Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty: Some Moral Implications

by William S. Hamrick

William S. Hamrick is Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He is editor of Phenomenology in Practice and Theory Martinus Nijhof 1985). and author of An Existential Phenomenology of Law Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Kluwer 1987),plus a number of articles in Continental Thought. He is also Associate Editor of the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 235-251, Vol. 4, Number 4, Winter, 1974. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


How would Whitehead explain, within the context of his Psychological Physiology, certain of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological evidences which are central for understanding personal identity? His evidences show that, as against Weiss, Whitehead’s work can yield a fruitful concept of personal identity based on behavioral habits, a sense of moral responsibility, and a legitimate notion of guilt.

Some years ago, Paul Weiss posed a well-known objection against Whitehead’s thesis "that actual occasions perish when and as they become." "Held to too tenaciously," Weiss writes, "the view would prevent Whitehead from affirming that there were any beings, other than God, which actually persist. As a consequence he would not be able to explain how a man could ever be guilty for something done by him years ago, how there could be an ethics of obligation, political action, artistic production, or an historical process" (RW 331). In the present essay, I shall try to defend Whitehead on this charge by showing both that he has a viable concept of personal identity and that it can sustain a meaningful sense of obligation and guilt.

To do this, given Whitehead’s anti-Cartesian perspective, we obviously need to know something about his view of the life and organization of the human body -- the study of which he labels "Psychological Physiology" (PR 157). But neither Whitehead nor, until recently, his commentators, have ever squarely addressed the relationship of the Psychological Physiology and personal identity. Thus, among other things, the moral implications of this relationship have largely gone unnoticed, and Weiss’s objection has not been satisfactorily answered.

As a result, I shall attempt to speak to Whitehead’s concepts of personal identity and ethical obligation in and through the Psychological Physiology. But this must remain a highly speculative task, since this part of Whitehead’s work consists merely of "conjectures" and "is still in the process of incubation" (PR 158). Confidence of a sure footing in such matters demands more than speculative generalization; one also needs concrete descriptive evidence. Accordingly, to tell what concrete descriptions of personal identity and ethical obligation are possible within the matrix of the Psychological Physiology, I shall supplement its "conjectures" with certain features of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body and perception. I shall show that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological evidences" -- the results of his descriptions of the body and its perceptual life -- are consistent with, and may be deduced from, Whitehead’s work and that this phenomenologically elucidated Psychological Physiology will satisfactorily answer Weiss’s objections. (This will also involve an affirmative answer to a question posed by Donald W. Sherburne, namely, whether these Whiteheadian "conjectures" could "provide a systematic, rational framework capable of grounding the many insights into the relation of ‘mind’ and ‘body’ which have emerged from the reflections of such phenomenologists as Merleau-Ponty" [WPP 406].)

In terms of procedure, part I will detail the appropriate phenomenological evidences central to the questions of personal identity and ethical obligation. Part II will then develop Whiteheadian explanations for these data -- utilizing the Psychological Physiology coupled with its general metaphysical presuppositions -- and indicate how they provide Whitehead with a theory of personal identity sufficient to support a meaningful ethics of obligation.


For Merleau-Ponty, the self is conceptualized in terms of the "cogito." But this Cartesian language must not mislead. For, although he sometimes follows a great many European contemporaries in offering incense at the altar of Descartes, Merleau-Ponty’s cogito differs radically from that of his predecessor. Consciousness is neither a Cartesian mental substance juxtaposed to, or "contained" in, one that is physical, nor a Kantian transcendental ego. Rather, Merleau-Ponty conceptualizes human existence in terms of the "lived-body" (le corps propre) -- a term which is meant to denote my body as I live it, my own body -- and, unlike a Cartesian material object, the lived-body is a "pre-objective," concrete unity of interdependent psychical and physical aspects. The lived-body is the unity of thought-in-act, his own version of the Hegelian "concrete universal." It is a system of motor powers for exploring and making sense of the world, and as such, the cogito becomes more an "I can" than an "I think."

We can briefly reconstruct as follows one prominent argument which brings Merleau-Ponty to this new notion of the cogito and which will thus bring us to the question of personal identity. (1) For Descartes, the relations between an object perceived and the perceiving body are no different than those between all natural events, processes, and objects. Namely, in this mechanistic view of nature -- a matrix of external relations between independent, isolable relata -- the object perceived consists of an active, unconditioned cause, while the event of perceiving exists as a passive, determined effect of this and other causes, as the last link "at the end of a chain of physical and physiological events which alone can be ascribed to the ‘real body"’ (PP 75f). Thus, the perceptual response ought always to correspond to what the stimuli prescribe. Further, (2) perceptual, bodily processes are basically unintelligible because, according to the classic "form/matter" analysis, experience consists of a synthesis of intrinsically meaningless physical sensations passively received via the sense-organs -- the "matter" -- together with an active, reflective, mental judgment -- the "form" -- which interprets them.

But (3) Gestalt psychologists have generated a wealth of experiential and experimental evidence which undermines the plausibility of (1) and (2). Perception is revealed as an active process of spontaneously organizing or structuring a given perceptual field and is, therefore, neither passive nor rigidly distinct from certain stimuli which supposedly determine it. Rather, in the organization of the form and arrangement of "stimuli," perception "bends back on" those stimuli, so to speak, and helps constitute them as such. For Merleau-Ponty, then, "The properties of the object and the intentions of the subject . . . are not only intermingled; they also constitute a new whole" (SB 13).

This means that the lived-body’s organizational relationship with its world blurs the sharp distinction between "stimulus" and "response" and demands for its adequate conceptualization a matrix of internal relationships between interdependent relata (here, the perceiving and the perceived). These internal relationships, these new subject-object wholes -- which blur the distinction between subject and object -- are for Merleau-Ponty Gestalt-structured, since one feature of a Gestalt is that each part bears to others as well as to the whole interdependent rather than independent relations.

But further, as a result of (3), we can now see that (4) perception is basically meaningful in advance of the elaboration of theoretical, reflective consciousness. Over against the form/matter analysis of experience, there is intelligible perceptual organization of stimuli, and it comes about because perception is typically influenced by the presence of anticipation. That is, through our retention -- or, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, "sedimentation" -- of past experiences, we are, as Gestalt psychologists put it, "set" to perceive in given situations, and this "set" shapes, to a large extent, what we do perceive. Thus, perception is basically attuned to the form of stimuli; it pre-reflectively organizes a world for certain purposes which will be spelled out below. But, as a material object, the body could expectantly take the form of stimuli "into account" "only if we introduce the phenomenal body beside the objective one, if we make a knowing-body of it, and if, in short, we substitute for consciousness [as Descartes conceived it], as the subject of perception, existence or being in the world through a body" (PP 309). Consequently, what we need is a perceptual account of causality instead of a causal explanation of perception (SB 140f).

The upshot of (3) and (4) is the failure of both the mental and physical sides of Descartes’ dualism. The psychical and the physical become interdependent features of the motor-intentional body. That is, intentionality of consciousness means, in part, that it is consciousness of something, such that to perceive is to perceive something, to will is to will something, and so on. Since, for Merleau-Ponty, consciousness is a body-consciousness and the lived-body is an active, mobile body, intentionality becomes a motor-intentionality. My body is then for me a "‘postural,’ or ‘corporeal schema’" (PPOE 117),1 a system of motor powers in which the knowing-body’s spontaneity presents itself as an "I can," as an "I am able to." This power to exist, the "project towards the world that we are" (PP 405), constitutes my most immediate awareness of myself as a "tacit cogito" which is brought to expression and explicit awareness through language.

For Merleau-Ponty, the self’s spontaneous interpretative abilities are not capricious or arbitrary; rather, they are teleologically governed by the goal of achieving a certain equilibrium with the world. In and through motor-intentionality, the knowing-body seeks to deal with the world intelligibly and successfully. And it is this practical "know how" which in "intentionality will be [for Merleau-Ponty] the concept that would bring intelligibility both to bodily behavior observed physiologically and psychologically, and perception explored transcendentally" (IC 83).

Now to say that we seek to exist in the world "successfully" reveals the goal of equilibrium because success here implies a certain balance with the world -- an ability to cope with it. But the desideratum of equilibrium usually manifests itself in bodily motility when we lose the ability to orient ourselves. That is, when our anticipations are fulfilled, the equilibrium is maintained. It is the foundation of what we call "normal," because the "norms" are the conditions which constitute the lived-body’s equilibrated balance with its milieu. But when the norms are not fulfilled, we become disoriented, and in disorientation the balance is disturbed.

To use an ethical example of what Merleau-Ponty is getting at, a parent may develop certain habits of caring for his child: of being attuned to its cries, of feeding it at certain times, and so forth. He ethically incorporates the child into the way he habitually inhabits space, and the equilibrium attained constitutes a valued existence. This suggests then that, to use Gilbert Ryle’s phrase, "knowing how" to live in a world is habitual. Knowing how to ride a bicycle, use a typewriter, and play musical instruments all involve the habitual appropriation of the respective instruments. Likewise, being an ethical person means, as Aristotle perceived, developing moral habits.2

On the one hand, then, the potentiality of spontaneity is the general power to exist, to put ourselves into situations via motor-intentionality. In so anticipating the immediate future, my body manifests itself as an "I am able to." On the other hand, habit offers spontaneity practical, patterned contexts in which it can continually operate. Here the lived-body presents itself as an "I am able to remain involved" in, and committed to, particular situations. Our "knowing how" to deal with the world is deepened with this stability and, in many cases, it comes into being with this permanence.

So, to be really effective, spontaneity must be anchored in habitual patterns of behavior, and these are instances of what Merleau-Ponty terms "sedimented meanings" (Ss 89). The latter consists of past layers of experience constituted by both myself and others and which are taken for granted -- as "established" and "acquired" in our present acts. But although our projects take place in the context of past conditioning influences, the past does not shackle the present experience of the concrete subject into conformity with it. Or, to put it another way, habits, as sedimented patterns of behavior, offer spontaneity the permanence it needs for a continued and sustained existence, in the sense that this permanence establishes the perspective on the world which is my bodily motility and gives it a temporal continuity. But the sedimentation does not determine the ultimate character of the motility.

The retention of the sedimented past in the present by habits is a necessary condition of the continued spontaneity of the lived-body, but it is not a sufficient condition. For, the creative acts of sedimenting new meanings also concern present-future relationships (the anticipative spontaneity of consciousness). Thus, both the spontaneous structuring activity of consciousness and motor-habits are necessary to our worldly existence. To paraphrase Kant, spontaneity without habit is empty (of enduring commitment), while habit without spontaneity is blind (without orientation to new situations).

From this point of view, we can see how personal identity consists primarily of habitual patterns of behavior and, tightly related to this, self-knowledge is concerned with both perceptual, behavioral spontaneity as well as bodily habits. Again, to use Ryle’s analyses (which in this matter happen fundamentally to agree with Merleau-Ponty), there are two basic senses of self-knowledge. On the one hand, there is that sense "in which a person is commonly said to know what he is at this moment doing, thinking, feeling, etc." (CM 174). This is what Merleau-Ponty expresses in terms of the anticipative spontaneity of consciousness because, as Ryle indicates, when I know myself in this sense I expect and am prepared for certain events, steps of projects in which I am engaged, and so on (CM 176).

Beyond this immediate sense of self-knowledge, I may also know myself in terms of an "assessment of long term propensities and capacities," of "certain ways in which some of the incidents" of my life are "ordered" (CM 174, 167). And this is what Merleau-Ponty expresses in terms of behavioral patterns which form a continuity of past and present in an identical cogito, and pace Professor Weiss, this notion of identity is independent of a commitment to a philosophy of substance.

Patterns of habitual behavior do allow us to talk meaningfully of a continued sameness (identity) through time while not referring to a substance ontology. But one can say more about the philosophical advantages of this concept of identity. For example, there are certain times that we much more readily trust habitual behavior as a reliable index to self-knowledge than, say, the Cartesian model of private, incorrigible access to one’s own ego. If, for instance, I claim to be a generous person and someone points out that I never make any contributions to charities, never leave tips on restaurant tables, and so forth, these habits should lead me to see that I am not, after all my protestations, a generous individual. If, on the other hand, I admit all these facts and, on the basis of private, "privileged" intuition, still maintain my generosity, one would surely be justified in concluding either I am ignoring the truth about myself or else that I do not understand the concept of generosity.

Now anyone who seeks to understand personal identity in terms of behavioral habits quickly encounters two well-known objections. The first concerns the apparent lack of permanence about the self. Namely, if I drop or add a given habit or habits, is my personal identity thereby changed? How much change can be tolerated while rightly maintaining a persisting sameness about the self? Can I be the same person if I once, but no longer, smoked, knew German, and was philanthropic?

I do not think that there is an insuperable difficulty here. It is true that I am not exactly the same after such changes, any more than a house would remain strictly identical with its roof replaced. However, just as we say that it is the same house because its other structural features remain intact, what stays the same about me (better: what constitutes the "me" that is continued sameness) is the background, contextual structure of other behavioral patterns against the stable presence of which a given habitual change is noticed and contrasted. In other words, certain patterns might change, but other patterns must remain for changes such as the above to make sense.

But how much of a change of behavior patterns is required for a fundamental shift in personal identity? It is clear that a change of a few will not suffice, and it is equally clear that a radical change of all or at least a great many will be sufficient. For example, a man may go mad and his subsequent behavior may be the very reverse of previous patterns of action. But I think it is also evident that no hope exists of pinpointing the precise number of changes of habit that are necessary and sufficient for a significant shift in personal identity, just as it is impossible to say how few hairs on a man’s head constitutes baldness. But this. does not mean that baldness does not differ from non-baldness, and such "boundary disputes" are equally unprofitable in, trying to fix an exact number or percentage of habit changes necessary for a substantial change of personal identity.

The second objection to conceptualizating personal identity in terms of behavioral habits is but an ethical application of the first. It concerns the justification of punishment, an ethics of obligation, and the existence of guilt -- all important points in Professor Weiss’s criticisms of Whitehead. The force of this objection may be seen in the following sort of case. Suppose a person commits a serious crime, but escapes subsequent detection and punishment. Suppose further that he is caught ten years later, but it turns out that he has reformed his previous behavior patterns which had manifested themselves in his criminal act. Since it is right to punish only the same person who commits the crime, can this person be rightly punished if the above facts are true? Do responsibility and guilt make sense in such a case?

Before showing how one might answer these questions affirmatively, it must be noted that the continuity of personal identity is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the justification of punishment. What is sufficient depends on what view of punishment is endorsed, and it is not my purpose here to argue for one view as against another. (However, as an obiter dictum, I think it can be shown that Merleau-Ponty, and indeed, Whitehead, are much more inclined toward a utilitarian rather than a retributive model of punishment.) I only wish to show that punishment, guilt, and responsibility are possible as far as the continuity of personal identity is concerned.

There can be no obligation and guilt if there is no responsibility, since the latter means literally the ability to respond, or "answerability." The usual meanings of responsibility and guilt indicate the persistence of an identical agent who both did the act (s) in question and can subsequently be made to answer for it (them). As a rule, this is the case.. Uncertainties do arise, however, in connection with both the alleged guilt of present generations for crimes of their elders -- as in the case of Nazi atrocities -- and with the guilt and responsibility of corporations (institutions with changing memberships) for, say, past acts of environmental pollution. I shall later point to an extended sense of guilt and responsibility which fits these cases and is also applicable to puzzles about substantial shifts of behavior affecting personal identity.

Now with these general presuppositions in mind, the following conclusions seem clear. First, an individual’s change of only one or two behavioral habits, including that or those responsible for the commission of a crime, does not suffice -- for reasons stated above -- for a change of personal identity. There is still a core of sameness about the individual such that there is a "he" to be answerable (responsible), despite subsequent reformation and the unlikelihood of repeating the crime. Thus, as far as personal identity is concerned, he can still be punished. But again, this does not entail that he should be. While a retributive theorist such as Kant might hold that there is not only "a prima facie obligation on society to punish one who has infringed the rights of others; it is an absolute over-all obligation -- punishment must absolutely be meted out or society itself is guilty of wrong" (ET 498), a utilitarian theorist would see things quite differently. Moritz Schlick, for example, tells us that "a natural retaliation for past wrong, ought no longer be defended in cultivated society; for the opinion that an increase in sorrow can be ‘made good again’ by further sorrow is altogether barbarous" (PE 152). On Schlick’s model of reformation and deterrence, the individual in question would probably not be punished.

But when a massive change of behavioral habit has taken place, and this is sufficient to constitute a change of personal identity -- as, for example, in the case of insanity -- then on the view here proposed, there is no responsibility and guilt in the usual senses of those words. There might have been at the time of the commission of the crime, but not after the dramatic personality shift in question.

Earlier I spoke of an extended sense of responsibility and guilt which might be applicable to changes in personal identity. This is a "weaker" kind than the normal sort described above in the sense that the obligatory prescriptive sanctions are less directly attributable to an agent. Unlike the case in which one and the same agent commits a crime and is punished for it, bodies with changed personhoods -- as institutions with changed memberships -- may rightly be said to be responsible for acts before those changes only in the sense of being unavoidably involved in the causal implications of the past. This is but a general fact that present projects must take into account the legacy of the sedimented past, although the latter does not determine the shape of the former. To be responsible and guilty in this sense is, then, to be involved in the context of past decisions -- having somehow to reckon with them -- but not to have one’s conduct prescribed by them.


My aim in this section is to show that Whitehead’s Psychological Physiology can generate the concept of personal identity sketched above -- and which allows for the real connection of present to past that is, as Professor Weiss has pointed out, a necessary condition of responsibility and guilt.

We have seen that, for Merleau-Ponty, my body is for me not a natural object, but an orientational center of a field of intelligible behavior. But, on Whitehead’s view, the body is "just as much part of nature as anything else there -- a river, or a mountain, or a cloud" (MT 30). There is, however, no real contradiction here because Whiteheads concept of nature has nothing in common with that attacked by Merleau-Ponty -- the mechanist view expressed by Descartes -- and, consequently, Whitehead’s notions of "object" and "causality" are altogether different from their counterparts in the mechanist scheme. On Whitehead’s view, the human body is a macrocosmic nexus of microcosmic actual identities, but -- and this is the crucial point over against the mechanist view -- these actual entities are interdependent rather than independent. For, the physical feelings making up the first phase of each actual occasion -- those of "causal efficacy -- reach out "intentionally," as Merleau-Ponty would say, to incorporate its past actual world into its own act of organic becoming. Thus, nature turns out to be a matrix of internal relations between interdependent relata rather than the scheme of external relations germane to the mechanist view. And it is this interconnectedness of occasions -- the "solidarity" of nature, as Whitehead puts it (PR 65) -- which makes possible both the unified thrust of motor-intentionality in bodily projects and, as I shall show, the spontaneous organizational abilities of body-consciousness as well. A coherent project is possible because the body is a balanced and equilibrated whole of interdependent parts and "processes, each of which is sensitive in its make-up and activities to the rest of the bodily pattern.

The human body is intricately complex, and therefore we find in it specialized forms of order such as societies and structured societies. Among the special features of a society "there is a common element of form illustrated in the definiteness of each of its included actual entities, and . . . the common form is the ‘defining characteristic’ of the society" (PR 50f). And the interdependence of bodily occasions of experience is such that "there is no society in isolation. Every society must be considered with its background of a wider environment of actual entities, which also contribute their objectifications to which the members of the society must conform.... Thus we arrive at the principle that every society requires a social background, of which it is itself a part" (PR 138).

Now, Merleau-Ponty has shown that the lived-body habitually inhabits space by structuring perceptual fields in unified motor-intentional projects, and this imposes upon Whitehead a dual task: to account for the anticipative structuring of perceptual fields in which the freedom of the lived-body originates, and to show why, in this process, there is one body -- why, that is, bodily societies can be harmoniously unified in such a way that personal identity is possible.

For Whitehead, the answers to both questions, which I shall consider in turn, are framed in terms of the Psychological Physiology, the main "elements" of which consist of a nonsocial nexus of occasions in the brain (which functions as the body’s principal source of creative novelty), the regnant society it supports, and their interactions with other bodily societies and nexuses (WPP 404-06). To explain the anticipative spontaneity of body consciousness, we should expect Whitehead to show that (1) the nonsocial nexus in the brain is pre-reflectively attuned to certain possibilities; (2) the awareness of these possibilities can be passed along to the remaining bodily nexuses and societies; such that (3) the sense-organs and other corporeal societies would operate in a unified way under the influence of this anticipation -- thus simultaneously creating the bodily unity necessary for personal identity.

In order to speak to (1), let us consider that the nonsocial nexus is one that is "entirely living," and this means that, since life indicates originality rather than merely the continuity of physical inheritance, all its member actual occasions display creative originality (PR 157). And this means that novelty requires something more than the data which the nonsocial nexus inherits, via causal efficacy, "indirectly" from all other regions of the body (WPP 404). What is necessary, and what the occasions of the nonsocial nexus manifest, is a certain kind of conceptual, as opposed to merely physical, feeling: that of "conceptual reversion" (PR 381). For Whitehead, conceptual reversion is the "positive conceptual prehension of relevant alternatives" (PR 381) -- as in Hume’s famous example of imagining the missing shade of blue -- because there is a novel conceptual feeling whose data are different from, but relevant to, those extrapolated from feelings of causal efficacy by the operation of "conceptual reproduction" (PR 380f).

For example, when a parent structures his perceptual field by being attuned to a possible cry from a new-born child, the infant is the source of the physical, causally efficacious feelings of the parent’s experience. The "normal" noises constitute the pattern of definiteness (eternal object) which, in the second phase of the occasion, are "pried out" of the physical feelings. Reversion comes into play because the possible cry of distress is first a novel conceptual datum not present in the physical feelings, and it is felt as possible. It is felt as relevant to these physical feelings and to the eternal object(s) they manifest. It is prehended as a "proximate novelty," and -- through the parent’s anticipatory structuring of his perceptual field -- a "relevant alternative" (PR 381). (Of course, there is not in this simplified analysis a complete description of what might be felt in such cases. For example, as these expectations become habitual, the resulting sedimentation of bodily habits comes to condition the perception of both "normal" noises as well as the anticipation of "relevant alternatives.")

The awareness of the reverted feeling requires a third phase of concrescence, that of simple comparative feelings. The datum of this feeling is a "proposition," and the feeling itself a "propositional feeling" (PR 326). A proposition is a contrast (comparison) of a reverted conceptual feeling together with the physical feelings of its past actual world. This comparison holds in a unity the relevant novel eternal object and the possible source of the novelty -- say, a crying sound and the baby, respectively. The baby here becomes the logical subject" of the proposition and the cry of distress the "predicative pattern" (PR 393). Propositions, Whitehead tells us, are felt as "might be’s." They are "tales that perhaps might be told about particular actualities" (PR 392), and their chief function is to be "relevant as a lure for feeling" (PR 37). Thus, in the above case, the nonsocial nexus entertains the proposition "baby as crying" as a "tale" that might be told about the child, and this is for the parent a "lure" for feeling."

Now to say that the awareness of possibilities is a "conceptual" activity does not imply that Whitehead here reverts to a form/matter analysis of experience. For, (a) neither conceptual feelings nor those of causal efficacy are per se reflectively conscious judgments, and (b) perception in its most basic level of causal efficacy is both "form" (meaning) and "matter" (experiential data), and the "main characteristic" of these feelings is their "enormous emotional significance" (Al 276). Both kinds of feelings are pre-reflectively meaningful because, for Whitehead, reflective, judgmental consciousness is only one "subjective form" of feelings, which is possibly present in the final phase of some concrescences. It is never present at the level of causal efficacy or per se inherent in feelings of conceptual reproduction, reversion, and those of simple comparison. (As Merleau-Ponty expresses it, "If I wanted to render precisely the perceptual experience, I ought to say that one perceives in me, and not that I perceive" (PP 215). And finally, complex comparative feelings, which are located in the final phase of concrescence (which is also the locus of explicit reflection) can be, but need not be, reflectively conscious. Thus we may say that the complex comparative bodily feelings entertained by the dominant occasion (that which is presently concrescing) of the nonsocial nexus need not be reflective. As Whitehead puts it, "consciousness is the crown of experience, only occasionally attained, not its necessary base" (PR 408). Thus, on his view, the phrase "conceptual prehension" is "entirely neutral, devoid of all suggestiveness" (PR 49), and clearly part of the suggestiveness that he wants to avoid is the identification of his notion of conceptual feelings with either, say, a Cartesian or Kantian model of judgmental, representational thinking.

Novelty, then, in and though which we are anticipatively attuned to certain possibilities, can be effected by conceptual reversion and propositional feelings. We must now ask how (2) this awareness of possibilities can be passed along to other bodily societies such that, under their influence, (3) they operate in a unified way. The first part of a possible Whiteheadian explanation for these phenomena consists in the fact that actual occasions making up, say, the eyes, are basically selective in "receiving" their data from the external world due both to (i) the presence of negative as well as positive prehension in the first phase of concrescence (those that exclude and include data in the concrescence, respectively), and (ii) the activity of "transmutation" in a subsequent phase.’

The second part of the explanation lies in the nature and function of the regnant society supported by the nonsocial nexus. Whitehead tells us that the "defining characteristic" of this society is "that complex character in virtue of which a man is considered to be the same enduring person from birth to death" (PR 137). And this "complex character" is a "continuance of mentality" (WPP 405) such that, by means of the regnant society, "the mental originality of the living occasions [of the nonsocial nexus] receives a character and a depth. In this way originality is both ‘canalized’ -- to use Bergson’s word -- and intensified. . . . Thus life turns back into society: it binds originality within bounds, and gains the massiveness due to reiterated character" (PR 163).

Now it is by this canalization of originality that other bodily societies incorporate into themselves the prehension of relevant possibilities generated by the nonsocial nexus. That is, the key to the effectiveness of the attunement to certain possibilities consists in their being channeled in a regnant society and that regnant society’s influencing the remaining bodily occasions such that they likewise become anticipatively "set" to experience certain data rather than others. Thus, in the interactions of the nonsocial nexus and the rest of the body, the former inherits the massive and enriched feelings of the latter. And through the regnant society’s channeling influence, "Owing to the delicate organization of the body, there is a returned influence, an inheritance of character derived from the presiding occasion [whichever occasion of the regnant society has just concresced] and modifying the subsequent occasions through the rest of the body" (PR 166). Or again, "It is by reason of the body, with its miracle of order, that the treasures of the past environment are poured into the living occasion [of the nonsocial nexus]. . . . In its turn this culmination of bodily life transmits itself as an element of novelty throughout the avenues of the body. Its sole use to the body is its vivid originality: it is the organ of novelty" (PR 516).

The final part of the explanation of the effectiveness of anticipation and bodily unity in motor-intentionality demands that I qualify, though not totally repudiate, the last two paragraphs. Although the above remarks are consistent with the explanation I am developing, they tend to oversimplify the role of the regnant society by making it completely responsible for bodily order and attunement to preconscious and conscious anticipation. This has two unfortunate results: it makes the regnant society, or as we would perhaps more loosely say, "the mind," into an "ego" -- in which case the self becomes less a "lived-body" than a Cartesian cogito -- and it gives the presiding occasion of the regnant society the impossible, or at least, improbable, job of coordinating all bodily data all the time, pre-reflectively and reflectively, into an organizational unity. The first of these results is clearly unacceptable for my purposes, and the latter has become one of John Cobb’s chief objections against Donald Sherburne’s interpretation of the relation of the regnant society and the nonsocial nexus (PS 3/1 [Spring, 1973], 27-40), upon which this paper is also based.

Fortunately, both these results may be avoided by understanding the nonsocial nexus as more social than Whitehead explicitly describes it. (Hence I shall denote it from now on as the "supportive nexus.") These modifications do go beyond most of Whitehead’s explicit statements about Psychological Physiology, but they neither constitute a substantial revision of his main operative concepts, nor are they inconsistent with some of his other remarks. This view, which keeps the Sherburne model instead of Cobb’s, has been worked out in an intriguing way by William Gallagher in another article in this issue.

Whitehead states that "in an animal body the presiding occasion if there be one, is the final node, or intersection, of a complex structure of many enduring objects" (PR 166f) and that an enduring object is "formed by the inheritance from presiding occasion to presiding occasion" (PR 167). Since the presiding occasion of the regnant society "wanders from part to part of the brain, dissociated from the physical material atoms" (PR 167), the other enduring objects which constitute it as an "inter-section" must be historic routes of occasions within the "nonsocial" nexus which supports the regnant society. These subordinate, nondominant, and nonconscious (not explicitly reflective) enduring objects ease the job of the presiding occasion of the regnant society in integrating bodily experience and are called by Gallagher subordinate "living persons.

These subordinate "living persons," he goes on to tell us, are "threads of inheritance of lesser intensity of experience than the dominant one, threads more closely bound to the reiterative aims of the body" -- as in bodily habits. The originality of the occasions of the supportive nexus is "canalized . . . by way of threads of inheritance, so that personal identity may combine originality of response with an adequate order upon which it depends." Thus, the final part of the explanation of how the anticipative spontaneity of the supportive nexus influences the rest of the body is that order is imposed by means of the dominant regnant society working against a background of more elemental order provided by the subordinate "living persons." Bodily experiences are constituted by multisensory perceptions structured by anticipations provided by the supportive nexus (that are, in turn, conditioned by previous experiences) via the channeling activities of subordinate "living persons" and the regnant society. Most of the pre-reflective bodily order and habitual behavior is handled by the subordinate "living persons," but sometimes a feeling of personal dominance and reflective control occurs which requires the regnant society. In these cases, as noted above, reflective consciousness occurs in the anticipative set because of certain prehensions of the presently concrescing occasion of the supportive nexus which has reacted to previously received data from the rest of its bodily -- and through that, extra-bodily -- environment. Not all presiding occasions of the regnant society include conscious reflection and decision in their final phase, but when they are required, it is the task of the dominant or regnant society.

It is in this way, then, that the body manifests a "central direction" (PR 165), a central control which enables us to have not only "unified behavior, which can be observed by others, but also consciousness of a unified experience" (PR 165). This is the centrality of control embodied in the "I can" of the corporeal schema in and through which my body is mine: "My brain, my heart, my bowels, my lungs, are mine, with an intimacy of mutual adjustment" (MT 99). It is not that this unity of motor-intentionality is the product of a reflective act: there are various degrees of dominance by the regnant society and correspondingly various degrees of conscious awareness. As we have seen Merleau-Ponty puts it, "if I wanted to render precisely the perceptual experience, I ought to say that one perceives in me, and not that I perceive" (PP 215). Or, as Gallagher echoes Merleau-Ponty, "At times, I act ‘in the first person,’ while at other times, in fact most of the time, a more habitual or pre-personal thread of occasions [subordinate "living persons"] unifies my behavior."

Now beyond this aspect of the Psychological Physiology, it is also important to show that the creative novelty of the supportive nexus and the central control of the body can be teleologically oriented toward an equilibrated balance with a perceptual and cultural milieu. Whitehead elucidates this teleological activity in terms of the notion of protectiveness. As Professor Sherburne has pointed out (WPP 402), the supportive nexus is not self-sufficient in terms of survival. Rather, it exists in a protective, stable environment provided by subordinate bodily societies. But -- and this is the point to be emphasized here -- there also exists in the body a kind of mutual protectiveness: "A complex inorganic system of interaction is built up for the protection of the ‘entirely living’ nexuses [the supportive nexus in the brain being the most important], and the originative actions of the living elements are protective of the whole system" (PR 157).

Now Whitehead tells us that the data of conceptually reverted feelings consist of proposed alternative patterns of definiteness which are relevant to those already contained in feelings of causal efficacy. But in its bodily protective role, which eternal objects the presently concrescing occasion of the supportive nexus feels as more relevant "lures for feeling" than others "is left unanswered by the category of reversion" (PR 381f). I suggest that, on the basis of the preceding data concerning Psychological Physiology, Whitehead could consistently say that the determination of relevance is tightly linked to the equilibrium-supplying ability of the alternatives concerned. And for Whitehead, the feeling of responsibility arises in a concern for the subsequent welfare of the bodily organism: "The effect of the present on the future is the business of morals" (AI 346). And again, "the actual entity, in a state of process during which it is not fully definite, determines its own ultimate definiteness. This is the whole point of moral responsibility" (PR 390).

The phrase, "subsequent welfare of the bodily organism," must not mislead one to think that, on Whitehead’s view, morality is necessarily a matter of self-interest. Rather, as with Merleau-Ponty, the search for an equilibrated stability -- at both perceptual and cultural, including, therefore, ethical levels -- takes place in an inter-subjective context. In these situations of "I-in-the-world-with others," the true welfare of the bodily organism can include altruistic motives and actions. In other words, an ethics of obligation is possible because, among other things, moral alternatives can appear as more powerful "lures for feeling" -- that is, more promising of stability -- that those of mere self-interest.

I mentioned above that, on Whitehead’s view, which alternatives were more relevant for a given conceptually reverted feeling is a question not decided by the category of reversion, and I suggested the provision of equilibrium to decide such matters. Whitehead does answer this question, with an appeal to God, and his view is expressed succinctly by Sherburne as follows: "An actual entity is responsible to God as a result of entertaining in its initial phase a conceptual aim derived from God, which points toward the manner of becoming on the part of that actual entity which would result in maximizing intensity and harmony of feeling in the evolving universe (WEP 184).4 However, our study of the Psychological Physiology and its ethical implications has suggested an alternate way of determining relevance and hence points to a theory of bodily values for which this divine function is not needed.

These remarks about equilibrium, protectiveness and stability may seem irrelevant to the concept of personal identity interpreted in terms of the habitual body, but in fact, they are not. For, the bodily structured society is "stabilized" when the body can survive through changes in the environment (PR 153). Bodily habits, to which one Merleau-Ponty has pointed as a reflection of equilibrium with one’s milieu, mirror the behavior of a stabilized society. That is, stabilized behavior has become a pattern or habitual -- "canalized" influences of the regnant society and supportive nexus -- because it has been found to be successful in coping with the environment.

But, as Merleau-Ponty has also noted, habit with its equilibrium-supplying ability is necessary, but not sufficient, for survival. Just because there are changes in the environment with which the body must cope, habit, therefore, is ambiguous: a reflection of stability and a danger to it. Stability is the capacity to persist through changes, and habit may lead to the inability to cope with these changes. Thus, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, although we are situated in a context of sedimented meanings, particular meanings are tenuous and subject to change.

Whitehead approaches this dangerous non-creativeness of habit in terms of "specialization" (PR 153). That is, "A complex society which is stable provided that the environment exhibits certain features, is said to be ‘specialized’ in respect to those features" (PR 153). For example, scientists have theorized that one reason the dinosaur became extinct was that it failed to adjust itself to the nonexistence of its habitual food supply. If so, its existence was "specialized" in respect to that food. What the dinosaur needed was the creative originality to develop new eating habits.

Old habits therefore may require replacement by new ones. Creative novelty exists in a certain tension with habit: habit needs supplementation by creativity, and yet, to be effective, this creativity is structured into habits. So the protective role of the supportive nexus is (1) to use its creative originality to develop new habits to successfully cope with the environment, and (2) also to use this creativity to avoid the dangers in specialization. An equilibrium with the environment is maintained by seeking a balance between settled patterns of behavior and the origination of new ones. As Merleau-Ponty might put it, the lived-body is always balanced between the sedimented past and the present sedimentation in making sense out of our world.

This, then, brings us to the point of recognizing that, and how, for Whitehead, habits may be constitutive of personal identity. First, remember that the defining characteristic of the regnant society is "that complex character in virtue of which a man is considered to be the same enduring person from birth to death" (PR 137). Second, the "canalized" activity of the regnant society and subordinate "living persons" is the coordinated direction of millions of bodily cells -- a central control which, as we have seen, makes possible unified motor-intentional projects, including ethical acts -- and this is not done randomly or arbitrarily. Rather, patterns of direction are worked out for the body’s protection, and these patterns are behavioral habits. This, I submit, the "complex character" on the basis of which we identify a person consists precisely of these behavioral habits.

Thus, after telling us that the "ego" is different each time Descartes pronounces "I am, I exist," Whitehead continues: "the ‘he’ which is common to the two egos is an eternal object, or alternatively, the nexus of successive occasions" (PR 116). It is not only a reasonable hypothesis to say that "eternal object" and "nexus of successive occasions" refer to the pattern of behavioral definiteness sustained by subordinate "living persons" and the regnant society: it is also one of the few hypotheses available for avoiding the "Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness" by not making the entire nexus the locus of subjectively immediate feelings (WEP 183).

From this angle, in speaking again directly to Weiss’s objections, it is perfectly true, for Whitehead, that decision-making, subjectively immediate actual occasions differ from moment to moment. But the fact of organic growth does not cancel out the presence of personal identity, for the latter is a temporally continuous pattern of habitual, behavioral definiteness sustained by the regnant society and its supportive nexus.

Now the reiteration of the character of past occasions must not mislead one to think that the claim of personal identity rests merely on the fact that one occasion of experience is like those in its past (and future). In this event, Weiss’s arguments would not be met. Rather, the doctrine of internal relations asserts that despite the fact that each occasion perishes as it becomes, the occasion (in the state of objective immortality) becomes part of new actual occasions. Thus, there is a real continuity of experience and a real continuity of personal identity. Or, as Lewis S. Ford has put it in a personal communication,

The becoming of the occasion perishes so that it may have being, and that being persists beyond the limits of that moment; this is the meaning of objective immortality. . . . It is precisely the persistence of being from AE1 as taken up into AE2, AE3, etc. that accounts for the similarity in the characteristics of these successive acts of becoming. The acts of becoming are successive, but not necessarily the being which these acts embody.

The final task of this essay is to apply these thoughts on personal identity and "Psychological Physiology" to the questions of responsibility and guilt, and the first point to notice is that Whitehead’s metaphysics excludes one sense of responsibility and guilt. Namely, since actual entities are asserted to be distinct individuals, a second entity, AE2, cannot rightly be said to be responsible/guilty qua decision maker for the activities of a prior occasion, AE1. High-grade occasions, such as those which constitute the supportive nexus in the brain, are autonomous decision-makers. This means, of course, that there cannot be a Cartesian mental substance which is the same decision-maker as in the past. And one gathers that it is for this reason that Weiss holds that Whitehead’s theory cannot show that a person may be "guilty for something done by him years ago."

But this does not mean that there is no "him" at all and that no senses of guilt and responsibility are possible for Whitehead. These concepts have real meaning when an actual entity is implicated in the consequences of one or more of its predecessors’ decisions. That is, suppose that AE1’s decision involved committing a crime. Although AE2, did not make this decision, no crime is committed in a vacuum, and hence AE2, via feelings of causal efficacy, is not free of the results of the crime. We should say that AE2 is involved in the guilt of AE1. Feelings of causal efficacy which create the involvement do not shackle the present occasion into conforming to past experiences, but they do create a basic historical continuity. As Merleau-Ponty puts the matter in terms of birth, "it committed a whole future, not as a cause determines its effect, but as a situation, once created, inevitably leads on to some outcome" (PP 407). It is in this sense that, to use Weiss’s words, a person may be "guilty for something done by him years ago." Further, I suggest that the guilt might sometimes be felt by AE2 when it forms a contrast which includes the crime-committing decision of AE1 as well as the publicly observable consequences, if any, and finally, the goal of continuing to achieve a moral equilibrium in an ordered society. Thus, feelings of guilt and responsibility for the past show us that present-past relationships are not independent of those between present and future.

Responsibility is integral to the phenomenon of guilt, as a necessary condition for its possibility, because "responsibility" literally means "the ability to respond," an "answerability." And one actual occasion can answer for a decision from its past because it unavoidably exists in the context of that prior decision -- what AE2 is is not totally independent of the prior choice -- and because, when AE2 is the presently concrescing occasion of the supportive nexus, it can be concerned for the future moral welfare of the bodily structured society. Thus, as Whitehead puts it, "The greater part of morality hinges on the determination of relevance in the future" (PR 41). What an actual entity is forms part of the becoming of its successors and conversely, the concrescences of present actual occasions are already linked in their predecessors.

In summary, then, I have tried to show how Whitehead might explain, within the context of his Psychological Physiology, certain of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological evidences which are central for understanding personal identity. I have then used these explicated evidences to show that, as against Weiss, Whitehead’s work can yield a fruitful concept of personal identity based on behavioral habits, a sense of moral responsibility, and a legitimate notion of guilt. To do this, I have interpreted Whitehead’s nonsocial nexus as more social than he himself explicitly describes it, but I have also argued that this move is consistent with his general scheme and with other Whiteheadian language about the body.

Of course, I have not had space to develop completely all these themes. My goal has rather been simply to show that they are possible within a Whiteheadian context and to sketch their general structures for, hopefully, future studies.



CM -- Gilbert Ryle. The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., 1949.

ET -- Richard B. Brandt. Ethical Theory. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1959.

IC -- Alphonso Lingis. "Intentionality and Corporeity" in Analecta Husserliana. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1970, pp. 75-90.

PE -- Moritz Schlick. Problems of Ethics. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1939.

PP -- Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Calm Smith. London: Routledge and Kegan-Paul, 1962.

PPOE -- Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The Primacy of Perception and other Essays. Ed. James M. Edie. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

RW -- Paul Weiss. "History and Objective Immortality" in The Relevance of Whitehead. Ed. Ivor Leclerc. London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1961.

Ss -- Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Signs. Trans. Richard C. McCleary. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

SB -- Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The Structure of Behavior. Trans. Alden L. Fisher. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1963.

WEP -- Donald W. Sherburne. "Responsibility, Punishment, and Whitehead’s Theory of the Self" in Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy. Ed. George L. Kline. Englewood Cliffs:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963, pp. 179-88.

WPP -- Donald W. Sherburne. "Whitehead’s Psychological Physiology," The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 7/4 (Winter, 1969-70), 401-07.



1. Merleau-Ponty borrowed this term from Sir Henry Head (PPOE 117) who was, incidentally, a friend of Whitehead and enjoyed close conversational contact with him. See Victor Lowe’s Understanding Whitehead (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966), p. 223n.

2 "Moral virtue, on the other hand, is formed by habit, ethos, and its name, ethike, is therefore derived, by a slight variation, from ethos." Nicomachean Ethics, 1103a, 15-18, trans. Martin Ostwald (Indianapolis: The Hobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1962), p. 33.

3 The most important point here about transmutation, from the perspective of Gestalt psychology and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, is that perception, although receptive of data, is not a passive synthesis of "givens,’ but an organizational form-giving in which there is a prehension of a nexus "vaguely." It consists, that is, in overwhelming the nexus by means of some congenial uniformity which pervades it" (PR 154), with no discrimination among the individual members.

4 Although Professor Sherburne is content in this article to leave intact Whitehead’s account of responsibility including, therefore, the role of God in suggesting relevance, this must not be taken as his considered view. See his "Whitehead Without God," The Christian Scholar. 50/3 (Fall, 1907), 251-72, and "The ‘Whitehead Without God’ Debate": PS 1:101-13 2:277-95, 3:27-40.