entities with one another so that they co-constitute a new ontological reality which is self-sustaining (albeit in and through the activity of its member actual entities) and which, therefore, is its own reason.

In a recent book, F. Bradford Wallack puts forth the thesis that the Whiteheadian actual entity "is any concrete existent whatsoever" (ENPWM 7). Furthermore, with respect to Whitehead’s notion of nexus (from which the more specific concept of society is derived), she argues: Insofar as a nexus is really a togetherness, it forms also an actual entity in the Whiteheadian cosmology. It is a set of actual entities comprising another actual entity. And since every actual entity is itself a real composite of other actual entities, it is also from this perspective a nexus" (ENPWM 8). In my judgment, this is an undesirable confusion of basic terms in Whitehead’s philosophy, so that in the end one is no longer certain of what is meant either by an actual entity or by a nexus. On the other hand, I would concur with James Felt that the thesis has a prima facie appeal to it because in that case one would be able to consider "the perceptual unities of ordinary experience as ontological unities" (PS 10:59). But should not the answer to this felt need of ordinary experience rather be sought in a deeper penetration into what Whitehead meant by "society"? In other words, instead of expanding the notion of actual entity to include "any concrete existent whatsoever," why not affirm that a Whiteheadian society is in a qualified sense a new actuality, i.e., an ontological totality brought into being by the dynamic interrelatedness of its member actual entities?

Admittedly, great caution has to be used here lest one imagine a Whiteheadian society to be other than what it actually is. It is not, for example, a cluster or mere aggregate of actual entities in spatiotemporal contiguity. Nor is it, as noted above, a supraindividual actual entity which combines smaller actual entities. As such, it coexists with them and it possesses a definite character manifest in the causal laws which regulate the activity of the actual entities vis-à-vis one another (PR 90f./ 139). There are, of course, societies which include other societies, namely, structured societies. Each of these more complex fields of activity likewise exhibits a character which is somehow reflected in the laws governing the activity of the constituent actual entities. Every actual entity within my body, for example, bears the common element of form for the organism as a whole as well as the defining characteristic of all the subsocieties to which it belongs.

Finally, a society as a unified field of activity possesses what might be called a corporate agency which is the indirect result of the interrelated agencies of its constituent actual entities. This is, to be sure, a disputed point since Whitehead at one place in Process and Reality says that "agency belongs exclusively to actual occasions" (PR 31/ 46). But, a few chapters later, he concedes that "[t]he causal laws which dominate a social environment are the product of the defining characteristic of that society" (PR 90f./ 139). Thus a society is "efficient" (functions as a unified whole) through its individual members in that "the members can only exist by reason of the laws which dominate the society, and the laws only come into being by reason of the analogous characters of the members of the society" (PR 91/ 139). Common sense, moreover, suggests that a complex structured society such as a human being functions as an organic whole, not simply because one of its member societies, namely, the personally ordered society constituting the soul, exercises hegemony over all the others, but, even more fundamentally, because all the member societies (including the soul) contribute their share to the functioning of the total organism. Otherwise, Whitehead might be justly accused of repristinating a Platonic body-soul distinction (e.g., the horse and rider metaphor) which would be quite foreign to his overall organismic understanding of reality.

Lucas, it should be added, deals with the issue of the corporate agency of societies in Whitehead’s philosophy, but only with respect to the personally ordered society of occasions constituting the "soul" or "self" within each human being. He begins by noting that this particular society follows in its own way the norm for the unity of a society in general: namely, that its member actual entities share a common element of form (TVF 42f.). He adds that in the case of a personally ordered society like the "self" which has no spatiality but only extension in time, the common element of form has to be inherited by each new actual entity from its immediate predecessor. Donald Sherburne is then quoted to the effect that this common element of form "corresponds to our sense of personal identity through time" (TVF 43; cf. also WPP 405). Whereupon Lucas concludes: "the inheritance of a common form in a living regnant society consists in the serial coordination of the successive subjective aims of the actual entities (i.e., the complete and peculiar ‘summation’ of the series by each succeeding term) toward a final end or ‘satisfaction’ of the society as a whole" (TVF 44). He quickly adds that personal identity and self-consciousness are not thus to be attributed to some underlying and unchanging structure. "Consciousness is rather an activity of organization shared serially, and thus continuously ‘carried on,’ by a living personal society of actual occasions" (TVF 44). Structure is present in this "serially ordered process of becoming," but it is an emergent, not a static, structure.

What Lucas says here with respect to personally ordered societies should be true (with proper modifications) of all Whiteheadian societies whatsoever. That is, all Whiteheadian societies exhibit a directionality or felt teleological thrust in the ongoing transmission of the common element of form from one set of actual entities to another. Admittedly, corpuscular societies or "enduring objects" do not exhibit the vitality and originality of personally ordered societies ("living persons"). They do not directly prehend and then subtly modify the mentality of predecessor actual entities as do personally ordered societies through "hybrid prehension" (PR 245-47/ 375-77). Instead, they prehend with little or no "conceptual reversion" the common element of form resident in predecessor actual entities as members of a given nexus or set of nexus (PR 249/ 380f.). But the basic effect in both cases is the same: namely, to carry forward into the next generation of actual entities a directionality or felt teleological thrust whereby the society holds together as an ontological totality and exercises a corporate agency appropriate to its own level of existence and activity. Furthermore, one should realize that the regnant personally ordered society within an organism is constantly being modified in its own self-constitution by interaction with the supporting corpuscular subsocieties. It exercises consciousness, in other words, not simply to sustain its own internal self-identity, but to give unity and direction to the organism as a whole (PR 339/ 516). Hence, what is principally carried forward from moment to moment both by the regnant personally ordered society and by all the subordinate corpuscular societies is a collective feeling of interrelatedness together with the common element of form for the structured society as a whole.

A few words of explanation may be necessary to explain this last statement. As noted above, the concrescing actual entities within a given structured society prehend in different ways a common world, i.e., the concrete interrelatedness of their immediate predecessors together with the common element of form which bound them together as this rather than that society.2 This feeling of both emerging out of and yet still belonging to a unified whole is then incorporated into their individual processes of concrescence. Thereby they together indirectly produce a collective feeling of interrelatedness with a new and slightly different common element of form characteristic of their own reality as a society here and now I say "indirectly" quite deliberately because each actual entity is directly occupied with its own individual process of concrescence and yet indirectly, together with its contemporaries, coproduces the dynamic unity of form and feeling which is the structured society at this instant. The collective feeling of interrelatedness and the common element of form are thus the unintended product of all the individual processes of concrescence going on within the structured society at that particular moment. But, insofar as all these processes of concrescence are being conjointly shaped by the antecedent feeling of interrelatedness and the common element of form from the society of an instant ego, the new sense of interrelatedness and the new pattern of intelligibility are virtually indistinguishable from the old, and the structured society as a whole retains its continuity through time.

A Whiteheadian structured society, accordingly, is not a substance in the classical sense of the term since its constituent parts are new at every instant and even its formal structure or essence is involved in a process of change or development. But it exhibits the same relatively stable identity in space and time which is meant by the term substance in classical thought. Hence, it is a suitable substitute for substance in a neoclassical metaphysics. Moreover, given this antecedent understanding of Whiteheadian societies, one can make, I believe, some very revealing comparisons with Hegel’s notion of Spirit as elaborated above. At least, that will be my effort in the third and final section of this essay. I will begin with what Hegel’s notion of Spirit contributes to a deeper understanding of what Whitehead means by a society, and then afterwards consider what light Whitehead’s notion of society throws upon the reality of Spirit for Hegel.

First, then, as already noted, Spirit for Hegel (at least, as I interpret him) is synonymous with wholes, ontological totalities. Wherever there exists a whole, there exists in some sense a manifestation of the activity of Spirit. The more complex the ontological totality, the greater the reality of Spirit within that whole. But every totality, however small in size or fleeting in duration, is an instantiation of Spirit in the qualified sense discussed above.

Applied to the Whiteheadian notion of a society, this understanding of Spirit illuminates what I said earlier about a society vis-à-vis its member actual entities. A society is an instantiation of Spirit precisely because it is a unified field of activity for its member actual entities according to a common element of form (in Hegelian language, its concept). It is, therefore, neither a simple aggregate of its parts, the member actual entities, nor a superentity, which absorbs its parts into a higher substantial unity proper to itself. It is, generically speaking, a nexus, all of whose members exist in their own right as actual entities. Yet the nexus itself coexists with them and constitutes their unity as a new ontological actuality, a unified field of activity with a determinate character or common element of form. As a totality existing in its own right, of course, the society in question may be part of a still greater society or more complex field of activity. But, once again, no new physical entity is thereby created. In terms of physical entities, only actual entities in various forms of combination exist. On the level of Spirit, however, i.e., in terms of the ontological totalities created in virtue of the organization or interrelated-ness of these same actual entities with one another, there exists a hierarchy of more and more comprehensive forms of unity. Ontological actuality, therefore, is coterminous with the reality of Spirit. But the reality of Spirit is a matter of degrees, depending upon the type of unity achieved in and through a given nexus of actual entities.3

The significance of the present argument for the proper understanding of Whiteheadian societies can perhaps be illuminated by reference to the hypothesis of Ivor Leclerc in his book The Nature of Physical Existence. Therein he argues, first, that Whiteheadian societies are reductively only aggregates of actual entities, and, secondly, that higher organic compounds (e.g., animal bodies) must be regarded as substances in their own right (NPE 284-96). Setting aside the customary interpretation of the Whiteheadian society, therefore, in which emphasis is laid upon the member actual entities in their individual prehension of the common element of form, Leclerc urges that these same actual entities by their active interrelation co-constitute a new substance, whose form or unifying principle is the common element of form in the Whiteheadian definition of a society (NPE 304-13). At first glance, the difference between Whitehead and Leclerc on this point might seem to be only a matter of emphasis; that is, Whitehead emphasizes the constituent parts, Leclerc the resultant totality. But, in my judgment, Leclerc is correct in pointing out the implicit lacuna in Whitehead’s thought in the matter of the ontological status of societies. That is, the member actual entities of a society are not only involved in their own individual processes of concrescence; they are likewise co-constituting the society of which they are members. Hence, as Leclerc implies, an actual entity’s prehension of a common element of form is not simply a subjective "perception" of that form for its own concrescence, but simultaneously an active correlating of itself with other actual entities in that society so as to constitute a new reality, a higher level of existence and activity.

At the same time, I believe that Leclerc is ill-advised in saying that the resultant society is then a substance. For, while the term substance might legitimately be applied with suitable qualifications to organic compounds in the world of nature, it cannot be extended to ontological totalities in the sphere of human social relations without considerable ambiguity. Civil societies, for example, are relatively self-sustaining totalities, unified fields of activity for their human members; but they cannot be considered even metaphorically as substances without the concomitant danger of totalitarianism, i.e., the radical subordination of individuals to the social whole. The Whiteheadian notion of society, on the other hand, can be employed without ambiguity in both the microscopic and the macroscopic worlds. For, wherever used, it guarantees the autonomy of the constituent actual entities, even as those same entities by their individual processes of concrescence indirectly co-constitute the unified field of activity which is their reality as a given society. In virtue of its comprehensiveness as a metaphysical category, therefore, the term society is much more suitable than the term substance to describe the various ontological totalities encountered in human experience.4 Yet this key insight into the ontological actuality of Whiteheadian societies is easily lost from view unless one ponders what Hegel was trying to express with the somewhat elusive notion of Spirit. For Spirit and society alike signify an ontological totality which does not exist apart from, but only in and through, the activity of its constituent parts or members.

Turning now to the possible influence which the Whiteheadian category of society can have on the Hegelian notion of Spirit, I would suggest that society in Whitehead makes clear that Spirit in Hegel should be consciously understood as a processive and, in its deeper implications, a communitarian reality. In one sense, no one who has read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit could possibly deny that Spirit is a processive reality for Hegel. The whole purpose of that book, as Quentin Lauer makes clear in his admirable commentary, is to lead the reader through a dialectically ordered series of reflections to a new self-awareness in which he/she concretely realizes the dynamic unity of subject and object within his/her own consciousness. "All spirit’s forms are products of its own spiritual activity. Along the way it was not possible to see this; now [at the end of the Phenomenology] it is clear that none of the preceding forms could make sense except in the framework of the totality of them all" (RUPS 258). But, granted that the way to absolute knowledge lies in the progressive appropriation of the forms of human knowing, does the eventual knowledge of the totality of those same forms preclude the possibility of alternate conceptual schemes, new philosophical approaches to the understanding of reality? The answer to that question for Hegel (and presumably for strict-constructionist Hegelians as well) would seem necessarily to be yes. For the very presupposition of a totality of interrelated conceptual forms appears to exclude the possibility that one could introduce entirely new categories or significantly alter the dynamic interrelationship of existing categories without undermining the pretensions of the system as such to absolute knowledge, knowledge of an intelligible whole.

On the other hand, those who instinctively resist the absolutist claims of the Hegelian synthesis either have to produce an alternate thought-system with a rival claim to absolute knowledge or find some reasoned justification for repudiating such absolutizing of human knowledge in the first place. I say "reasoned justification" because it is clearly inappropriate to reject out of hand all claims to systematic understanding of reality. Through his philosophy Hegel has dramatically unveiled the possibility that reality is indeed a systematically organized totality. The deeper question, however, is whether that totality can ever be comprehended in its essential structure by a single human thought-system. Furthermore, if it cannot be thus comprehended, why can it not be so comprehended? Is it because the human mind is too limited for this task? Or is it because reality itself is changing, because it is, so to speak, a system "on the move"?

At this point, Whitehead’s notion of society sheds light upon Hegel’s philosophical undertaking as a whole. For, if it is true that any ontological totality (up to and including the created universe as a whole) is a unified field of activity for subjects of experience bonded together from moment to moment by a common element of form (cf. below, note 6), then it is clear (a) that reality is indeed a system in process of change or development, and (b) that no one human being, including the philosopher Hegel himself, could ever comprehend in its fullness the ontological totality of which he/she is only a single member. With reference to the first point, an ever-changing common element of form for the universe as a whole and for all its sub-societies precludes the possibility of a single set of categories to describe all of reality. (Naturally, Whitehead too has a "categoreal scheme" for the interpretation of experience. But within his scheme there is not, as for Hegel, a logical necessity that the categories remain fixed in certain dialectically related patterns so as to constitute a system or organic whole.) With respect to the second point, it is also clear that no finite entity is able to have more than a perspectival prehension of the society to which it belongs. Even the "soul," the personally ordered society of actual occasions constituting human consciousness for Whitehead, does not have a comprehensive understanding of the organism within which it finds itself. Hence, insofar as instantiations of Spirit, namely, ontological totalities of various kinds up to and including the universe as a whole, are structured like Whiteheadian societies, then absolute knowledge such as Hegel envisions as a result of his own philosophical system is metaphysically impossible.

I also suggest above that society in Whitehead makes clear that Spirit in Hegel is, in its deeper implications, a communitarian reality. Here one might object that this is clearly not the case. For, as Hegel says in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, "the true is comprehended and expressed not [merely] as substance but equally as subject" (RHPS 276; cf. also PG 19). That is, in and through Hegel’s system one comes to realize that "human knowledge of God as absolute and human knowledge of self are coterminous" (RHPS 280). Thus absolute Spirit is in the first place God and in the second place the enlightened human consciousness of the philosopher. But in either case it is not a societal reality but rather an individualized personal subject of existence.

Yet there are other passages in Hegel’s works which would give the opposite impression, namely, that Spirit is indeed a communitarian reality. Lucas, for example, has pointed out how Hegel in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion seems to identify the divine Spirit with the Christian community (TVF 67). Likewise, Hegel’s doctrine of objective Spirit both in the Encyclopedia and in his Philosophy of Right culminates in the State, which is evidently a communitarian reality. Here, to be sure, one might reply that Hegel deals with the State as if it were a supraindividual entity, a transpersonal subject of existence. But is this not a weakness within Hegel’s political philosophy since it provides, however unintentionally, a justification for totalitarianism within the State? In brief, then, many passages in Hegel’s works suggest that Spirit is not only a personal but likewise a communitarian reality. To quote J. N. Findlay, "it is as essential for Spirit to assume the form of particular persons, identified with private interests and points of view, as it is for it to be impersonal, disinterested and ‘public’" (HRE 43).

Once again, I would urge that the Whiteheadian notion of a society, properly understood, illuminates what is otherwise difficult to understand in terms of Hegel’s notion of Spirit. A society for Whitehead is a group of interrelated subjects of experience bound together by a common element of form. Yet, as I pointed out earlier, it is in itself a new ontological reality with a corporate agency appropriate to its own level of existence and activity. Hence, if the State, the Christian community, and other forms of objective Spirit within Hegel’s philosophy be understood after the fashion of Whiteheadian societies, then, it seems to me, one could say that objective Spirit in Hegel is both a personal and communitarian reality at the same time. For the society in question is an instantiation of objective Spirit because in its corporate existence and activity it transcends the being and activity of its members taken singly; yet it itself comes to be and is sustained in existence only in virtue of the mutual interrelation of those same individual human beings.

Furthermore, thus understood, the State, the Church, and other forms of objective Spirit in Hegel’s philosophy could never be misinterpreted as totalitarian realities. Totalitarianism arises when a single individual or a minority group within the community presumes to speak and act for the entire membership without consulting the latter about their true interests and desires. The "mind" and "will" of the community is thus, in effect, the mind and will of a single individual or, in any event, a minority group. Within a community organized along the lines of a Whiteheadian society, on the other hand, a single individual or a small group may indeed speak and act for all the other members as their representatives. But the "mind" and "will" which they thus express is truly a collective mind (or mentality) and a collective will achieved through the dynamic interrelation of the members of the community with one another over an extended period of time. The temptation to totalitarian modes of thinking and acting, of course, will always be present even within communities organized along such egalitarian lines. But, in principle, the unity of a Whiteheadian society is achieved through the dynamic interrelation of the constituent actual entities (or member societies) with one another, not in virtue of the subordination of all the entities (or societies) save one to a single dominant entity (or society).5 As already noted, even the soul or regnant personally ordered society within the human organism exists and exercises consciousness, not simply to sustain its own internal self-identity, but to give unity and direction to the organism as a whole (cf. also PR 103/ 157).

Admittedly, Absolute Spirit, which is primarily identified with God, is not a society or communitarian reality in Hegel’s philosophy but rather a single personal subject of existence. But even here one can raise further questions, for Hegel makes extensive use of the doctrine of the Trinity in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. Albert Chapelle believes that, while the doctrine of the Trinity is only a pictorial representation (Vorstellung) of the Concept in its philosophical purity, the Concept itself speaks of an infinite Subject of existence which subsists whole and entire in three dialectally ordered "moments" (HR II, 82-94). Hence, although a strictly communitarian understanding of God (and thus of Absolute Spirit) seems to be alien to Hegel’s way of thinking, nevertheless the groundwork for precisely such a communitarian understanding of God is already laid in the notion of the Concept as a dynamic unity of dialectically ordered moments, each of which is the totality of the Concept (namely, Absolute Spirit).6

In brief, then, both what Whitehead meant by society and what Hegel meant by Spirit point toward an overall understanding of reality as inherently processive and communitarian. For, as Lucas comments in bringing his book to a conclusion, each of them apparently believed that "reality throughout is one structured, constantly developing, interdependent whole" (TVF 136). Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that Hegel and Whitehead, even though their philosophical systems differ so dramatically in specific details, nevertheless represent two variations of a single tradition of process philosophy. Indeed, insofar as that tradition "itself is in full process of evolution" (PAG 66), one might further surmise that someday the thought of Hegel and Whitehead will be seen as preparatory to a more comprehensive processive world view which will enjoy the same unquestioned acceptance as systems of classical metaphysics in generations past.



ENPWM -- F. Bradford Wallack, The Epochal Nature of Process in Whitehead’s Metaphysics. Albany: State University of New York, 1980.

EPW -- G. W F. Hegel, Euzyklopädie der philosophisehen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse (1830). 6th edition. Friedhelm Nicolin & Otto Pöggeler, eds. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1959.

HR -- Albert Chapelle, Hegel et la Religion, I & II. Paris: Éditions Universitaires, 1967.

HRE -- J. N. Findlay, Hegel: A Re-Examination. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964.

NPE -- Ivor Leclerc, The Nature of Physical Existence. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1972.

PAG -- W Norris Clarke, S.J., The Philosophical Approach to God. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest University Press, 1979.

PG -- G. W F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes. 6th edition. Johannes Hoffmeister, ed. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1948.

RHPS -- Quentin Lauer, S.J., A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Fordham University Press, 1976.

TKT -- Ernest Tugendhat, TI KATA TINOS. Freiburg i. Br./ Munich: Alber Verlag, 1958.

TVF -- George R. Lucas, Jr., Two Views of Freedom in Process Thought. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979.

WPP -- Donald W Sherburne, "Whitehead’s Philosophical Physiology," Southern Journal of Philosophy 7 (1969), 401-07.



1The term "instantiation" is derived from Whitehead’s thought, not from Hegel’s, but its use here seems to be appropriate in order more closely to align the two otherwise disparate systems of thought.

2 Cf. on this point William J. Garland, "Whitehead’s Theory of Causal Objectification" PS 12:180-91; likewise, Nancy Frankenberry, "The Power of the Past," PS 13:132-42. Though differing slightly in their explanations of Whitehead’s doctrine of objectification, both would agree that concrescing actual entities prehend their predecessors in their concrete interrelatedness as members of various societies; hence, they might further allow that the concrescing actual entities feel their relatedness not only to their predecessors, hut likewise indirectly to one another as emergent members of a common world.

3For a similar vision of reality as a series of progressively more comprehensive "wholes" or "systems," cf. Ervin Laszlo, The Systems View of the World (New York: Braziller, 1972), pp. 67-75. Laszlo’s notion of a "natural system" is closely related, in my judgment, to what Whitehead meant by "society" and to what I understand Hegel to mean by "Spirit."

4 For more extended discussion of this point, cf. my article "Substance-Society-Natural System: A Creative Rethinking of Whitehead’s Cosmology" in International Philosophical Quarterly 25 (1985), 3-13.

5 I have developed this same idea with reference to the unity and government of the various Christian churches in "Ecclesiology and the Problem of the One and the Many," Theological Studies 43 (1982), 298-311.

6In a pair of already published articles (PS 8:217-30; PS 11:83-96), I have presented a Trinitarian understanding of God within the framework of Whitehead’s philosophy. Furthermore, as I indicate here, an analogous Trinitarian understanding of God within Hegel’s philosophy likewise appears possible. This would provide, of course, still another fruitful point of contact between the philosophical systems of these two great thinkers. But, even more importantly, it might pave the way for a new and still more comprehensive world view in which not only all finite existents but likewise the three divine persons would be seen as coparticipants in a constantly developing, interdependent whole" which is the universe from moment to moment. For some indication of such a new world view, cf. my recently published book The Triune Symbol: Persons, Process and Community (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985), especially pp. 35-60.