Whitehead and Alexander

by Dorothy Emmet

Dorothy Emmet is Emeritus Professor of philosophy of the University of Manchester, now retired and living at 11 Millington Road, Cambridge, U.K. Her recent book, The Passage of Nature (London: Macmillan and Temple Press) is an analytic discussion of what it means for anything to be a process, with critical reference to some of Whitehead’s views.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 137-148, Vol. 21, Number 3, Fall, 1992. 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 author believes that although he is unknown because of the emphasis on Whitehead, Samuel Alexander has a better part in some areas of thought.

 (This article was originally published as pages 100-120 in the book Die Gifford Lecutres und ibre Deutung: Materialien zu Whiteheads Process und Realität, Band 2 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1991), edited by Michael Hampe and Helmut Maassen. It was translated into English by Michael Hampe and is used here with permission.)


A. N. Whitehead and Samuel Alexander were two of the few British philosophers who produced comprehensive metaphysical systems in the early part of this century (others being Bradley and McTaggart). They always spoke of each other with great respect. Alexander indeed used to say in his last years that he considered that Whitehead had superseded him. He went so far as to say in a letter to the present writer, "I read Whitehead naturally not only to understand him but to save my own soul. I think of myself only as having done what Burke said he did for [Dr. Samuel] Johnson in conversation – ‘rung the bell for him.’ But though Whitehead disregards Leibniz and proclaims his affinity to Spinoza, he is, as you say, much more of a Leibnizian. And I believe I am much more of a Spinozist. And so there is a side to me which has to be either lost by obstinacy or saved by surrender to Whitehead (or of course the other way about)." I do not think it is true to say that Whitehead disregarded Leibniz’. It was however a just comment to say that Whitehead was more of a Leibnizian and Alexander more of a Spinozist.

I see the attitude to each other’s philosophy as one of mutual appreciation rather than of influence. Each has occasional comments suggesting analogies; neither however directly discusses the work of the other. In fact neither was interested in going in for dialectical argument with his contemporaries. Moreover. Alexander’s main work was done before Whitehead’s philosophical (as distinct from his mathematical) books had come out. Space, Time and Deity was published in 1920, but the Gifford Lectures on which it was based were given in 1916. Whitehead’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge came out in 1919, and The Concept of Nature in 1921. Alexander’s preface to the 1927 edition of Space, Time and Deity shows that he was then aware of some of Whitehead’s views in these two books. However, he was mainly concerned to reassert his own positions in answer to criticisms by C. D. Broad and G. E. Stout.

I shall not therefore attempt to show influences, one way or both ways. Still less, in its limited space, can this be an exposition and detailed comparison of two highly elaborate and difficult systems. I shall be making comparisons where the differences seem to me to be of special interest, and I shall be noting where a view of Whitehead’s may suggest an alternative which would avoid crucial difficulties in Alexander’s view. I shall also be claiming that there are respects in which Alexander seems to me to have the better part. Where I give expositions, these will be of Alexander’s view rather than of Whitehead’s, since Whitehead will be getting extensive coverage in other parts of these volumes; moreover, Alexander is the lesser known.


There is a fine bust of Alexander by Epstein in the entrance hall of the Arts Building of the University of Manchester (where he was Professor of Philosophy from 1893-1924, continuing to live in Manchester until his death in 1938). At its unveiling in 1926 he remarked, "In the future when I am forgotten this bust will be described among the University’s possessions as the bust of a professor, not otherwise now remembered, except as an ingredient of the ferment which the earlier years of the twentieth century cast into speculation, but it will be added that it is an Epstein." The publication of these two volumes will be a testimony to the fact that the early part of the twentieth century in Britain contained a considerable ferment of speculation, and also the belief that Alexander’s part in it was an Ingredient still to be remembered.

Alexander’s background was the Oxford Idealism of which F. H. Bradley was the most distinguished figure. He developed his views in a struggle against Idealism, particularly against its theory of knowledge, and he ended with a naturalistic realism (not, as is sometimes said, materialism, since "matter" for Alexander has a restricted meaning). Whitehead’s background was that of Cambridge mathematics, and he developed his views in attacking the materialism which he thought was implicit in the Newtonian (and mechanistic) view of physical science. Both claimed that their metaphysics were extensions of physical science, and that their aim was to produce a "descriptive generalization." The term is Whitehead’s, but it could equally be applied to what Alexander saw as the method of metaphysics; indeed it might be applied more accurately to Alexander’s approach. Whitehead constructed what he explicitly called a "speculative" scheme, and then looked for applications in different branches of experience. It might be said, as it has been by Dr. Mays2, that he was using the hypothetico-deductive model, where intellectual initiative is taken in constructing theories from which lower level hypotheses can be deduced, yielding predictions which can be tested empirically3. However, Whitehead does not strictly pursue a hypothetico-deductive method; there is little said, as far as I know, about prediction, nor indeed about verification. We have what are claimed to be applications of a speculative scheme which may or may not commend itself when taken as illustrated in particular spheres where something more like empirical description is possible. Thus while both Whitehead and Alexander produced systems of cosmological metaphysics which they held to be extended interpretations of the world of natural science, Whitehead is overtly speculative about this, whereas Alexander held that he was actually giving descriptive generalization, philosophy is the a priori part of an enlarged science. A priori here does not mean independent of experience, still less "analytic." It stands for the all-pervasive features of the world, as distinct from variable features which are studied in the empirical sciences. These all-pervasive features are called categories and they are discerned, not imposed by the mind. Nevertheless, Alexander’s list of categories closely follows the Kantian one, notably in its emphasis on Substance, Cause and Relation. "Substance" is the term for things as recurrent patterns in a world of motions of Space-Time (the basis of his metaphysical cosmology to which I shall be coming later); "Cause" is the term used for the channeling of motions of Space-Time continuing into other motions; Relation is the omnipresent fact of the "togetherness" of things, of which the most general form is called "compresence."

Knowledge for Alexander is a case of "compresence of a mind with an object. Since this is an instance of a general relation. Alexander does not feel called on to make epistemology a study prior to metaphysics. He can go straight into setting out how he sees the nature of the world. So too can Whitehead, who also holds that the relation of knower to known is a case of a more general relation, i.e.. that of conceptual prehension. Whitehead, as I have said, recognizes the speculative character of his metaphysical scheme. Alexander, on the other hand, sees the task as one of reporting what is discerned in the relation of compresence, doing so in a spirit of what he calls "strenuous naivit6," and also (adapting a phrase of Wordsworth’s) "natural piety." Such a theory of knowledge will obviously have difficulties over error and illusion, and I shall be returning to these.


First, however, I shall briefly set out the main features of Alexander’s metaphysical vision ("vision" is perhaps the right word, since he claims that this is a direct intellectual perception). The foundation is Space-Time, not Space and Time, but a four-dimensional continuum. He makes acknowledgement to Minkowski (1908) and also refers to memoirs by Lorentz and Einstein (STD 1:58). He alludes respectfully from time to time to the Theory of Relativity, but he does not appear to have gone deeply into this. Here there is a contrast with Whitehead, who was involved with Relativity Theory from its outset, and himself presented an alternative to certain parts of Einstein’s view based on a uniform space (see R).

Whitehead’s uniform space is, however, not physical space, but a general scheme of relatedness between events, underlying the more special relations from which physical space is derived. It need not be a flat space; indeed, Whitehead said it could be elliptical or hyperbolic so long as it was uniform. One might say that, whereas Einstein was talking of physical space, Whitehead’s uniform space is more like a metaphysical requirement, answering in some ways to the old notion of the Uniformity of Nature. This view of a uniform space has not, I believe, commended itself to Relativity theorists. Nevertheless, he was writing as a mathematician with close knowledge of mathematical theory in physics. He could therefore move freely in technical discussion (notably in The Principle of Relativity and in the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge) and he could produce a relational view of Space and Time from which he was able to derive the axioms of Special Relativity.

The cardinal difference between Whitehead’s view and Alexander’s is that the former’s view is an explicitly relational one, in which Space and Time are derived from relations between events, and the fundamental ontology is one of events. Alexander, on the other hand, absolutizes Space-Time, and even speaks of it as a "stuff’ of which things are made. At the same time he also says that Space-Time can be called Motions -- not "motion" in the singular, but complexes of motions with kaleidoscopic changes within a continuum. So one might say that for Alexander motion is primitive, and Space and Time are defined through relations between motions. This view is, however, combined with that of Space. Time as a kind of ghost of the Absolute, a stuff differentiated by motions (not, it should be noted, a view of motions as taking place within Space). There might be a remote analogy here with General Relativity where matter is defined by warps in the geometry of Space-Time. These warpings, however, I take to be due to gravitational forces, and "warping" is not a notion used by Alexander, though he refers to Einstein on this in a postscript to his preface to STD. Alexander’s references to the General Theory of Relativity are respectful, but diffident.

For Alexander, the differentiation of Space-Time is due not to gravitational forces, or, as with Whitehead, to properties of events, but to Time itself. Time makes for a "principle of unrest" and also for what, to use a phrase of Whitehead’s, can be called "the advance into novelty." Time is necessary to motion as is also Space. There is an influential view, found for instance, in Russell’s Principles of Mathematics (1905) which has been called the "at-at" view. Here motion is defined as the occupancy of different places at different times, and Time appears as a dating system (what McTaggart called the B-series). For Alexander this loses the movingness of motion and the transitoriness of Time, both of which should be taken as primitive. "Motion," he writes, "understood as the primordial stuff, is what change becomes if you strip from change the notion of some quality which is replaced by some other quality. Rather the name is used to indicate that passage of nature of which Mr. Whitehead speaks, and to insist that the stuff of things is events and groups of events, not something fixed and resting but something which contains in itself a principle of unrest" (PLP 271-72).

Alexander speaks here of "the stuff of things" as "events," avowing an event ontology. The notion of "event" continually appears in his writings as though it were co-terminous with "motion." We miss a detailed account such as Whitehead gives of the notion of "event" -- how events are distinguished and how they extend over other events. Broadly, Alexander’s "event" is a region of Space-Time, seen also as a motion. It is therefore essentially changing, and in this it is unlike Whitehead’s events, which, we are told, succeed and extend over one another but do not change. It might therefore be said that Whitehead’s events are abstracted from the primitive "passage of nature," and he may have been dissatisfied with this when he substituted the notion of "organism" in his later work, where change and "becoming" could be integral in a way in which they were not in "events." But I am not sure how far Whitehead explicitly recognizes how different this was from his earlier event ontology.

Alexander indeed speaks of "events," but when he is giving a close account of what he sees to be the constituent units within Space-Time, he speaks of "point-instants." He says he took the term from Lorentz’ Ortzeit, for something both spatial and temporal. The nearest analogy in Whitehead would be the "event-particle." Whitehead can have a notion of a smallest unit with spatio-temporal spread because in the end he has a pluralistic metaphysics in which the final constituents are atomic (later to be called "actual entities"). This course is not open to Alexander, as his world is essentially continuous, a kaleidoscope of motions as continued into other motions. This means that, unlike Whitehead, Alexander would have had great difficulty in accommodating quantum theory. He notes its arrival (Preface to 1927 edition of STD, 1966 reprint, p. xxvi), but said that the metaphysical considerations which arise out of it were a matter for the future to be worked out by physicists and philosophical mathematicians. But "of course, if it turns out that Space and Time are not continuous, as Mr. Russell suggests they may not be, I should give up the game in regard to their claim to be the model continua as wholes; or even that of Space-Time, insuperable as I feel the difficulty of abandoning the real continuity of Motion." This was a statement of great candor by an old man looking back at his work.

We must return, however, to the view of Space-Time seen as motions individualized by point-instants. The point-instant is said to be a "limiting case of a motion," but why motions should have a limiting case, except in theory, is not apparent. Here as elsewhere Alexander might with profit have used Whitehead’s Method of Extensive Abstraction, where one Space-Time region can extend over another, and that in turn over another for as far as one chooses to go. Alexander refers to Whitehead’s Method of Extensive Abstraction, mainly in the form in which it was presented by Russell in Our Knowledge of the External World, but he does not use it.

Point-instants are positions in Space which are also moments in Time. As least motions they have extension and duration, and are not therefore unextended mathematical points. It could be said that points are loci of instants and instants give dates to points. Together they give centers from which "perspectives" can be traced. A perspective is the whole of Space-Time ordered with reference to a particular point-instant, the temporal aspect including its past history and anticipation of its future, while the spatial aspect gives its relation to what might be called the contemporary world in which other points occur in the same instant. A point-instant thus has an analogy with what Whitehead calls "co-gredience," as a relation to a "percipient event" (see especially CN 108ff.) The "percipient event" is a center of an observer as in Special Relativity, providing a frame of reference for a time system. This allows, as Alexander’s view does not, for different time systems with different centers of reference, and also for a view of simultaneity where events simultaneous in one time system need not be simultaneous in another. Alexander’s absolute Space-Time involves absolute simultaneity. Here he might be said to commit what Whitehead calls "the fallacy of simple location."

Whitehead’s "percipient," like the "observer" in Special Relativity, need not be a conscious perceiver. It can be a camera -- anything which provides for a "here-now" from which relations can extend in what Whitehead calls "durations." Alexander does not develop a relativistic view of Space and Time with point-instants as centers of reference. He seems rather to conceive of Space-Time advancing as a whole, channeled in "world lines" through point-instants. Without this channeling in Space-Time, motion could not be divisible into recognizable routes with repetitive patterning, and this is needed for Alexander’s categories of Substance and Cause. However it is hard to see this as just discerned in "natural piety" by a mind "compresent" with the world (though I am prepared to think that the "movingness" in motion and the transition in time on which this intellectual construction is based might be said to be immediately discerned).

A perspective is a line of Space-Time containing different dates. In this it differs from a section, which is a contemporaneous slice of Space-Time. Alexander takes the illustration of a tree sawn across. For the carpenter the concentric rings are simultaneous, and this is to see them in a section. For the botanist they are dated, carrying with them the history of the tree. He sees the rings as in a perspective, a route taken by this particular process in nature. Neither Whitehead’s events as "co-gredient" nor Alexander’s perspectives should be taken as implying a relativistic epistemology in which people’s opinions are said to be "relative" to their subjective points of view or even to their preferences. For Whitehead and Alexander, events are ordered from a locus in Space-Time, and this ordering is perfectly objective.


The universe for Alexander is essentially in process, with Time as its ongoing aspect, and the ongoing process Consists in the formation of changing complexes of motions. These complexes become ordered in repeatable ways displaying what he calls "qualities." There is a hierarchy of kinds of organized patterns of motions, in which each level depends on the subvening level, but also displays qualities not shown at the subvening level nor predictable from it. The lowest level has the qualities such as inertia which are assigned to matter in physical structures. This is why Alexander’s system should be described as "naturalistic" rather than "materialistic"; his Space-Time is not matter, since "matter" is the quality of the lowest level of complexes of motions of Space-Time, where the products of motions are physical configurations, and also chemical syntheses. On this there sometimes supervenes a further level with the quality called "life"; and certain subtle syntheses which carry life are the foundation for a further level with a new quality. "mind." This is the highest level known to us, but not necessarily the highest possible level. The universe has a forward thrust, called its "nisus" (broadly to be identified with the Time aspect) in virtue of which further levels are to be expected. For us as complexes of living matter and carriers of the quality "mind," this as yet unrealized level is groped after in religious aspiration. It is called "Deity." Alexander’s Deity is not an eternal Being; it is an as yet unrealized quality towards which the process of the world is tending. "God" is however not only an as-yet non-existent quality of Deity. The name also designates the universe with its nisus towards this quality -- and towards whatever further quality might be "Deity" beyond this.

In speaking of "God," as referring in one sense to the world as a whole, Alexander showed (and welcomed) an affinity with Spinoza’s vision of Deus siva Natura. He said, indeed, that if it were written on his urn in the crematorium, "Erravit cum Spinoza," he would be well content. The cardinal difference is the role he assigns to Time. Whereas Spinoza’s one Substance had the attributes of Extension and Thought (and indeed infinite attributes unknown to us) Alexander has Space (Extension) and Time as the aspects of the Nature which is Space-Time ("Spinoza and Time," reprinted in PLP). The time-aspect makes the world a process, which to use a phrase of Whitehead’s, could be called an "advance into novelty"; this is of course quite foreign to Spinoza’s eternity of the world.

However, Time is not only the aspect of the world as ongoing. It is also for Alexander the inner aspect of everything in the world. He puts this by saying "Time is the Mind of Space" -- a daring remark which has indeed been quoted out of context by positivists who want to ridicule metaphysicians. Yet in context Alexander means something precise which takes up what he understands by Mind as we know it in ourselves. "Mind," we have said, is properly the name of a quality of certain syntheses of motions, a quality through which the omnipresent relation of one thing with another called "compresence" becomes consciousness of an object. This is knowledge in the form of what Alexander calls "contemplation." Besides this, there is another form of knowledge which he calls "enjoyment." This is a mind’s awareness of itself as knowing -- not introspection of itself as an object, which, if it were possible, would be a form of contemplation, but the inner experience of a process which is essentially temporal. Alexander generalizes from this to seeing the temporal aspect of anything as its own inner aspect, its living through whatever it may be undergoing. This, he says, is analogous to "mind"; it is not conscious enjoyment, which belongs to the quality known as mind proper. It is used by analogy to express the view of everything as having its inner side as a process which is gone through. On the other hand, "Space" stands for what is already achieved, already there as the contemporary world, and this is analogous to the extended body.

An analogy might be suggested here with Whitehead’s view of everything as having both a mental and a physical pole, and indeed Alexander himself drew this analogy (BV 291). There is, however, a considerable difference. For the later Whitehead, the physical pole is an actual entity’s "prehension" of other actual entities in its world, one is tempted to say, its response to stimuli from them, except that in Whitehead’s "prehensions," the initiative is on the part of the prehending actual entity, which takes account of, rather than reacts to, others in its world. This raises the difficult question of Whitehead’s view of prehensions and their role in causation, which is beyond the scope of this paper.4 The mental or conceptual pole for Whitehead is the prehension of an eternal object -- that is to say, some new possibility which is in some sense already presented in a schematic form. The notion of "eternal objects" has no analogue in Alexander; Alexander’s inner aspect is a matter of the actual temporal aspect of something as going on into a further phase. It is essentially an immanent nisus, not an apprehension of an eternal object beyond itself. Alexander’s use of the term "mind," as representing the inner temporal aspect in everything, is dissociated from the meaning of "mind," as a quality of conscious existents. "There are no degrees or kinds of consciousness lower than consciousness itself, as Leibniz thought, but different grades of reality each with an element which is not mind but corresponds to mind in its office" (STD 11:336; see also BV 291).


Alexander’s view of the process of nature was therefore one of the emergence of genuinely new qualities, not to be found in or predicted from the qualities of subvening levels. (He once remarked that he "took a low view of the amœba"). R. G. Collingwood stressed this difference from Whitehead in a letter which is reproduced in this volume and I shall only repeat two crucial sentences: "Your world seems to me a world in which evolution and history have a real place: Whitehead’s world is indeed all process, but I don’t see that this process is in the same way productive or creative of new things (e.g., Life, Mind) arising on the old as on a foundation. We seem rather to deny that these things really are new at all -- at least he seems to say so pretty explicitly in the little Nature and Life." Collingwood adds that "on that question I am impenitently an Alexandrine" and I agree with him. A doctrine of emergence which says that new qualities and capacities appear where certain patterns of order are achieved seems more plausible than saying that the new quality, e.g., mind, should be the heightening of mental propensities already present in a primitive state. Alexander’s view has, however, an implicit teleology in the "nisus" of Space-Time, and this may be a relic of the view of inevitable progress in which the temporal aspect of the world will not only produce what is new in the sense of "different," but also in the sense of "higher." Alexander could rejoin that we can see with "natural piety" that there has in fact been an ascent to higher levels.

Alexander’s view of an emergent process in which genuinely new qualities appear at different organized levels enables him to give a naturalistic view of mind without this being a reductionist view. Mind is in one respect identical with its neural and physiological base, but in another respect it is a new quality which functions in a unique way in conscious awareness. Moreover, there is the inner consciousness of this functioning, not, of course, of the neuro-physiological processes themselves, but of the process of being aware to which they have given rise. Hence Alexander maintained that he was not a behaviorist (see, for instance, Preface to 1927 edition of STD, 1966 reprint, pp. xxxv-vi); there is a conscious internal life of the mind not to be reduced to purely externally observable behavior. He himself had a considerable interest in neuro-physiology. He had studied this at first hand with Munsterberg in Freiburg i.B. Some of the points he makes concerning the basis of mind in the neurology of the brain, though no doubt dated insofar as they draw on empirical work, could still be read with profit by those today who maintain a contingent identity view. He holds to the neural foundation of mental processes and at the same time refuses to play down the crucial importance of consciousness. This is in accord with his view of emergence where the new quality of mind produces a new way of functioning. Emergence is more than "supervenience," which is in effect a form of phenomenalism.


This is a direct realism, in which a mind, which is within nature and indeed an emergent quality of its body, reports and describes objects within nature with which it is compresent.5 The "sensa," which it perceives as secondary qualities such as "red," are not "mental," but qualities of objects; here Alexander is at one with Whitehead in repudiating a "bifurcation of nature," where secondary qualities belong only to our own perceiving. This realism produces obvious difficulties in accounting for error and illusion. Alexander tries to meet these by saying that a mind is aware of selected aspects of the objects with which it is compresent. This is clearly so in the case of perception, where parts are perceived and stand in for other parts not actually perceived. What of illusions, for instance, when a gray piece of paper is seen as green against a red background: in such cases, Alexander says that the mind is indeed compresent with a patch of green as an object, but incorrectly refers it to the place where it should be seeing a patch of gray. Compresence is not simultaneity; a mind-brain is compresent with the whole of Space-Time within its perspective, and whatever it contemplates has "fringes" extending in Space-Time beyond itself. So a mind may erroneously transfer an aspect of an object contemplated in one part of this perspective to another. "The object, with which the mind is brought into compresence by virtue of an act initiated by itself, is transferred from its place in the world into a place to which it does not belong. The illusion is a transposition of materials" (STD 11:214). This seems a strange view. That mind can "transfer," "transpose" (elsewhere he uses the term "dislocate") objects in the world, only which are not its own images, suggests endowing it with superhuman powers. However, rather than the mind moving objects about, Alexander is thinking of it as contemplating different appearances of objects in different parts of its perspective, and confusing their place and date. This suggests space-time travel rather than removal of "the furniture of the world" (to use a phrase of Berkeley’s) from one situation to another. Yet it is surely a very high price to pay for a view of perceptual illusion. Mind in knowledge may not alter its object; this is the crucial point of difference with Idealism. But we can use various means such as words, ideas, images, which are indeed expressed in some material medium, and so can be manipulated, as instruments of understanding and this is a source of error in seeking knowledge which when attained consists in describing a presented reality.

Alexander was therefore aware that we use constructions as instrumental means to knowledge. He was enough of a mathematician and an experimentalist for this. This is noted in a piece "Art and Science."6 Broadly, he sees a work of art as something fashioned out of materials, satisfying the aesthetic impulse which contemplates it disinterestedly. Science, on the other hand, satisfies the impulse of curiosity to understand. If the scientist uses constructions of his own, these will be aids -- either material ones as apparatus, or theoretical ones as mathematical or verbal signs. Science as a body of thought is a human invention, which uses these instruments. But they themselves are also part of the world. This is obviously so in the case of material apparatus; Alexander holds that indirectly it is also so of the mathematical "entities" used as signs. They are generalities abstracted from those features of the concrete world which are a priori in the sense I explained above.

Alexander’s interest in these questions may have led without his knowing it to his influencing the course of later philosophy. The young Wittgenstein was a researcher in aeronautical engineering in the University of Manchester between 1908 and 1911, and already developing an interest in the philosophy of logic. He sought out Alexander, the professor of philosophy; and in his later recollections he is reported as saying that Alexander advised him to go and see Frege, calling him "the greatest living philosopher." Wittgenstein visited Frege, and wrote in the Preface to the Tractatus that it was Frege and Russell to whom "I owe in large measure the stimulation of my thoughts." Con Drury is reported to have said that Wittgenstein admired the title of Space, time and Deity, and said, "That is where the great problems of philosophy lie."7

To return to Alexander’s views on mathematics and the theoretical side of science. In the article "Art and Science," he quotes Whitehead’s Introduction to Mathematics of 1912 as supporting the generality of mathematics. He recognized that some flights of pure mathematics seem more like artistic creations. Yet "the validity of our quasi-artistic mathematical objects is not derived form the mind alone. . . . Ultimately the reason why mathematics is applicable to the world of things (so far as it can be applied, which is only approximately) is that its subject is abstracted from that world, and never really loses its connection therewith." Science is a "transcript" of the actual world; "unlike fine art it does not introduce into the contents of its subject-matter anything foreign to that subject-matter derived from the mind itself" (op. cit., pp. 18-19).

Whitehead’s free-ranging power of "conceptual prehension" grasps theoretical possibilities as "eternal objects," that is to say, as a kind of entity, distinct from the entities of the physical world into which they can "ingress," or be realized. The notion of ‘eternal objects" has, I think, grave difficulties of its own.8 Alexander’s view also has grave difficulties over abstraction and generalization, but I find it a merit that he does not try to meet them by introducing "eternal objects." Alexander’s universals are "habits of Space-Time," recurrent configurations in motions which can be recognized and possibly repeated.


For Alexander, all objects are within the world of Space-Time, and knowledge occurs when some object reveals itself to a mind compresent with it. Truth is reality related to a mind correctly reporting what is disclosed. It is an instance of what Alexander calls a "tertiary quality." Tertiary qualities -- truth, goodness and beauty -- are values and not, like the emergent secondary qualities such as color, within the world apart from minds. They arise in a combination of mind and objects. Goodness occurs when a will seeks to satisfy the affections and desires which make for a harmonious social existence; this is how Alexander sees morality. Beauty is a quality found in certain objects contemplated with aesthetic appreciation apart from practical interest or questions of truth and falsehood. There is beauty in nature but only insofar as we see it with the artist’s eye -- some piece of nature which can be contemplated selectively, as if it were a composition. Alexander’s primary interest is in beauty as a quality of works of art, satisfying the particular passion we call aesthetic. This arises when the constructive impulse becomes disinterested and contemplative. The creative impulse to shape materials taken from the world into forms which can serve practical purposes becomes an impulse to shape significant forms which give aesthetic pleasure apart from any practical concern. Alexander was sympathetic to the term "significant form," which was being used by philosophically minded artists such as Clive Bell. However, he insisted, in particular against Croce, that what was significant was a form or composition embodied in a material medium, and that the artist works by manipulating and often struggling with this material medium. In this sense, the words of a poem embodied in sounds or in written characters are a material medium as much as pigments or marble. Alexander insisted that neither the impulse to artistic creation nor the aesthetic satisfaction in what is created is primarily a matter of expressing emotion, still less of expressing the personality of the artist. Feelings and personality may indeed be drawn on, but the final product is depersonalized, and its contemplation gives disinterested pleasure.

Alexander was intensely interested in the arts, and often wrote about them with examples, including examples drawn from pieces of prose and poetry. Some of these papers and lectures are published in his last book, Beauty and Other Forms of Value (1933), and in the posthumous collection, Philosophical and Literary Pieces. Whitehead also had a strong aesthetic interest, and indeed it could be said that in his metaphysics he sees "processes of becoming" as directed towards aesthetic harmony. "Beauty," he says, "is the mutual adaptation of the several factors in an occasion of experience" (AI 252).9 Such mutual adaptation need not be a simple harmony achieved by eliminating what is disharmonious. In the higher forms of experience there is more massive harmony, where feelings of new intensities are held together in "contrasts." In giving central importance to this, Whitehead’s metaphysics of experience could be said to be stressing a particular kind of aesthetic achievement. But he did not, like Alexander, work out a philosophical theory of aesthetics.

We can perhaps say that in this, as in other respects, Alexander, to a greater extent than Whitehead, is a philosopher’s philosopher. I-Ic discussed central questions as they had come to be formulated in the history of philosophy and particularly in the legacy of Kant. Yet he has also been called one of the great solitaries of modern philosophy, not only as having produced a highly individual philosophy which cannot be classified under the label of any of the known schools, but also because of his manner of life; he was unmarried and singlemindedly dedicated to philosophy. Whitehead was not worldly, but he might be said to have been a man of the world to a greater extent than Alexander ever was. He had a wider range of contacts, perhaps a wider range of interests, which could be brought into his philosophy, and also a wider clientele who looked on him as a sage. Moreover, he came into professional philosophy in later life, whereas Alexander had spent his whole life in it. This does not mean that Alexander was narrow in his interests. Like Whitehead, he had a strong concern to relate his philosophy to contemporary science. In comparing them in this respect it might be said that the outcome of Whitehead’s later philosophy is a psycho-physiological view of the nature of actual entities, while it was Alexander who had the closer acquaintance with neuro-physiology. On the other hand, Alexander had a metaphysics of perspectives in Space-Time which needed to draw on concepts of General and Special Relativity, while it was Whitehead who had the closer acquaintance with these. Behind Whitehead’s philosophy there was a mathematical physicist trying to turn his interest in formal structures into a metaphysics of organism interpreted in psycho-physiological terms. Behind Alexander’s philosophy there was a neuro-physiologist trying to turn his interest in the mind-brain into a metaphysics of Space-Time point-instants. There is no way, as I see it, of combining the two philosophies. In any case, a metaphysical system is a single individual achievement. But each of them may be read with the greater appreciation if we also read the other.

I leave the last word to Whitehead:

The title of one outstanding philosophic treatise in the English language, belonging to the generation now passing [in 1938] is ‘Space, Time, and Deity’. By this phrase, Samuel Alexander places before us the problem which haunts the serious thought of mankind. ‘Time’ refers to the transitions of process, ‘Space’ refers to the static necessity of each form of interwoven existence, and ‘Deity’ expresses the lure of the ideal which is the potentiality beyond immediate fact. (MT 101)


Principal Works by S. Alexander

Moral Order and Progress. London, 1899. (Written from an Idealist position later abandoned).

Space, Time, and Deity, London, 1920. Reprinted with Introduction by Dorothy Emmet in 1966.

Beauty and the Other Forms of Value, London, 1933.

Philosophical and Literary Pieces (Ed. J. Laird, London, 1939).

(This posthumous volume contains a memoir and a list of Alexander’s published works. A collection of letters is deposited in the library of the University of Manchester.)

"The Basis of Realism." Proceedings of the British Academy (1914). Reprinted in Realism and the Basis of Phenomenology (Ed. R. M. Chisholm, Glencoe, IL, 1960).

"Sense Perception: a reply to Mr. Stout." Mind, n.s. Volume 32 -- 1932, 1-11.

Some Works on Alexander

Broad, C. D. Review articles on S.T.D. in Mind, n.s. Volume 30(1921), 25-39 and 129-150.

Broad, C. D. The Mind and its Place in Nature (London, 1925) discusses Alexander’s view of emergence, 648.

Devaux, P. Le systéme d’Alexandre (Paris, 1929).

Emmet, Dorothy. "Time is the Mind of Space." Philosophy XXV, 233.

Weinstein, M. A. "Unity and Variety in the Philosophy of Samuel Alexander" (Indiana, 1984).

Cv. of s. Alexander

Born Jan. 6th 1859 in Sydney, Australia.

1877 Scholar of Balliol College, Oxford. Studied Philosophy and Mathematics.

1882 Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. (The first Jew to be elected a fellow of an Oxford College).

1890-91 Studied experimental psychology with Munsterburg in Freiburg im B.

1893-1924 Professor of Philosophy in the University of Manchester.

1938 Death.



1. See, for instance, Science and the Modern World, chapter ix, where he says that "the presupposition of the philosophy of organism must be traced back to Leibniz" (in having ultimate entities as monads). the difference being that whereas Leibniz’ monads were windowless," W’s actual entities are internally related by prehensions.

2. In The Philosophy of Whitehead, chapter I (London, 1959).

3. For an exposition of this method see R. B. Braithwaite. Scientific Explanation (Cambridge, 1953).

4. I have tried to discuss this in detail in "Whitehead’s View of Causal Efficacy" in Whitehead und der Prozess begriff (Alber, 1984).

5. The main outlines of this epistemology are given in the British Academy Lecture for 1914, "The Basis of Realism," reprinted in Realism and the Background of Phenomenology edited by R. M. Chisholm (Free Press, Illinois, 1960).

6. Journal of Philosophical Studies I i (1927).

7. I owe this information to Brian McGuinness, Wittgenstein: A Life, p. 75 (London, 1989). He gives as source R. Goodstein’s account in Ambrose and Lazerowitz. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophy and Language (London, 1972), pp. 271-72.

8. For some of these difficulties see Everett W. Hall, "Of what use are Whitehead’s Eternal Objects?" Journal of Philosophy 27(1930).

9. This book contains Whitehead’s most explicit remarks on the pre-eminent importance of Beauty.