Unmediated Prehensions: Some Observations

by John C. Bennett

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

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 222-225, Vol. 2, Number 3, Fall, 1972. 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 attenuations, enhancements, and supplementations of emotion and value in which prehensions of the past effect us are all important in experience.

Whitehead’s position on unmediated prehensions of the past is at best unclear. Some passages in Process and Reality suggest that there is prehension of the distant past only through the mediation of intervening contiguous occasions. Others indicate that there can be direct, unmediated feeling of a noncontiguous occasion in the distant past. In this paper I shall review these passages and offer some suggestions as to how we are to understand Whitehead on this issue.

His comments in PR 183f rather clearly suggest that there is prehension of the past only through the mediation of contiguous occasions, The issue is presented there in the midst of a wider discussion about the functioning of bodily feelings in perception. The transmitted datum, Whitehead observes, acquires additional sensa as it is relayed along the chain of occasions. Accordingly, "the final perception is the perception of the stone through the touch in the hand" (PR 183). Of course some of the transmitting occasions may not draw attention to themselves. "In normal, healthy, bodily operations the chain of occasions along the arm sinks into the background, almost into complete oblivion" (PR 184). But in the transmission of influence, whether recognized or not, there is a chain of mediation. Objectification of noncontiguous occasions is effected only through the mediating occasions.

Br contrast, in PR 435 Whitehead allows for unmediated prehension by speaking of at least two feelings of some past occasion, a direct prehension as well as the mediated one. And in PR 468f Whitehead asserts that his philosophy need not "entirely" deny that there can be direct objectification of an earlier by a later, noncontiguous occasion. The denial by physical science of "action at a distance" is a comment about the present cosmic epoch and carries with it no metaphysical generality. Indeed, if we remember the distinction between pure and hybrid prehensions, it is "more natural" to require mediated objectification only for the physical poles of occasions)1 "For the conceptual pole does not share in the coordinate divisibility of the physical pole, and the extensive continuum is derived from this coordinate divisibility" (PR 469). At this point Whitehead produces his oft-cited statement about empirical support "both from the evidence for peculiar instances of telepathy, and from the instinctive apprehension of a tone of feeling in ordinary social intercourse" (PR 469).

Donald Sherburne reviewed this issue briefly in his "Whitehead Without God" (PPCT 320-22). There he pointed out that if there is immediate prehension of noncontiguous actual occasions then God’s functioning as ground of the past is rendered arbitrary and ad hoc. There would be no reason why one datum rather than another is presented. Such incoherence is really unnecessary, Sherburne contends, for "all our knowledge of the past is quite explicable in terms of a doctrine which limits immediate prehension to contiguous actual occasions" (PPCT 322). Certainly science supports such a doctrine, It does not speak of "action at a distance." And he thinks that experiences of telepathy, when fully understood, will not violate this doctrine either. Finally, by means of past experiences and unconscious memories "the instinctive apprehension of a tone of feeling in ordinary social intercourse" to which Whitehead also appeals is explicable without reference to unmediated feelings.

Although I do not agree with the larger thesis toward which Sherburne is working in his article, I am in basic sympathy with his treatment of unmediated prehension.2 Doubtless we all have occasions when what we experience seems as though it were a direct and unmediated prehension of something that happened to us long ago. Sometimes we have clear memories of distant experiences -- memories which are so fresh and vivid as to suggest no influence by intervening events. Something stimulates us, for instance an odor, a sound, or an idea, and things click into place, as though the distant event were present to us unmediated.

However, such memories can be interpreted without reference to unmediated feelings. The flashes of memory can be of experiences always indirectly mediated to us, but not precipitated into full awareness unless touched off by some suggestive or evocative event. That which clicks may be just our preceding experience provoking conditions so that the succeeding occasion can bring into consciousness a previously unconscious memory. We need not interpret such experiences as direct prehensions of occasions in the distant past. We can do just as well by regarding them as mediated.

Still, there is a certain awkwardness here, for the argument just presented runs against those three passages in Process and Reality where Whitehead does speak of direct prehension of the distant past. At this point it looks as though one should simply choose the position which best advances the thrust of his own argument. However there is another passage in Process and Reality which presents a third possibility. On the one hand it recognizes the direct prehension of which PR 98, 435, and 468 speak. On the other hand, it understands these direct prehensions as effective in a manner compatible with PR 183. I suggest this third possibility best represents Whitehead’s position on unmediated prehensions.

In PR 345f Whitehead is illustrating the importance of the first three categoreal obligations. He presents the notion of a medium and asserts that there is no direct objectification of a past occasion without adjustments due to the prehensions of the mediating occasions. He uses as an example the prehension of some temporally remote occasion D, also mediated through occasions B and C. Thus for the concrescing entity there are three initial feelings of D. One of them is direct and two are mediated. But by the first three categories these prehensions cannot be independent. The

subjective unity of the concrescence introduces negative prehensions, so that D in the direct feeling is not felt in its formal completeness, but objectified with the elimination of such of its prehensions as are inconsistent with D felt through the mediation of B, and through the mediation of C. (PR 346)

The relevant point of this passage is that the content of the direct objectification of some remote occasion must be adjusted to the objectifications of the mediating entities.

Since this passage is dealing directly and explicitly with the categoreal obligations for concrescence, I suggest that it is regulative of Whitehead’s position. From this perspective it is too strong to say that immediate objectification is limited to contiguous occasions. It is more accurate to say that whatever immediate objectification there is, is limited by those occasions contiguous to each other and through each other to the concrescing entity. There can be direct prehensions of the past, but the past thus felt is that past as also mediated and sifted through the intervening occasions.

Does this then rule out any direct prehension of some aspect of a past event not also mediated through the contiguous occasions?3 It would appear not, so long as that prehension is not inconsistent with what is mediated. Such an unmediated prehension can add something to the present experience of that past if, but also only if, it is compatible with the mediated transmission. However, since that past must in any case be dealt with in some way, unmediated prehensions are still limited by mediated feelings. As Whitehead notes, "immediate objectification is also reinforced, or weakened, by routes of mediate objectification" (PR 469).

To return to our example, if we are suddenly recalled to a distant happening of ours by some present odor, what is experienced is that happening, but that happening as adjusted to the mediation and evaluation of intervening occasions, conscious or not. The attenuations, enhancements, and supplementations of emotion and value that these occasions have effected are all important in this experience. These modifications may be directly important because they are experienced as such. Alternatively, they could be important because they precipitate negative prehensions. Either way, the present experience is not simpliciter a direct prehension of the unmediated past.



PPCT -- Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James, Jr.. and Gene Reeves, eds., Process Philosophy and Christian Thought. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.



1In a statement at PR 98 Whitehead also alludes to the direct objectification of the remote past, but dismisses it as "practically negligible, so far as concerns prehensions of a strictly physical type."

2 I think the claim that God does function as ground of the past is a reasonable one, though I recognize that it is not a self-evident feature of Whitehead’s thought. In any case, the outcome of this paper is fairly independent of that claim.

3 This question, together with the passage at PR 98, was brought to my attention in discussion with John Cobb.