The Metaphysical Significance of Whitehead’s Creativity

by André Cloots

André Cloots is Professor at the Institute of Philosophy of the Catholic University of Leuven and director of its Process Documentation Center. Kard. Mercierplein 2, B-3000 Leuven (Belgium). E-mail: Andre.Cloots@hiw.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 36-54, Vol. 30, Number 1, Spring-Summer, 2000. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr. Coots discusses creativity: 1. A different interpretation; 2. Differences and problems with Whitehead’s view; 3. What does creativity try to answer? 4. Ultimacy and creativity; 5. The relevance of Whitehead’s metaphysics of creativity in contemporary metaphysics.

A common interpretation of Whitehead’s creativity is that creativity refers to the clement of self-creation and self-determination, characterizing every concrescence. Creativity means, according to this interpretation, that every actuality is a free, creative act of unification, determining its own being, i.e., its own becoming. Interpretations like those of William Christian, Ivor Leclerc and even Charles Hartshorne (to name but a few) go in that direction; notwithstanding all their differences, they all tend to limit creativity to the level of concrescence. Whether one stresses in the concrescence the aspect of unification or the aspect of freedom (two interpretations closely related to one another), there is one common element: creativity has only to do with the self-creation and self-determination of a concrescence. An implication of this is that creativity actually only applies to the present. The past is no longer active, not in its own constitution, nor in the constitution of the present: as past, a superject is no longer active because it is no longer actual. Therefore, Leclerc states, "an efficient cause cannot ‘act"’ (110).

In this paper, I want to challenge this interpretation, because it is at least one-sided and this one-sidedness has some important consequences, both for the interpretation of Whitehead’s philosophy itself and for the claim that this philosophy is a valid contemporary metaphysics, addressing all basic metaphysical issues in an intelligible war. First I will sketch some fundamental problems in interpreting creativity. Then I will show how these problems in a way are caused by Whitehead himself. In a third point I will look for the questions the concept of creativity is designed to answer. Fourthly, I will try to indicate what the ultimacy of creativity means. And finally, I would like to give some indications as to the relevance of Whitehead’s metaphysics of creativity on the contemporary metaphysical scene.

I. The Meaning of Creativity

An interpretation of Whitehead’s creativity as sketched above, referring only to the self-determination of each new concrescence, raises serious questions, with important bearings upon the whole of Whitehead’s philosophy.

(a) First of all, there is the problem of transition, which Whitehead calls, together with concrescence, another "kind of fluency" (Process 210). It is not necessary to agree with Jorge Luis Nobo to recognize that the fact itself that his article on transition and his later book have given rise to so much discussion and even some irritation, indicates that he has touched a central nerve of the Whiteheadian metaphysics. One cannot escape the impression that he has put his finger on a weak spot in both the general Whitehead-interpretation and in some of the expressions of Whitehead himself. It looks as if Whitehead came to that realization. One indication is his letter to Dorothy Emmet after the publication of Emmet’s book. In that letter Whitehead writes:

You seem to me at various points 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. Then there arises (sic) all the perplexities of ‘correspondence’ in epistemology, of causality, and of memory. The doctrine of immanence is fundamental. (xxii-xxiii)7

Emmet published her book one year before Adventures of Ideas. But I will come to this later on.

(b) Another reason why all this is important is the status of the past and immediately linked to that, the concept of causality. As to the past, this raises the question: is the past no longer actual? What is the status of past occasions? The answer to that question has important bearings upon the question of causality. Interpretations limiting creativity to the (free) becoming of novel togetherness (concrescence) must in some way or another deny a real physical influence of the past upon the present, limiting this influence to conformation of character, reenacting the same eternal object, the new occasion prehending that past etc. In such interpretations, causality is rather, as Emmet says "a ‘picking up’ and not a ‘passing on’ view of transition" ("Creativity" 77).

(c) A third problem in that context is the problem of the cause ski. All these interpretations stress the causa sui-character of an occasion. But what does causa sui mean here? Whitehead says that every philosophy in some way or another recognizes an element of causa sui in what it considers to be ultimate matter of fact. He manifestly thinks here of Spinoza. But does that mean that for Whitehead each actual entity is causa sui, just like for Spinoza substance is causa sui? I don’t think that can be said intelligibly.

For Spinoza, only Substance is causa sui, i.e., reality as such, but not any of the concrete modes or realities. To say that all concrete actualities are causa sill in the sense of Spinoza’s Substance, would be, first of all, a mixing up of the ontic and the ontological level, but besides that it also violates one of the most fundamental presuppositions of reason, i.e, that nothing just happens, out of nothing. To put it in Whitehead’s own terms: "It is a contradiction in terms to assume that some explanatory fact can float into the actual world out of nonentity. Nonentity is nothingness" (Process 46). That is also true for Whitehead’s actual entities. One cannot say that they just create themselves, that they are cause of themselves, "out of nothing." Such a metaphysics would not be something very original, but rather something really unintelligible. "Out of nothing, nothing comes."

All this affects in a radical sense the meaning of creativity. Creativity, I will argue, has to do first of all not with freedom or spontaneity, but with "the passage of nature" or "the creative advance." In other words: with ongoingness. It is in that context that the function of creativity is fundamentally situated by Whitehead, both historically and metaphysically. Historically, in the sense that in the earlier works, creativity2 is immediately linked to the "becomingness of nature -- its passage or creative advance" (Enquiry 61), while freedom and novelty only become a real issue from the writing of Science and the Modern World and following. Even in his later metaphysics, the first function of creativity has to do with the creative advance. Novelty, freedom, spontaneity are secondary vis-à-vis ongoingness: there has to be novel concrescence in order for there to be freedom, spontaneity or novelty What has to be explained is becoming, which for Whitehead means: "the creative advance of nature" (as he puts it in the earlier works), or "the creative advance into novelty" (as he puts it later on).

Why is there ongoingness? Why is there continuing becoming of new concrescences? It is not enough to refer to the concrescence itself. What has to be understood is the becoming of the concrescence itself: where does that new concrescence come from? This is not the quest for a creator. Specific for Whitehead’s philosophy of creativity is that God and creativity do not coincide and that creativity is not, for its very being, dependent upon a Creator, either. Equally fundamental, however, is his insight (though often less clearly stated) that a new actuality does not arise either out of nothing, nor out of a purely passive situation. Time and again, Whitehead talks about a transfer of energy about the efficacy of the past, etc. It is true that the formulations of this insight are often ambiguous. In Process and Reality one sometimes gets the impression that he does mean that the present just creates itself again and again, out of nothing, by taking up what is given. Causality then becomes merely prehension: a "picking up" rather than a "passing on," as Emmet puts it.

In this respect, Whitehead’s definition of transition is important: The creativity in virtue of which any relative complete actual world is, by the nature of things, the datum for a new concrescence, is termed ‘transition"’ (Process 211). Hence, transition has to do with the transition of the many to a new one. Just before that, Whitehead wrote: "the fundamental inescapable fact is the creativity in virtue of which there can be no ‘many things’ which are not subordinated in a concrete unity" (Process 211).

The use of the term "transition" is not limited to Process and Reality. In Religion in the Making Whitehead talks about a transition of creative action itself: "there is a transition of the creative action, and this transition exhibits itself, in the physical world, in the guise of routes of temporal succession" (92). In Science and the Modern World he sees transition as the transition of things, the passage one to another (93).

Transition and concrescence, thus, are related to the "many becoming one." In both cases creativity is the drive towards new unification. This drive, however, has two aspects: there are "two kinds of fluency" which together form the one activity of unification, the one creativity which, according to its original meaning refers, as Whitehead remarks, to the Latin verb "creare, ‘to bring forth, beget, produce"’ (Process 21 3).3

The importance of all this becomes manifest when we look at the wavering within the Whitehead-interpretation when it comes to the "explanation" of ongoingness. If creativity is interpreted as being only the element of self-determination characterizing every concrescence, it can not account for the coming into existence of a new entity. To fill that "explanatory gap" quite a few interpretations, from William Christian, to John Cobb and Norris Clarke, to the recent book of Thomas Hosinski, turn to God: it is actually God, they state, who through the initial aim, is the real initiator of a new entity. Such an interpretation actually comes very close to re-installing God as the creator -- an idea Whitehead explicitly wanted to overcome. For Hosinski for instance, God is not only the ground of value but also the source of the living reality of the present:

The "living" subjective present cannot originate from die "dead" objective past. The past objective world, though necessary as the ground upon which present subjectivity "stands," offers no reason for the living immediacy of the present moment. Nor can that living immediacy simply appear "out of the blue." It requires a "reason," an actual entity that is its ultimate ground. This is the metaphysical problem of the ultimate ground of all subjectivity (159)

What these interpreters have seen is that a rational metaphysics cannot afford a serious explanatory deficit. But their interpretation at least goes against what Whitehead really aimed at. That such interpretations come up again and again, however, indicates that there are some problems either in Whitehead’s treatment of creativity itself, or in its general interpretation.

II. Whitehead’s own Development

One cannot deny that especially in Process and Reality, some and even many expressions seem to go in that direction. Without doubt, Whitehead in that book stresses creativity most often in terms of concrescence. For that reason, it is not at all surprising that many interpreters, from the very beginning up to our days, tend to understand creativity as the actual occasion being causa sui, creating itself out of a passive past. Yet, on the other hand, Whitehead tries to avoid such a view.

In a remarkable passage in Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead explicitly takes up that topic again, in a strong attack at a certain interpretation. Very rarely do we see Whitehead reacting so vigorously. There clearly is something that bothers him. Let me quote from the passage at length. Whitehead is talking about the "objects" or "data." He says: "but both words suffer from the defect of suggesting that an occasion of experiencing arises out of a passive situation which is a mere welter of many data." Then, under the heading "Creativity," Whitehead continues:

The exact contrary is the case. The initial situation includes a factor of activity, which is the reason for the origin of that occasion of experience. This factor of activity is what I have called "Creativity" The initial situation with its creativity can be termed the initial phase of the new occasion. It can equally well be termed the "actual world" relative to that occasion. It has a certain unity of its own, expressive of its capacity of providing the objects requisite for a new occasion, and also expressive of its conjoint activity whereby it is essentially the primary phase of a new occasion. It can thus be termed a "real potentiality" The "potentiality" refers to the passive capacity, the term "real" refers to the creative activity, where the Platonic definition of "real" in the Sophist is referred to. This basic situation, this actual world, this primary phase, this real potentiality -- however you characterize it -- as a whole is active with its inherent creativity, but in its details it provides the passive objects which derive their activity from the creativity of the whole. The creativity is the actualization of potentiality, and the process of actualization is an occasion of experiencing. Thus viewed in abstraction objects are passive, but viewed in conjunction they carry the creativity which drives the world. The process of creation is the form of unity of the Universe. (179)

This is a difficult text and to some extent even an ambiguous one. It is not only the longest but also the latest explicit text Whitehead has written on creativity and on the way it should be interpreted. Given the development of the text,4 it comes all of a sudden, as it were. At least, it is not really needed there. It is as if Whitehead was anxious to clear up a misunderstanding once and for all. (It is not impossible that this has to do with his letter to Emmet, one year earlier.) The text is undeniably written with a clear message: "The exact contrary is the case." It is not Whitehead’s habit to write in such an emphatic way. It would be hard to state the message more explicitly, at least as far as the position is concerned that he wants to reject. That position is the very common interpretation, as I said, from Leclerc, Christian and, to some extent -- at least at that moment, even Emmet -- up to the present, i.e., that an occasion of experience arises out of a purely passive situation which is a mere welter of many data.

Less clear, however, is what Whitehead then really wants to be the true interpretation. The text sometimes is ambiguous, as I said, when, for example, it seems to equate the initial situation (out of which an occasion arises) and the initial phase of that occasion itself. Here again, we see the problem of the continuity and discontinuity coming up, a problem that is at the core of the difficulties.

In the earlier works, before Process and Reality, there is no indication that Whitehead thought of the past as so passive. On the contrary, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge and The Concept of Nature Whitehead rather seems to think in terms of a real flow of activity. Only in Process and Reality do we find the explicit theory that the past actual entity is a dead datum (164). That theory is reflected in the treatment of the notion of "power" in that book. Referring to Locke, Whitehead says: "Locke adumbrates the principle that the ‘power’ of one actual entity on the other is simply how the former is objectified in the constitution of the other" (58). In Modes of Thought, on the other hand, Whitehead gives a far stronger conception of power: "power is the compulsion of composition" (119). In that book there are also strong statements as to the activity of the past: "The whole antecedent world conspires to produce a new occasion" (164). Further: "Each occasion presupposes the antecedent world as active in its own nature" (165, emphasis added).5

Again and again, we find in Whitehead’s later works an ambiguity -- or, maybe better, the ambiguity -- that permeates the whole of his later philosophy, it seems to me: on the one hand the necessity for real continuity, and on the other hand, the metaphysical necessity of atomicity, which means discontinuity. The whole problem comes up when Whitehead starts to emphasize more and more the metaphysical necessity of atomicity. He then drops the theory of events extending over other events. According to that theory, creativity was conceived in terms of real continuity,6 without any radical break. Although events passed away and new ones came into existence, there was never a real gap between past and present. Such a gap there is, Whitehead claims in The Concept of Nature, in the "materialistic theory": "On the materialistic theory [i.e., the theory that in Science and the Modern World is called "scientific materialism"] the instantaneous present is the only field for creative activity. The past is gone and the future is not yet" (72). Whitehead’s philosophy aimed to be a radical critique of that conception, from the very beginning. Instead of materialism (with its instantaneous present) we should think in terms of durations. Whitehead then continues: "The passage of nature leaves nothing between the past and the future" (72).

When the atomic theory comes to the forefront, more and more7 (over against F. H. Bradley) a fundamental problem arises; how to think continuity in the discontinuity?8 In any case, the solution can not be such that it goes back in the direction of the materialistic theory which was the starting point of Whitehead’s critique -- and in that sense of his whole philosophy. "The instantaneous present" is not "the only field of creative activity" (Concept 72). Right up until Whitehead’s last treatment of creativity. that remains the central insight upon which his whole philosophy rests and which Whitehead explicitly wants to make clear, even after the introduction of the theory of atomicity.

How can this be conceived, however, given the fact that an occasion, once it has become, is past and in that sense it "is" no longer? Many interpretations, especially those leaning heavily on Process and Reality, solve the problem by dissolving almost all continuity, except in the sense of a transfer of character (as Whitehead stated it in his letter to Emmet). This, however, is a way out that Whitehead himself explicitly wants to close. Indeed, such a development would bring us back very close to doctrines that he always has rejected: either the materialistic view" (as he called it in The Concept of Nature), or the traditional doctrine of creation. The only possibility left is to stick to a doctrine that combines strong continuity with the inescapable discontinuity.

The text of Adventures of Ideas seems to be an attempt to do that. Here Whitehead suggests a model that in a way always has been his, especially since the introduction of metaphysical atomicity, but that he never stated as explicitly as he does now: "viewed in abstraction objects are passive, but viewed in conjunction they carry the creativity which drives the world." This model has different important components: (a) if one sticks to strong atomicity, one has to say that the past is passive; (b) yet, out of a purely passive past, one cannot explain the coming into existence of a new subject. In that case one has to accept, in one way or another, a transcending activity or (better) an activity of transcendence; (c) that activity of transcendence however, is not some-thing, purely in itself. It transcends the past, to be sure: that is exactly the point of the long passage in Adventures of Ideas. Yet it is never something ab-solutus in the etymological sense of the word, viz. "unrelated." It can only be what it is and do what it does, as carried by the (passive) objects, not as individual entities but as a whole. It is, Whitehead says, the "conjoint activity whereby (the actual world) is essentially the primary phase of a new occasion" (Adventures 179). Whitehead here clearly conceives of creativity not as "a" but as "the" activity of transcendence, permeating the whole of reality, transcending what is and yet carried by it, leading to ever new becoming. Creativity is nothing more, but nothing less either, than "this factor of activity:" "this factor of activity; (included in the initial situation) which is the reason for the origin of that occasion of experience" (Adventures 179). "The point to remember is that the fact that each individual occasion is transcended by the creative urge, belongs to the essential constitution of each such occasion. It is not an accident which is irrelevant to the completed constitution of any such occasion" (Adventures 193). "[T]he processes of the past, in their perishing, are themselves energizing as the complex origin of each novel occasion" (Adventures 276). In Modes of Thought Whitehead states this again: "The whole antecedent world conspires to produce a new occasion" (164).

It is clear from this that an actual occasion is not entirely its own "reason" for being there. It is causa sui indeed, but only, as Whitehead says, as far as the "clothing of feeling is concerned" (Process 85). An actual entity, "the subject is responsible for being what it is in virtue of its feelings" (Process 222, emphasis added), but not for the fact that it is.9

III. Creativity and the Fundamental Metaphysical Questions

Speculative philosophy is the attempt to frame a "system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted (Whitehead, Process 3). Speculative philosophy is an attempt to think experience: not only the fact of experience itself but also what shows itself in the welter of all our experiences: experience drunk and experience sober. To elucidate experience is to elucidate the fact that things are the way they are. That means: (a) the fact that things are and (b) that they are the way they are. How can we understand all this? The quest for understanding thus has two aspects, respectively related to the "what" and to the "that" of what we experience. The first question is: how can we understand that things are the way they are? But the second question has to do with the "that": that things (actualities) are the way they are. One could have the impression that this is nothing but the traditional metaphysical question (the question for metaphysics according to Heidegger): "why is there anything at all, why is there something rather than nothing?" But in a philosophy of becoming this is not the whole content of the quest for the "that." Given that there is something, why should new actuality always come into existence? Why is actuality always actualizing itself, again and again? Even if such a question is not easy to answer, it is at least a reasonable question.

As to the question "what" it is evident that for Whitehead the whole burden of the answer rests upon the notion of creativity, in both of its "functions," namely, as principle of unification and as principle of novelty The basic feature of reality is its creativity, and that creativity is always a particular way of bringing together the given multiplicity The way this is done explains why these actualities are the way they are. In that sense, actuality explains itself: it is responsible for its own specific characteristics. This is the element of causa sui: all actuality, Whitehead says, is "responsible for what it is" (Process 222). There are no reasons of metaphysical necessity here: "the final accumulation of all such decisions -- the decision of God’s nature and the decisions of all occasions -- constitutes that special element in the flux of forms in history, which is ‘given’ and incapable of rationalization . . ." (Whitehead, Process 47).

Decision in Whitehead implies unification and novelty. Both of these are to be understood as aspects of creativity. That actuality means "unification" is understandable (and, in that sense, is explained) by the way the ultimate descriptive notion of creativity has to be conceived. It is essentially linked to the many-one relationship. The Category of the Ultimate does not only contain the notion of creativity, but also those of the many and the one. This connection gives creativity a kind of a transcendental characterization: a characterization not of its content but of its fundamental structure. Creativity is intrinsically related to the many and the one, i.e., to the ongoing activity of unification.

Each such unification also implies the possibility of novelty, at least in principle. In his exposition of the Category of the Ultimate, Whitehead calls creativity also the principle of novelty. I have already drawn attention to the fact that in his later work Whitehead replaces his earlier expression "the creative advance of nature" by "the creative advance into novelty." More and more, creativity is linked to freedom, novelty, causa sui. Because of that aspect of creativity, there can be no ultimate explanation for the specific characters of things, except their own nature, i.e. their creativity: what they are does not follow from the essence of ultimate Being (as in Spinoza), nor from the ultimate decision of a God. What things are is the result of their own decision, at least as far as "the clothing of feelings" is concerned. They do not decide what is given, nor that the structure of their own actuality should be a structure of unification: that structure of creativity is an ultimate "given" too.

Further questions are possible, however. Why; for example, is actuality characterized by creativity at all? For this ultimate characteristic, there is still less a "reason." In this respect, we cannot even refer to any decision, but only to description: "That’s the way it is." Whitehead often uses in this respect the phrase "by the nature of things." Eventually, we can only state this "nature of things," not "ground" it: "there can be no explanation of this characteristic of nature" (Concept 57).

A further question then arises: why is there creativity at all? This would be Whitehead’s rendering of the age-old metaphysical question: "why is there something rather than nothing?" Here again, no reason can be given. Actually, in this respect Whitehead’s answer is the same as the one given by almost all metaphysicians, from Parmenides over Spinoza up to Heidegger, because it really is the only possible answer. What it actually means that "no reason can be given" may be interpreted in different ways by different authors, but every metaphysics has to end up with an absolute that cannot be explained by anything further. "In a sense, all explanation must end in an ultimate arbitrariness" (Whitehead, Science 92), whether it is the givenness of Being, or the givenness of God and of his decisions, or the givenness of creativity: all explanation must come to an end, as Wittgenstein says. That is why Spinoza calls his Substance causa sui, which is the replacement of the more classical rendering: "non ab alio."10 There is nothing else to refer to.

By conceiving this ultimate given as "creativity;" however, Whitehead gives a specific turn to the quest for the "that." Creativity is, as Whitehead says, linked to "the Latin verb creare, to beget, to produce." Whitehead’s metaphysics is a metaphysics of becoming. Not "something" is ultimate (neither Being, nor God, nor Substance) but only becoming itself. Reality is ongoing becoming. The ultimate metaphysical question then is for Whitehead: how can we understand that? How can we understand that always new actuality comes into existence? It is here that the full content and relevance of Whitehead’s notion of creativity comes to the fore.

In order to "understand" the origination of a new occasion, it is certainly not enough to refer to the past, particularly when that past is conceived as purely passive: out of a pure passivity, no activity can start in an intelligible way. One could argue that the new occasion starts out of its prehensions of the past, and in that sense we cannot say that it starts from nothing. But the question then is: how does that prehending activity come into existence at all? Prehensions account for the multiplicity within the occasion (just like perception does in the Leibnizian monad)11 but not for the "happening" of the occasion (and of the prehension) itself. It is not enough, moreover, to say that the occasion is creative. The whole question is exactly why something that is creative comes into existence, i.e., why new instantiations of creativity become at all. One could say: it "just happens," and in a sense it does just happen. But Whitehead’s notion of creativity makes it intelligible that it "just happens," while at the same time elucidating how it happens. Creativity is for Whitehead not just related to spontaneity, freedom, or even to togetherness only. It is first of all what Whitehead, in The Concept of Nature, calls "the creative force of existence" (73).

Johan Siebers, in his Ph.D. dissertation, suggests that the question "why is there a next?" is the same as "why is there something rather than nothing?" Therefore, he argues, there can be no answer to the question why there is a next (141). Yet, for Whitehead, creativity is the answer. "Science can find no creativity in nature; it finds mere rules of succession" (Modes 154). Creativity, however, is designed to understand that and how there is succession. There is a next because creativity is precisely transcending activity or activity of transcendence. That is why it is so important that there are "two kinds of fluency" within the one creativity, namely, transition and concrescence. A new actuality always arises out of a given world that "condition[s] the creativity which transcends [it]" (Whitehead, Process 43). (Note that Whitehead writes -- here and elsewhere -- that the past occasions condition the creativity and not [only] the later actual entities). It comes about by that "factor of activity which is the reason for the origin of that occasion of experience" (as Whitehead puts it in Adventures 179.)

Out of nothing, nothing comes. Even out of a purely passive situation, no new activity can arise in an intelligible way. Whitehead is certainly not an irrationalist in the sense that he would negate that. His concept of creativity, while remaining radically descriptive, is such that it is at the same time "explanatory" of the fact that always new actuality comes into existence. For him, the basic structure of reality is such that it is permeated by "that factor of activity" whereby new actuality -- which will be creative in the sense of causa sui of its own determination -- comes into existence.

This I take to be the meaning of a sentence in Science and the Modern World in which Whitehead refers explicitly to the "that" of things: "We have to search whether nature does not in its very being show itself as self-explanatory. By this I mean, that the sheer statement of what things are, may contain elements explanatory of why things are" (92). "What things are" clearly refers to "the ultimate nature of things," i.e., their creativity That creativity, it is said, "may contain elements explanatory of why things are."12 The "nature of things" is ultimately given; it cannot be "explained" but only elucidated. That ultimate given, however, is itself "explanatory." Here lies the real specificity of the way Whitehead conceives of "the ultimate." Whitehead’s metaphysics can be called a radically descriptive one. It is not descriptive in the sense that it is not concerned with the question "why;" but it is radically descriptive in the sense (a) that the ultimate "explanation" eventually ends up in the ultimate description, and, most importantly, (b) that the structure of the ultimate description is such that it "explains" (i.e., that it makes us understand) why becoming never stops but always realizes itself in a "next."

"That things are" is a wonder. Wittgenstein would call it the mystical. "Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is." That the world is, i.e., that there is creativity at all, also is a wonder for Whitehead.13 Yet he does not stop there. We have, he says -- probably in direct reaction to Wittgenstein in his Tractatus (a book that appeared just a few years earlier and that Whitehead certainly knew about) -- we have to "rationalize mysticism": not by causal reasons, but "by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated" (Modes 174). Because of the fact that the ultimate is conceived in terms of creativity, this "ultimate" can explain ongoingness (the creative advance). That is also the reason why Whitehead in Science and the Modern World talks about "substantial activity" and not just about "Substance": Substance "is," but "substantial activity" is for Whitehead nothing but "the underlying . . . activity of individuation" (Science 123). Whitehead reproaches Spinoza for his arbitrary introduction of the modes (Process 7). Creativity, however, compared to Spinoza, is nothing but the introduction of modes.

To sum up: all this indicates that for Whitehead creativity is more than the self-determination of the new concrescence. Both after and before Process and Reality, he holds a position that is metaphysically "stronger." This is evident in Adventures of Ideas, such as in the passage on "Creativity" quoted at length above, or in its reference to the dart of Lucretius.14 It is also evident in Modes of Thought, for example, its statement about "the whole antecedent world conspiring to produce a new occasion" (164). This "stronger" view of creativity is completely in line with Whitehead’s earlier work, such as Science and the Modern World, where creativity is conceived as the substantial activity, which was "an activity of individuation." In Process and Reality, especially the aspect of spontaneity gets more emphasis: creativity is also the aspect of causa sui and "the principle of novelty." This does not mean, however, that Whitehead there has a new conception of creativity, on the contrary. This emphasis is nothing but a further elaboration of one and the same: the creativity of the universe.

IV. The Ultimacy of Creativity

Whitehead’s reference to Spinoza in the context of creativity has often been the subject of harsh critiques. Such a reference seems to make creativity something in itself, while it is clear that Whitehead did not want to do so, as he says again and again. Yet Whitehead does refer to Spinoza, not only in Science and the Modern World but also -- and emphatically -- in Process and Reality. No other comparison in the context of creativity (e.g., the one with Aristotle’s matter) is repeated so often and developed so much. This is at least an indication that the comparison to Spinoza is not just a slip of the pen. What then, could have been Whitehead’s intention?

The reference to Spinoza is to the point -- not to make creativity something over and above the actualities but -- because for Spinoza, as for Whitehead, Substance is not without its modes. "Modes" mean: the ways in which Substance "exists." Creativity only exists in its modes: it is "no-thing" without them and they are not without it.

A second aspect in which the comparison to Spinoza is to the point is that outside of Substance, there is nothing. Also for Whitehead, nothing escapes from creativity. Everything that exists is by necessity one of its modes. Here the Platonic notion of the receptacle also is relevant for conceiving creativity:15 creativity is the a priori receptacle, the a priori metaphysical locus of all actuality.

Another comparison Whitehead makes in the context of creativity is that with Aristotelian prime matter. After all, this comparison is not so much different from that to Spinoza. Whitehead refers to Aristotle’s prime matter because it is, like creativity, without a character of its own. Yet, matter has a very important metaphysical status for Aristotle. It is (a) the principle of potentiality, (b) the principle of individuality, and (c) it is never without forms, yet (d) not reducible to them, either. It is not unimportant to note that Whitehead never says that creativity is reducible to actual entities (although it is nothing in itself): he always talks about the occasions being instances of creativity and conditioning the transcendent creativity (Process 43).

What the comparisons of creativity with Aristotle (and even with Plato) as well as with Spinoza try to elucidate is (a) that creativity is without specific character of its own, (b) that it is always ontologically related to the concrete actualities,16 yet (c) transcending all of them, in the sense of: never being limited to them, but in principle, though potentially, infinite.

Most of the reactions to the comparison with Spinoza are inspired by’ the ontological principle. Whitehead’s creativity, unlike Spinoza’s Substance, is not actual: it is not "something" in itself and for that reason, it is said, it cannot be a "reason" for anything or an "explanation," since the ontological principle rules that out.

The ontological principle is stated by Whitehead again and again in Process and Reality (18-19, 24, 40, 43, 166, 244), although in somewhat different formulations. It is understood in connection with Aristotle, Locke, Hume and even Descartes.17 In the Category of Explanation xviii, it is formulated as follows: "that every condition to which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance has its reason either in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence, or in the character of the subject which is in process of concrescence." As such, Whitehead calls it "the principle of efficient, and final, causation" (Process24). Whitehead summarizes: "no actual entity, then no reason" (Process 19).

Because of this principle, creativity cannot be a "reason," in the sense of an efficient or final cause. Does that mean that it can have no explanatory power? William Garland has argued that this is not the case. For him Whitehead implicitly works with two different kinds of explanation: the "causal" or "ordinary" kind of explanation appealing only, in agreement with the ontological principle, to actual entities, and an "ultimate explanation," which appeals to the principle of creativity and not to specific actual entities (221).18

I think Garland is right in stating that more is needed (and more is present) in Whitehead’s metaphysics than just the ontological principle, considered as the principle of efficient and final causation. The fact that there are efficient and final causations cannot be explained exhaustively in terms of the ontological principle itself. To the extent explained above, creativity "accounts" for the fact that there are continuously new actualities (causes) coming into existence. This, however, is not an explanation completely beside or above the ontological principle, either. It is not, as Garland characterized it (at least in the earlier version of his article),19 a rationalistic explanation over against the empirical ontological principle. In fact it is intrinsically related to the ontological principle, at least when this is taken in all its nuances. As said already, Whitehead has given many formulations of that principle. Besides the one quoted above (Category of Explanation xviii), Whitehead also circumscribes it, in reference to Locke, as ‘‘the principle that the reasons for things are always to be found in the composite natures of definite actual entities" (Process 19). Later on, he relates it to Hume’s doctrine "that nothing is to be received into the philosophical scheme which is not discoverable as an element in subjective experience. This is the ontological principle" (Process 166). These formulations lead to a more open understanding of the ontological principle, i.e., as the principle that only elements discoverable in the composite natures of actual entities can enter into the philosophical scheme and as such be "explanatory." Only such elements exist in some way or another,20 because only actual entities really exist. It remains true that "in separation from actual entities there is nothing, merely nonentity -- the rest is silence" (Whitehead, Process 43). But from the summary statement: "No actual entity, then no reason," the only logical conclusion is not that only actual entities as such can be "reasons."21 What Whitehead really seems to mean is that only elements, discoverable in actual entities (Process 166), or found in the composite nature of definite actual entities (Process 19) or in relation to actual entities (Process 43) can be reasons or at least enter into the philosophic scheme and in that sense be explanatory. The distinction is not irrelevant. In the latter interpretation, creativity as elucidated above, can quite well function as an "explanation" within the philosophic scheme: not as a rationalistic explanation besides the empiricist one, but as a truly empirical explanation. Creativity does "not float into the world from nowhere" (as Whitehead phrases the ontological principle in Process 244). It is directly discoverable as an element in the composite nature of actual entities, even if it transcends all present and past actuality. In other words, Whitehead’s reference to creativity as the universal "factor of activity which is the reason for the origin of the new occasion of experience" (Adventures 179) is not against the ontological principle. One might prefer not to talk about "reason" if one identifies reason with (efficient or final) causation, but even the weaker word "explanation" would do here. Creativity has an ultimate explanatory power that is not reducible to the actualities in themselves, yet it is never independent from them.22

V. The Relevance of Whitehead’s Notion of Creativity

The discussion as to the real range of Whitehead’s notion of creativity, is more than of purely academic interest. It reaches further than the question as to the right interpretation of Whitehead itself. It also determines the viability of Whitehead’s philosophy as a contemporary metaphysical option. The real issue is whether that metaphysics offers an intelligible answer to the basic age-old metaphysical questions, taking into account the fundamental contemporary insights. In this paper, I tried to show it does.

In contemporary metaphysics, the problem of becoming is inescapable. Time and becoming have made their entrance in every realm of thought. Everything is being historicized: the concept of man and the concept of nature, the "natural law" and the ethical rules, the concept of reason and the concept of Being. Eventually even the concept of God does not escape temporalization.

In fact, Western metaphysics grew out of the Greek (meta)physics of becoming and time. The central topic of early Greek philosophy was the problem of "physis," of movement and change, of origination and decay. Yet, Western metaphysics has been a metaphysics of being since Parmenides. Becoming and change were at best secondary, if not purely "non-being." Western thought had to wait until the romantic period before time and becoming started to play an essential role again. The first metaphysician to insert history into the heart of the Absolute was Hegel: history is an essential element in the being (becoming) of the Spirit. Without history, Spirit ("Geist") is only an abstraction.

In Hegel, however, the relevance of becoming and time is limited. The Spirit "necessarily appears in time, and it appears in time, just as long as it does not grasp its pure concept, i.e., does not delete time."23 Time, though extremely relevant, in the end is "elevated" ("aufgehoben").

For Nietzsche, too, time is at the heart of reality, but now as unending, the eternal return of the same. By the same token, temporality is radically linked to the becoming of nature and no longer to the Jewish-Christian conception of history (in which the emphasis is more on the future than on the past). In Nietzsche’s philosophy; there is no place for history as an upward directed arrow; except as a construction, due to the will to power of the slave.

Few philosophers have emphasized the importance of time and history as much as did Heidegger. Being and Time is not by accident the tide of his first magnum opus. Heidegger’s radical link between -- up to an identification of -- Being and Time would have been unthinkable in a mediaeval and even a modern context: to talk about Being and Time would have been something like talking about God and the world, or about the (eternal) Infinite and the (temporal) finite. In Heidegger, time has become so important that it is the central word to talk about Being and about the subject. Time here is not the same as the becoming of nature, though Being is eventually conceived in terms of "physis." It is history; but disconnected from the traditional link to the idea of progress. Contemporary French post-modern thought follows Heidegger in this respect, "l’événement" being an interruption of the continuity; the unity and the progression.

Whitehead’s philosophy of creativity developed out of this same growing awareness of time, becoming and historicity. From the very’ beginning it was concerned with "the becomingness of nature" (Enquiry 61). It wants to be a thoroughgoing thinking of becoming, though in such a way that can be accounted not only for the becoming of nature, with both its "degradation of energy" and its "upward course of biological evolution" (Whitehead, Function xx) but for history, too, with also its progression and its degeneration. It aims to develop a scheme in which becoming can be thought in all its possible directions24 and in which all the basic issues can be addressed: the ongoingness as well as the novelty, the "that" of becoming as well as its "what," its absoluteness as well as its relationality. As such, it searches for further answers than a philosophy of concrescence and self-determination can give.

Whitehead’s philosophy is a "metaphysics of becoming," in the full sense of the term. As a metaphysics, it wants to "rationalize" becoming, as far as possible. From that point of view, Whitehead sides with rationalism, but not with a rationalism as opposed to empiricism, but a rationalism opposed to an anti-intellectual approach.25 Whitehead’s philosophy of creativity is a radically empirical though rational metaphysics of becoming. It is both descriptive and explanatory: it elucidates how and in what sense the ultimate description can also be the ultimate explanation. It is an "event-metaphysics,"26 moving from physics to physis (Lackmann 137), as Heidegger wanted to do. As such, it goes further than a rational analysis of concrescence. It wants to give, first of all, a metaphysical "explanation" of the basic characteristic of nature, that "nature is ever originating its own development" (Enquiry 14). This is the ultimate fact of "concrescence" itself. The task of Whitehead’s entire philosophy, from beginning to end, has been to think that fact.



I. Emmet (xii-xxiii).

2. The word "creativity" as such is used only from Religion in the Making and following publications.

3. Whitehead’s remarks on Locke are also very’ illuminating for the concept of transition: "the notion of ‘passing on’ is more fundamental than that of a private individual fact. . . passing on becomes "creativity" in the dictionary sense of the verb creare, "to bring forth, beget, produce. . . . An entity is at least a particular form capable of infusing its own particularity into creativity" (Process 213).

4 "On Objects and Subjects." The chapter is mainly on perception, knowledge, personality, mind-body, and Plato’s Receptacle.

5. It must be said that many texts on creativity in Modes of Thought can be read also as stressing mainly the creativity of the concrescing occasion itself.

6. That is, "the continuity of events" (Enquiry 203).

7. This is so mainly for metaphysical reasons, i.e., the (related) problems of individuality and of the irrevocableness of the past. In Adventures of Ideas, however, Whitehead links that ambiguity also to the evolution in contemporary physics, from Clerk-Maxwell’s continuity to the later atomicity (185).

8. In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge Whitehead wrote: "continuity is derived from events, and atomicity from objects. . . . a scientific object is an atomic structure imposed upon the continuity of events" (203). In Process and Reality, on the contrary, the position has changed: "Continuity concerns what is potential, whereas actuality is incurably atomic" (61). So now the problem is no longer: how can there be discontinuity (atomic objects) in the continuity; but how can there be continuity’ between atomic actualities?

9. Nobo writes:

By the self-causation of an actual occasion Whitehead cannot mean that the occasion brings itself into existence. For to say that something is absolutely self-caused, or self-created, is to say that that which is non-existent somehow brings itself into existence. Thus, taken in a literal and absolute sense, self-causation is an unintelligible, self-contradictory notion. But even if absolute self-creation were an intelligible notion, it would still not be what Whitehead meant by an occasion being causa sui; for as we have just seen, he held the actual occasion to be the result of efficient causation as well as of self-causation. Moreover, he took the result of efficient causation to be the given, or primary, stage of the occasion’s existence, the stage from which self-causation starts. Thus, ‘causa sui cannot mean ‘absolute cause of its own existence’." (152)

10. Actually, for Whitehead there is still another metaphysical given, i.e., the primordial divine conceptual valuation: that is "the ultimate irrationality" (Science I), "irrationality"’ meaning here not that this valuation is irrational, but that its rationality cannot be grounded further.

11. In Leibniz, like in Whitehead, there is perception (prehension) and this perception accounts for plurality within the monad. The monad itself, however, has been created by God. Even if for Whitehead the occasion has windows, the prehensive activity cannot account for its own "happening."

12. It is nature that is said to be self-explanatory; not an occasion, meaning that the description of nature (its creativity) may contain elements "explanatory"’ of why things are. I am not unaware of the fact that one could read this statement -- like so many others -- not only from the perspective here defended, but also from the perspective in which creativity is the creativity only of the concrescence (in the sense that the creativity of the concrescence may contain elements explanatory of why this concrescence is). But that is certainly not the literal reading and, as I hope to have made clear in the foregoing, not the best reading either.

13. Compare Whitehead, Modes "Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains. There have been added, however, some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding" (168-69).

14. "The creativity of the world is the throbbing emotion of the past hurling itself into a new transcendent fact. It is the flying dart, of which Lucretius speaks, hurled beyond the bounds of the world" (Whitehead, Adventures 177).

15. Whitehead refers to Plato’s receptacle mainly in the context of the extensive continuum, though it does not fit there very well because the receptacle for Plato is precisely without characteristics of its own -- something Whitehead rather says about creativity He also refers to the receptacle in the context of the problem of personal identity (Adventures 187). Nevertheless, the notion can be elucidating for creativity; too, as Walter Stokes has very well argued (83 ff., but also 367), even if Whitehead himself does not use it in that context.

16. "In all philosophic theory there is an ultimate which is actual in virtue of its accidents" (Whitehead, Process 7).

17. See Process and Reality pages 19 regarding Locke, 40 on Aristotle and Descartes, and page 166 on Hume.

18. In the original version of his article, Garland characterized the first kind of explanation as "causal explanation" (366a). In the reprint in Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy the term "causal explanation" is replaced by the term "ordinary explanation," while within ordinary explanations, a distinction is made between a specific explanation (referring to actual occasions) and a generic explanation (referring to God’s primordial decision) (219).

19. Garland, "Creativity" 366b. In the reprint the characterization "rationalistic" is not used any longer (see 220-21), while the characterization "empiricist" is retained (218).

20. See in this respect also the circumscription of the term "real" that Whitehead is reported to have given in one of his classes: "real because it expresses a fact learned from the actual world and concerning the actual world" (Lackmann, 132).

21. Whitehead, Process 24. Not only actual entities as such can be reasons, but also elements in them can be reasons, as they influence, for example, a specific character in a later occasion.

22. A metaphysical explanation is more than giving efficient (and final) causes: it is more than physics. Besides, Whitehead attributes explanatory power to eternal objects, too, and these are not actual entities: they are not in isolation from actual entities and especially not in isolation from God, but they are not reducible to the actual entities or to God, either. The same holds for creativity. In Religion in the Making eternal objects and creativity are both (together with God) attributed the special (metaphysical) status of "formative elements."

23. Hegel 429 (my translation). Hegel writes: "deswegen erscheint der Geist notwendig in der Zeit, und er erscheint so lange in der Zeit, als er nicht semen remen Begriff erfasst d. h. nicht die Zeit tilgt." The classical English translation of A.V. Miller is less literal: "Spirit appears to itself in time till it achieves full notional grasp and thereby abolishes time," 591.

24. For this, the disjunction of creativity and God is essential: God is the "Eros of the Universe," and as such not only a condition for actuality but also an ideal and a critique (Compare Whitehead, Religion 63).

25. Compare Whitehead: "I am also greatly indebted to Bergson, William James and John Dewey. One of my preoccupations has been to rescue their type of thought from the charge of anti-intellectualism, which rightly or wrongly’ has been associated with it" Process (xii).

26. As such, Whitehead’s philosophy’ of creativity shows the possibility of what some contemporary French post-modern philosophers consider to be something like a contradiction in terms, i.e., a metaphysics of plurality and of "l’événement."


Works Cited

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