Whitehead and the Dualism of Mind and Nature

by Philip Michael Rose

Philip Michael Rose is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, K7M 3N6, Canada. He is currently visiting Lecturer in Philosophy at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He specializes in the philosophy of nature and the problem of freedom.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 231-238, Vol. 21, Number 4, Winter, 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 problems of modern philosophy’s experiment in dualism is discussed with insights from Hegel, Nietzsche and Whitehead.

Modern philosophy is an experiment in dualism. One of its principle problems has been that of making sense of the whole in a way that does justice to the particular character of its parts. For it seems that whenever we attempt to make sense of the whole in a rational, systematic way, we end up emphasizing the universal at the expense of the particular, the eternal at the expense of the temporal, or the necessary at the expense of the contingent. If on the other hand we attempt to redress the balance by adopting a less systematic, more critical stance, then the very reverse seems to result: we end up emphasizing the particular at the expense of the universal, the temporal at the expense of the eternal, or the contingent at the expense of the necessary. This problem is particularly evident in the attempt to make sense of the relation between mind and nature.

Modern attempts to offer a rational account of the relationship between mind (its rational unity) and nature (understood as the realm of finitude, chance, contingency, and decay) have fallen prey to a seemingly simple yet extremely stubborn dualistic dilemma. On the one hand there is a tendency to overlook the role of nature as a condition of mind, and on the other a tendency to put forth a purely natural account of the world that fails to establish sufficient conditions within nature for the existence of mind. The basic problem is that in attempting to make sense of the relation between mind and nature (as so described) there is a tendency on the one hand to have as our goal the purely logical unity of system, that is, a structural representation of the world whose primary source of appeal is the rule of reason. While such an approach does much to satisfy the internal demands of reason and logic, it also tends to assign too great a role to the place of mind or reason in the general scheme of things. For in the attempt to satisfy the rule of reason (narrowly understood), we end up privileging the purely formal, structural conditions of mind over the particular, purely contingent conditions of nature. What results is a highly exaggerated representation of the place and role of mind in the world, and a consequent devaluation of nature and its place as a condition of mind.

To counter this tendency we may on the other hand attempt to develop a more critical, descriptive, naturalistic account of the relation between mind and nature, thereby avoiding the purely logical demands of system and the self-serving rule of reason. By approaching the problem from this more critical stance it may be hoped that a less subjectivist, more balanced account of the place of mind and nature in the general scheme of things will result. And while it is true that such an approach does offer a more "down to earth" understanding of the relation of mind to nature, here there is a seemingly equal tendency to assign too great a role to the place of nature in the general scheme of things, resulting in the general devaluation of reason or mind. In this case it is the more naturalistic conditions of finitude, contingency, chance, and decay which take center stage in the general scheme of things, with mind being placed in the more subordinate, passive role of the "conditioned." As a result mind (or reason) ends up being placed in a purely contingent relation to some finite set of naturalistic conditions to which it is fatalistically enslaved, thereby reducing the rational search for unity of structure to simple naturalistic needs, desires, or drives. Thus whereas in the first case there is a general failing to give nature, as the realm of finitude, contingency, chance and decay, its due place as a condition of mind as well as a constitutive element in the general scheme of things, in the second case there is an equally important failure to account for the origins of the unity of rational mind in nature. By failing to see the place of mind in nature as well as nature in mind, modern philosophy has been unable to put forth an adequate account of the relation between the two, one which would assign to each its due importance as a constitutive element in our experience and in existence as such.

My concern in this paper is not so much why this dualistic problem exists (though I do think an answer can be provided), but to illustrate the nature of the problem as I see it and to point to a possible way out of it. To illustrate this problem I will turn to the works of Hegel and Nietzsche, using each to represent the two sides of the problem as outlined. To help point the way out of the problem I will turn to the writings of Whitehead (particularly his later works), drawing from his work certain conclusions which, while not explicitly stated by him may nevertheless be said to follow from his overall philosophical scheme.

Hegel and the Idealist Philosophy of Nature

The tendency to assign too great a role to reason or mind in the general scheme of things is well exemplified in the works of Hegel. Hegel’s idealism begins with reason and ends with reason. And while it is true that his philosophy of nature does much to recognize the value of nature as a temporal realm of contingent particularity, it fails to acknowledge the evolution of mind from nature, and so fails to properly incorporate the characteristics of nature in a general metaphysic. The picture which results is a rationally one-sided account of the world which fails to give nature its due. Thus, while the philosophical scheme which results satisfies the rational demand for a coherent system, it fails to meet the demands of comprehensiveness and empirical adequacy necessary to all philosophy (PR 3f.).

Hegel defines the philosophy of nature as "the cognition of nature by means of thought" (PN 193). In other words, if nature is to be understood philosophically then it must be grasped in its concept, namely, that which is essential or universal in nature for thought. Thus, for Hegel, to develop a philosophy of nature means "to grasp and comprehend nature . . . , to make it ours, so that it is not something beyond and alien to us" (PN 197). However, while we must grasp nature in its concept, we must do so in a way which recognizes the particularity of nature and preserves the genuine character of the natural world as it really is (with all its finitude, contingency, chance, and decay). Thus if we are to truly understand nature philosophically then we must leave nature as it is. In other words we must learn to comprehend it as the independent realm of finite particularity, that is, as the "other" or object of thought. We must be cautious of trying to explain nature by explaining it away, that is, by transforming it into that which it is not (as we do when we represent nature as something universal, or when we make it a condition of subjectivity). To truly understand nature we must comprehend it as it is. This means grasping nature in a way that makes it ours while at the same time leaves it as it is, that is, leaves it as the realm of finite particularity. Given this then, says Hegel, how is it possible to grasp and comprehend nature, to draw it into our understanding so that it no longer appears as alien to us while at the same time leaving it as it is?

The answer, says Hegel, is to recognize nature as the other of spirit through which spirit (or mind) returns to itself. We can grasp nature, says Hegel, and make it ours, while at the same time leaving it as it is by viewing nature as a means through which spirit may restore its identity with itself. Thus it is by way of the otherness of nature that spirit is able to return to itself in reason, thereby bringing into unity the essential otherness which characterizes the relationship between mind and nature. In framing the relationship between nature and mind in this way we can, claims Hegel, arrive at an understanding of the place of nature in the general scheme of things, which at the same time leaves nature as it is.

By characterizing nature as the other of spirit Hegel does manage to assign nature a significant role in the general scheme of things, one which manages to leave nature and all its particularity fully intact. Nevertheless, in the very process of maintaining the separation of nature from mind in this way Hegel actually ends up placing nature in a subordinate relation to mind. For by defining nature as the otherness of spirit, that is, as that which is totally alien to mind, Hegel fails to recognize the place of nature in mind. Quite simply, he fails to take full account of the origins of mind in nature, and thus is unable to recognize the significant role which those naturalistic qualities such as finitude, contingency, chance, and decay play in mind.

For Hegel, mind is conditioned by nature only insofar as it stands as the particular means whereby mind can achieve the truth. Nature does not stand as constitutive of mind in any genuine sense of the term, except as something to be overcome. Thus while it may be true that Hegel does leave nature alone in some real sense, he does this by relegating nature to the status of mere appearance, whose real value is as a means rather than an end. Nature is relegated to secondary importance in the overall scheme of things. It becomes nothing more than the means for "the liberation of what belongs to spirit within nature, for spirit is in nature insofar as it relates itself not to another, but to itself " (PN 204). In other words, nature’s value lies not in and of itself, but only as the means for spirit coming to know itself.

Hegel does try to salvage the intrinsic value of nature by claiming that in the process of providing for the liberation of spirit, nature itself is thereby liberated, for nature "in itself is reason" (PN 204). However, to identify reason and nature in this way is to value nature only as concept, that is, as spirit (or mind). It fails to assign any genuine value to the open-ended, contingent, particular character of the natural world, and instead views these characteristics as defects or limitations inherent within nature which prevent it from realizing its concept. For as Hegel himself clearly states, nature is "implicitly divine in that it is in the Idea; but in reality its being does not correspond to its Notion, and is rather the unresolved contradiction. Its distinctive characteristic is its positedness, its negativity" (PN 209). In Hegel’s eyes nature is something incomplete, a blemish necessary for the unity of the whole. Its primary value is as a means rather than an end in itself. The relation between nature and mind which results is totally one-sided, leaving the unified, rational character of mind (as totally devoid of nature) as the defining characteristics of existence as such.

Nietzsche and the Naturalistic Backlash

Whereas Hegel may be said to exemplify the tendency to assign too great a role to mind in the general scheme of things, it is Nietzsche who perhaps best represents the opposite or contrary tendency, namely that of assigning too great a place to nature over mind. Nietzsche’s radical critique of reason is in the main a critique of speculative philosophy, and it begins by bringing into question the very goals toward which reason is employed. Now for Hegel, as for most of the philosophers of the tradition, the end of philosophical speculation is the attainment of truth (usually taken in some absolutist sense), and we reach such truth through the proper employment of reason. With this in mind Nietzsche thus begins his radical critique of reason by asking one simple question: what is truth?

In the attempt to understand truth Nietzsche begins an inquiry into its possible origins by examining the role which truth may have played in our natural history. In so doing Nietzsche ends up reversing the priority of mind over nature (which we saw in Hegel) to that of nature over mind. Thus instead of trying to construct a philosophical system which accords with the rule of reason, as Hegel had done, Nietzsche begins by turning reason against itself, uncovering in the process its "irrational" origins in nature ("On the Genealogy & Morals," BWN; Sections 2 and 16; WP, Sections 480 and 481). His naturalistic approach removes the veil of completeness and order which reason brings to the world and reveals instead a world which is essentially incomplete -- an open-ended, chaotic world of pure contingency. Reason, rather than acting as the vehicle for truth has now become the means to untruth, for the rational structures which philosophy has long hoped to discover are now reduced to nothing more than products of our natural history. "Behind all logic and its seeming sovereignty of movement, too, there stand valuations or, more clearly, physiological demands for the preservation of a certain type of life" ("Beyond Good and Evil," BWN, Section 201). If the world seems logical to us, says Nietzsche, it is "because we have made it logical," not because it is logical in and of itself. The real world is in fact irrational, and the irrational is the real.

Reason, for Nietzsche, is better seen as a principle of distortion and misrepresentation whose value is tied to survival-oriented needs rather than a vehicle for the attainment of truth. For him, it is not the systematic world of the speculative philosopher that is of greatest value, but the natural, chaotic process which lies hidden behind the falsifying face of reason, a process whose true nature can only be known on a purely aesthetic level through experience in its immediacy ("Beyond Good and Evil," BWN Section 213; "Will to Power," Section 794). For it is only experience in this more immediate, artistic sense which is untainted by the distorting lens of reason. This means that the philosopher’s penchant for systematicity (which is characteristic of the rule of reason) must be understood, not as a means for advancing our understanding of the world as a whole, but rather as a self-generated illusion of mind as conditioned by the natural world.

While it is true that Nietzsche’s work does much to restore the place of nature in the general scheme of things, it must also be said that by placing mind in a subordinate relation to a purely irrational natural world he ends up devaluing the rational character of mind in a way that is equally questionable as the idealism he was reacting against. For his purely naturalistic approach ultimately winds up giving priority to the open-ended, contingent, particular conditions of nature at the expense of the rule of reason. The rational character of mind (and of the world) are thereby reduced to nothing more than purely contingent power relations (which manifest themselves in survival oriented needs). As a result the philosophical search for truth becomes nothing more than a chimera, a falsification of the world as it really is.

The main problem with Nietzsche’s claim is that it fails to recognize the place of mind in nature as well as nature in mind. By reducing the natural world and all that is in it to a play of chaotic, irrational power relations, Nietzsche is unable to provide an adequate account of the unified, rational character of mind as conditioned by nature (and of unity in general). In other words he fails to recognize that in order for mind to have originated in nature as he claims, then nature must itself be structured in a way that is sufficient for producing a unified, rational mind. This is not to say that nature must be rational in the stronger sense which Hegel claims, for this is once again to ignore the place of finitude, contingency, chance, and decay as conditions of mind and constitutive elements of existence as a whole. It is simply to say that the relation between mind and nature is a two-way street. By adopting a purely reactionary stance against the idealism of Hegel (and the philosophical tradition in general) Nietzsche ends up providing us with a vision of nature and the world which is overly narrow in scope.

Whitehead and the Immanent Unity of Mind and Nature

For Whitehead, one of the major problems that has "poisoned" much if not all of modem philosophy subsequent to Descartes is this dualistic way in which it treats of the relation between mind and nature (or nature and life as he sometimes phrases it). Modern philosophy has separated mind from nature in such a radical and fundamental sense that philosophy subsequent to and including the modern era has been unable to make sense of the relation between the two. Attempts to restore this division have resulted in a one-sided representation of their relation. "Even when the coordinate existence of the two types of actualities is abandoned, there is no proper fusion of the two in modern schools of thought. For some, nature is mere appearance and mind is the sole reality. For others, physical nature is the sole reality and mind is an epiphenomenon" (MT 150). Such a dualist approach ultimately reduces nature to nothing more than some blind, lifeless mechanism with mind remaining alienated and incomplete.

Given this, then, one of the foremost tasks of philosophy is to restore the unity of mind and nature in a way which makes equal sense of both. To do this, says Whitehead, we must begin to recognize the reciprocal relation which exists between the two; "we require that the deficiencies in our concept of physical nature should be supplied by its fusion with life. And we require that, on the other hand, that the notion of life should involve the notion of physical nature" (MT 150). Phrased in terms of our present discussion this means that our understanding of mind must include its existence as conditioned by nature, that is, as conditioned by the elements of finitude, contingency, chance, and decay. It also means that our understanding of nature should be sufficient to account for mind, that is, that nature must itself contain conditions which are capable of giving rise to the rational unity which is characteristic of mental functioning.

Like Nietzsche, then, Whitehead believes that mind (or reason) has its origins in the natural world. It arose out of nature and is still evolving within nature. But unlike Nietzsche, Whitehead also believes that mind is also present in nature as forming part of its essential character. Because he sees mind in nature as well as nature in mind, Whitehead is able to avoid the slide into the irrational, chaotic world of indiscriminate power relations which we find in Nietzsche. Whitehead adopts a more orderly, systematic view of nature, one whose structures are capable of giving rise to a unified, rational mind, while at the same time preserving the open-ended, fluid character of the natural world which is so prominent in our experience and which Nietzsche so rightly embraced.

To see how Whitehead brings mind and nature together we must return once again to the works of Hegel and Nietzsche. We may say, for simplicity’s sake, that the primary difference which exists between Hegel and Nietzsche is one which arises out of a fundamental disagreement in their understanding of the essential unity which may be said to underlie all things. For Hegel this unity is a structurally complete totality which is accessible to mind. Because this unity is a totality which is structurally complete then it is incapable of being adequately represented in the contingent, finite, temporally incomplete realm of nature. It can, however, be known by mind. In fact the entire character of this structure is such as to allow a complete and explicit representation in rational thought. Since mind is capable of offering a complete and explicit representation of this under-lying structural unity, and nature is not, then mind could not be said to have originated from within nature. Mind, while dependent upon nature as the means whereby it may arrive at the truth, is nevertheless separate from nature in some fundamental sense. Not only is it separate from nature, but it is also a higher form of existence insofar as it corresponds to its concept, that is, it is able to realize its essence, something nature is in principle incapable of doing.

Hence the reason why Hegel gives priority to mind over nature. For nature in its finitude is unable to rise above its own contradictions, something which mind, as spirit, is able to do through the otherness of nature. The only place left for nature in the general scheme of things as Hegel defines it is to stand as the means whereby spirit or mind can grasp this totality by returning to itself through nature in reason.

For Nietzsche, on the other hand, the essential unity which may be said to underlie all things is not a complete totality which we can grasp through reason (as it is with Hegel), but an open-ended, incomplete process or chaotic flux which finds expression in the contingent, finite, temporal process of growth and decay which are characteristic of nature. In other words, for Nietzsche. the unity of the whole is nothing more than the unity of nature itself, a unity which has no hidden structures or Archimedean grounds. Nature is open to us, not through the systematic, orderly reflections of reason, but through experience in its immediacy, that is, aesthetically. Given this, mind or reason becomes nothing more than an aberrant expression of the chaotic forces which lie at the heart of existence as such. If we want to see and understand those forces as they truly are, then we must look not to reason (which acts as a distorting lens), but to our more immediate, primordial ways of knowing, that is, aesthetic intuition (the divine inspiration of the artist) and action.

Hence we can see why Nietzsche places intuition, or better yet, aesthetics, at the forefront of philosophical importance. For as Nietzsche sees it the world as we interpret it is really nothing more than a work of art which we have created through the will to power (which is Nietzsche’s way of characterizing the chaotic nature of the unity which underlies all things). And as with any work of art, it is to aesthetics that we must appeal if we wish to get into the heart of the work, not to reason. Reason, after all, is nothing more than an irrational expression of the will to power. Thus we can see that for Nietzsche any attempt to develop a systematic representation of the world which claims to be in any way complete or true is at best an illusion and at worst a lie. For him, the only sort of ideal that is open to us as a means of discrimination and evaluation is the ‘satisfaction’ of aesthetic self-creation. This leaves reason with little to do philosophically but consume itself in its own contradictions.

Like Nietzsche, Whitehead sees the unity which underlies all things as a unity of process, that is, as a temporally continuous whole which is self-unfolding, open-ended, and essentially incomplete. Unlike Nietzsche, however, White-head’s unity of process is perhaps best characterized as holistic in nature, meaning thereby that every part is present in the whole and the whole in every part (present in the sense of the essential interconnectedness of all things). Such a holistic view is justified, claims Whitehead, first because this sharp division between mentality and nature has no ground in our fundamental observation. We find ourselves living within nature. Secondly, I conclude that we should conceive mental operations as among the factors

which make up the constitution of nature. Thirdly, that we should reject the notion of idle wheels in the process of nature. . . Fourthly, that we have now the task of defining natural facts, so as to understand how mental occurrences are operative in conditioning the subsequent course of nature. (MT 156)

Rather than begin by separating nature and mind in the modern dualistic sense, Whitehead believes that mind and nature are better understood by seeing them as participants in a more immanent relation, one which places us "in the world and the world in us."

Thus in a sense, the experienced world is one complex factor in the composition of the many factors constituting the essence of the soul. We can phrase this shortly by saying that in one sense the world is in the soul. Hut there is an antithetical doctrine balancing this primary truth. Namely, our experience of the world involves the exhibition of the soul itself as one of the components within the world. Thus there is a dual aspect to the relationship of an occasion of experience as one relatum and the experienced world as another relatum. The world is included within the occasion in one sense, and the occasion is included in the world in another sense. (MT 163)

Two important consequences follow from this.

First of all, since every part is present in the whole, then mind or reason must also be present in the world, present in the sense that nature is structured in a way analogous to that of rational mind, a way that mind or reason can apprehend. This implies that the philosopher’s penchant for systematicity and an orderly representation of the world is not something peculiar to mind (an aberrant manifestation of some irrational power struggle as Nietzsche would have it). Instead, reason must be present in the world in the sense that nature, like mind, aims at a systematic and orderly representation of realized fact. One such representation is the fact that nature endures. It does so by way of the systematic and orderly processes of causal connection and creative advance, processes analogous to those present in mind. Given Whitehead’s general principle of reciprocity (of the interconnectedness of all things) we are more than justified in concluding that nature possesses structures analogous to those which we find present in mind (though the exact nature of those structures must remain open to particular investigation, that is, they must be discovered through specialized modes of inquiry such as those of the special sciences). This means that, contrary to Nietzsche’s claims, genuine knowledge through reason is possible.

This conclusion is further advanced by our second point. For in Whitehead’s holistic approach to the relation between mind and nature, not only is every part present in the whole, but the whole is also present in every part. This means that not only is structure present in the world in a sense analogous to that of mind, but those structures must be accessible to reason, that is, they are present or open to mind or reason in the realized fact of nature’s web of interconnections (to borrow from Quine). Thus like Hegel, Whitehead sees reason or mind as having the ability to come to know the world as it is. Unlike Hegel, however, for Whitehead reason or mind can never grasp and explicitly represent the world in its totality. This is because as the unity of process, the whole which is the world, is essentially incomplete. Reason, which as realized fact is a finite expression of the unity of process, could never adequately represent the totality of possible interconnections or perspectives which constitute that whole. The scope of reason’s grasp will always be limited by its particular historical locatedness as realized fact, and the finite character of its particular representations must always fall short of the essentially incomplete character of the whole. We may hold fast to our claim that reason can know the world then, but we must acknowledge the limited and perspectival nature of that knowledge, conditioned as it is by our particular place in the world.

Unlike Hegel and Nietzsche then (and the general traditions which each may be seen to represent) Whitehead’s general account of the relationship between mind and nature not only acknowledges the role of nature as a condition of mind (as the general theory of evolution demands), but it also recognizes the place of mind (or reason) in nature. For not only does it assign genuine value to nature by incorporating the characteristics of contingency, open-endedness, growth and decay in a general metaphysic, but it also assigns an important place to reason as a means for making explicit our understanding of the general structures which may be said to underlie the world as a whole. In so proceeding Whitehead can be seen as assimilating the rationalistic insights of the likes of Hegel with the naturalistic intuitions of Nietzsche. By grounding all experience in a unity of process that is structured in a way analogous to that of mind, Whitehead is able to offer an account of the world that conforms to the general character of the actual or realized world (i.e., one that is true) but which at the same time is essentially incomplete and thus subject to an ongoing process of philosophical (and other) inquiry. His reciprocal analysis retains the importance of a rational expression of the real (as the primary means whereby we express an explicit understanding of the world as such, both to ourselves and to others) while at the same time recognizing the aesthetic dimension that is present in any level of understanding (as grounded in the immediacy of experience). Thus we may conclude that the holistic approach to the relation between mind and nature which Whitehead outlines is one which is capable of satisfying the demands of reason while at the same time giving nature its due. For such an approach demands that one’s philosophical scheme be both systematic and coherent, empirically adequate and aesthetically satisfying; it must be beautiful as well as true. By approaching the question of mind and nature in this way Whitehead is able to provide us with an aesthetically rich understanding of nature, which at the same time preserves a necessary role for reason and the search for truth as an indispensable element in the determination of conscious experience, the enhancement of our aesthetic sensibilities, and the general advancement of civilization as such. By adopting such an approach as a starting point for further investigations in this and other areas, we may hope to move toward a richer understanding of the relation between mind and nature as well as existence as such, an understanding which aims at the immanent unity of our ideas while at the same time retaining the importance of difference.



PN -- G. W. F. Hegel. The Philosophy of Nature. Ed. and trans. M. J. Petry. New York: Humanities Press. 1970.

BWN -- F. Nietzsche. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Ed. and trans. W. Kaufman. New York: Random House, 1968.