Whitehead and the Survival of “Subordinate Societies”

by Paul A. Bogaard

Paul A. Bogaard is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Allison University, Sackville, N.B., Canada EOA 3C0. He has edited and contributed to Metaphysics as Foundation: Essays in Honor of Ivor Leclerc (SUNY 1993) and Profiles of Science and Society in the Maritimes (Acadiensis 1990). Specializing in the history and philosophy of science, he is currently writing a book on the first hundred years of science in Canadian higher education.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 219-226, 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.


Dr. Bogaard compares Whiteheads philosophic appraisal of complex physical objects with the philosophic reflections of three theoretical chemists.

 Presented to the Symposium "Whitehead’s Metaphysics" Canadian Philosophical Association, UPET, 24 May 1992


Twenty years ago this year, Ivor Leclerc published The Nature of Physical Existence (NPE). This was not to be one further elucidation of Whitehead’s "philosophy of organism," but Leclerc’s own detailed recounting of how we must recover a few basic presuppositions if we are ever to elucidate a philosophy of nature worthy of our post-Whiteheadian era -- an era unhappily determined to grapple with the complexities of contemporary science by leaving Whitehead aside.

Following upon his reconstruction of the concepts of infinity, matter and motion Leclerc argued that at the intersection of such basic insights into physical existence, lurks confusion about the status of compound substances. Charles Hartshorne had long since characterized Whitehead’s achievement as recognizing the need for "compound individuals,"’ but Leclerc’s account spelled out the need for re-thinking our conception of "compound substance" -- those physical existents which both arise out of and comprise constituent substances. When and only when constituents act upon each other in a manner which is fully reciprocal, can the relation which arises between/among them emerge as the substantial character of the compound, now a physical existent in its own right. The actuality of the constituents is submerged in this emergent compound, but in a manner which preserves their reality, at least as potential.

I want to spell out, in this paper, what is at stake in these attempts to articulate a philosophic appraisal of complex physical objects. I will highlight this against the backdrop of Whiteheadian thought within which it has been debated by philosophers, and compare this with the philosophic reflections of three theoretical chemists. It’s not so difficult to find physicists and biologists of such a mind, but I think it particularly appropriate for this issue to recount the musings of practicing chemists.

The very phrase, a "philosophy of organism," used by Whitehead so often to capture the tenor of his approach, remains a challenge to attend to the interconnectedness and interdependence which deserves to be appreciated as contributing substantively to any organic whole. The subsequent success of the life sciences in plumbing both the complexities of any organism’s molecular constituency as well as the ecological complexities of each organism’s interdependence within its larger environment, has lent credence to Whitehead’s insight, and these scientific developments have spawned an appreciation in recent years of the philosophical, even metaphysical, implications of our comprehending such complex interrelations.

But Whitehead also warned that, "the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism" [PR 35]. The revolutionary developments already erupting in his own day still confront us with the relativistic and quantum mechanical portrayals of whatever "atoms" are deemed ultimate, and even more so than in the life sciences this development within the physical sciences spawned a continuing spiral of philosophic debate as to their proper interpretation. The classical image of atoms may have been left well behind, but the fascination of ultimate constituents and some systematic portrayal which could account for their unfolding into our known universe is still very much with us.

Whitehead’s own generalization was that whatever we take these constituents to be they must be temporally ordered. His detailed account of this process of actual occasion concresing upon its prehensions of past such actual occasions has provided much fascination, speculation, and frustration. Clearly, for any understanding of compound substances such as Leclerc has proposed, there is a good dose of the latter. Whitehead’s portrayal seems to disallow the reciprocity of action Leclerc seeks. While Whitehead speaks of "mutual immanence," [AI 201] any hope of mutual interaction is dashed on the impossibility of any "acting upon" (see NPE 311-12) one another within the contemporary present. The present is wholly internal. Present "actual occasions" always attend to their immediate past, and anticipate to varying degrees their future, but they never interact with contemporaries. They are literally out of reach.

Any "nexus" of relation, among contemporaries, can only be constructed out of the interrelations apparent among past occasions. It may be projected onto the future, but for contemporaries any such interrelation must be derivative of what they participate in unknowingly. Our nexus of relations will only ever be apparent when we are past. For Whitehead this is the same as saying it will only ever be apparent from the outside.

However these details may be interpreted, the broader context in which Whitehead worked them out for himself must have been one of considerable tension. The tension I have in mind is generated by (i) this process of temporally ordered actual occasions articulating his vision of the metaphysical ultimatum -- atomism -- and (ii) the complex product of this process which he so obviously cherished as an organic interconnectedness -- the web of interrelations which comprise a world so badly misunderstood by the science Whitehead himself prehended from out of his immediate past.

Despite the divergence of these two metaphysical insights, Whitehead may nevertheless be right. And if we cannot avoid the tension between the lure of constituents which are truly atomic on the one hand and the lure of wholes which are truly organic on the other, it may provide what Thomas Kuhn has called an "essential tension"2 -- a tension without which, at least in the realm with which Kuhn is concerned, science cannot operate. Perhaps the same is true for the type of philosophic reflection for which Whitehead has served as such an inspiration.

But Whitehead’s detailed articulation still seems to vie against Ivor Leclerc. Leclerc picks up on how substantive can be (must be) the relations between physical existents, and furthers this by insisting that any such relations are substantive only insofar as they arise out of actions -- the acting of entities upon one another reciprocally. While this proposal may have been inspired by Whitehead, it leads to a philosophy of nature beyond and different from that Whitehead bequeathed us.

And Whiteheadians were quick to notice. Lewis Ford applauded Leclerc’s drawing attention to this thorny issue, but has struggled to preserve the detail of Whitehead’s portrayal, particularly in the face of what he himself styles the "exegetical debate" over the stature of molecular and electronic "occasions."3 Whereas John Cobb recalled Whitehead’s identification of molecules as "historic routes of actual occasions," Donald Sherburne prefers the designation as "structured societies" -- which leaves open the question of whether both a molecule and its constituent can be "enduring objects" (like a personal society).4 Enthused by Leclerc’s reliance upon the Aristotelian distinction between actual and potential, Ford offered an option which might preserve the choice, in Whiteheadian terms. But in any terms, it remains a tug-of-war between the desire to preserve the actuality of the constituents and to acknowledge the actuality of the complex whole they comprise. Ford’s suggestion that we simply reapply the full Whiteheadian analysis at the level of the molecule (a molecule is simply an "actual occasion" of larger scope), brings all the sophistication of Whitehead’s treatment to bear on these opposing requirements, but at the cost of locating its full significance at the molecular level. Once resolved at the molecular level (if indeed it is resolved), the same issue, metaphysically, reemerges at the next level where molecules constitute larger more complex wholes. Not even Ford, I trust, wants to reapply the "actual occasion" analysis at every level.

Part of what Whitehead did appreciate, as he stated in Adventures of Ideas, is that: "The universe achieves its values by reason of its coordination into societies of societies, and into societies of societies of societies" [AI 206]. I shall return to how he suggests we understand value arising from what is being called, in his peculiar way a "society," but the point from Adventures of Ideas is clear enough: however we learn to appreciate the status of a complex whole comprised of constituents, it must be construed in a manner which permits that complex whole to serve in turn as constituent within a larger and more complex level of organic whole. And I do not see how this can be resolved "temporally" into a sequence of roles, first constituent and then whole. The universe achieves its values by each complex also serving as a constituent, at the same time, and each constituent is also complex, with its own constituents, and so on down the line.

What this paper has to offer is not likely to resolve the "exegetical debate" amongst such alternate readings of Whitehead. But the participants in this debate do draw our attention to the level at which the compounding of substances is confronted the most directly. This is to say, not just up into the complexities of organisms where, in Whitehead’s terms, we seek life lurking in the interstices [PR 105-6], nor down into the magical realm of quarks with charm, but focused on chemistry.

It also serves as a warning to us that the tension between organism and atomism, between our appreciation of the physical existence of constituents and of complex bodies, is not likely to be resolved simply by attending more closely to the details in Process and Reality, chapter and verse. Given the tension and consequent ambiguity built into the fabric of Whitehead’s portrayal, it only extenuates the competing claims between organ/cells, cell/molecules, molecule/nuclei/electrons, and also crystal/atoms, metal/electrons, quarks/universe. At that point in Science and the Modern World where Whitehead observes: "The relation of part to whole has the special reciprocity associated with the notion of organism, in which the part is for the whole"; he confirms: "but this relation reigns throughout nature and does not start with the special case of the higher organisms" [SMW 149].

There is a close parallel, here, to the observation made some years ago by Sir Karl Popper concerning the "reduction" of one scientific field or one scientific theory to another. The issue of reduction has been debated extensively over the last two or three decades, and Popper’s observation was that if there are legitimate impediments to reduction, they are unlikely to forestall exclusively the explanations of mental experience, or only appear at the level of living evolving organisms.5 Whatever the dependency of a higher field or theory upon the theory from a more basic level (or the limitations upon any such dependency) it should obtain up and down all the levels of complexity we encounter. In other words, these philosophic reflections will be just as pertinent to the assumptions underlying chemical and physical explanations as to biological and psychological ones. I have been concerned to show, elsewhere,6 that the same set of epistemological limitations encountered at the transition to the life sciences and cognitive psychology are evident at the level of chemical theory and its dependence upon the quantum theory relevant to nucleic and electronic constituents. I am convinced that these epistemological issues remain obscured by a metaphysical haze. There is surprisingly little clarity about the conflicting implications of how we conceive the status of such whole/part relations. But theoretical chemists themselves have come forward with some intriguing proposals.

It should be pointed out, perhaps, that for the first fifty years or so of quantum chemistry, the results of theoretical calculations were uniformly poor and unhelpful; but this tended to be put off to the enormous complexity of the mathematical techniques -- if only these could be overcome, it was thought, it would become obvious how wonderfully we could depict the results of chemical reactivity and bonding simply by applying calculations to the known constituents. Not until the whole enterprise had matured a great deal, and particularly after the computer made such massive calculations feasible (in other words, only within the last twenty years or so) has it come to be recognized by the practitioners themselves that their task is not so simple.7 Beyond all the complications of calculation and approximation there remain considerable problems of interpretation. And there is some appreciation that these reflect a very basic level of confusion about our most basic conceptual schemes. A few theoretical chemists have openly considered the extent to which these are not merely pragmatic issues of how to proceed and how to apply the theoretician’s results (which are considerable) but are issues of philosophical interpretation and metaphysical presupposition.

R. G. Woolley, in a set of articles published in England during the late 1970s (while he was at Cambridge) argued that such basic attributes of a molecule as its shape must be carefully circumscribed on the basis of current theory. His analysis of the idea of molecular structure from "first principles" shows that if one starts from a description of the molecule as an isolated, dynamical system consisting of the number of electrons and nuclei implied by the stoichiometric formula that interact via electromagnetic forces, one cannot even calculate the most important parameters in chemistry, namely, those that describe the molecular structure.8

The most extensive application of quantum chemistry can tell us little or nothing about the shape of a molecule, unless it is considered within the context of a particular reaction or particular chemical environment. And in any such case, it then becomes the interactions which experience has shown will have an impact on the molecule which controls the shape it takes and not anything intrinsic to the molecule considered in itself, or explained simply by the quantum mechanics of its constituents. He warns that it may simply be meaningless to presume that a molecule in isolation has any such feature so distinctive as a shape.

Woolley is calling into doubt here what has been a presumption typical of any atomistic approach, virtually since the rise of modern science. And for a hundred years and more, the shape of a chemical compound has been considered among its most chemically significant features. It is not, strictly speaking, that Woolley is denying the significance of structure, but suggesting how misleading it is to conceive of it in isolation.

Hans Primas (a theoretical chemist in Switzerland) has written extensively in the early 1980s about the presumptiveness of chemists who depict their elements and compounds in isolation.9 There is no such thing as isolation for a chemical entity, save in the imagination of scientists and their texts, and in their struggle to induce isolation artificially in the lab. But in reality a chemical is always in some environment, and this environment is largely determinative of much we take to be chemical truth.

One clear lesson from chemical theory is that the levels of energy caught up in chemical reactivity, the amount of energy tied up in chemical bonding, is comparatively tiny -- particularly the covalent and hydrogen bonding typical with organic macromolecules, for example.10 An oft repeated joke is that calculating the energy of the bonds typical between carbon atoms is like determining the weight of a ship’s captain, by weighing the whole ship with the captain on board, next weighing the ship without the captain on board, and then subtracting the difference. What is not a joke is that an entity at the level of a small to medium size molecule can be significantly influenced by a very small perturbance. Virtually all of what is going on in its environment, far from being of marginal concern, will be determinative of its character as that molecule.

This may be more intensely true at the chemical level than for organisms within the ecological context which sustains them. We now realize we cannot fully appreciate the behavior of an organism except within the context of its own niche. But at the chemical level, we may not even be able to know that or what an entity is, in isolation, let alone its behavior.

Joseph Earley (Professor of Chemistry at Georgetown), one practitioner who has become familiar with the reflections and philosophical predilections of Whitehead and of Leclerc, has written recently11 that chemical behavior is of many kinds. Chemists have uncovered a full range of behavior which opens up the possibility of identifying chemical entities of different character -- in the metaphysical sense of differing in their mode of being an entity. He would argue that Leclerc’s notion of "physical existence" applies not only to our more typical notion of a molecule of water, or of sugar, or of hemoglobin (all of similar type), but also to examples of crystals, which are markedly different, and to systems of chemical reaction which persist far from equilibrium. (He also introduces types which are identifiable in some sense only if we look for a short enough glimpse -- a fascinating notion of how identity and interaction is not independent of the time it takes.) Each of these is taken by the chemists working with them as a physical existent of an identifiable kind, and there are many such "kinds."

No doubt Earley has his chemistry right. Each of his types is, in some sense, to be treated as an entity we confront and deal with -- apparently chemists do. What I am not prepared to say is that each such example is on an equal footing metaphysically. To capture what I intend here, let me return to Whitehead. He has advised all along that we would be wiser to avoid supposing we really identify enduring objects which persist in themselves over time. The reality underneath this appearance is a temporal sequence of what he dubbed "actual occasions." What seems to persist over time are "historic routes" of these occasions, serially ordered into what he called "societies." And as we noted earlier, this gives rise in his scheme, to structured societies of Societies, etc. There is a limit to how far it will be useful to pursue the niceties of "structured" versus "corpuscular" versus "personal societies," but it will help to recall the context in which Whitehead observes (not unlike Earley) that there can be many ways in which Nature coordinates these societies such that they can persist over time.

The problem for Nature, as he describes it in Process and Reality (Part II, Chapter III, Section VII) is to produce societies which can survive through time but which do not sacrifice all opportunity amongst their constituent actual occasions for what he called "intensity" of experience. Whitehead delineates two ways in which Nature has resolved this problem: there is the tendency to produce a "massive average objectification of a nexus" [PR 101] which can maximize long term survival by minimizing intensity. The other relies upon the novel elements in the environment and uses them continually to adapt the structured society. Each of these two types secures stability amidst environmental novelty, but the former overwhelms and virtually eliminates these intrusions and thereby persists much as we observe in crystals, rocks, planets and suns. The latter takes this novelty in and uses it to maintain intensity. To do so requires more complex structuring, a mode of structuring which makes it possible to rely upon its subservient societies rather than overwhelming and submerging them.

I have stuck very closely here to Whitehead’s own means of expressing this insight, because it communicates to us not only these two alternate paths for securing stability over time, but also provides a strong sense of how the inorganic amassing of crystals contrasts with the required complexity of living organisms. Nature has moved in both these directions, and I suspect that Joseph Earley is quite appropriately warning us there are many other alternatives Nature has devised, forming a whole spectrum of alternate paths. But in Whitehead’s scheme there is an assessment of how each alternate path, each type of physical existent, comes with a different trade-off.

For example, Earley’s crystalline structures, by powerful "ionic" forces overwhelm the constituent molecules which virtually lose their identity as their respective ions are held in deadlock. There persists only massive average interaction, nothing like organic growth, just accumulated bulk, which persists through sheer strength. At the opposite pole which Earley offers, there is the persistence of "dissipative systems" -- a kind of serial order, it seems to me, with a minimum of complexity. By complexity, now, I mean something close to Whitehead’s sense of complexity through the organization of subordinate constituents which never the less continue to play a substantive role in the society they comprise. In this latter example of Earley’s, the constituents’ role is minimized, not because they are under any constraint but because they have little to do -- and particularly because what they do is carried on by minimizing any perturbance from the outside. At this latter pole, constituents are minimally constrained and minimally attentive or sensitive to their environment; whereas at the former pole, they are maximally constrained and unable to be responsive.

In between we have the interesting cases. Those we now recognize as involving covalent bonding, and at a higher level, organic growth. These survive by being sensitive to what may be a changing environment, and then employing various forms of self-adjusting cooperation. In these examples the role of the constituents remains active and crucial. The feature so dramatically present here is the notion, not just of an organically structured society, but also of societies comprised of "subordinate societies" [PR 99f]. If Primas and Woolley are taken seriously, there are no non-subordinated societies. To be in an environment is always to be, in some sense, a subordinated society. Whitehead worried about certain societies being so chronically subordinated that they might not be able to persist outside on their own -- not a very good bet, he thought, for a physical existent. But if there is no "outside" save in our abstractions, the issue needs to be turned round the other way. When and where does the subordination of societies permit the society to persist, inside a larger complex, under some form of subordination?

We have touched on the spectrum of possibilities which Nature has tried. On the massive end of the scale, constituents are all but lost, just as at the other end of the spectrum they persist but carry on with minimum regard beyond their own bounds -- relatively immune to their surroundings. What especially distinguishes these two extremes is that the persisting entity (the complex whole) in either mode is unable itself to play the role of constituent. Dissipative systems persist. but they do not in turn constitute still larger more complex substances. Crystals and rocks persist, but they do not form the constituency of any larger complex they might comprise except in the most passive way. Their passivity as constituents is the direct product of their own mode of stability.

In between, a distinguishing feature of covalent molecules typified in familiar examples like water and organic molecules, is not only the persistence of the molecules, but that they can in turn form the constituency of more complex societies. And this obtains precisely because they are able to play an active role -- one which remains sensitive to their environment. At least some of these more complex entities can, in their turn, play the role of constituent at a still higher level of complexity. Molecules form cells, cells form organisms, and so on in turn.

Metaphysically, it is these in-between cases which are in many respects the most fascinating, but which also have been the most problematic to depict. How are we to characterize the status of constituents, in general, in such a way as both to acknowledge the stature of the organic whole they comprise and yet not cover over their status as active contributing constituents? These in-between examples, however they maintain themselves, are precisely those in whom Nature has found a way to maintain this tricky balance -- where as Whitehead mused, Nature seeks a balance between the value of survival and the value of interest, between creativity and intensity.

My aim has not been to solve this metaphysical riddle, nor to add my improvements to either Whitehead’s or Leclerc’s formulae for articulating these relationships. Rather, it seems to me of value to retain this sense of tension as essential to what Whitehead so suggestively termed "intensity." The difficulty in explaining satisfactorily this balance between the actuality of the constituent and that of the complex whole, has so often motivated metaphysical stances which (in effect) attempt to deny it. While we may have difficulty explaining this balance adequately, we can hardly deny its obvious success within Nature. What I propose is that the very role of "constituent" could be used to gauge this success. It should serve as a standard, a mark of distinction, or criterion against which to measure our attempts to articulate metaphysical assumptions adequate to understanding this success.

"The complexity of Nature," as Whitehead affirmed, "is inexhaustible" [PR 163]. On the face of it, it will be difficult ever to articulate one general schema for complex bodies, if only because there are so many variations on complexity -- so many ways to survive. The spectrum hinted at, however, does not range from the simplest at one end of the scale to the most complex at the other, but rather from one mode of simplification through heightened complexity to another mode of simplification. And there may well be many other modes. The highest complexity, however, is found in between, in the mid-range among various modes of simplification; and it is these complex modes which have special "value," which can maintain "intensity," which lead to organic life and all that it entails.

My suggestion is that the role of constituents in any mode is the measure of that mode’s complexity. The criterion of the value preserved (in Whitehead’s sense) will be whether it can in turn serve as a constituent. Perhaps the form of acting which Leclerc suspects is so substantive, is not only that which is mutual and reciprocal, but that which persists in the environment of a complex whole and contributes toward it. The mark of complexity is the ability of a constituent to survive, somehow, within the whole it comprises, and in such a way that it enables that compound substance to survive, to persist through the same period of time, within its own complex environment. The wonder of this natural world is the survival of its "subordinate societies."



NPE -- Ivor Leclerc. The Nature of Physical Existence. Muirhead Library of Philosophy. New York: Humanities Press, 1972.



1Charles Hartshorne, "The Compound Individual," Philosophical Essays for Alfred North Whitehead, ed. Otis H. Lee (New York: Longmans Green, 1936). pp. 193-220.

2Thomas Kuhn, "The Essential Tension: Tradition and Innovation in Scientific Research," in The Third (1959) University of Utah Research Conference on the Identification of Scientific Talent, ed. C. W. Taylor (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1959), pp. 162-74.

3Review of The Nature of Physical Existence by Lewis S. Ford, in Process Studies, 3/2 (Summer, 1973), pp. 104-18.

4Ford locates these debates in Process Studies, 1: 95-98; John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), pp. 89f; and D. Brown, R. F. James, Jr., and G. Reeves, eds., Process Philosophy and Christian Thought (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), pp. 314-19.

5Personal communication within Graduate Seminar, Emory University, where Popper was Visiting University Professor, 1969.

6See my "The Limitations of Physics as a Chemical Reducing Agent" in PSA 1978, vol.2. ed. P. D. Asquith and I. Hacking (East Lansing: Philosophy of Science Association, 1981), pp. 345-56; and S. Brush’s comments in his Statistical Physics and the Atomic Theory of Matter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 231-32; and more recently, my "The Philosophical Content of Quantum Chemistry," in P. A. Bogaard and G. Treash, eds., Metaphysics as Foundation: Essays in Honor of Ivor Leclerc (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), pp. 252-71.

7See the set of retrospective articles in Wave Mechanics: the First Fifty Years (London: Butterworth, 1973).

8R. G. Woolley, "Must a Molecule Have a Shape?" in Journal of the American Chemical Society, 100:4 (1978): 1073.

9See H. Primas, "Foundations of Theoretical Chemistry" in Quantum Dynamics of Molecules: The New Experimental Challenge to Theorists. NATO Advanced Study Series, vol. 57, ed. R. G. Woolley (New York, 1980), pp. 39f; "Pattern Recognition in Molecular Quantum Mechanics," Theoret. Chimica Acta 39 (1975): 127-148; and his Chemistry Quantum Mechanics and Reductionism (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1983).

10See, for example, C. Coulson’s classic text, Valence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961).

11 J. E. Earley, "The Nature of Chemical Existence," in P. A. Bogaard and G. Treash, eds., Metaphysics as Foundation: Essays in Honor of Ivor Leclerc (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), pp. 272-84.