Whitehead, Deconstruction, and Postmodernism

by Luis G. Pedraja

Luis G. Pedraja is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX 75275. E-mail lpedraja@mail.smu.edu.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 68-84, Vol. 28, Number 1/2, Spring – Summer, 1999. 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.


There is a rich diversity in Whitehead’s work which postmodern writers have ignored. The author resurrects several of these areas demonstrating that they are very much postmodern.

Alfred North Whitehead’s critique of modernism is similar to what are now considered "postmodern" critiques. In particular, Whitehead’s philosophy and critique of modernism parallels many of Derrida’s epistemological and contextual concerns. Although the philosophies of Whitehead and Derrida are similar in some respects, there is nothing to link them beyond a few references to common sources such as Peirce, Bergson, and to a lesser extent for ‘Whitehead, Nietzsche (OG 48). Nevertheless, ‘with the exception of a few process philosophers, most postmodern thinkers ignore Whitehead as a potential source for postmodern thought.

To propose that Whitehead shared concerns similar to those of postmodern philosophers is not a novel idea in itself. David Griffin and John B. Cobb have written about Whitehead’s postmodern agenda. For instance, David Griffin, along with other writers in the series on Constructive Postmodern Thought, have argued convincingly that Whitehead was indeed aware of both the dangers and the demise of modernism. In addition, these writers correctly claim that people like Peirce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne go beyond the deconstruction of modernity by providing the context for a constructive postmodernism. According to them, these constructive postmodern thinkers recognized both the fallacies of modernism and the need for re-constructing its world view (Griffin, FCPP 1-42). Cobb argues that the development of the new physics and William James’ philosophy led Whitehead to an awareness of the onset of a radical shift in world views. Cobb also argues that although Whitehead never used the term "postmodern," he spoke of the modern world in "postmodern tones," recognizing both the accomplishments and the limitations of modernity (Cobb, FCPP 167-187). This leads Cobb to examine how Whitehead moves from the substance oriented language of modernity to a "postmodern" understanding of events-in-relation which overcomes the subject-object dichotomy of modernity (FCPP 167-187).

However, regardless of these arguments by Cobb and Griffin, Whitehead’s metaphysical concerns continue to obscure his postmodern views in the minds of most of his readers. As a result, the "presence" of postmodern views in Whitehead’s writings still remains largely ignored in most of the works that trace the development of postmodernism and deconstruction. This failure is partially due to a simplistic understanding of Whitehead’s project. Whitehead attempts to tread a fine line between what he considers the two primary fallacies of philosophy: the dogmatism that presupposes its ideas are irrefutably absolute and the and-rationalism that discards all philosophical methods (AI 223). The first concern leads him towards a critique of modernism; the second leads him toward a constructive reconception of his philosophical world view. Because of the latter concern, Whitehead is characterized unfairly as a passé metaphysician by most students of postmodernism and readily dismissed as a potential source of postmodern thought.

Although Whitehead maintains a certain degree of the "rationalism" disavowed by exponents of deconstruction, he is not merely continuing the Enlightenment project. The premature burial of Whitehead’s thought in the grave of modernism and metaphysics by some postmodern writers obscures the rich diversity of Whitehead’s work. In a sense, we need to "deconstruct" the primacy given to his metaphysics to recover his original hermeneutical and "postmodern" stance. To accomplish this task, I will examine several areas in Whitehead’s writing to demonstrate how they are both postmodern and similar to Derrida’s concerns.

In doing this, I am also breaking ranks with those, like Griffin, who place Whitehead in direct contrast to postmodern deconstructionists. Griffin interprets Whitehead’s philosophy as a constructive revision of modernism. According to him, the weakness of modernism is the attempt to eliminate a transcendent view of God while retaining the ideologies that presupposed this view of God. Because modernism retained these ideological presuppositions, the "modern self " also retained the notions of detachment, isolation, and individualism ascribed to the transcendent God. Griffin believes constructive postmodern theologies can overcome these modern views without eliminating notions of a centered universe, self, and history (VPT 31; 41). Although Griffin is correct in this preliminary assessment of modernity he goes on to contrast Whitehead’s constructive approach to deconstruction or, as he calls it, eliminative postmodernism (VPT 31; 41). Griffin’s intent is to combat the dangers of a radical relativism and nihilism which he correctly believes are inherent in some postmodern approaches. However, in creating this contrast between Whitehead and deconstruction, he alienates an important aspect of postmodern philosophy and risks missing the similarities that exist between Whitehead’s and Derrida’s projects.

Contrasting Whitehead’s philosophy and deconstruction places these two important philosophies at odds with one another. In addition, it limits the potential for a deeper dialogue and exchange between these philosophies. One exception to this polemic against deconstruction is a paper by William Dean that presents a valid possibility for comparing Whitehead’s empirical concerns to Derrida’s historical deconstruction along a naturalistic and pragmatic view of history (DP 1-19). This opens a possibility for further dialogues and exchange between process and postmodern philosophies. Although Dean’s paper begins to address this possibility in a specific area, I intend to extend this comparison in a broader scope with the hope of engendering further research.

While Griffin’s interpretation of Whitehead merits serious consideration, it still attempts to salvage a "centeredness" which is difficult to maintain in Whitehead’s philosophy. It is true that Whitehead wants to recover certain metaphysical categories and to develop a constructive project. This is part of his attempt to develop a comprehensive interpretive system (PR 3-4) and his desire to combat the anti-rationalistic fallacy. However, we also must recognize that Whitehead’s critique of modernism radically deconstructs the possibility of an unbiased, axiomatic center that can be abstracted from the whole. This does not mean that Whitehead advocates a radical relativism or a denial of freedom like some advocates of deconstruction. But neither does Derrida’s philosophy in its basic presuppositions advocate a radical relativism and a denial of freedom as some of his interpreters propose. What they both advocate is a suspicion of abstractions that pose as absolute universal truths as well as philosophy’s failure to recognize the limitations of its particular contextual perspectives and standpoints. Underlying this suspicion of abstract absolute truths is a shift in their respective philosophies from Western views that give primacy to being permanence, presents, space, detachment, and individual substance, toward views that incorporate becoming, change, time, interrelations and fluidity.

Although it may not seem evident, Whitehead does not want to establish an absolute metaphysical system. What he wants is to develop a comprehensive hermeneutical scheme to serve as a interpretive context in which individual experiences can acquire meaning (PR 10). According to Whitehead, the task of the speculative philosopher is "the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted" (PR 3; AI 222). The comprehensive nature of Whitehead’s project leads him to create a neo-metaphysical system as a hermeneutical tool. However, his metaphysics does not replace his hermeneutical concerns. Rather, his metaphysics is a result of his basic assumption that all propositions, and hence, all interpretations, always and inescapably assume a metaphysical context within which they acquire meaning (PR 11-12). Whitehead uses the term metaphysics to refer to a broad meta-context or matrix of experience, not to an overarching, transcendent logocentric ontology. Whitehead’s hermeneutical concerns lead him towards an examination of language as the mediator of experience and philosophy. As a result, his philosophy struggles with questions regarding meaning and its simple location in "objective" linguistic assertions. The neglect of Whitehead’s hermeneutical concerns in favor of his metaphysics prevents a true appreciation of Whitehead’s postmodern views and limits comparisons to Derrida’s agenda.

I. Language and the Task of Philosophy

Language plays a crucial role in mediating, interpreting, and constituting human experience. It is the tool of the philosopher, the medium that both crafts and conveys the philosophical world. Thus, we encounter some of the most striking parallels between Whitehead and Derrida as they examine its role and effect upon the work of the philosopher. This eventually leads them both to recognize that language itself carries limitations and interpretative presuppositions that influence philosophy (PR 11-13; OG 57-58). Whitehead’s writings demonstrate a strong concern with language both as the tool of philosophy and as the means for conveying human experience (PR 11). It is the latter that emerges as a central interest of Whitehead’s empirical philosophy, leading him to explore the role of language in both the construction and expression of experience. As a result, he turns his attention toward both hermeneutics and the deconstruction of philosophical presuppositions.

Whitehead and Derrida’s shared suspicion of how philosophy and metaphysics use language is evident. Derrida’s project questions the order of both language and rationality by denying the philosophical presumption that language reflects and conforms to the rational order of some external reality apart from human interpretive activity According to Derrida, Rousseau’s condemnation of writing as the destruction of presence reveals language’s inability to seize presence (OG 141). Rousseau, says Derrida, understands writing as a mediate form of speech which becomes a dangerous supplement that usurps the place of speech by forgetting its vicarious nature and by making itself "pass for the plenitude of a speech whose deficiency and infirmity it nevertheless only supplement" (OG 144). Thus, Rousseau’s desire is to eliminate the mediative role that language plays between presence and absence (OG 157). However, for Derrida, the mediative role of language, and most significantly, writing, is inescapable. Thus, it is the graphic differentiation of the silent play of difference that serves as the condition for both the possibility and function of signs and phonemes (MP 5). Without it, speech and language would be impossible. Writing differs from speech in that writing neither presupposes the presence of Being, nor its transparency to it. As a result, writing is primarily an interpretive exercise enmeshed in the "play" of interpretation that takes primacy over speech. This has several implications for Derrida’s philosophical insights (OG 6-26).

First, since the differentiation of the sign precedes even speech, Derrida gives writing primacy over speech. Second, he notes the elusive nature of presence in language and argues that every representation is a continual play between absence and presence. In other words, every representation both discloses and hides something; it is always an abstraction. Therefore, Derrida concludes that it is impossible to efface the linguistic venue of philosophy in hopes of presenting its supposed signified content (OG 160). This leads Derrida to challenge both the philosophical presumption that linguistic signifiers can convey an accurate picture of an extra-textual reality and the tendency of metaphysicians to privilege these philosophical assertions as higher expressions of truth. Derrida rejects the philosopher’s assumption that there is something outside the text to which signifiers point, since "there is nothing outside the text" (OG 158).

The force of Derrida’s argument comes from his understanding that the play of difference (spacialization) and defer-ence (temporalization) in thc linguistic context of the sign is the prime source of meaning. As a result, there is no external referent to language that it can approach for verification. Language is primarily interpretive. Derrida rejects the presumption that philosophy presents being, presence, and reality more accurately than literature and other forms of linguistic expressions. Therefore, Derrida’s arguments breaks down the sharp distinctions that separate and privilege philosophy over other forms of linguistic expressions. This forcefully presents the philosopher with the inescapability of prejudices, intentions, presuppositions, and biases. There is no external "truth" or "essence" that can serve as an objective test for thc accuracy of philosophical presuppositions beyond the linguistic structure of the text.

This recognition of the limits of both philosophy and language is also evident in Whitehead’s philosophy. Whitehead notes that "an old established metaphysical system gains a false air of adequate precision from the fact that its words and phrases have passed into current literature" (PR 13), leading to a "false" presumption of descriptive precision that assumes the obvious simplicity of the philosophical statements offered. Like Derrida, he recognizes the privileged position accorded to certain types of philosophical assertions by virtue of the language system they presuppose. Although Whitehead is reacting primarily to the popularity of logical positivism during the early part of the century, he also takes to task the presupposition that the method of philosophy should lead to "premises which are severally clear, distinct, and certain; and to erect upon those premises a deductive system of thought" (PR 8).

Instead of a verifiable system of presuppositions that conforms to an external reality, Whitehead favors an ongoing, progressive, interpretive "scheme" that measures success by its pragmatic ability to interpret experience within a given context (PR 8-9). Whitehead is indebted to Peirce and James for his conclusion. However, unlike Peirce who eventually came to believe that an absolute and final interpretation was attainable, Whitehead’s interpretive system maintains an ultimate non-finality to it (PR 9). Whitehead’s interpretive system is dynamic in its rationalism and does not limit valid interpretation to philosophers and scientists. On the contrary, Whitehead acknowledges the role of poetic artistic insight and imagination in the advancement of productive thought. In addition, he sees it as necessary for transcending attempts to create a direct representation of what appears to be obvious (PR 9).

Whitehead explodes the boundaries of philosophy and denies it a privileged position over artistic and imaginative enterprises. According to him, the parameters imposed by philosophy’s formal and structural presuppositions constrains attempts to "stray" beyond their established limits (AI 228-229). These limits prevent innovations in philosophy and criticize new expressions as unnecessary neologisms. Naturally, these presuppositions do not prevent Whitehead from manipulating language to create new metaphors that could open new philosophical perspectives, nor does it prevent Derrida from coining the term differance.

Both writers share a tacit recognition of the inherent limitations language imposes on the philosopher. Thus, Whitehead turns his attention to language as the tool of philosophy. Like Derrida, Whitehead notes how even simple subject-predicate propositional forms, such as "The whale is big," can "conceal complex, diverse meanings" (PR 13). The dependence of a statement’s meaning upon its context prevents a singular monolithic expression of truth in Whitehead’s philosophy. Truth is always and necessarily contextual. Even when Whitehead moves beyond language, he still locates meaning and "truth" within, the complex play of interrelatedness (MG 675-681). Ultimately, the inter-connectedness of reality and form takes primacy over the Cartesian preference for substance and quality in Whitehead’s philosophy (PR xiii).

Admittedly, Whitehead does not go as far as Derrida in noting the dependence of thought on language. According to Whitehead, language cannot be "the essence of thought." If language were the basis for thought any attempt at translation would be impossible. Instead, Whitehead states that thought originates from the way a particular fragmentary sense experience impresses us in relation to other experiences. In the constitution of our bodies and the way they relate to the environment there are certain common elements with which we can identify. However, Whitehead also contends that the retention, recollection, communication, and integration of thought into higher complex ideas is impossible without language. Like Derrida’s play of differance, Whitehead concludes that it is in the relating and contrasting of experiences that thought emerges. As a result, he recognizes that without language, thought would be impossible (MT 32-36).

Whitehead maintains that language functions as a mediator of present experience to both the past and other experiences (MT 33). According to Whitehead, both language and thought emerge together, but logically thought must have primacy over language. The importance of language to Whitehead’s philosophy is most clear in the final sentence of lecture two, entitled "Expression": "The account of the sixth day should be written, He gave them speech, and they became souls" (MT 41). Nevertheless, Whitehead does not go as far as deconstruction in placing language at the forefront of all thought and experience.

On the other hand, as this citation reveals, Whitehead still maintains a connection between speech and presence and a representational understanding of language -- both concepts that Derrida repudiates. For Whitehead, writing is an artificial and modern development while speech is the embodiment of human nature (MT 37). Even further, Whitehead gives primacy to speech because of its representative character. He writes that in the breath of speech, there is the intimation of the core of organic existence, hence, life (MT 32). However, in fairness to Whitehead, he also makes a distinction between writing and speech, indicating that the former is a beneficial innovation that in discussions about language often gets intermingled with the latter (MT 37). As a result of this recognition, Whitehead calls for a more precise distinction between writing and speaking, but not for a dichotomy that places one over the other. According to Whitehead, symbols predate the onset of writing and play a crucial role in the formation of linguistic practices (MT 37). Even if symbols do not precede speech, Whitehead’s use of "symbols" in this manner indicates an awareness of a strong relationship between thought, writing, and speech that he felt other scholars had neglected.

Whitehead also makes a remark regarding linguistics that merits further attention. He notes in passing how the accessibility of writing and reading to the masses is a fairly recent innovation (MT 37). According to him, through countless eras, at least in Europe, writing had been primarily the domain of the aristocrat, the politician, and the academician. In this respect, we can add that writing can be both a source of power and a source of oppression. Scholars often ignore the socio-economic power of writing to disseminate, control, and shape ideas. The control of the written word by aristocrats, clergy; academics, and politicians skews our understanding of culture and history in the West -- a history portrayed by those in control of society. Our interpretive venture must continually recognize the inherently oppressive nature of written documents that were and often still are controlled by the educated and the powerful. Although Whitehead does not elaborate upon the theme, he opens the door to some of the socio-economic implications of writing which now play an important part in the hermeneutical concerns of deconstructionism and postmodernity.

Whitehead understands language as connecting different aspects of sense experience into a unity that reflects the connectedness of the world or a common activity (MT 33-34). This suggests an external referentiality to language. However, this suggestion should not be taken too strongly logocentrically. Language, according to Whitehead, still abstracts and reproduces elements of experience that can be "most easily reproduced" in human consciousness (MT 34). Thus, the abstract quality of language in itself is already an interpretive enterprise. Humans continually use abstracted elements of experience, associate them with a contextual framework of meaning, and even suggest a particular world which they represent (MT 34).

On the other hand, his assertion regarding the dynamic interconnected-ness of language as reflecting the interconnected activity of the world creates a new possibility for preserving a connection between language and the world without falling into logocentrism. In an article in the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki explores this connection and posits a viable thesis that connects language and reality as a response to American deconstructionists such as Carl Raschke and Charles Winquist. However, we can also apply it to Derrida. Although language interprets reality preventing a referential logocentrism, its interconnected play represents the interconnected creative activity of the world, ultimately providing a possible link between Whitehead and Derrida,

Language can never capture the fullness of reality, nor can any linguistic function ever predict the total possibility of its meaning. On the contrary, language presents a distorted picture of reality in which single words, "bounded by full stops, suggest the possibility of complete abstraction from any environment" (MT 66). This tendency gives the false appearance that philosophy can conceive of the interconnection of things, discretely understandable, without making reference to other things (MT 66). Whitehead’s rejection of this presupposition denies the philosopher the possibility of absolute unbiased descriptions of reality devoid of any interpretive system. In recognizing the limitations created by our finite perspectives, he acknowledges the need to move beyond a "narrow" epistemology based merely upon sense-data and introspection, and appeals to literature, ordinary language and practice as other sources (AI 228).

Whitehead understands language as originating from the characteristic functions of "emotional expression, signaling, and [the] interfusion of the two (MT 37). In both instances, these characteristics are reactions to particular situations within a particular environmental context (MT 38). The origins of language are predominantly functional rather than representational. In addition, Whitehead notes that the characteristic functions of language fade into the background as language advances, leaving a suggestion (trace?) of something which has lost its dominating position (MT 37 –38). Since the specific context in which language originates is no longer present, language can never be identically reproduced in its original function. Only certain elements, abstracted from their original context by the linguistic function, can be repeated, thus leaving the appearance that something has disappeared from the language. Eventually linguistic functions move toward higher levels of abstraction that both facilitate civilization and obscure the abstract, and hence, the interpretive nature of language. Thus, Whitehead recognizes the dilemma of philosophers who must use language to express their philosophies, but cannot escape the biases and interests inherent in their language.

Like Derrida, Whitehead rejects the possibility that language might express "propositional truths" outside of its linguistic context. Thus, Whitehead writes in Process and Reality:

. . . every proposition refers to a universe exhibiting some general systematic metaphysical character. Apart from this background, the separate entities which go to form the proposition, and die proposition as a whole, are without determinate character. Nothing has been defined, because every definite entity requires a systematic universe to supply its requisite status. Thus every proposition proposing a fact must, in its complete analysis, propose the general character of the universe required for that fact. There are no self-sustained facts, floating in nonentity. (PR 11)

Although the last sentence points toward Whitehead’s "ontological principle" that grounds every aspect of reality on actual entities, it also provides insights into the problem of interpreting human experience. There is no detached, discrete "fact" in itself. It is always part of the interrelated complex of entities. In the above statement, Whitehead does not simply mean that propositions require metaphysics. He means that all propositions already imply a metaphysics. Therefore, philosophical assertions are not simple, objective, detached descriptions of objects or of the external world. They are already enmeshed in a presupposed context that defines them and their usage. Since all propositions presuppose a system and context, it is impossible to reduce linguistic assertions to a simple definite signification of reality. Thus, Whitehead writes that "language is thoroughly indeterminate by reason of the fact that every occurrence presupposes some systematic type of environment" (PR 12).

The meaning of particular propositions depends upon their particular context and can vary from one context to another. As a result, we cannot assume that there are any self-evident unprejudiced philosophical arguments that do not presuppose some interpretive context and world view. In rejecting the possibility of a detached and disinterested philosophical description, Whitehead moves away from the core of modernism and opens the way for the deconstruction that also marks Derrida’s works (MP 329-330). This implication already reflects a "postmodern" bent in that it does not presuppose a singular "universal" metaphysical context Rather, it presupposes a multitude of contexts; a multiverse.

Derrida also recognizes the impossibility of the philosophical presumption of attaining precision and accurate representation in a philosophical language. In his reflections upon Valéry’s work, Derrida contends that the philosopher gives a formality to philosophical language by forging a connection with natural language that allows mere ciphers to resemble the thing in itself (MP 293). As a result, philosophy can only pretend to escape the vagueness and metaphorical nature of its language despite its pretense at formality and precision (MP 292). All philosophical assertions necessarily rest upon a previously assumed context that provides those assertions with meaning, preventing the philosopher’s escape from the linguistic concepts the language presupposes. It is this realization that opens the door to deconstruction as philosophy’s logocentric bias, prejudices, and intentionality becomes evident.

Whitehead and Derrida present us with similar concerns about language and its relationship to philosophy. These concerns force philosophers to explore both the manner in which philosophy uses language and the impossibility of escaping the abstractive, interested, and contextual nature of language and its interpretive play. While Derrida concerns himself primarily with writing and its liberation from logocentrism and onto-theological claims, Whitehead concerns himself with language and its role in the interpretation of experience. Nevertheless, they both reject the representational role of language, as simply conforming to some external reality; and they both reject static and self-evident notions of language. Any utterance or symbol is already an interpretive activity.

II. Meaning and Contextuality

The contextual and interrelated nature of language lead Derrida and Whitehead to recognize both the interrelated nature of the signifier to its context and the dependence of meaning upon their interplay. Meaning is the result of an interplay of differences and similarities. It is not the result of a correlation to an ultimate reality. For instance, to arrive at the notion of differance and play, Derrida builds upon Saussure’s maxim that language is a complex network of differences placed in relation. In the context of language, meaning does not occur as ontological presence. Neither is meaning dependent upon nor constituted by an essential substance to which linguistic expressions approximate themselves (OG 31- 32; MP 24-25, In other words, we do not derive meaning from being nor from a symbolic correlation to being. Instead, meaning and value come from the interplay of differences and deference that Derrida hopes to capture in coining the word "difference" (OG 50-57).

According to Whitehead, the interrelated nature of meaning allows for the differences in meaning that can occur between the speaker and the hearer, and more importantly, between the writer and the reader. Our language, both spoken and written, allows us to abstract particularities from their immediate context. As a result, we are able to place them in different contexts that give those particulars new meanings. Due to a different context, both in speech and in writing we are able to arrive at different conclusions even though we share a certain identity of meaning for a given word. For instance, Whitehead notes wisely that the expression "a warm day" is "very different for speakers in Texas, or on the coast of England bordering the North Sea" (MT 39). The words "a warm day" might share certain common meaning, but convey a different feeling for speakers in these different climates. In the case of a book, this goes even further since the book can be far removed from the context in which it is written, conveying different feelings and moods to different readers. As a result, language bears an elliptical character in which there is a hermeneutical play between the interpreter and the originator of a proposition (CN 1-25).

The contextual nature of language leads Whitehead to conclude that there are "no brute, self-contained matters of fact, capable of being understood apart from interpretation as an element of a system" (PR 14). Like Derrida, Whitehead recognizes that meaning results from a complex interplay of differences and contrasts that distinguish one thing from another, even if that play is not limited to language. As early as 1917, Whitehead begins to explore the necessary connection between context and meaning. As a result, he concludes that the fragmentary nature of experiences require an interrelated context from which they can derive meaning (OT 217). Later, Whitehead argues that meaning and value emerge from the interplay between the infinite relatedness of things and their concrete embodiment (MG 674-675). In the development of his philosophy, Whitehead concludes that in the processes of exclusion and differentiation things acquire their identity and uniqueness (MT 50-54; 57-63). In the process of differentiation which render "things" concrete, meaning can also emerge. For Whitehead, meaning is never the result of an infinite universal essence. Instead, it is the result of an "inter-play" of differentiations and inclusions within a particular concrete entity in relation to other concrete entities. Unfortunately, as Whitehead notes, the "history of thought is a tragic mixture of vibrant disclosure and of deadening closure" (MT 58). These assumptions of closure and certainty in knowledge are the "anti-Christ of learning" and "dogmatism" which Whitehead rejects (MT 58).

III. The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

Another area that demonstrates how Whitehead’s postmodern concerns develop alongside his metaphysical concerns is in the development of what he calls "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness." In developing his argument against this fallacy, Whitehead’s philosophy moves away from modernity’s logocentric assumptions of an underlying ontological reality to which linguistic expressions conform. His metaphysics and his hermeneutics coincide in noting this fallacy. According to Whitehead’s philosophy, reality is a fluid interplay of relations between concrete actualities and infinite possibilities. As a result, he argues that reality cannot be limited to any given static or fixed concept without reducing its fluid nature to a rigid abstraction. Linguistic expressions are necessarily abstractions from reality, and hence, interpret actual entities by defining only certain aspects. These abstractions, taken as full representations of actual entities, would both distort and pose as the final reality (MT 18). In addition, Whitehead’s actual entities are ontologically the equivalent of Descartes’ res vera. with one exception: their substantial self-sufficiency (PR xiii, 59. 205). Thus, the particular spatio-temporal self-determinations of actual entities prevent the conveyance of their full "ontological presence" in any linguistic expression.

Whitehead understands each experience as being particular in nature and confined to its own universe (PR 43). Experience is both finite and interrelated to its context As a result, he argues that there is no singular absolute universal expression of truth (MT 69-70). All truth is ultimately relative to certain given presuppositions, abstractions, and exclusions (AI 241- 242). Truth depends partially upon the unique perspective and standpoint of the interpreter. In this respect, Whitehead’s philosophy parallels the theories of relativity in physics. What is true for one observer may not be true for another observer even if they are talking about the same event. This does not mean that truth is reduced to an utter relativism. Instead, Whitehead allows for the "verification" of truth by its correspondence to the actual state of affairs (PR 186-191). In other words, truth is not determined by its identification with an absolute universal. Rather, it is determined by how well it depicts and describes a particular state of affairs in a given context from a given perspective.

The recognition of both our perspectival limitations and the interrelated nature of reality leads Whitehead to argue, similarly to Peirce and James, for an open metaphysical system that continually seeks "better" descriptions of the whole of reality. But, unlike them, he does not share the belief that a final and ultimate description of reality is possible. Instead, Whitehead offers an open system that allows for the continual development of new interconnections and meaning.

According to Whitehead, science and philosophy abstract their data from the complex and dynamic interrelatedness of reality. What they abstract also depends on the particular interests and perspectives of the discipline. Because scientists and philosophers abstract data based on particular interest, the objective philosophical and scientific precision craved by the rationalism of modernity is impossible. There is always a creative or vested interpretation of reality involved. The fallacy occurs when these disciplines forget that their concepts are particular abstractions from reality and thus function as if their concepts were actual universal representations of reality. The danger of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness is the pretense that a given abstraction is the actual reality it purports to represent. According to Whitehead, this pretense leads to the mechanistic views of the universe that pervaded modernity (SMW 76).

Interestingly enough, Whitehead arrives at the notion of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness through his reading of Bergson’s critique of simple location and the spatialization of things (SMW 50), a critique also familiar to Derrida (MP 37; 227). The extent to which Bergson serves as a common denominator to both Whitehead and Derrida is minor, but not insignificant. Whitehead "deconstructs" the modern fallacy of simple location and the spatialization of reality, thus critiquing the representational assumptions of philosophy. He moves away from any immediate representational understanding of linguistic abstractions that deny temporality to them (PR 8). Like Bergson and Derrida, Whitehead desires to open the way for including temporalization in his philosophy. Without this temporalization, a simple location of reality creates a false representation that excludes the fluidity of temporal relations (SMW 51).

Whitehead suspects "modern scientists" who claim to explain every element of the universe by means of a theory. He suspects them because scientific theoretical methods involve certain presuppositions and contextual experiences (PR 42). Thus, Whitehead prefers that different interpretative methods co-exist. Whitehead wants to unmask the scientific and philosophical desire to abstract and fix reality in a singular expression. Similarly, Derrida wants to unmask the "pretense" of modernity that attempts to fix the meaning of the flux of experience in singular monolithic assertions. In this task they share a common vision that recognizes both the fluidity of human experience and the futility of our attempts at systematizing them into rigid and monolithic systems.

In addition, Whitehead did not think that our sense perception itself is a simple enterprise. Rather, it is the juncture of two modes of experiences: presentational immediacy and casual efficacy. Together, these forms of experience take the form of "symbolic reference" (PR 168 ff). Our perception internally combines a multitude of sense experience into a manageable whole that we project to a particular location that might be either internal or external to ourselves (S 30-59). Through "presentational immediacy," Whitehead distinguishes between the manner in which "things are objectively in our experience and formally, existing in their own completeness" (S 25). As a result, Whitehead concludes that objectification is an abstraction that does not objectify the actual entity in its entirety (S 25). The "symbolic" nature of sense perception and experience prevents the ontological fullness of being from being captured by either language or philosophy.

Not only do we fail to recognize our epistemological limits by generalizing abstractions, we also unconsciously generalize our individual finite perspectives into an infinite universal reality (MT 42- 43). Human experience "atomizes" the interrelated continuum of time and space into manageable bits that are conditioned by our perspective (PR 67). While this segmenting of time and space facilitates our understanding and perception of the whole of "reality," it also places limitations on our perspective. Ultimately, all metaphysics is limited by its unique perspective and its unique standpoint (MT 67). These limitations imply that our understanding is primarily "abstract" in nature, limiting our ability to know the significance of something in relation to all possible environments (MT 60).

IV. Intertextuality and the Dissolution of the Subject-Object Dichotomy

One of the strongest moves that Whitehead makes toward a postmodern stance is his critique of the Cartesian separation of the subject from the object. The detached rationality of the Enlightenment project is an impossibility for Whitehead. According to John Cobb, Whitehead overcomes the epistemological and metaphysical dualism of the subject and the object while preserving a distinction between them. As a result, Whitehead moves away from the epistemology of modernity, according to all things a certain level of subjective agency (FCPP 174-178). Furthermore, according to William Dean, the empiricism of Whitehead’s philosophy not only destroys the dualism of the subject and object, but also other traditional dualisms, such as those of spirit-matter and human-nonhuman, in a manner that even transcends Derrida’s works (DP 8). Whitehead accomplishes this task in several ways. First, his pansychism prevents the privileging human experience above that of other entities. As a result, no actual entity is purely objective. Second, the role perspectives play in constructing our experience allows him to assert that both subjects and objects are the same actual entity conceived from different spatiotemporal perspectives (FCPP 174-175).

Third, Whitehead recognizes a subjective bias in Descartes’ philosophy. According to Whitehead, Descartes gives primacy to the experiencing subject over the object of experience, thus shifting the focus to the subject as the primary source for philosophical reflection. Although Whitehead agrees with the benefits of Cartesian philosophy, he argues that Descartes and his successors missed the extent of their discovery by understanding experience in terms of substance-quality categories (PR 159). Ultimately Whitehead articulates what he calls the revised subjectivist principle: "that apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, bare nothingness" (PR 167). Whitehead rejects any notions of primary substances underlying sense perception, as well as the harsh subject-object division of experience, Instead of a simple bifurcation of mind and nature, Whitehead recognizes with the onset of the new developments of physics, that the subject as active and the object as passive is not an accurate depiction of reality (CN 27). Attempts at reducing the world to subjects and objects inevitably fail because they do not recognize that we are hopelessly interrelated with the world that we experience (PR 49-50; SMW 129). The subject cannot be removed from the object nor can the object be removed from the subject. On the contrary; Whitehead argues for their mutual constitution of each other.

In Derrida’s case, this issue plays itself out in the realm of language and philosophy. Derrida, like Whitehead, also seeks to overcome what he terms the "illusion" of a singular, objective present that dominates language and philosophy in favor of the interwoven play of meanings and differentiation (MP 12-13). Rather than a fixed meaning that conforms to some objectively verifiable exterior reality, Derrida acknowledges the interrelated nature of language itself, and rejects the presumed fixed meaning of abstractions and objective data. In Whitehead, the interrelated and fluid nature of reality prevents rigid fixed meanings that objectively depict reality in its fullness. In Derrida, it is the interrelated and fluid nature of language that prevents it. Nevertheless, the results are remarkably similar. Since Derrida rejects the possibility of a purely objective philosophical language that corresponds to reality; he also rejects the radical subject-object duality that pervades modern philosophy.

V. Temperalization, Iterability and the Present

Whitehead’s and Derrida’s shared postmodern concerns also undergird the development of their philosophies. For instance, in Derrida’s philosophy, temporality plays a crucial role as an element of the radical otherness of differance, as well as in the iterability of the sign. For Derrida, signification can occur only if every element present in the presence of being is "related to something other than itself thereby keeping within itself the mark of the past element, and already letting itself be vitiated by the mark of its relation to the future element, this trace being related no less to what is called the future than to what it is called the past, and constituting what is called the present by means of this very relation to what it is not. . ." (MP 13). As a result, he understands the "present" of presence as being an irreducible synthesis of traces "of retention and protensions" which he eventually terms differance. The temporalization of presence recognized by Derrida bears a strong similarity to the constitution of an actual entity’s concrescence in Whitehead’s philosophy. Both are inescapably interrelated, temporalized, and constituted by relations and differentiations to the past (givenness) and the future (possibility).

For Derrida, the basic nature of anything that can be termed "presence" is already constructed by the dynamic interplay, interrelation, and differentiation of differance. As a result, Derrida concludes that any and all ontological presence is necessarily mediated by signs if they are to be known (MP 316-319). Since the temporalization of the present requires the separation of an interval to differentiate the "present" from what it is not, then only in the temporal deferral of a "sign" can one encounter the mediation of presence. For Derrida, only signs are repeatable and objectifiable. In a sense, the "sign" bears a similarity to the eternally objectified superject that allows the closure and repeatability of objectified actual entities in other actual entities which are no longer their temporal contemporaries.

In addition, Derrida’s notion of differance serves as the "constitutive, productive, and originary causality" that grounds the very possibility of rationality (MP 6). Linguistically speaking, differance is a productive activity or movement that serves as the ground of what can be said. Whitehead understands creativity as the originary creative activity or principle which unites the disjunctive many into one that then becomes part of the disjunctive many once more, as well as the ground of reason itself (PR 21). Similarly; Derrida understands differance to be the originary ground of language and reason. In addition, Derrida expressively argues that differance is not to be equated to either a being or God. This distancing of differance from both being and God remarkably resembles Whitehead’s differentiation of creativity from both actual entities and God. The similarities between these concepts are apparent. In part, these similarities may be due to their shared concern with temporality and their shared critique of modernity. Regardless, these similarities merit further consideration beyond the scope of this paper.

VI. Conclusions?

The very act of arriving at any conclusions is a risky enterprise that attempts to fix and give closure to the very openness of the system that both Whitehead and Derrida recognize. However, in the juxtaposition of their ideas and concerns, a new possibility for dialogue and openness emerges. Rather than hiding Whitehead in the shrouds of an arcane modern world view, we can achieve a greater appreciation for his work. We may be unable to detach Whitehead from his own particular context at the end of modernity, but neither can we cover him with the presumptions of a dead metaphysics. When we place Whitehead in a new relationship with the postmodern world view we realize that what some might claim to be the arcane ravings of an old philosopher actually prophesy the coming of a new age.

Underlying both Whitehead and Derrida are radically similar concerns that recognize the limits of language and philosophy while deconstructing many of the presuppositions of modernity. Even more, both Whitehead and Derrida share a dynamic and interrelated view of "reality" And while Derrida’s "reality" is limited to the interplay of language, for Whitehead, the interplay of relations, contrasts, and differences is both linguistic and actually at the base of all experience.

Although we might be tempted to ignore Whitehead’s contribution to both a postmodern critique and the deconstruction of modernity, we cannot ignore either of them. We can no longer ignore Whitehead as a potential contributor to and predecessor of our current postmodern philosophers. Nor can we limit our postmodern analysis of Whitehead to his constructive metaphysical system. Instead, we need to recognize the full scope of his philosophical tasks which includes both a critical deconstruction of the presuppositions of modernity and a reconstruction of new hermeneutical and metaphysical systems to interpret all aspects of human experience.

If we take seriously both Whitehead’s and Derrida’s critique of the presumptions of detachments, abstractions, permanence, and exclusivity inherent in modernity, we pave the way for a radically new approach to human interaction and scholarly reflection. The detachment and isolation engendered by modernism can be replaced by a greater appreciation for the interconnected nature of all reality. This can help us overcome the dichotomies that separate and thrust us against each other, as well as against all of creation. A recognition of the creative interplay of both language and reality can impart a greater appreciation of its role in our thoughts and in the construction of our way of experiencing reality. Rather than the domination of absolute, unchanging truths and ideologies, an appreciation for change and diversity can create an openness toward different perspectives.

The dominance of Western philosophical views in scholarly circles often reduces Third World perspectives to an inferior status. Theologies and philosophies that deny the possibility of detached critical reflection are still viewed with suspicion and relegated to a marginal status. However both Whitehead and Derrida’s critique of modernism present a noble and exciting possibility for decentering the domination and absolutist claims of modernity; opening the way for other philosophical perspectives without necessarily falling prey to a radical relativism.



DP William Dean, "Deconstruction and Process," Journal of Religion 64 (1984).

FCPP David Ray Griffin, et. Al. Founders of Constructive Postmodern, Philosophy. Albany State University of New York Press, 1993.

MG Alfred North Whitehead, "Mathematics and the Good," in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1951.

MT Jaques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

OG Jaques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore John Hopkins University Press, 1976.

VPT David Ray Griffin, et. al. Varieties of Postmodern Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.