Whitehead on the Concept of ‘Importance’

by Ross Stanway

Ross Stanway is a Professor of Philosophy, and Head of the Department of Philosophy at Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, E0A 3C0, Canada. He is currently working on Whitehead’s concept of society.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 239-245, 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. Stanway writes of Whiteheads notion of “Importance.” Central to understanding it are the principle of “relativity;” the concepts of “propositions” and “judgment;” and the “principle of intensive relevance.”


In the first chapter of Modes of Thought, Whitehead states that it is no less the task of philosophy to set out what he calls "...notions of large, adequate generality" (MT 3) than it is to construct complex systematic theories. The former approach he calls the . . ."philosophical process of assemblage" (MT 2). By it, human beings gain those insights that allow them to transcend their individual spheres of interest and become members of the polis, i.e.. "civilized beings" (MT 4). Amongst these generalizations he includes the concept of ‘importance.’ Central to the effort to ascend from the cave is philosophy and central to the philosophical effort is the notion of ‘importance.’

In one of his general and edifying observations, Whitehead links civilization, philosophy and "the sense of importance." In Adventure of Ideas he states:

In philosophy, the fact, the theory, the alternatives, and the ideal are weighed together. Its gifts are insight and foresight, and a sense of the worth of life, in short, that sense of importance which nerves all civilized effort. (AI 98)

Again in Modes of Thought, Whitehead accords ‘importance’ a central role in the intellectual search for worth and civilization. As well, he sets out the areas of human intellectual endeavor by which ‘importance’ leads to civilization. He describes morality as ". . . the control of process so as to maximize importance" (MT 13f); in addition, ‘importance’ plays an essential role in logic, art and religion (MT 11).

P. A. Schilpp, in his article "Whitehead’s Moral Philosophy," pays considerable attention to the role of ‘importance’ in Whitehead’s moral thought. He sees it as fundamental to Whitehead’s moral philosophy. However, he does not think it is the "fundamental" concept Whitehead claims it to be, i.e., an "ultimate category," since he sees it as being derived from Whitehead’s notions of ‘interest’ and ‘unity.’1 He is correct to claim that it is not ultimate. However, it is not the case that Whitehead derives it from ‘interest’ and ‘unity.’ Rather, ‘interest’ is ‘importance’ taken at a certain level of purposefulness, and ‘unity’ is the ideal purposefulness seeks at its highest level of intensity. Schilpp makes his case, in the main, by examining the notion of ‘importance’ within the context of Whitehead’s moral thought, and by basing his observations almost exclusively on Modes of Thought. However, the notion of ‘importance’ is neither essentially a category of practical thought nor one which can be adequately understood by the process of "assemblage."

While Whitehead identifies ‘importance’ most explicitly and dramatically with moral obligation, aesthetic enhancement, logical precision and religious belief, he states they do not describe completely the philosophical scope or role of this concept. Indeed, he claims the true meaning of the term has been eclipsed by its close association with them, and that the concept is more broadly based (MT 11).

First, ‘importance’ is to be found operating outside of human existence. In Modes of Thought, Whitehead describes it as a factor in animal life; indeed . . .embedded in the very being of animal existence" (MT 9). It has "real relevance" in non-human animals, so much so that a primitive sense of moral obligation can be found in the higher species of the animal kingdom (MT 28). Secondly, ‘importance’ is to be found at the pre-conscious level of existence. Whitehead’s description of ‘importance’ as a ". . . fundamental notion not to be fully explained by any reference to a finite number of other factors" (MT 8), suggests that it permeates all levels and types of existence. This suggestion is no more clearly confirmed than in his discussion, in Process and Reality, of what constitutes both a physical object and a ". . . physical field in empty space" (PR 92). Thus ‘importance’ plays a part in what Whitehead refers to as "survival," regardless of the type or level of existence involved.

Finally, Whitehead uses the concept of ‘importance’ to distinguish between ‘order’ and ‘disorder.’ Though the account he gives of this relation in Process and Reality pertains to physical entities, it applies generally. Since no society, being part of some other social order, exists solely within itself, absolute ‘disorder’ is impossible. Rather, ‘disorder’ describes the relevance some other society or set of societies has for a particular society, or set of societies. If the defining characteristics of a society or set of societies have ". . . a lack of importance" for a specific society, they constitute, for that society, ‘disorder’ (PR 92).

Clearly then, ‘importance’ covers the full range of existence: inanimate modes of being, animal life and the civilizing efforts of human consciousness.

However, ‘importance’ is more than just pervasive. In Modes of Thought, Whitehead also observes that ‘importance’ is a "generic notion" and, therefore, has a fundamental role in the philosophy of organism; it is an intrinsic aspect of the central theme of purposefulness in Whitehead’s metaphysics (MT 11). To observe that ‘importance’ permeates all modes of existence is to recognize that it is fundamentally a metaphysical concept. To claim that it is a "generic notion" is to recognize that it is metaphysically fundamental. The former is a matter of the range of its involvement; the latter is a matter of its role in the notions of ‘origin’ and ‘purpose.’

In order adequately to understand the notion of ‘importance’ it is necessary to complement the method of "assemblage" with the systematic approach of Process and Reality.


The generic role of ‘importance’ can best be understood by first attending to the distinction Whitehead makes in Modes of Thought between ‘importance’ and ‘interest.’

They are two aspects of ‘importance’ itself. Within the context of his discussion about the practical matters of human experience. Whitehead treats the two terms as synonymous. Yet, ‘importance’ and ‘interest’ differ significantly. The former is described as a basic concept for which no complete definition can be given. It concerns the "final unity of purpose" (MT 12) as grounded on the "unity of the Universe" (MT 8). The latter is described by Whitehead as the condition essential for attending to the "individuality of the details" necessary for expression. The basis for the attention to details is a "perspective" (MT II). Arising out of an ‘interest,’ it gains a content which Whitehead calls a "matter-of-fact," an abstraction from an inclusive and interconnected background (MT 8).

The process of coming into being described by both ‘importance’ and ‘interest’ involves the concept of unity. In the case of ‘importance,’ it is the universe itself in its unlimited and inclusive connectedness. In the case of ‘interest,’ it is the limited, and therefore limiting, universe of societies as ‘enduring objects.’

With the distinction between ‘importance’ itself and ‘interest’ in mind, we can turn to the examination of the general concept of ‘importance’ in terms of Whitehead’s metaphysics.

While the notion of ‘importance’ depends on many of the basic categories of Process and Reality, the following are central to its understanding: the principle of ‘relativity’; the concepts of ‘propositions’ and ‘judgments,’ especially negative judgments; and finally, the ‘principle of intensive relevance.’ These will serve to focus the discussion.

First, we will examine systematically how ‘importance’ is realized in the unity of ‘enduring objects.’

All objects, physical, organic, conscious, or rational, are societies characterized by a ‘personal’ order. They are serially ordered and are so by virtue of the continuation of a common ‘subjective form,’ with, of course, tolerable variations. That ‘subjective form’ involves a gradation of characteristics selected by the ‘members’ from a welter of possibilities. That gradation, of course, rests neither in the possibilities themselves, which are purely logical entities, nor in the previous instantiation of possibilities as objective data, the ‘superjects’ of earlier processes. Such data must be available, regardless of the level of activity under consideration, (PR 273) for there to be any prehension of the possibilities required to realize the ‘subjective form’ characterizing the new emergence into objectivity. However, that gradation is not in itself generically determinant. That power rests with the ‘members’ of the society exercising ‘subjective aim.’ Even in the case of ‘enduring objects’ which are characterized only by "survival" through repetition, the process is an act of conformity by the ‘members’ and not one imposed upon them. ‘Importance’ describes both the ‘subjective aim’ which directs the process of gradation and the gradation itself of the alternatives required to realize the ‘subjective form.’ The former is ‘importance’ as ‘interest’; the latter is ‘importance’ as the description of the ‘subjective form’ realized in the exercising of ‘interest.’ In Process and Reality Whitehead describes the latter aspect as the "defining characteristics" of a society. A society is what it is because it "... elicits that complex into importance for its members. . ." (PR 92). The ‘subjective form’ is not something which has characteristics; it is the complex of characteristics gained from the ‘subjective form’ of its ‘members.’ The former aspect of ‘interest,’ i.e., the ‘subjective aim,’ is the metaphysical re-statement of this observation in Modes of Thought: "Thus perspective is the outcome of feeling; and feeling is graded by some sense of interest as to the variety of its differentiations" (MT 9f).

Again, the ‘subjective aim’ is nothing apart from its ‘interest.’ ‘Importance,’ then, is part of the mundane repetitious world of inorganic or organic objects, as much as it is part of higher levels of process, and describes the generic ordering of that world.

‘Importance,’ as it pertains to thought, is, in principle, the same, though in details radically different. Human reflection involves a judging subject exercising ‘comparative feelings’ in the form of ‘intellectual feelings.’ Such feelings define the subject as an entity which is able to entertain alternative potentialities, invoke them into ‘importance’ effectively to conform with its past, or to revise its previous history, moderately or radically, by recognizing alternatives not commonly part of its own world (PR 267). It is the capacity for radical change that characterizes human existence.

That change occurs dramatically with the ‘negative perception,’ what Whitehead terms "the triumph of consciousness" (PR 161). It further involves the subject prehending a proposition, which, as a datum, is a "lure for feeling." The subject of a proposition is an actuality necessarily present to a prehending subject if the proposition is to be a "lure," and its predicate is a description which may or may not apply to the subject. A proposition is true or false. But that is not a matter which rests with the proposition itself. As is the case with any datum, it merely presents a possibility. Its truth or falsity rests with the judging subject (PR 258; 261).

This is a most important aspect of Whitehead’s metaphysics for the consideration of ‘interest.’ It effectively reverses the commonly held perspective that interest is properly determined by facts, understood either subjectively or objectively, and their truth or falsity. Indeed, as a "lure," a proposition must be more interesting than true (AI 244). So significant is this point for the comprehension of the generic character of ‘importance,’ it merits further comment.

Physical, organic and conscious existence, for the most part, function according to established past patterns. Such ‘conformity’ is extremely important, for it assures the continuity and endurance characteristic of objective existence. Insofar as the previous functioning unity of a society constitutes the central aim of a subject, the subject’s power to acknowledge the "lure" of a proposition describing those conditions necessary to or suitable for its continuity is appropriate. For example, if a life-threatening heart irregularity develops, one does not want to ignore or to deny the truth of the diagnoses of such and the advice which, if followed, would see a return to a conformity indicative of good health. However, a conscious subject which acquiesces to the ‘lure’ of a proposition in circumstances which bespeak the possibility of creative advance has failed to exercise its power to invoke those possibilities by which, either modestly or radically, a potential for novelty might be realized. By not acquiescing to the ‘lure’ of those propositions descriptive of past patterns only but by imaginatively invoking into existence other possible predicates, the subject makes the transition from ‘conformity’ to overt ‘creativity.’2 It is the negation of what ‘is’ and the preference for what ‘is not but might be.’ In this case the subject exercises its power to acknowledge and to transcend rather than to acknowledge and to acquiesce. The power does not rest in the intellectual capacity to acknowledge alone but also in the emotive power -- the intensity of feeling -- to enact in a way not in keeping with the assertions of certain propositions. It is in the mode of creative enactment that the concept of ‘importance emerges most clearly as a generic one.

Even at this level, of course, the judging subject may invoke into ‘importance’ a prevailing array of characteristics. But, appearances to the contrary, if it does, it does so by its own power and not because of their ‘importance,’ for it rests with the objective data. It is in the power of the subject, then, to reaffirm what is, to introduce imagined alternatives, or to do both (PR 261).

What are the modes of this transformation from ‘conformity’ to ‘creative advancement’?

With ‘intellectual feelings,’ consciousness functions at a heightened level of ‘intensive relevance.’ The alternatives to what is present are imaginatively felt and felt in sharp contrast to what is present. If the intensity of the feelings of that which is absent is strong enough, it is invoked into ‘importance at the expense of a previous state (PR 273). In all instances, there must be a gradation of ‘importance’ for the emergence of a ‘subjective form.’

The highest level of experience involves ‘intuitive feelings’ and the ‘intuitive judgment,’ particularly the ‘negative intuitive judgment.’ The subject does not just imagine alternative potentialities, but feels that such alternatives, notwithstanding that they remain alternatives, are prohibited by the present state of affairs. It is a ". . .feeling of what might be, and is not . . . a feeling of absence . . . produced by the definite exclusiveness of what is really present" (PR 273). With it there comes a "suspension of judgment," the recognition that what is imagined cannot co-exist with the objective situation.

Whitehead observes that "… suspended judgments are the weapons essential to scientific progress" (PR 275). In science, progress brings back the opportunity to attend to the truth; compatibility returns and the imagination no longer stands in contrast to what is perceived to be.

But imagination need not be bound to seek the "objectifying pattern" of truth. And, with the ‘intuitive negative judgment’ taking consciousness to its highest level, the opportunity is present for imagination to set aside the question of the truth or falsity of the matter. In the case of a dramatic, creative alteration, there must be both a recognition of incompatibility and an "inattention" to truth. The refusal to be enjoined by the truth permits the admission into ‘importance’ of an "emotional pattern" which, because it is not derived, or derivable, from the world of ‘physical purposes,’ comes entirely from the ‘subjective aim.’ In such cases, it is the sense of purpose alone which dictates the whole process of selection, gradation and concrescence. In principle, the process is the same as it is for all other instances: the subject integrates a set of alternatives into a unity which is the objectification of its own ‘subjective aim,’ of its own ‘interest.’ However, now the intensity of feeling is located totally in the sense of purpose involved. ‘Importance’ is entirely a matter of ‘purpose.’ Other feelings are present in the subject but they are ". . . .intellectually separable from the feeling in question" (PR 275). The domination of the ‘subjective aim’ does not preclude, of course, the possibility of its own modification. Accordingly, there may be a change in the sense of ‘importance’ which directs the operation. The increased intensity of feeling of the ‘subjective aim,’ and accordingly ‘importance,’ does not mean, however, that ‘intellectual feelings’ can operate apart from physical entities manifesting ‘physical purposes’ (PR 273).

The two metaphysical aspects of the notion of ‘importance’ were referred to earlier: first, the unity – ‘subjective form’ -- which results from the gradation of alternatives in terms of their intensity and, secondly, the sense of purpose itself – ‘subjective aim’ -- which determines that gradation. It is now clear that both aspects exhibit the ‘principle of intensive relevance’ (PR 148). It is by this principle of Whitehead’s metaphysics that ‘importance’ becomes predominantly one of purpose, rather than structure. As the intensity of feeling increases, the sense of ‘importance’ shifts from a society’s characteristics to its purpose. At the highest level of intensity the subject’s sense of importance may be dominated by its purpose. In other words, ‘intellectual feelings,’ operating at their highest level, lead to "intellectual freedom."

Now we can turn to consider that other sense of unity which gives meaning to ‘importance,’ namely the "Universe."

Societies are what they are because of their interests. And, while that which lies beyond their range of ‘interest,’ as either an entity or possibility, is irrelevant to their specific ‘interest,’ the ‘principle of intensive relevance’ assures it is not absolutely so. Anything in the universe is available for prehension by a subject and, if prehended, falls somewhere in the range of the gradation of ‘importance for that subject (PR 148). There must be, then, the notion of an all-inclusive unity. It is the unity that Whitehead calls, in Modes of Thought, the "Universe," and upon which the ultimate sense of ‘importance’ is based. This meaning of the term ‘unity’ is the basis for claiming ‘importance’ to be "primarily monistic" (MT 20). However, the ‘ontological principle’ and the ‘principle of relativity’ preclude the unity of "extreme monism" (PR 148). It is not an ultimate substance in the manner, for example, of Bradley’s Absolute.

Yet, it exists. The concept of the "unity of the Universe" takes the notion of a unity emerging through ‘process’ and ‘importance’ to its limit. It exists in the inter-connectedness of its membership. More importantly, it is also an ideal for its members, i.e., it is "objectified" by its members (PR 200).

With the introduction of the "unity of the Universe," another dimension is added to the concept of purpose. More accurately, another dimension comes into focus for the judging subject, and it does so only at the level of "intellectual freedom." Behind specific ‘interests’ and their details lies the more general purpose of ‘unity’ itself. It is the desire to realize in a finite entity the ideal of unity; to express in a specific conditioned social order the ideal of unconditioned unity (MT 102f.) The modes of expression of this sense of ‘importance’ or purpose are the areas of human achievement Whitehead sets out in Modes of Thought: logic, morality, art and religion. In each of these areas the creative act is an attempt to give expression to some specific ‘interest,’ but it is, no less, an attempt to do so in a manner which contains the details of that ‘interest’ in an inclusive, sustaining, unified form. If such expressions attend directly and explicitly to the purpose of unity, the sense of ‘importance’ involved yields merely a bare abstraction. If, however, the purpose of unity itself is not involved, the resulting expressions amount to little more than a mere collection of disconnected and incompatible details. This, Whitehead holds, is the "trivialization," of the sense of ‘importance’ (MT 12).

Of these modes of heightened creative expression, religion most explicitly seeks to realize the ideal of ultimate unity in its claims. Accordingly, more than any of the others, it is capable of heightening the sense of ‘importance’ by giving some concrete form of expression to the ideal of the ultimate unity of creativity (MT 28). It may, and too often does, diminish the idea of purposefulness by proclaiming an array of inexplicable dogmas. In the former case, religion metaphorically gives voice to the metaphysical concept of ‘Importance.’ In the latter case, religion degenerates into tribalism. Though not with the same explicit agenda, logic, art and morality also express the notion of unity.

It is significant that Whitehead includes logic but not science amongst the areas of human expression that most exhibit ‘importance.’ The unity of scientific thought is determined by its obligation to attend to enduring entities governed by ‘physical purpose.’ In logic the concept of unity dominates. "Logical enjoyment passes from the many to the one. . . .the many are understood as permitting that unity of construction" (MT 61; emphasis added).

Of course, none of these areas is able to capture in its modes of expression the ideal of unity. Each affirmation of ‘importance’ must transcend itself for the sake of some other purpose (MT 180.

Clearly, ‘importance’ is a basic concept for Whitehead, for it is based on the central idea of his metaphysics, namely purpose. Furthermore, it takes that idea to its ultimate level in the pursuit of the ideal of unity in concrete modes of expression.


I want to conclude with a few observations on the importance of Whitehead’s metaphysical treatment of ‘importance’ itself.

In Modes of Thought Whitehead frequently identifies the attention to details as both an expression of ‘importance’ and the "trivialization" of ‘importance.’ Purpose must end in ‘satisfaction.’ It can do so only through its objectification in details. If details are taken in themselves, they are trivial. If the sense of ‘importance,’ however, does not attend to details, it indulges in merely "noble sentiments" (AI 98). Modernity, in both its Ordinary and intellectual life, has come to identify ‘importance’ with the details, treating ‘importance’ as a property of objects or personal feelings. It is little wonder, then, that what vividly claims our attention at one time, or on one occasion, later slips into insignificance. Of course, such is a necessary part of the universe; indeed, it is a necessary aspect of most of it. The absence, however, of that sense of purpose which, Whitehead held, was ultimately derived from the "unity of the Universe" leads merely to organization and to conformity. A. MacIntyre correctly observes, in After Virtue, that managers and therapists dominate too much of the life of modern society.3

Finally, what is the place of philosophy itself amongst these modes of creative expression? In the opening quotation from Adventure of Ideas, Whitehead uses the word "nerves" to describe the role of ‘importance’ in philosophy. It is a most appropriate term, a term of ‘intensity’ and ‘purpose.’ It is the ". . . sense of importance which nerves all civilized effort."

The theme of this Symposium is, "Is Whitehead’s Metaphysics Important?" Its importance rests in returning an interest in the central issue of purpose to the philosophical enterprise and, no less, the ideal of the unity of the "Universe" as a dimension of purpose.



1 P. A. Schilpp, "Whitehead’s Moral Philosophy," The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (2nd. ed.) (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1951), p. 611.

2 It is "overt," since ‘conformity’ is ultimately no less a mode of ‘creativity.’

3A. MacIntyre, After Virtue (2nd. ed.) (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p.30.