Substance Within Substance

by Shielah O’Flynn Brennan

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

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 14-26, Vol. 7, Number 1, Spring, 1977. 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.


Does Whitehead’s metaphysics provide adequate support for his claim of “substance within substance?” To what extent is Whitehead in opposition to Aristotle on this subject? The author believes Whitehead provides adequate support of his assertions concerning this immanence.


"The principle of universal relativity directly traverses Aristotle’s dictum, ‘ (A substance) is not in a subject.’ On the contrary, according to this principle an actual entity is present in other actual entities. . . . The philosophy of organism is mainly devoted to the task of making clear the notion of ‘being present in another entity.’" (PR 79f)


It is undoubtedly true that Whitehead’s conception of the presence of one actual entity in another plays a key role in his metaphysics. On it, indeed, he bases such central themes of his philosophy as his concepts of organism, internal relations, universal relativity, process, and time. Nevertheless, not all Whiteheadian scholars have been convinced that he has successfully accounted for the immanence of substance within substance.1 The following study will undertake an investigation of Whitehead’s metaphysics in order to determine whether it provides adequate support for his claim. At the same time, since Whitehead supposes his position to traverse directly an Aristotelian thesis, the article will also attempt to establish in what manner and to what extent Whitehead is in fact in opposition to the Greek philosopher.


Although Whitehead’s actual entities, being relatively short-lived events, differ radically from Aristotelian substances, they nevertheless have this feature in common: they alone are what exist fully, actually, and as ultimate individual entities. Now it is precisely as that which exists fully, actually and as an ultimate individual entity that the Aristotelian primary substance cannot be present in a subject, for it is itself the ultimate subject. It is this that Whitehead challenges. One such actual entity can be present in another, he maintains. In fact, any actual entity is such as to be constituted of a multiplicity of other actual entities.

Evidence for the constitution of an actual entity, according to Whitehead, is to be found in subjective experience. Indeed, our occasions of experience are examples of actual entities. Whitehead’s method, in part, is to analyze these occasions of subjective experience in order to find factors capable of being generalized into principles applicable to all actual entities: "In describing the capacities, realized or unrealized, of an actual occasion, we have . . . tacitly taken human experience as an example upon which to found the generalized description required for metaphysics" (PR 172).

Now the inspection of subjective experience reveals a number of objects woven together into the unity that is this occasion of experience. Whitehead insists, however, that the examination of experience at its lowest and most basic levels reveals something more, something which is usually overlooked. Our basic experience, he claims, is emotional rather than cognitive. What is evident in emotional experience is the active, subjective response to something other. Three factors stand out as essential to Whitehead’s account of emotional experience: (1) active response on the part of the subject, (2) the qualitative character of this response, and (3) the object as causally related to the subjective response. As Whitehead sees it, the whole occasion of experience with its several relations to different objects is the subject; the response to a particular object is a prehension or feeling (in this case, a physical prehension of an actual entity as distinct from the conceptual prehension of a form); the qualitative aspect of the prehension, the "how" of the feeling, is the subjective form. The object is causally efficacious insofar as it determines, at least partially, the subjective form of the prehension, and hence, to some extent, the whole occasion of experience. What Whitehead stresses in all of this is that on this basic level of emotional experience, the object presents itself not as an abstract universal quality (e.g., red) but as an efficacious, actually and fully existing individual -- another actual entity. Such an occasion of experience becomes for Whitehead the model for all actual entities.

Several points concerning this model, however, must be made more explicit. For one thing, although it is the object that is causally efficacious, nevertheless all activity belongs to the subject. The activity by which the subject relates itself to the object is prehension. The object is not active with respect to the subject. It is merely there. But herein lies its causal efficacy. As given, it must be prehended, and as prehended, it is determinative of what the prehending entity will be.

Further, any actual entity involves many prehensions of objects and is essentially a process of synthesizing these various prehensions with their various subjective forms into a novel unity with one complex form.

Also to be noted is the temporal character of the process itself and of the process as related to its objects. Every actual occasion has temporal thickness and every present actual entity is a response to actualities of the settled past. Once it has completed its concrescence, attained unity, and become fully determinate, it becomes part of the past from which new actual entities arise. It thus exchanges its role of self-creative subject for efficacious object.

For Whitehead, therefore, the basic structure of all actual entities is subject constructing itself out of objects, and it is by becoming an object for a subject that one actual entity becomes present in another.

It must be emphasized here, however, that Whitehead has clearly in mind the presence of individual actual entities in individual actual entities. It is not merely a question of a causal relation whereby the past conditions the present. It is not merely a question of the transmission of an abstract quality or form. More than that is involved, he claims. Furthermore, although it is not inappropriate to speak of a flow of feeling (as does Whitehead himself at times), this phrase does not capture all that Whitehead is saying. Any present actual entity, he maintains, is actually constituted essentially of individual actual entities of its past. The past endures in the present, not merely the character of the past, but the past as a group of individual entities. Indeed, he insists on this immanence of past individuals in present individuals to the point of distinguishing between two modes of existence for every actual entity: formaliter, as the actual entity is in itself as enjoying its own immediacy of self-creation, and objectivé, as fully determinate object given for other actual entities. Through the latter mode of existence every actual entity achieves "objective immortality." It endures not as a "living" individual, that is, as a subject in actual process of self-formation, but as an object for another. It endures not in its entirety but as a certain aspect (or aspects) of itself. Nevertheless, as object it is still an individual, the same individual that it was as a subject.

But there is a problem here. Whitehead speaks of actual entities entering into the constitution of other actual entities by means of prehension. But the question arises: Just how does the prehension of an object bring the object within? The actual entity is made up of prehensions. They are what is within, it would seem, not the objects. The prehension is an active response to the object which is other and elsewhere. Obviously Whitehead is not asserting that prehension is a grasping of the object in its physical reality so that the actual entity would be made up of objects like so many physical atoms. The model of experience indicates something quite different from that. How then does the object become immanent?

There is a passage in part III (PR 361-65) which spells out what Whitehead has in mind. These few pages are worth careful consideration since it shows Whitehead to be much more scrupulous in working out the details of his philosophy than even many of his supporters give him credit for. Indeed the idea is sometimes given that the presentation of prehensions as feelings is adequate explanation of the immanence of objects. But that certainly is not the case. It is not at all evident how feelings in the broad metaphysical sense of the Whiteheadian doctrine bring objects within. Indeed, it is not even evident that conscious feelings qua conscious bring their objects within. But even if on the basis of experience we were inclined to think that they do, we would still have to give some philosophical account of just how they perform this function. And even if we were to do that, the question of whether the account would hold true for feelings in the broader sense, including nonconscious physical responses, would still have to be dealt with.

There are some Whiteheadian philosophers, no doubt, who would tend to think that immanence is adequately explained by the temporal aspect of process: present prehending actual entity following in temporal succession past actual entities which have completed their concrescence and become fully determinate. Though this temporal schema explains how one actual entity becomes an object for another (at least in the Whiteheadian metaphysics), it does not explain how the object becomes immanent. As a matter of fact, the temporal character of process only heightens the difficulty. Whereas in an Aristotelian substance philosophy the problem of the immanence of object within perceiving subject is how that object there can become present in this subject here, in Whiteheadian process philosophy the problem for perception (or prehension in general) is how that object there-then can become present in this subject here-now? In other words, the temporal character of process emphasizes transcendence rather than immanence.

However, Whitehead does in fact account for the introduction of objects within the subject. As he explains in the passage indicated earlier, what happens is that the object is reproduced in the subject. The initial physical feelings of an arising actual entity, Whitehead tells us, are conformal feelings. What this means is that the initial feeling derives its character, or subjective form, from the object felt, and insofar as it assumes the same form it reproduces the object: "In the conformal feelings the how of feeling reproduces what is felt" (PR 249). More specifically, a feeling conforms not to the datum actual entity as a whole, but to one aspect of it, that is, to one of its prehensions. Indeed the object, being an actual entity, is constituted of prehensions each with its subjective form and all synthesized under one complex form. In this complex form there is an element that corresponds to the subjective form of each of the prehensions (PR 359). The present actual entity prehends the past actual entity under the aspect of one of its prehensions and conforms to this aspect, that is, it shares the form of that particular prehension, and thus prehension reproduces prehension. Finally, since no prehension can be totally abstracted from its subject, the past actual entity itself is reproduced under the aspect of one of its prehensions.

Now one thing that is evident in all of this is that physical prehensions and reproduction take place through the intermediary of forms, or as Whitehead himself puts it, "by the mediation of universals" (PR 230, cf. also 78) -- though of course physical prehension is not of forms. This statement, as well as the whole account of the reproduction of actual entities, appears to support those who see in his doctrine merely a transfer of character (cf. D. Emmet; see note 1). In the face of his own assertion, however, Whitehead emphatically states that what is involved is not the transmission of a universal character but immanence, the presence of actual entity within actual entity. Now this precisely is the problem we have to contend with. It does appear that what is involved is just this, the transmission of form, reproduction being the assumption of the same form, and consequently it would seem that Whitehead cannot claim in any strict sense that one thing is in another but only that one thing is like another. But such a claim might appear to differ in no important respects from Aristotle’s doctrine of efficient causality according to which the agent assimilates the effect to itself. If this is so, one would be inclined to conclude that, however much Whitehead’s doctrine differs from Aristotle’s on other points, in respect to the immanence of substance within substance he has not traversed the Aristotelian dictum. But let us take a closer look at Aristotle’s position concerning substance within substance.


Aristotle, it is true, denied that substances can be present in substances. Yet there is one case in which Aristotle does allow for such a presence.

We shall recall that Whitehead derives his substance-within-substance doctrine from his analysis of perception. When we turn to Aristotle on perception, we find an account in many respects quite similar. "In a sense, sax’s Aristotle, "the soul is all existing things" (DA 431b21). When it knows, the soul becomes its object. However, the object is not within in its own physical reality; it is not the stone that is in the soul but the form of the stone (DA 432a1). Thus the presence within is effected through the intermediary of form. In Aristotle, therefore, as in Whitehead, the percipient conforms to the object. For Aristotle, too, perception is of the particular, and the percipient becomes the individual thing perceived. Furthermore, the reason for this, it would appear -- though Aristotle is not at all explicit here -- is that it is the individual thing that is causally efficacious in the reproduction of itself in the percipient. What we have in perception according to Aristotle, therefore, is the production of individual substance within individual substance through the intermediary of form and the efficacy of individual entities, in other words, in much the same way, it would appear, as we find it in Whitehead.

Whitehead’s philosophy, of course, differs in many important respects from the Aristotelian view, as is to be expected in a philosophy that takes activity rather than matter as fundamental. As we have seen, what the examination of perception brings to light for Whitehead is an occasion of experience which is a self-creative process, a subject synthesizing past objects into a novel unity. In Aristotle, on the other hand, though perception is an activity it involves passivity as well, and furthermore, the perceptual occasion is not a substance, that is, an individual existing entity, and it is not a temporal process. These are, indeed, radical differences. Nevertheless, concerning the point under discussion, the immanence of substance within substance as evidenced in perception, the Whiteheadian account would appear on first sight to be strikingly close to that of Aristotle.

We have seen that Whitehead generalizes the pattern observed in an occasion of perceptual experience. This, of course, is what Aristotle does not do. For him, the immanence of the object is a peculiarity of perception and knowing in general. It is precisely what distinguishes mental activity from the workings of basic nature. Yet when we look at his analysis of purely physical or nonconscious natural activity, we find the transmission of form under the agency of actually existing individual substances with the consequent conforming and assimilating of substance to substance. It would seem, therefore, that in this area, no less than in perception, we have the reproduction of substance in substance.

Let us take a closer look at Aristotle’s conception of physical change. All activity in nature, for Aristotle, has its source in the urge of form to communicate itself. But it is not, strictly speaking, the form that acts but rather the individual natural substance. And what it acts on is also an individual natural substance. It is in virtue of the passive factor in nature, matter, that substances can be acted on and changed. Change is the acquiring of a new form by matter and the accompanying loss of the old form. The activity of the agent substance is the giving of form to matter, and the consequent assimilation of the passive substance to itself. The picture, of course, varies to some extent and is more or less complex according to the type of substances involved. Nevertheless, in all cases, what is essentially implied is the activity of an individual substance on an individual substance, the transmission of form, the assimilation to some extent and in some way of the effect to the cause. It might appear from this that physical activity in Aristotle does not essentially differ from perceptual activity.

Such is not the case however. Aristotle, indeed, emphasizes the difference, as well as the continuity, between mental activity and the basic workings of nature. And the main difference concerns the presence of substance within substance. When it is a case of physical causation, Aristotle never speaks of the effect becoming the cause, but merely becoming like the cause. In the case of perception, however, he speaks of the soul becoming the object and of the object being present in the soul. Perception for Aristotle does involve being acted upon physically and being changed by natural agents, but sensing is not explained by these bodily transformations alone. Becoming red is not the same thing as seeing red. Perception involves in addition to the physical assumption of form the holding of the form apart from matter. The percipient as such has the capacity to actively hold the form disengaged from its own material constitution as well as from the matter of the object so that the form retains its identity and its distinctness from the percipient.2 It is thus that the sensible thing in Aristotle assumes the role of object as well as agent, but the two are not identified as they are in Whitehead. The sensible form within the percipient has a dual character, being at once an accident of the percipient and the form of the perceived. And thus perception, though itself an accident of substance, would involve the introduction of other substances within the percipient substance. It is the detached form which is the distinguishing mark of perceptual activity for the Greek, and it is this which accounts for the presence of substance within substance.

It is true that for Whitehead also sense perception involves the detached form. Conscious perception, as he sees it, is a complex prehension integrating the prehension of another concrete actual entity, or physical prehension, and prehension of an abstract form, which he calls conceptual prehension. However, as we have seen, it is physical prehension that is given the function of introducing the other substance, and physical prehension is not peculiar to conscious perception. Whether or not it is capable of this task was the problem presented in the last section.

Must we conclude that ironically it is Aristotle after all who has given us a doctrine of substance within substance? A further examination of the Aristotelian position will be taken up in section IV. Let us now return to Whitehead and to the problem of whether physical prehension is adequate to account for the presence of one substance in another.


Aristotle is intent on pointing up the difference between conscious perception and the interplay of purely physical forces, i.e., those powers peculiar to bodies as such rather than specifically to sentient bodies. Whitehead, of course, does not stand in opposition to Aristotle by any materialistic tendency. Indeed, when he is criticized, it is usually for the contrary, for panpsychistic leanings. The immanence of the object in perception, effected basically through physical prehension, is but one instance of a general pattern to be found throughout nature. The question to which we must now return consequently is the following: Is physical prehension adequate to the task of introducing one actual entity within another?

Let us take a second look at physical prehension. What is important to note is that Whitehead’s physical prehensions are like Aristotle’s physical changes at least in this respect, that what is involved in both are causal relations. A simple physical feeling, indeed, according to Whitehead, is an act of efficient causation. The causal relation is obviously not construed in the same way by Aristotle and Whitehead. Indeed, for one the cause is active, while for the other the effect is active; also, for one cause and effect are contemporary, whereas for the other they are sequential. Nevertheless, it is significant that for both alike what is fundamental is the transmission of a form from cause to effect with consequent assimilation or conformation of effect to cause.

To return to the question, is this causal relation sufficient to allow one to speak of the first actual entity as present in the second? On first consideration, it seems that the only claim that can legitimately be made is merely the Aristotelian claim that the first entity becomes like the second. It is to be noted that the object to which the actual entity responds is external. What is internal are prehensions, nothing more. For Whitehead the physical prehension is the object inasmuch as it reenacts the same subjective form -- or at least one aspect of it. But can the prehension really be the object? After all, the form assumed by actual entity B, responding to actual entity A, is truly B’s form: its whole function is to give B real and inherent definiteness. True, in a sense, B has the same form as A had, if one means by form the universal. But that consideration would provide no grounds for taking B to possess A’s form precisely as A’s form, or for thinking of B as including the individual actual entity A as one of its components.

This seems obvious enough. And Whitehead himself would surely agree that B can have the same form as A only if we mean the same universal form. He is quite explicit, in fact. The subjective form in a particular actual entity, he tells us, unlike the abstract eternal object, is an "element in the private definiteness of that actuality’ (PR 444), and the subjective form cannot be torn apart from its particular subject without becoming a mere universal (PR 354, 356).

Nevertheless, in the face of such statements, Whitehead refused to think of physical processes merely in terms of the transference of an abstract universal quality (see note 1). In his view, this would be to Ignore, among other things, the fact of causal efficacy which has its source in concrete individual entities. The efficacy of these individuals, nevertheless, is explained by the transmission of form. Whitehead, however, wants to go further and identify the transmission of form from cause to effect with the introduction of the cause as an individual entity into the effect (PR 363). It would appear that Whitehead has not made good his claim concerning the immanence of substance within substance. At least that must be the conclusion if his claim is to be supported merely by conformation and reproduction, which ultimately involve nothing more than the transmission of character. I would suggest, however, that there is something more to the Whiteheadian account, certain additional elements which are not always made sufficiently explicit.

To begin with, I think we must admit that when Whitehead speaks of the subject being constituted of its objects and the cause passing into the effect, he means, at least in part, that the objects/causes are reproduced by way of likeness insofar as the subject/effect assumes the same forms. If this were the whole story, however, there would be no significant difference from the Aristotelian idea of a transfer of form, of causes making effects like themselves. Whitehead, however, differs from Aristotle in some very significant respects, and it is precisely these that will allow him to speak in terms of immanence.

For one thing, as we have seen in section I, the Whiteheadian account introduces the idea of the synthetic unit as the fundamental unit of nature. The actual entity, though basic, is itself made up of a number of quasi-units, its prehensions, each of which has an individual character without however being capable of independent existence (PR 28f, 35, 72, 435, 436). Even though the parts of such a whole are not independent of one another and are ultimately integrated into the one complex prehension which is the satisfaction, they function, nevertheless, as quasi-individuals to the extent that each component derives its individual character in part from the object to which it initially conforms and retains it throughout the whole process. Thus instead of one substance like another, we have one substance made up of many parts each of which is like another. In other words, there is a containment of parts, an immanence of individual units within a synthetic whole.

This alone of course does not explain the immanence of other substances. What is needed is an explication of the Whiteheadian idea of feelings as "vectors." Physical feelings, we are told, are "vectors" insofar as they "feel what is there and transform it into what is here" (PR 133). Now what is implied in this much quoted statement is not always fully brought out, even by Whitehead himself. The idea is partially explained in terms of conformation and reproduction, but only partially. What is made fully explicit only in part IV (PR 445-47) is that a physical feeling feels what is there and feels it precisely as there. It is an active subjective response to another actual entity not merely as qualitatively determined but as spatially and temporally located, hence as individual and as other. It is to be noted that feelings as vectors must be explained in terms of forms (eternal objects) of the objective species. These are forms of the object as such and not the subjective forms of feelings; they are mathematical rather than qualitative, and are essentially nontransferable. Relational in character, they are precisely the means by which the other qua other is introduced into a prehending subject. Thanks to them, Whitehead’s philosophy is more than a doctrine of causation; it is a doctrine of objectification.

The physical prehension as conformal feeling, we have said, reproduces the object by assuming the subjective form of one of its prehensions, but as vector it is, and remains throughout the "life" of the subject, an essential relation to that individual object as other, as there and then. Thus it is at once integral part and reference beyond. It is the vehicle of immanence and the basis of transcendence. What we find in Whitehead, then, is certainly the transmission of form, but it is much more than that. It is the containment of parts by the whole in such a way as to retain to some degree the individual distinctness of the parts and their essential reference, as well as their conformity, to a number of other individual actual entities. And this precisely is what Whitehead means when he speaks of immanence.

That this view of substance is radically different from Aristotle’s is readily seen. Although Aristotle does of course recognize synthetic wholes -- the syllable, for instance, and the house -- the natural substance is not seen by him to be such a whole. It has a tighter unity. The compound substance, in Aristotle, although it is made up of several elements and exhibits a balance of the opposite elemental qualities, does not retain the elements in their distinctness, and its form is not one of a complex of distinct qualities. The living substance, it is true, does have diversified parts for him, but they are in no sense quasi-individuals and the whole is not a synthesis of these parts. Rather the unifying form alone is what gives each of these parts its essential character. The Whiteheadian whole, by contrast, is made up of prehensions each of which is qualitatively determined in part by another actual entity to which it remains essentially related.

This is by no means to deny all essential relations to the Aristotelian universe. In its own way it is an organic whole with interlocking active and passive parts, each part characterized by the function it performs in the whole. It too has a sort of universal relativity, though of a weaker sort. But this relativity attaches the substance to the whole. It does not penetrate to its essential constitution, distinguishing and separating parts and linking them to distinct and separate entities. As Whitehead himself indicates in the passage quoted at the beginning of this essay, what at bottom directly traverses the Aristotelian dictum is the Whiteheadian doctrine of universal relativity.

It is true, of course, that the Whiteheadian doctrine does not present the actual entity as being constituted of other actual entities in the most literal sense. Strictly speaking, the prehensions are not the other actual entities themselves but reproductions of them and essential references to them. Again strictly speaking, they are not themselves actual entities at all, but integral parts of an actual entity. But White-head, after all, never intended the presence of actual entity within actual entity to be taken in full literalness, i.e., in the sense of "one actual entity... added to another simpliciter" (PR 80).3 What he means, he tells us, is better expressed as "objectification.’ He himself alerts us to the fact that the doctrine of objectification, with all its emphasis on concrete individuality, relies ultimately on the role of eternal objects or abstract universals. But this is not to say that objectification consists merely in the transfer of form. If such were the case, it would not be a doctrine of objectification at all, since actual entities would not be objects but merely causes.


For Whitehead other actual entities are introduced on the basic level of physical prehension. It is true that he very frequently discusses his doctrine within the context of perception, and one of the ways to the theory, probably the dominant one, was through the analysis of perceptual experience. Nevertheless, the immanence of actual entities is not a peculiarity of perceptual experience, but is universal throughout nature. With Aristotle, however, we have a different story. As we have seen, he makes no claim for the immanence of substances in the case of purely physical interactions; he does, however, make such a claim in the case of perceptual experience. In this final portion of our study, we shall undertake a closer examination of the Aristotelian account of perception in order to find out whether his manner of bringing one substance within another is any more or less satisfactory than the Whiteheadian way.

There are similarities between the two accounts of perception, as we have already indicated: perception has as its object an individual; it introduces the object within the percipient; it comes about through the causal efficacy of the object; and it presupposes the transmission of form from object to subject. However, there is one significant difference. In Aristotle it is not merely through natural causation or physical interaction that the object is brought within. It was his dissatisfaction with the purely causal explanation of perception that led him into the various distinctions that advanced his treatment of perception beyond the conclusions of his predecessors. The causal relation entails the other merely as transcendent. The perceptual relation, on the other hand, presents the other both as transcendent and as immanent to the subject’s experience. Aristotle attempted to come to terms with this dual character of the perceptual object by his doctrine of the reception within the percipient of a form that remains the form of the perceived. The form thus received is within the percipient substance as a quality, in accord with the doctrine of the Categories, but insofar as it remains the form of the thing perceived it performs the function of introducing within the perceiving subject another substance. It is the special capacity not merely to receive a form but to receive the form apart from matter that characterizes the perceiver as such. In this way Aristotle avoids the predicament whereby the immanence of the object collapses into a physical qualification of the subject and the transcendence of the object is nothing more than the complete externality of the cause.

But has Aristotle really produced a viable theory of the immanence of individual entities? The presence of the object in the percipient is explained by the reception of the form alone of the object. The stone in its physical reality obviously is not in the soul. The stone is in the soul, Aristotle tells us, insofar as its form is there. But herein lies a problem: How can a form without matter refer to an individual as such? How can it still be the form of that particular stone?

The reception of form without matter in Aristotle approximates the notion of conceptual prehension in Whitehead. Indeed, as far as the assuming of form is concerned, one might say that physical prehension stands to conceptual prehension in much the same way as reception of form in matter stands to reception of form without matter. For both philosophers, perception involves both the state of being causally affected and the derivative activity of entertaining the form alone. Whitehead, however, relies on the causal activity of physical prehension to bring the object within, whereas Aristotle for this purpose looks to the derivative activity of holding the form apart from its material embodiment. In virtue of physical causation, the form of the object becomes merely the subject’s form, a difficulty Aristotle saw and wanted to avoid. His solution was the disengaged form, but with that the form of the object becomes abstract -- not in the sense that it is grasped as an abstract essence but insofar as it no longer remains the form of that individual -- and this is the problem that Whitehead saw and tried to solve.

The question as to whether either philosopher presents a sound epistemological theory of perception is not at issue here. The problem concerns solely the immanence of substances. It is conceivable that Aristotle’s account could be filled out to provide reference to individual as well as immanence of form, but if we take it as it stands, it would appear that the doctrine does not establish how one individual substance can be present in another.

Though Whitehead’s emphasis on the individual actual entity expressed in his Ontological Principle is Aristotelian in character, as he himself indicates, the twentieth century philosopher goes beyond the Greek in the prominence accorded to the essential interdependence of individuals. There are essential relations in Aristotle, but substances are not essentially constituted of relations to other substances. In Aristotle an effect is like its causes, but a substance is not a synthesis of reproductions of its causes, and its causes are not all the individuals in its world. Aristotle, with his conception of matter as the vehicle of past determinations, could also speak of the present as being, to a certain extent, an accumulation of the past, but he would make no claim concerning the immanence of the individual of the past in the individual of the present. Consequently, though the Aristotelian world is not the pluralistic world of totally independent substances which Whitehead so emphatically rejected, it is likewise not the organic world in which every individual entity can be said to become an integral part of some other actual entity. These then were the ideas -- developed under the headings of objectification and universal relativity -- that Whitehead had in mind when he insisted upon immanence, rather than the mere transmission of form, as the characteristic theme of his philosophy.

I would conclude, therefore, that Whiteheads philosophy does provide adequate support for his assertions concerning immanence. It is possible, however, that his emphatic claim of traversing the Aristotelian dictum has hindered rather than helped certain readers, leading them to understand what he did not mean or to assume he meant more than in fact he intended to convey. If Whitehead fails at all in this matter, it might well be in his self-appointed task of "making clear."



DA -- Aristotle, De Anima.



1 Cf. Dorothy Emmet, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism (New York: 1966), pp. xxii-xxvi. After reading her hook, Whitehead expressed appreciation, but took her to task for stressing the transmission of form to the neglect of his theory of immanence. You seem to me at various points," he writes, "to forget my doctrine of ‘immanence’ which governs the whole treatment of objectification. Thus at times you write as tho’ the connection between past and present is merely that of a transfer of character." In the preface of the second edition, Emmet confesses that she is at a loss to explain what Whitehead meant. "I do not know," she says, "that anyone has really elucidated it. Professor Christian had a try at it in his An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics but came down on the view that what are repeated from one actual occasion to another are characteristics. ‘[his is undoubtedly the view which is easiest to make plausible, and I was inclined to it myself; but we have Whitehead’s emphatic statement that it is not what he meant." Victor Lowe also testifies to the fact that "many philosophers laid down Process and Reality unconvinced that the author had said clear y how one actual entity can be present in another" (Understanding Whitehead [Baltimore, 1966], p. 360). Quoting Whitehead, he indicates what he thinks might be the reason for this lack of understanding: "The truism that we can only conceive in terms of universals has been stretched to mean that we can only feel in terms of universals." However, even if one admits on the basis of experience alone that one feels individuals, and that by this very fact one is inclined to the view that somehow individuals are immanent, the question still remains: Does Whitehead’s metaphysics provide an adequate philosophical account of this fact of experience?

2 Not all readers of Aristotle interpret him in this way. To my mind, however, this is the only interpretation that renders all the Aristotelian passages on sense perception intelligible. I have argued for it in "Sensing and the Sensitive Mean in Aristotle," The New Scholasticism 47/3 (Summer, 1973), 279-310. It is to be noted that this interpretation of Aristotle p resents him as maintain in some sense a doctrine of substance within substance. The other reading, which limits the Aristotelian account to a mere physical qualification of the subject, would not. Nevertheless, even if this latter interpretation were taken as the correct one, none of the conclusions reached in this article concerning Whitehead would be altered.

3 It must be admitted, however, that Whitehead time and time again insists on the presence of one actual entity as an element within another without sup plying any distinctions or qualifications. It is not surprising, consequently, that many of his readers have remained puzzled. Cf. D. Emmet: "But the doctrine of the objective immortality of actual entities . . . in the constitution of other actual entities is, as Miss Stebbing points out, a departure from the earlier view of events as particular and transient, and objects alone as able to ‘be again’. This difficulty would however be mitigated if we could say (as Whitehead himself however nowhere does, as far as I know) that it is not actual entities which are objectively immortal in the constitution of other actual entities, but the characters, or forms of their experience which are reproduced" (op. cit., p. 128; cf. also p. 160).