The Misapprehension of Presentational Immediacy

by James E. Lindsey, Jr.

James E. Lindsey, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.145-157, Vol. 14, Number 3, Fall, 1985. 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.


The body inherits conditions from the physical environment according to the physical laws. Thus Whitehead elaborated on the general continuity between human experience and physical occasions.


In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead says:

But physiologist and physicist are equally agreed that the body inherits conditions from the physical environment according to the physical laws. There is a general continuity between human experience and physical occasions. The elaboration of such a continuity is one most obvious task of philosophy. (AI 244, italics added)

The elaboration of that continuity was one of the principal aims of Process and Reality as well as the whole of Whitehead’s work. While the above-quoted passage is perhaps the clearest and most concise statement of that aim, it has numerous parallels in Process and Reality and in Modes of Thought -- passages insisting that the role of the body in perception must be done justice: passages criticizing Hume or Descartes for their ambivalence concerning the role of the body: passages insisting that sense must be made of the vector character of causality (PR 81/125, 87/ 133, 115-20/ 177-84, 121f./ 186, 174f./ 264f., 311f./ 474f., 325f./ 496f MT 166, 179-88, 217; cf. AI 274f.). Indeed one of the principal functions of the doctrine of actual occasions is to fill the gap between the last items in the analysis of the physiologist and physicist on the one side and the first items in the analysis of the philosopher on the other.

In the second place, I would argue that according to Whitehead it is the implicit or explicit misapprehension of the true status of presentational immediacy that has blocked the philosopher’s attempts to bridge the gap (PR 173f./ 263f.). Many philosophers from Kant to Hume regard presentational immediacy to be the primary, even sole, datum of perception; whereas, for Whitehead it is secondary. This thesis is not neatly and compactly stated in any one place. There are several important references to be considered. Later, in Part II, we shall apply our discussion to Richard Rorty’s analysis.


The difficulties of all schools of modern Philosophy lie in the fact that, having accepted the subjectivist principle [having taken the Cartesian subjectivist turn], they continue to use philosophical categories derived from another point of view. These categories are not wrong, but they deal with abstractions unsuitable for metaphysical use. It is for this reason that the notions of "extensive continuum" and of "presentational immediacy" require such careful discussion from every point of view. The notions of green leaf" and of the "round ball’ are at the base of traditional metaphysics. They have generated two misconceptions: one is the concept of vacuous actuality, void of subjective experience: and the other is the concept of quality inherent in substance. In their proper character as high abstractions, both of these notions are of utmost pragmatic use. In fact, language has been formed chiefly to express such concepts. It is for this reason, that language, in its ordinary usage penetrates but a short distance into the principles of metaphysics. Finally, the reformed subjectivist principle must be repeated: that apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness. (PR 167/ 253f., italics added)

It is more or less clearly implied in this passage that to understand the continued use of the "wrong" categories one must examine and understand the status of "presentational immediacy." The full impact of this implicit assertion may, however, be realized only by careful gathering of pieces of Whitehead’s argument from many places (PR 77f./ 119f., 117/ 179, 113/173, 122f./ 186f., 162/ 246, 173f./ 263f., 61/ 95, 151f./ 229f., 170f./ 259, 315f./ 481; MT 99f., 43, 148; S 31; AI 159-67). Moreover, as vaguely hinted in the quoted passage, the misapprehension of presentational immediacy lies at the base of other notions quite prominent in Whitehead’s diagnosis of philosophy’s malady, e.g., quality inherent in substance (PR 28f./ 43).

In Whitehead’s view prephilosophical man misapprehended the true nature of immediately presented sensation when he assumed (tacitly, of course) that the objects of nature are as they appear. Philosophical man misapprehends when he supposes (usually explicitly) that immediately presented sensa are the primitive and primary data of experience. The misapprehension is a harmless and even necessary and beneficial error as regards the conduct of the ordinary business of life. It leads to serious difficulty only when metaphysical doctrines are based upon it. The philosopher is unlikely to discover the error until the progress of physics and physiology reaches a certain level of sophistication in the analysis of both the objects of perception and the perceptive process itself (PR 158f./ 240f., 167/ 253f., 113/173, 117/179). It is Whitehead’s contention that the "sensationalist principle" is nothing less than the misapprehension made explicit and respectable as adopted by the philosopher (PR 117f./ 179f., 173/ 263f., 175/266, 178/ 270).

From the perspective of Whitehead’s developed system the foregoing can be summed up as follows: Pragmatic considerations, not the least of which is survival, have dictated that our perceptive mechanisms evolve in such a way that integration, "transmutations" and syntheses of the incoming data take place below the level of consciousness thus veiling from us the true nature of both the objects of perception and of our immediate conscious sensations.

Whitehead was led to challenge the primacy of presentational immediacy by numerous considerations. First, granting the veracity of the physicist’s analysis of ordinary objects into a multitude of active subatomic particles, and the veracity of the combined account of the physicist and the physiologist in which pulses of electricity or neuronal firings are seen as the causes of sensations, it would seem that sensations must be complex integrations and syntheses of some sort of primitive experience rather than being themselves the primitive and primary elements.

In the second place, though, from the standpoint of clear and distinct conscious experience, sensations do appear to be primitive and/or primary, such experience carries with it vague accompaniments indicating otherwise: the vague feeling of derivation, the sense of the priority of a flash to a blink or of the sensation of brightness to the sensation of discomfort, etc. These aspects of experience are dealt with extensively in both Process and Reality and Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect and are what led to Whitehead’s invention and use of the phrase, "experience in the mode of causal efficacy."

In the third place, Whitehead assumes that various interpretive problems deriving from the assertion of the primacy of sensations constitute good grounds for challenging the assertion. According to him it leads to emphasis upon the superficial (MT 41-44, 184f.; AI, ch.11, par.12); inability to offer reasonable scientific explanations (MT 182-88, 210f.; PR 496f.); doing injustice to moral and emotional experience; assuming that "experience presupposes consciousness," which in turn makes it difficult to come up with a coherent theory of evolution from lower to higher forms (PR 176f./ 267f.; S 40f.; MT 217).

We come now to the question: in what sense are the substance/ quality framework and associated doctrines derivative from the misapprehension of presentational immediacy? The simplest and clearest way to get at this question is to assume the standpoint of Whitehead’s developed speculative hypothesis. Let us take the example of a cave man toward whom a large stone is hurtling through the air and examine his perception of that stone. The stone is analyzable into a vast multitude of actual occasions, each existing but a microscopic fragment of the time involved in the stone’s flight. The man’s perception of the stone involves a multitude of interactions of these individual actual occasions with: first, the man’s distant environment (entities in the space between the man and the stone); secondly, the percipient’s immediate environment (his animal body -- eye); and finally, the multitude of interactions occurring along nerve trains from eye to some central percipient occasion in the brain where the whole complex series is synthesized and integrated into the immediate conscious perception of incoming large gray stone.

This integration and synthesis is a highly complex process occurring within the concrescence of a single experient occasion. But for our purposes the most significant feature of this process is what Whitehead called transmutation. It is by means of transmutation that the staggering multitude of data deriving from the multitude of actual occasions making up the life histories of the stone, air, eye, and nerve trains are simplified so that for consciousness there is presented the single simple large stone with its most relevant properties. Now this is a gross oversimplification as anyone familiar with Whitehead’s discussion of the phases of concrescence, transmutation, societies, etc., will be aware. I believe, though, that it is sufficient for our purpose.

Our cave man thus reacts to the situation by ducking. If we asked him why, he would speak to us about the stone as though it were a single simple undifferentiatedly enduring bit of stuff (or substance) with properties of hardness, roundness, grayness, etc. (inhering qualities), all traveling with such speed as to constitute a lethal projectile. Thus the man’s attention is focused on the product of the complex perceptive process -- the presented sensa projected and imputed to a single substratum. Moreover, the product seems to be the primitive and primary data since the complex phases of reception, integration, and synthesis all take place below the level of consciousness. I, of course, do not wish to imply that the cave man was capable of any such analysis. Indeed Whitehead contended that philosophers had to await late developments in physics and physiology to be themselves capable of such an analysis (PR 113/ 173, 111/ 179).

The very way in which our cave man’s perceptive mechanism has functioned has on the one hand been necessary for his survival. Had the welter of incoming data been consciously presented and had the task of sorting, integrating, and synthesizing been a conscious process, he would have died before these tasks were off to a good start. On the other hand he has been led into a misapprehension of the true status of presentational immediacy. The presented sensations are indeed not the primitive and primary data of his experience, though from the standpoint of simple consciousness they seem to be. Moreover, in taking the immediate presented sensa to be qualities inhering in an undifferentiatedly enduring substratum or stuff he has misconstrued the ultimate nature of things. All this he does quite naturally, and he must do so if he is to survive (duck the incoming missile) so that in a sense he is not wrong. The misapprehension has tremendous pragmatic value (PR 167/ 253f., cf. PR 318/ 484f., 353f./ 387f., 179f./ 273; AI, ch. 14, sect. 4 if.; PNK, par. 24.7; CN 156).

Two comments are in order: (1) On this analysis the substance/ quality framework can hardly be the root of philosopher’s epistemological problems; it is the misapprehension of presentational immediacy. (2) That our cave man and his descendants do thus misapprehend should be obvious to the physicist and physiologist, for they are clearly aware of the complexity of the stone, of the data derived from it, and the various processes by which that data is gathered, transmitted, and made use of. This is clearly indicated by all the talk about atoms, photons, neurons, etc. The problem is mainly on the side of philosophy. According to Whitehead, philosophers have made the natural and necessary but implicit misapprehension of the cave man into an explicit dogma: the traditional doctrine of substance with all its corollaries, together with the sensationalist principle.

But what exactly is the problem from the philosopher’s side? An example will serve us well here, though it is one not used by Whitehead.1According to Hobbes, everything can be analyzed in terms of bits of matter in motion. If indeed we do perceive or know anything external to ourselves, it is because the motions of bits of matter in the part of the plenum external to ourselves, cause motions of bits of matter in that part of the plenum we call ourselves. A frequent objection to Hobbes, simply put, is: "but sensations don’t seem to be anything like bits of matter in motion." (Note the implicit assertion of the primacy of presentational immediacy.) Now granted that from the standpoint of contemporary physics, Hobbes’s bits of matter in motion are simplistic, his basic thesis that we must know on the basis of internal reactions caused by external actions remains at the heart of any physical analysis of perception. Sophistication of this side of the analysis through advances into subatomic theories and through theories of neuronal firings still leaves us with the same problem: sensations don’t seem to be anything like subatomic particles or photons or neuronal firings or pulses of electricity, etc. A huge gap remains. So long as the philosopher insists on the primacy of presentational immediacy that gap will, according to Whitehead, remain.

If immediately presented sensations are taken to be the products of complex processes of reception, integration, and synthesis carried out by the percipient, then perhaps one can begin to understand why sensations do not appear to be like their fundamental data. Perhaps the gulf can be bridged. Perhaps the sensations can be subjected to an analysis similar to that to which the stone and the organs of the animal body have been subjected. However, one must attend carefully to the kind of bridge hoped for. For conscious sensations are essentially the brute primary data from the standpoint of clear distinct vivid consciousness.

This latter assertion is in no way to be taken as a disagreement with the many discussions of causal efficacy in Symbolism, Process and Reality, and elsewhere where Whitehead argues that there are vague traces of something else more primitive (causal efficacy) which cling to conscious perception. The point is that those traces remain vague. But if one takes seriously the work of physicist and physiologist and if one does attend to the clues that cling to consciousness and if one does attempt to build a bridge, then one must realize that the bridge can only be speculative. I take it that Whitehead never thought he (or anyone else for that matter) could do more or other than this.2

For Whitehead the solution was to invent a speculative hypothesis about the process whereby presented sensations come into being, proposing hypothetical entities (or occasions) and/or processes in terms of which both the end terms of the physical analysis and the philosopher’s sensations could be analyzed. A hypothetical bridge is not unreal any more than hypothetical electrons are unreal. What one must admit is that those entities in terms of which our clear and distinct perceptions are analyzed are not themselves capable of clear and distinct direct perception, as if we could somehow unplug our perceptive mechanisms and substitute different ones.

Looking at the matter from the other side, Hobbes’s bits of matter are at least implicitly bits of undifferentiatedly enduring stuff, a notion unchallenged until very recent times (cf. PR 78/ 121). Even analysis by physicists is flawed because the fundamental entities in their analysis are misconceived in terms of presentational immediacy. Now undifferentiatedly enduring bits of stuff inevitably partake of the character of Aristotelian primary substances and hence can neither be predicated of nor be present in another.3 Thus the philosopher cannot see how these enduring bits of stuff can be connected to the perceiver. Only the qualities of these bits of stuff could possibly be predicates of both the bits of stuff and the experient. But then why should they be predicates of both? Having lost the vector character of causation within the physical analysis, it is hopeless to attempt to find a flow of vector causality across the gap from bits of stuff to the mind of the perceiver (cf. PR 159-60/ 241-43. PR 11.1.5).

From Whitehead’s perspective this problem clings to the concept of undifferentiatedly enduring substance, but that concept is itself the outgrowth of the misapprehension of presentational immediacy. On this analysis the fundamental particles of physics are not undifferentiatedly enduring substances, but are historic routes of repetition. Undifferentiated endurance is appearance generated by transmutation.4 Repetition along historic routes is reality. Thus there is no false barrier erected between the entity perceived and the perceiver. Actual occasions are tailored to bridge the gap between the analysis of the physicist/physiologist and that of the philosopher, and one can cross the bridge beginning from either side.

Now let us assume that the Hobbsian bits of stuff are not only undifferentiatedly enduring substances, but also that they are Cartesian material subtances (vacuous actualities) while the perceiver is a bit of mental substance. The problem is now compounded -- another artificial barrier is placed between perceiver and object. Thus even if the bits of stuff (on the physical side) were unlike Aristotelian primary substances and could thus be predicated of one another, they could not be predicated of the mind of the perceiver. Even if we somehow restore vector flow on the physical side, there is no way to get that flow across the barrier erected by Cartesian dualism. No satisfactory solution has been found for the problem of interaction between extended physical entities and nonextended mental entities.

Once again actual occasions are tailored to solve the problem: to eliminate (at the ultimate metaphysical level) the distinction between material and mental substances or entities. So much has already been written and said about Whitehead’s break with dualism and the "bipolarity" of his actual occasions that I need add nothing except to note the importance of this move in the attempt to bridge the gap between science and philosophy.


In an early essay, "Matter and Event" (EWP), Richard M. Rorty very effectively argued that a problem posed by Aristotle was first solved by Whitehead. The problem is how a substance, i.e., an actuality in principle unrepeatable, can be concretely known by means of repeatables (i.e., universals). Whitehead’s solution depends upon taking time seriously, distinguishing between unrepeatable present concrescing occasions and repeatable past actualities. Then in "The Subjectivist Principle and the Linguistic Turn" (WEP), Rorty turns right around and argues that this metaphysical solution has been rendered superfluous because the problem can be solved linguistically by Wilfred Sellars. While Whitehead may be able to solve the problem without recourse to the modes of experience, as evidenced by Rorty’s first essay, it is highly questionable whether any solution in terms of ordinary language can avoid them. Is not ordinary language based on presentational immediacy, implicitly assuming that it is our primary mode of experience, failing to appreciate its derivative status?

On the surface an attempt to solve the problem of repeatability directly without grappling with presentational immediacy would seem like treating a serious sinus infection with aspirin, relieving the symptoms, but leaving the bacteria free to continue their ugly work. Can one solve the repeatability problem linguistically? For Rorty the answer is yes, and he proposes such a solution (WEP 139f., 147f.). Whitehead believed the answer to be no. On my interpretation Whitehead reasons that language itself presupposes, and is in some sense based on, the natural misapprehension of the true status of presentational immediacy. This I tried to show in the cave man story, where his speech about the stone grew out of his taking the "presented nexus" to be exactly as it appeared in his conscious perception -- a single undifferentiatedly enduring entity with such and such inhering qualities. The point is made by Whitehead himself, more or less clearly, in several places (PR 167/ 253f., 77/ 120, 117/ 179, 173/ 263).

Let us, however, suppose that Whitehead is partially wrong and that there are language games that are free of the taint of the misapprehension of presentational immediacy, as Rorty supposes (WEP 147f.). And let us suppose further that one can to some degree solve the repeatability problem linguistically: will this solution also help us to build a bridge between the analysis of the physicist/physiologist on the one side and the analysis of the philosopher on the other? Again I have grave doubts. If indeed it can be done, I suspect that it would entail an alteration of the physicist/physiologist language game no less radical than that proposed by Whitehead. Perhaps the philosopher no less than the physicist needs hypothetical entities to explain sensations, his basic immediately perceivable data.

What should we do with the Cartesian criterion that none but "clear and distinct ideas" should be used in philosophical explanations? Such ideas are understood by Whitehead as immediately or ultimately derived front conscious sense perception in the mode of presentational immediacy. Thus giving primacy to this criterion presupposes adherence to the "sensationalist principle" which for Whitehead is simply a philosophical dogma based upon misunderstanding the true status of presentational immediacy. Moreover, Whitehead would argue that since clear and distinct elements are not the most basic factors of experience (PR 161f./ 245), it hardly seems reasonable to derive so basic a criterion therefrom. Rather, ignoring the nonbasic status of such experience has been fatal to the analysis of experient occasions. Indeed, "most of the difficulties of philosophy are produced by it" (PR 161f./ 24Sf.; cf. PR 173f./ 263f.; AI 225).

Thus from Whitehead’s perspective philosophers have erred in cojoining the Cartesian subjectivist turn with the criterion that ideas be clear and distinct. Whitehead therefore feels quite free and even bound to reject the criterion as traditionally understood and applied (PR 162/ 24Sf., 173f./ 263f; AI 225). But he insists that he entirely accepts the subjectivist bias (turn) of modern philosophy (PR 166f./ 253; cf. 160/243, 145/ 219; KPR 138).

Once again Rorty’s second article (WEP) is both provocative and frustrating. Rorty knows that Whitehead wants to take the subjectivist turn, that Whitehead plays fast and loose with the clear and distinct criterion, and that Whitehead is convinced that adherence to the criterion requiring clarity forces a reintroduction of the subject/ predicate language game thus making a solution of the repeatability problem impossible. Rorty wishes to retain the conjunction of the subjectivist turn and this criterion after reinterpreting the latter linguistically (WEP 142; cf. 146f.). But is it fair to accuse Whitehead of being unfaithful to the subjectivist turn because he rejects Descartes criterion as normally applied or as linguistically reinterpreted? Surely it is not unless the conjunction is a necessary one. I do not believe that Rorty or anyone has shown that it is.

Rorty’s continued adherence to Descartes’ criterion is predicated upon the conviction that there are language games that do not lead to the subject/predicate, repeatability problem. But yet, what sort of experience are these language games based on? Is it experience in the mode of presentational immediacy or some other sort of experience? If we claim that "we should, in offering explanations, use no terms but those which have a nonphilosophical use, and then we should use them in a nonphilosophical sense" (WEP 142), the question still remains: Is there really available to us an ordinary language game that is not tainted by the misapprehension of presentational immediacy, one that is not founded upon and shaped by the way in which we naturally perceive (by means of transmutation, etc.) and interpret immediately presented sensa?

I need to be convinced that there is such a language game. If such a language game does exist, then Rorty may very well have discovered (or invented) a way of dealing with the clear and distinct criterion that accomplishes part of what Whitehead was after. In that case I would still have the nagging question: Does this linguistic solution help me to bridge the gap between the last items in the analysis of the physicist/physiologist on the one side and the philosopher’s sensations on the other?

Whitehead saw no necessary connection between the subjectivist turn and the criterion requiring clear and distinct ideas as traditionally understood. Indeed from Whitehead’s perspective the clear and distinct criterion is one of those philosophical notions inconsistent with the Cartesian turn because it is "derived from another point of view" (PR 167/253). Whitehead thought that careful attention to the subjective experiences taken as primary data should lead to the repudiation of the inconsistent notions:

1. Careful attention to our experience should lead to the repudiation of the notion that immediate conscious sensations are primitive and primary, for it should reveal them to be complex products. This is the main point of the whole discussion of causal efficacy in Process and Reality and one of the main points in Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. Once the primacy of sensations (the sensationalist principle) is rejected, Descartes’ criterion must be given up, and one will also replace the notion that experience presupposes consciousness with its converse (PR 53/ 83, 160ff./ 243ff.).

2. Fidelity to the subjectivist turn in conjunction with this rejection of the sensationalist principle should lead to the repudiation of the notion that substances with inhering qualities are metaphysically ultimate (PR 159f./ 241f.). This entails the rejection of any undifferentiated endurance (PR 77f./ 119f.; cf. IWE 20f., 4Sf.). The rejection of the notion that continuity pertains to actuality, and the rejection of simple location.

3. Finally fidelity to the subjectivist turn should lead to the rejection of the notion of vacuous actualities (nonexperiencing actualities).

For Whitehead these are logical consequences of strict adherence to the subjectivist turn. Granting that he has pressed these consequences, he might well have claimed that he has been the one most faithful to the Cartesian turn! Such a claim is reinforced by Whitehead’s reformulation of the subjectivist turn as his reformed subjectivist principle, which states that "apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness" (PR 167/254). The reformed subjectivist principle in turn is the ground of both his ontological principle and his principle of relativity (both come close to being simply alternative ways of expressing the reformed subjectivist principle) (PR 166f. 252f.).

Whitehead’s focus upon the misapprehension of presentational immediacy sheds light upon still another problem of interpretation. It seems that no settled agreement has yet been reached concerning what Whitehead meant by the "fallacy of simple location." It is perhaps agreed that simple location is an example of the broader fallacy of misplaced concreteness. But the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in all its forms is based upon and grows out of the misapprehension of presentational immediacy. If, as argued above, immediately presented sensa are the complex products of integration and transmutation, and if this is the natural and normal mode of the functioning of organisms that have evolved as we have, then the immediate objects of clear and distinct perceptions may be simply located (properly so). But they are not concrete actualities. Thus simple location is proper and appropriate for perceptual objects, but one misunderstands their true status if one identifies them as concrete actualities, thus committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in the specific form of the fallacy of simple location.

Now then, while the notion of simple location is useful and even necessary from the standpoint of the ordinary everyday world of perceptual objects, it is nevertheless, from the standpoint of metaphysics, sheer error. Similar statements made by Whitehead about substance and about undifferentiatedly enduring stuff and their application to physics apply to the concept of simple location (cf. PR 77-79/ 119-22). Elemental physical particles are no less involved in abstraction than the cave man’s stone (PR 77f./ 119f.) and both can and must be simply located. To do so is not simply wrong (SMW 59, 84f.). The fallacy is committed only if these simply located entities are taken to be either concrete actualities or metaphysically ultimate entities.

Thus I am in essential agreement with Lawrence: "For Whitehead there is nothing fallacious about saying that a bit of matter is simply located, provided that you recognize the limitation of not talking about something concrete (RoM 7:238; italics his). This remains true when one takes into account any changes in doctrine in Process and Reality (see Alston RoM 8/2). It seems to me that Alston is misguided in trying to find a replacement for simple location such as multiple or complex location or multiple ingression, etc. The term location is no more applicable to the actual entities (occasions) of Process and Reality than to the events of earlier works. Location is still a derivative notion applicable only to nexus and societies. The whole attempt in Process and Reality to derive geometry from strain feeling seems to me to be massive evidence that the very notion of location is for Whitehead always a derivative notion. (Indeed I suspect that, faithful to the notion that continuity pertains to potentiality and not to actuality, Whitehead understands the extensive continuum to be a derivative abstraction.) Thus I agree with Lawrence (RoM 7/2, 242, 243) in rejecting multiple location as a way of dealing with mutual immanence.

Rorty writes: "The relationship of prehending cannot for Whitehead be modeled on any relationship which holds among (what his system takes to be) abstracta; it therefore cannot be molded on any familiar relation holding between entities mentioned in ordinary language" (WEP 138).

This is one of his more provocative assertions about Whitehead and one with which I am in entire agreement. Frequently articles purporting to interpret, reinterpret, refine, or polish Whitehead’s doctrines of actual occasions and prehension forget this. All too often they ask that actual occasions behave or be modeled on the behavior of perceptual objects or other entities considered by Whitehead to be in some sense abstract. A good case in point is Charles Johnson’s "On Prehending the Past" (PS 6/4).

Johnson thinks that it is problematic that one actual entity can prehend another that is dead, gone, and past (PS 6:256f.). Now certainly if one were dealing with billiard balls, one would find it problematic in the extreme if someone were to claim that while watching a Cue ball move on a collision course with an Eight ball, the Cue ball disappeared an "instant" before touching the Eight ball but that the Eight ball nevertheless reacted as if it had been struck. As far as anyone knows no one has ever observed such behavior in billiard balls or in perceptual objects in general. Indeed the probability of such an occurrence seems to be beyond believing or explaining: it is inconceivable, if you please.

But is this reason to find it problematic that Whitehead’s actual occasions behave in that way? In doing so Johnson is tacitly asserting that the behavior of perceptual objects is the model in terms of which the behavior of Whitehead’s theoretical entities must be assessed. Worse still he is tacitly reasserting the primacy of presentational immediacy, for the behavior of perceptual objects in question is behavior as perceived in this model Whitehead would grant that it may be extremely counterintuitive to assert that what is past and gone can yet be causally efficacious, but the reason this seems so is that we falsely give primacy to the immediate deliverance of sense perception.

According to Whitehead’s thesis transmutations taking place below the level of conscious perception account for the apparent endurance, continuity, and copresence of causally interacting perceptual objects as they are finally presented to consciousness. Thus on his thesis the seeming copresence of cause and effect is apparent but not actual. Indeed his doctrines of nexus, societies, and transmutation offer an ingenious explanation why, judging on the basis of ordinary sense perception, we feel compelled to insist on the copresence of cause and effect, while at the same time explaining why the felt need is erroneous.

There are numerous precedents for not requiring theoretical entities to behave on the model of perceptual objects. We do believe the physicist when he informs us that billiard balls (which we do see move toward each other and collide with a click) are not really the hard solid objects they appear to be and that the click has to do with rapidly moving air molecules and not with touching of the balls. We do not protest when he tells us that the balls are really mostly empty space: really more like beehives of activity on the part of subatomic entities separated from each other by vast tracts of space. We accept his hypothesis of subatomic particles because we have come to appreciate the great explanatory power of the hypothesis and are grateful for the multitude of technological gadgets made possible by such theories with which our lives have been enriched. Strangely the hypothesis may not get most of us very far in understanding the seen behavior of billiard balls and indeed seems to complicate vastly what seemed so simple. But we do not therefore reject the hypothesis.

It is similarly the case with the quantum theory. According to that theory electrons behave in extremely strange ways. When energized they may jump from one orbital level to another, but only by gains of energy in discrete units and in so doing do not seem to pass through intermediate energy levels. Surely no person has ever witnessed any perceptual object behaving in that way nor has anyone even thought that such an object might be capable of doing so. But no one for that reason attempts to claim that the physicist’s hypothesis is all wrong or in need of revision: no one would try to persuade the physicist that his theoretical entities must behave as do perceptual objects. My point is simply this: It is reasonable to grant Whitehead’s theoretical entities similar liberties.

I have not dealt with the rather drastic revisions of Whitehead’s ideas which Johnson proposes (e.g., making the phases of concrescence into a succession of temporal instants in order to secure temporal overlap [PS 2:262f.]) because it seems to me, as I have tried to show, that the "problem" which necessitates these revisions is a pseudoproblem.

I do not in any sense think that I have more than scratched the surface as regards the importance of taking seriously either Whitehead’s aim at "bridge building" or his critique of the primacy of presentational immediacy. What I do think is that any careful exposition of Whitehead and any significant improvement of his ideas must be carried out in a manner consistent with the importance Whitehead assigns to these topics.



EWP -- Ford, Lewis S., and George L. Kline, eds., Exploration in Whitehead’s Philosophy. New York: Fordham University Press, 1963. For Richard M. Rorty, "Matter and Event," pp. 68-103, reprinted from The Concept of Matter, ed. Ernan McMullin. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963, pp. 496-524.

IWE -- Lindsey, James E., Jr., An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Epistemology. Th.D. Dissertation, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, 1970, (c) 1975, available University Microfilms.

KPR -- Sherburne, Donald W., ed., A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1966.

PS 6/2 -- Johnson, Charles Michael, "On Prehending the Past," Process Studies 6/2 (Winter, 1976), 255-59.

RoM 7/2 -- Lawrence, Nathaniel, "Single Location, Simple Location, and Misplaced Concreteness, Review of Metaphysics 7/2 (December, 1953), 227-47.

RoM 8/2 -- Alston, William, "Simple Location: Reply by William Alston to an Article by Nathaniel Lawrence, Review of Metaphysics 8/2 (December, 1954), 334-431.

WEP -- Kline, George L., ed., Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1963. For Richard M. Rorty, "The Subjectivist Principle and The Linguistic Turn," pp. 134-57.



1To the best of my knowledge, Whitehead never quotes or refers to Hobbes in any of his works.

2 Since the gulf is traceable in the first place to the misapprehension of presentational immediacy which is natural to and necessary for such organisms as ourselves and since we have evolved in such a way that our perceptive mechanisms thus function, such misapprehension can be overcome only by speculative hypothesis. This must in part have been understood by Whitehead when he wrote that if we assume the primacy of presentational immediacy, Hume has the last word.

3 This, apart from other problems, seriously hampers the physicist’s analysis because it renders the vector character of physical causation unintelligible.

4 This should be no more startling than the assertion that in the cinema motion is appearance generated by the merging together of separate frames by the action of the