The Disembodied Soul

by John C. Bennett

John C. Bennett was co-chairman of the Christianity and Crisis Editorial Board and president of Union Theological Seminary. He has contributed significantly to Protestant thinking on international affairs, communism, Catholicism and church relations.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 129-132, Vol. 4, Number 2, Summer, 1974. 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.


Whitehead alludes to a disembodied existence in one passage, but he writes counter to this in other places. Whitehead’s system does not provide the conditions for speaking of continued, ongoing personal existence after death in separation from one’s body.

In A Christian Natural Theology, John B. Cobb, Jr., has provided a number of interesting applications of Whitehead’s systematic categories to anthropological problems and concepts. Among the problems he explores is the question of life after death, understood in terms of the disembodied soul (CNT 63-70). Cobb correctly notes that Whitehead gave no extended attention to the issue, and that when he did consider it, he thought his doctrine neutral (RM 107). However, if Whitehead’s thought is really neutral on the disembodied soul, then that thought cannot be incompatible with such a possibility. Cobb accordingly argues that Whitehead’s thought can at least make sense of the notion -- that is, that Whitehead’s system provides a context in which the possibility of such disembodied survival can be seen as a meaningful one. Of course, whether it in fact obtains is another question. But to establish the meaningfulness of such a notion is no small achievement and Cobb thinks that Whiteheadian resources make this possible.

I do not find Cobb’s argument to be entirely persuasive. In part this is because of Cobb’s identification of the person with his soul, to the neglect of his body. For one thing, such an identification runs counter to Whitehead’s argument for the persuasiveness of his thought. For in opting for, a one-substance cosmology Whitehead must find elements of continuity between nature and human experience. Thus his argument in support of his system involves an appeal to the fundamental importance of our bodily experience rather than simply our experience as centered selves (cf. AI 243).

A second problem with this identification is that it runs counter to Whitehead’s phenomenological claim for the identification of the present moment with the body as well as with the soul. Whitehead contends that we always experience ourselves as embodied. "While we exist, body and soul arc inescapable elements in our being, each with the full reality of our own immediate self" (MT 220f; see AI 243). Persons are more than souls. They are embodied as well as selfed. Both of these considerations suggest that the basic meaning of "person" is the mind-body unity, and the identification of the person with his soul involves an abstraction from this prior unity. Both considerations thereby argue against the adequacy of the notion of the disembodied soul.

However, Whitehead’s writings are by no means clear on this issue of the identification of the person with his soul. Cobb can cite in his favor a number of passages. The critical point then seems to be whether the systematic categories uphold the notion of a disembodied soul. When he wrote Religion in the Making, Whitehead seemed to think that they do, and later writings suggest a similar belief (AI 267). Parts of Process and Reality argue against this possibility, however, and I suggest these have fairly considerable force. At any rate, I wish to review this issue here. If Cobb’s argument for the disembodied soul is not persuasive, it may be because Whitehead himself has been misleading.

My suggestion, then, is that the logic of Whitehead’s categories works against the viability of the notion of the disembodied soul. We are told that the soul-body relationship is such that the soul is the center of novel origination for the body as a whole and the body provides the requisite protective environment (PR 157). I take this to mean that the whole psychophysical organism is a complex structured society providing a favorable environment for its component societies.1 The question is whether the soul retains social order, and so its dominant defining characteristics, apart from the body. Can the soul genetically sustain its identity independent of the body? Whitehead’s principles of Psychological Physiology suggest a negative answer, though admittedly his discussion here is only conjectural.

According to this discussion the soul is a thread of personal order supported by, and part of, an entirely living nexus (PR 163). Now as Whitehead notes, "an ‘entirely living’ nexus is not a ‘society’" (PR 157). It requires for its survival a supporting society (see PR 152, 159f). "By itself the nexus lacks the genetic power which belongs to ‘societies’" (PR 163). Thus the nonsocial nexus requires a body for its continued existence. But a "living person requires that its immediate environment be a living, non-social nexus" (PR 163). Thus the living person or soul is also dependent upon its body. My bodily existence provides the favorable environment for the continued existence of myself more narrowly construed as a centered self.

In terms of the distinction Whitehead draws between a subordinate nexus and a subordinate society, I would classify the soul as a subordinate nexus. That is, souls "present no features capable of genetically sustaining themselves apart from the special environment" provided by their bodies (PR 151f). To be sure, each soul is also regnant within its structured society. But in separation from that society it has no social features. It is a personal society only in conjunction with the body.

It may be helpful to note the progression of the discussion in Process and Reality. First, Whitehead identifies the "empty" space within a cell as an example of a subordinate nexus (PR 152). Then he contends that the living occasions of a cell "in abstraction from the inorganic occasions of the animal body" do not "form a corpuscular sub-society, so that each living occasion is a member of an enduring entity with its personal order" (PR 158). Finally, he concludes that "in abstraction from its animal body an ‘entirely living’ nexus is not properly a society at all, since ‘life’ cannot be a defining characteristic" (PR 159f).

Is any relevant difference introduced by the concept of a living person with its notion of defining characteristics via hybrid prehensions? I think not.2 I suggest that it is still the case that the differentiated response characteristic of the living person presupposes a supporting environment. And it is still the case that "it is misleading . . . to term such a nexus a ‘society’ when it is being considered in abstraction from the whole structured society" (PR 152).

Whitehead identifies his discussion of the principles of Psychological Physiology as conjectural. But I suggest that it establishes a strong presumption against the viability of the notion of the disembodied soul. Certainly it also suggests that such a soul would be impoverished. As a structured society, the body is so ordered that it provides the conditions converting incompatibilities into contrasts. As Whitehead notes, the body is related to the soul not only as protective device, but also as the "complex amplifier" (PB 181) requisite for the sophisticated content of the dominant occasion. Without the body’s "complexity of order which procures contrasts" (PR 153) instead of incompatibilities, the soul could have no fresh complex experiences and would be at best confined to memories of the past experiences it had while embodied.

In fact, Whitehead’s discussion really suggests more. Independent of the body, the soul would have no recognizable features at all. For the structured society provides the special environment requisite for the soul’s social order -- for the genetic transmission of defining features or characteristics. Apart from the complex content it makes possible, there are no special defining features to be genetically transmitted, in separation from the whole structured nexus, the soul would have no distinctive social features. It is true that every occasion inherits from its entire past, but its capacity for complexity is a function of its immediate environment. With the alteration of that environment, there is also an alteration in its potential for complexity and so also in its personal identity. Thus apart from the body, the soul would not only not have the variety of content and degree of novelty that properly characterize a living person -- it would not even have the capacities required for an enduring object.

I have argued that capacity for complexity of concrescence is a function of environment. The defining characteristics of personal identity reflect (and in some sense are the manner of) the resolution of this complexity.3 I think it follows that in the living person both the complex content of concrescence and the manner of integrating the content are dependent upon the environing society -- so dependent that the disembodied soul appears to be in categoreal difficulty.

One passage, presumably written after Process and Reality, may appear to support the meaningfulness of disembodied existence. Referring to the everlasting nature of God, Whitehead suggests that "in some important sense the existence of the soul may be freed from its complete dependence upon the bodily organization" (AI 267). This possibility, however, runs counter to several important things which Whitehead otherwise wants to affirm. It is a reasonable interpretation of the complex that the soul by itself is merely a subordinate nexus, becoming a personal society only in conjunction with the body. If so, then Whitehead’s system, regardless of what he himself may have thought, does not provide the conditions for speaking of continued, ongoing personal existence after death in separation from one’s body. Of course, one may then be provided with a new body. Indeed this may be the meaning of the passage. In any case, though, to speak of a new body is to speak of a different sort of subjective immortality from that of a disembodied soul.



CNT -- John B. Cobb, Jr. A Christian Natural Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965.



1A very helpful analysis of this relationship is provided by Donald W. Sherburne, "Whitehead’s Psychological Physiology," The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 7/4 (Winter, 1969-70), 401-07.

2 Notice that Whitehead extends his discussion of social order via hybrid prehension downward to include even "the lowest form of life" (PR 164).

3 I have argued elsewhere that personal identity is not to be understood as a function of hybrid prehensions alone, but rather that such prehensions presuppose common defining characteristics. See my "Whitehead and Personal Identity," The Thomist 37/3 (July, 1973), 510-21.