Whitehead on the Metaphysical Employment of Language

by Donald A. Crosby

Donald A. Crosby received his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1963. He is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 38-54, Vol. 1, Number 1, Spring 1971. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author appraises the metaphysical language of Whitehead and its effectiveness. He affirms that distinct criteria guided Whitehead in the derivation of his terminology, and he examines these criteria.

In an article which appeared some time ago Frank M. Doan sought to determine the precise nature of Whitehead’s revised metaphysical language and to appraise its effectiveness both as a mode of explanation and as a vehicle of philosophic imagination. Included in that discussion was a presentation in four steps of Whitehead’s method of deriving the technical vocabulary of his system. (2:605-22) But the article lacked any specification of the distinct criteria which guided Whitehead in the derivation of that terminology. I propose in this article to supply that lack by exhibiting that there are at least six such criteria which can be inferred from those passages in his writings where he reflects upon his choice of key terms. I shall also discuss the rationale for the criteria and comment on the importance of taking them into account when evaluating Whitehead’s way of using language for metaphysical purposes.

The criteria can be listed as follows:

1. The terms chosen ought to have associations with the language used by philosophers in the past.

2. It is desirable that the meanings given to the terms for philosophical purposes should have some justification in the etymologies of the terms.

3. The terms should have about them the suggestiveness of familiar facts or concrete exemplifications in experience.

4. The terms ought to be sufficiently general or inclusive in their ordinary meanings to admit of the further extensions of meaning required for their use in the scheme.

5. The terms ought to be devoid, so far as is possible, of misleading associations or implications.

6. Where a term is inadequate when taken by itself, but it is still desirable to make use of it, it must be complemented with approximately equivalent terms which can help to make up its deficiency.


Criterion one: the need for associations with the language of past philosophers. In a book written after Process and Reality Whitehead shows himself to be well aware of the familiar charge that he is guilty of arbitrarily inventing new words or capriciously "redesigning" old words to suit his purposes, without due regard for the proprieties of linguistic usage. One of his responses to this charge is to note that his "nomenclature has been made to conform to the condition that, as a theory develops, its technical phraseology should grow out of the usage of the great masters who laid its foundations." (AI 30l)1 This amounts to a statement of the first criterion that I have listed.

Whitehead’s way of utilizing this first criterion can be illustrated by reference to the terms ‘prehension’ and ‘actua1 entity’. He selects ‘prehension’ as a derivative of the word apprehension."2 on the model of two terms given prominence by Leibniz: ‘perception’ and ‘apperception’. By use of these terms Leibniz sought to give expression to the view, quite congenial to Whitehead’s way of thinking, that every real thing in the universe has an experiential character involving a mental aspect (‘perception’), and that human self-consciousness (‘apperception’) is but one manifestation of this pervasive mental aspect. But the trouble with Leibniz’s terms is that they both suggest consciousness (by association with their meanings in ordinary discourse) and, more fundamentally, that they are entangled with Leibniz’s doctrine of representative perception, which Whitehead is anxious to reject. By its reminiscent affinity with Leibniz’s terms, ‘prehension’ can convey something of the spirit and intent of the Leibnizian metaphysics, some features of which Whitehead took to be illuminating and important. But its difference from those terms guards it against suggesting the errors of the earlier thinker. Thus the meaning of the technical term ‘prehension’ is partly fixed by comparison and contrast with the meaning of similar terms used in a past philosophical system. (Al 300)

The term ‘actual entity’ is used by Whitehead to designate the irreducible units of reality in his metaphysical pluralism. This term, although in a sense artificial, is one possible translation into English of Descartes’ phrase res vera. Whitehead wants to make central in his own system the idea of that fullness of existence with respect to which everything else is a derivative or an abstraction (cf. the ‘ontological principle’). And he finds this idea implicit in Descartes use of the two terms res vera and ‘substance’ in the Meditations. The term ‘substance’ carries with it too much of the substance-attribute metaphysics to be useful for the organic philosophy. But res vera can serve as a substitute and, translated as ‘actual entity’, can grasp the germ of truth in Descartes’ doctrine of substance. So again, Whitehead seeks by his selection of terms to maintain a sense of continuity with his philosophic predecessors, but also to suggest important ways in which his outlook differs from theirs. (PR viii-ix, 108, 116)3

But why is the maintenance of this sense of continuity important for him? One answer is that he wants his metaphysical idiom to evoke the dialogue of philosophy with its past, to serve as a constant reminder that current philosophy is indebted to and builds upon the work of those who have gone before. Another answer is that he is simply considering the nature of his audience. Most of those who will be inquiring into his thought will be trained philosophers, familiar with the history and literature of their discipline. And if he is going to communicate effectively to them the novel insights and perspectives of his system, he must do so in terms that will strike a responsive chord. But if this is his concern, why not just use the phraseology fashionable in the philosophy of his own day? Why resort to a "redesigned" idiom at all?

Whitehead’s response to this question is twofold. First, the current stock of terms is too restrictive. It can embody only a very "small selection from the total vocabulary of the philosophic tradition." (AI 301) If he were to employ only those terms presently in vogue, he reasons that he would cut himself off from the much wider universe of discourse afforded by the voluminous literature of philosophy’s past with its rich diversity of modes of expression. He wants to achieve the virtue of effective communication to his fellow philosophers while at the same time avoiding the vice of that narrow and ephemeral quality which often attaches to systems couched exclusively in the jargon of their time. He wants also to make quite explicit by his careful selection of terms the many useful analogies to his way of thinking which he finds in the tradition taken as a whole.

Second, he is convinced that every selection of terms is dictated by certain root philosophic assumptions and is intimately bound up with the outlook growing out of those assumptions. To be content with the stock of terms fashionable among philosophers of his time would have been to acquiesce more or less uncritically in the fundamental features of their viewpoint. But he desires to avoid precisely that; he seeks to offer a distinctively different philosophical perspective. Therefore, he feels constrained to clothe his system in a vocabulary deliberately tailored to his own assumptions and outlook. But in order to achieve this, he need not deny himself the semantic resources available in the philosophical literature as such. He need only be selective, drawing upon the portions of that literature which have affinities with his approach and which can yield a phraseology suited to its expression.

But just how successfully can Whitehead communicate with terms chosen in this manner? Clearly, there are some sorts of people with whom he will have little or no success. For example, he will not succeed with those not well versed in the history of philosophy, since the allusions he intends to generate with his terms will be lost on such persons. Nor is he likely to succeed with philosophers who think it essential that philosophy make a clean break with its past, because the technique of alluding to the language of traditional philosophy is specifically meant to imply a continuity with the past and a basic sympathy with its concerns.

Again, he will not communicate effectively with those who are convinced that philosophical discourse ought to be of the sort readily translatable into an ideal logical language or with those who conceive of technical philosophical terms as ones pared down to exact and unequivocal meanings with no hint of metaphorical variability. For although he strives to use his terms with systematic consistency, it can be seen from this first criterion and others yet to be discussed that Whitehead does not want his terms to be so precisely defined as to be deprived of a certain suggestive vitality. The idea apparently is that the terms shall not merely stand for concepts but also evoke a consciousness. The meanings they (or ones similar to them) had in the discourse of earlier philosophers are intended to haunt and permeate the meanings they have in the contexts and usage of Whitehead’s system. The result is a new nexus of meaning but with a ferment of old associations. A tension is set up between similarities and dissimilarities of the new and old meanings, and the terms gain a metaphorical thrust.4


Criterion two: the rule that the philosophical use of a term have some justification in that term’s etymology or root meaning. By this second criterion Whitehead also seeks to give an allusive energy to his terms. The allusions this time turn upon the images and associations implicit in the etymologies of words. The criterion can be illustrated and discussed in connection with two Whiteheadian terms: ‘concrescence’ and ‘superject’, the first a dictionary word, the second a term of Whitehead’s own devising. He uses ‘concrescence’ to signify the process whereby many component prehensions are brought into the novel unity of a single throb of experience. It is the act of becoming which constitutes the being of the actual entity. The etymological meaning of the word, "a growing together," makes it especially apt for the expression of this idea. And he reasons that its suitability is even further enhanced by the fact that it shares a common root with the word "concrete." For in his philosophy individual concrescent acts are the final concrete realities of the world. Or as he states it, ‘concrescence’ is that "ultimate entry into the concrete, in abstraction from which there is mere non-entity." (PR 321; AI 303)

‘Superject’ is a coined term based on the word "subject." The etymological meaning of "subject" is "a laying or placing under," and that of ‘superject’ is similar: "a laying or placing over." Given this etymology, ‘superject’ can serve to suggest the element of self-transcendence in the notion of an actual entity, the fact that its component ‘feelings’ aim at the end of their unification as ‘feeler’. For Whitehead the ‘superjective’ sense of ‘feeler’ is not that of subjective entertainment of feelings but rather that of the actual entity as ‘objectified’, i.e., as efficacious for future concrescences. Self-transcendence in the entity, therefore, is the transcendence of its own subjective immediacy that is inevitably brought about by its drive to become a distinct unit of experience. There is, of course, no ‘substance’ as such in Whitehead’s metaphysics, no prior unchanging thing undergoing various adventures of attribution. He does make frequent use of the term ‘subject’, but he asks that it be regarded as shorthand for the coordinate term ‘subject-superject’, this latter term serving as a constant reminder that "an actual entity feels as it does feel in order to be the actual entity which it is." (PR 339)

The question is bound to arise at this point: why did Whitehead feel the need to devise an artificial term like ‘superject’? Such a question would need to be answered for each case of Whitehead’s resorting to an odd term. But let us see what kind of explanation could be offered for the choice of ‘superject’, and how the two criteria we have so far discussed could be said to enter into that choice. It might be objected that Whitehead could have gotten his meaning across just as well with some term from ordinary language such as ‘feeler’, in which case he would not have needed to invent the term ‘superject’. Why, then, did he invent it?

We can only speculate about what Whitehead’s answer to this question might have been, but these responses come to mind. (i) The alternate term mentioned lacks the suggestion of self-transcendence carried by the prefix ‘super’, showing the importance of the etymological criterion. (ii) The alternate term cannot be as readily associated, for purposes of comparison and contrast with the term ‘substance’ in the traditional language of philosophy. (iii) The coordinate term ‘subject-superject’ can serve as a more obvious foil to the traditional ‘substance-attributes’ than ‘feelings-feeler’ could. It should be apparent that the second and third of these responses is intimately connected with the first criterion. (iv) ‘Superject’ does not confuse the issue by suggesting conscious entertainment of feelings in the way that ‘feeler’ might. Implicit here is criterion number five, to be discussed later. (v) Were a term like ‘subject-feeler’ to be used, it would not express with the same symmetry the inseparability of feelings and the feeler in the concept of an actual entity.

Considerations like these are admittedly subtle, and any one of them taken by itself would perhaps not be justification for the coining of a new term. But together they do help to make a case for the devising of a new term to do a job that no single existing term can do quite as well. The subtlety of the considerations emphasizes the delicate care given by Whitehead to the development of his technical vocabulary, a care made appropriate by the elusive and initially strange character of concepts like ‘superject’. What cannot be simply and directly stated can at least be adumbrated, and the etymological element is made an important tool in the adumbrative art.


Criterion three: the importance of obtaining terms which can suggest familiar facts or common exemplifications in experience. When Whitehead talks about finding terms in accordance with this criterion (PR 49), he has in mind, more often than not, the facts and experiences associated with human self-awareness. He does not associate concretion with the seemingly dead and inert "material objects" of sense observation. For in his philosophy, as is well known, inertness is an illusion, and the static data of sense are high-level abstractions. This puts his conception of fact and concretion very close to that of the phenomenologists and at a rather far remove from that of the behaviorists. The alpha and omega of the organic philosophy could be said to be contained in the following passage, in which Whitehead directs our attention to the pivotal importance of the experience of our derivation from the immediate past of a quarter of a second ago.

We reduce this past to a perspective, and yet retain it as the basis of our present moment of realization. We are different from it, and yet we retain our individual identity with it. This is the mystery of personal identity, the mystery of the immanence of the past in the present, the mystery of transience. All our science, all our explanations require concepts originating in this experience of derivation. (AI 209-210)

It is obvious that the articulation of such concepts will require a vocabulary drawn, in large measure, from the stock of terms in ordinary language which grow out of self-awareness.

But Whitehead’s penchant for a phenomenological vocabulary must be coupled with his drive toward a thoroughgoing realism, which sees no abrupt breach between the kind of fact reflected upon in the passage just quoted and the sort of fact which lies at the heart of reality. His drive toward realism would collapse into absurdity if one were to insist upon taking the phenomenological terms literally. He means for them to function as metaphors. He gives a prominent place to phenomenological terms because he is convinced that the best model, analogy, or clue that we have available (though not the only one) for conceiving of a world of ubiquitous process is the experience of ceaseless flux that we find within ourselves, a flux that is not merely haphazard but takes on a variety of forms and orientations, each associated in some way with the others while still achieving its own uniqueness as a specific occasion of experience.

Whitehead thinks that there is evidence from modern physics and biology to support such a view of the world, but our perceptual experience impels us to picture it differently, as static configurations sharply separated from one another. To employ the phenomenological metaphors as he does is to force us to relate things not usually related -- facts of consciousness, on the one hand, and facts of nature far below the level of conscious life and even below the level of life itself, on the other -- and through this relationship to sense features common to both kinds of fact. His metaphors are thus intended to perform the task of all powerful metaphors, creating novel insights and realizations through the imaginative juxtaposition of seemingly disparate facts. A semantic "interaction" (to use Max Black’s term) is created which brings hitherto unrecognized patterns and relationships into view. (1:218-35)5

Now that something of the meaning Whitehead packs into the phrases "familiar facts" and "common exemplifications in experience" has been clarified,6 this third criterion can be further explicated by a consideration of two terms in his philosophical lexicon which illustrate its application particularly well: ‘appetition’ and ‘satisfaction’. Appetition’ is the drive in the actual entity towards a form for its own definiteness.7 It is the element of unrest whereby the concrescing entity evaluates its immediate physical feelings from the standpoint of some conceptually entertained goal or ideal and then thrusts to realize that ideal by becoming what it has envisioned. ‘Appetition’ is thus the bridge from the facts of the present to the possibilities of the future; it is that agency or purpose which brings novelty into the world.

‘Conceptual prehension’ is an equivalent term for ‘appetition’, but Whitehead points out that it suffers from the defect of being too neutral and abstract a term, too devoid of any suggestiveness of concrete experience. ‘Appetition’, on the other hand, brings readily to mind such common, experienced urges as hunger or thirst (unrest directed towards the goal of satiety or quenching), and it can rather easily be extended in its meaning to encompass any kind of yearning after satisfaction. The usefulness of the term as a designation for a generic trait of every event is further heightened by the fact that examples of ‘appetition’ are not restricted simply to human experience but are to be found in every order of organic existence. (PR 47-49) 8

‘Satisfaction’, as the end aimed at by ‘appetition’, also suggests a very concrete and familiar kind of experience. We yearn for something (e.g.. the quenching of our thirst) and, having attained it, we are satisfied. The moment of satisfaction brings about the cessation of that particular yearning; it has been consolidated into a climactic experience. Involved in such satisfaction is not only the culmination of a particular kind of feeling or complex of feelings but also the exclusion from interest of other kinds of feelings. For were all yearnings to be given the same interest at the same time, there would be no satisfaction. We would remain forever in a state of longing and unrest, without purpose or direction, without integration or fulfillment. Finally, we can look back upon experiences which have been brought to fruition in satisfaction and have the memory of them serve as motives to new experiences.

The ‘satisfaction’ of the actual entity in Whitehead’s scheme means something very much like this commonplace experience. With its ‘satisfaction’ the entity is "closed up," or brought to the final phase of its career as a distinct act of concrescence. And the emotional complex constituting the subjective form culminating in the ‘satisfaction’ of the entity includes both negative and positive prehensions, i.e., data excluded from interest as well as data selected for inclusion in the felt content of the entity. Moreover, the actual entity, having reached its ‘satisfaction’, passes over into the role of a datum to be prehended by successive actual entities. Thus with ‘satisfaction’ as with ‘appetition’, Whitehead finds illuminating metaphors in the familiar facts of conscious experience.

But again, it must be stressed that these terms, and others like them, are intended by Whitehead to be taken as "metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap." (PR 6) It is tempting for the uncritical reader to take them too literally and assume that Whitehead is advocating some brand of "panpsychism" or "idealism." But what he is actually trying to do is find words and phrases which can penetrate into what is universal in concrete fact" (SMW 122), i.e., which can suggest categories adequate to the analysis of reality, on all its levels and in all its manifestations, as process finding pattern.

Such metaphors are troublesome and vexing in philosophy because they are so imprecise and can so easily mislead, despite all careful efforts to contain their meaning. They mislead either because we come to take them too literally, forgetting in time their original metaphorical character, or because they tend to suggest different kinds of association than those intended by the metaphysician. But perhaps the most exasperating feature of good metaphors is that they do not admit of easy translation. And as a consequence, no checks can be devised for determining their precise boundaries of meaning or for rigorously assessing their descriptive adequacy. As Whitehead himself admits on more than one occasion, we must rely, in the final analysis, on our intuitions. But philosophers typically are not satisfied with broad imaginative visions; they want to pin things down more precisely. Whitehead’s philosophy, however, is a sustained argument for the impossibility of complete precision when dealing with the generic features of existence and their highly complex inter-relationships.


Criterion four: the requirement that the terms be sufficiently general or inclusive in their ordinary meanings to admit of the further extensions of meaning required for their employment in the scheme. Whitehead holds the task of the metaphysician to be that of achieving "descriptive generalization." But he complains that words in their ordinary narrow meanings are ill-suited to express in explicit form these larger generalities the metaphysician aspires to capture in words. Accordingly, he is forced to redesign language, stretching certain of its words and phrases "towards a generality foreign to their ordinary usage. (PR 16, 6) This necessity brings us to the fourth criterion governing White-head’s choice of terms. Since words are going to have to be stretched in this way, it is desirable to pick ones which are sufficiently general or inclusive in their ordinary meanings to admit of the further extensions of meaning required for their utilization in the scheme.

This criterion can be aptly illustrated by an important term in the Whiteheadian philosophy: ‘feeling’.9 In English the word "feeling" admits of an extremely wide range of possible meanings and applications. Our language permits us, for example, to attribute the property of "feeling" to lower as well as to higher forms of life. We can speak of an ameba "feeling" the prod from which it recoils under the microscope; we can talk about a flower’s "feeling" the heat of the sun; or we can infer from the wagging of our dog’s tail that be "feels" glad to see us.

As applied strictly to human experiences, the senses of the word "feeling" can run the gamut from tactile sensation, through blind emotion, to the highest capabilities of human consciousness. We can "feel" happy or sad, angry or tranquil; we can have the "feeling" that something is right or wrong, beautiful or ugly; we can "feel" a desire or an obligation to do something; we can experience a "feeling" of attraction or repulsion; we can "feel" that a proposition is true or false; we can develop a "feel" for art or for working with machines; we can speak admiringly of a poet’s or a prophet’s depth of "feeling."10

There is even a sense in which "feeling" can be an objective quality of things, and not simply a subjective state. We can talk about the "feel" of a piece of cloth or discuss the "feel" of a room. This fact lends itself nicely to that combination of subjective immediacy and objective immortality Whitehead builds into his concept of the actual entity.

A problem with Whitehead’s generic employment of the word "feeling," however, is that it must be taken to apply, not just to macroscopic and organic entities such as plants, animals, and men, but to the rudimentary constituents of every type of reality. What possible justification is there for such a radical extension of the meaning of a word, even granting its wide variety of uses in ordinary English?

Whitehead’s answer to this question is to insist that there are no inert ‘vacuous actualities’ which are related merely in external ways from outside themselves. What togetherness there is in the world is an ‘experiential togetherness’ in which the antecedent actual occasion objectified in the past is externally related to the present concrescence (i.e., it does not require the present occasion for its explication or its reality), and in which the subsequent or present occasion is internally related to the past one (i.e., it does require the past occasion for its explication or reality, since that past occasion is prehended as its datum in its physical pole).

Since actual occasions are units of prehension (the positive species of which are ‘feelings’), there is no togetherness anywhere in the world which can be accounted for apart from reference to ‘feelings’. This is the basic ground of the shift Whitehead tries to bring about by his metaphysical system from classical materialism, as exemplified in Newtonian ‘matter’ and Cartesian ‘extended substance’, toward organicism. (PR 254, 288-289, 471)

‘Feeling’ is thus a particularly powerful and important metaphor for Whitehead. Its systematic use in his metaphysics is a way of setting forth the interdependence of internal and external relations and breaking down the dualisms created by classical materialism, a way of stressing the interconnectedness and mutual responsiveness of all things, as they achieve transitory definiteness and then perish in the ever-flowing stream of time.

But there is a limit to how far and in what direction a word can be extended for special purposes and still remain intelligible, and we might consider whether Whitehead has exceeded this limit in his metaphysical employment of the word "feeling." The limit would seem to be that point where the extended meaning of a term no longer has any recognizable affinity with its ordinary meaning, or where the extended meaning clashes with, rather than builds upon, the ordinary meaning.

What affinities are there, then, between the ordinary and the extended meanings of "feeling"? Both uses of the term imply the following: (i) A dynamic process, rather than a static state. (ii) An assimilation from within, rather than a mere superimposition from without. (iii) A mode of apprehension more rudimentary and vague than conscious reflection, and also far more pervasive. (iv) An incorporation of features of the common environment into a unique perspective.11 (v) A blending of physical and mental aspects.12 If the connotations of the word "feeling" can be said to run somewhat along these lines, then there is a sense in which the term can admit of a much wider denotation than that ordinarily associated with it, given a certain perspective on the universe. If the universe does have the dynamic and pluralistic character Whitehead attributes to it, then traits similar to those present in feeling do perhaps pervade it at all of its levels.13 This is not a suggestion to be brushed off lightly.

But having said this, a clash in meaning is still undeniable, and there remains a disturbing opaqueness in the term as Whitehead applies it. It is difficult to conceive of the rudimentary constituents of entities like tables and stones as having "feelings," even in a metaphorical sense. Whitehead would have offended our sense of linguistic propriety far less had the word ‘feeling’ been left out of his technical vocabulary, and had he relied instead on some more neutral term like ‘prehension’ (which is roughly equivalent in meaning to ‘feeling’).

However, it is all-important to him that philosophical abstractions be rooted firmly in the concrete, that the terms of his system sustain a dialectic in which the particular is given significance by reference to general concepts, and the general is given substance by the particular exemplifying it. For this reason he will often choose two words, one of which is unusual and rather abstract (e.g., ‘prehension’), thus avoiding the misleading connotations of more conventional terms, and the other suggestive and concrete (e.g., ‘feeling’), thus making its appeal to direct experience. The logic of the situation is apparently that the suggestive metaphors are supposed to contribute an essential dimension of meaning to the more neutral terms, while the more neutral terms, in their turn, are intended to channel and control the suggestiveness of the metaphors. There is some real question as to how effective this technique really is, particularly in the case of terms like ‘feeling’, ‘appetition’, and ‘satisfaction’. For these terms strongly suggest some kind of pathetic fallacy, even though Whitehead struggles manfully to avoid this connotation.

Even so, one might venture to suggest that such terms are chosen by Whitehead partly for their shock value. Precisely because of the clash in meaning that it generates, ‘feeling’ jars our sensibilities and captures our attention in a way that ‘prehension’ cannot. It has an emotional impact which stimulates us to reflect upon its implications with the kind of intensity and curiosity required if we are to be brought to the point of questioning those assumptions about generic features which Whitehead thinks we have not bothered to justify by fresh appeals to concrete experience. There is a sense, then, in which the elusiveness of the term is quite deliberate. It is meant to point us beyond conventional concepts and usage to something which cannot be so much clearly expressed as dimly intimated.


Criterion five: the desirability of the terms’ being devoid, so far as is possible, of misleading associations or implications. Despite the emphasis in the preceding four criteria upon the importance of metaphysical terms having an undercurrent of allusive energy, the suggestiveness of a given word can sometimes be a problem. It is apt to suggest more than the philosopher wants it to, creating misconceptions about the proper range of its meaning within his system of thought. For example, one might mistakenly attribute self-consciousness to actual entities, since the language Whitehead uses to describe them contains so many terms grounded in human self-awareness. This problem can be controlled up to a certain point by stipulations within the system about the boundaries of a term’s meaning, but sometimes a word which is desirable on other grounds must be rejected because its suggestive aura is more confusing than clarifying. This gives rise to this fifth criterion, which can best be elucidated by considering briefly a term Whitehead rejects through its application.14

The term ‘universal’ has had a long philosophical history. Why, then, did Whitehead reject this term and choose ‘eternal object’ as a name for the pure predicable or potential required for his generic description of the world? The answer is that he judged the conventional word to be too grossly misleading in its associations and implications.

One reason he came to this conclusion is that the term ‘universal’ immediately invites a sharp contrast with ‘particular’, whereas in his philosophy there is a deliberate softening of such a contrast. Since there is an interpenetration of actual entities, one as objectified entering into the experience of another, the susceptibility of repeated exemplification traditionally reserved for the ‘universal’ is also a property of the Whiteheadian ‘particular’. And since each ‘eternal object’ is precisely what it is, admitting of no reduction or transformation to something else, Whitehead’s ‘universals’ have a kind of particularity.

Closely connected with this first objection to the term ‘universal’ is a second one. Whitehead feels compelled to reject the traditional distinction between ‘universal’ and ‘particular’ because he is convinced that such a distinction creates insurmountable problems for epistemology. The traditional view holds that no ‘particular’ can be involved with or be related to another, except in the sense that two or more ‘particulars’ can exemplify the same pattern of ‘universals’. But if this is the case, the order and interconnectedness of the world that presents itself to our consciousness must be more apparent than real. Moreover, since the traditional view teaches that we can never lay hold of any particular thing, but can only know those ‘universals’ which describe it (a view Whitehead takes to be implicit in Locke’s doctrine of ‘ideas’ and Hume’s doctrine of ‘impressions’), there is an almost irresistible tendency toward the skeptical conclusion that, in the final analysis, we know only our own ideas and not the world as such. At the very best the traditional understanding of the distinction between ‘universal’ and ‘particular’ produces an intolerable breach between man’s "inner" noetic experience and the world "out there." (PR 69-80, 226)

Since the term ‘universal’ and its correlate term ‘particular’ are so deeply enmeshed in such confusions and errors of thinking, Whitehead rejects ‘universal’ as a designation for the pure potentials of his scheme, preferring the noncommital phrase ‘eternal object’ instead. What he loses in richness of association and immediate clarity he gains in the avoidance of misleading associations and implications.


Criterion six: the necessity of compensating for the deficiencies of certain desired terms by complementing them with approximately equivalent terms which can help make up their deficiencies. Toward the end of our discussion of the fourth criterion mention was made of the tension Whitehead considered it important to maintain between unfamiliar, more neutral terms and suggestive metaphors. This mention was actually a foreshadowing of this sixth criterion. Where a term is inadequate when taken by itself (for example, it may be either too neutral or too misleading in its suggestiveness), but it is still desirable to make use of it, it must be complemented with approximately equivalent terms which can help to make up its deficiency. Another way of stating the criterion would be to note that since few (if any) of the terms under consideration will exemplify all of the preceding five criteria with equal adequacy, it may be necessary to compensate for those respects in which they fall short by supplementing them with terms whose strengths, as judged in light of the criteria, are their weaknesses, and vice versa. We are thus brought to the necessity, or at least desirability, of what Whitehead calls "an apparent redundancy of terms." (AI 304)

Terms already mentioned which illustrate this principle are ‘subject’ and ‘superject’; ‘feeling’ and ‘prehension’; ‘appetition’ and ‘conceptual prehension’; ‘concrescence’ and ‘actual entity’; ‘pure potential’ and ‘eternal object’. Instead of inquiring in further detail into how this sixth criterion is operative in Whitehead’s selection of these sets of equivalents, we shall turn to another set, examining the criterion with respect to it.

The set of equivalents is as follows; ‘ingression’. ‘inclusion’, ‘realization’, and ‘functioning’.15 Each of these terms is used by Whitehead at one time or another to designate the involvement of eternal objects in actual entities. The term which he clearly prefers is ‘ingression’, and at least three reasons might be offered for the preference. (i) ‘Ingression’ is a term rarely used in English, and its very rarity or oddity serves sharply to remind us that it is a technical term within the system. Since it has something of the abstract neutrality we have already talked about, it does not as readily invite misconstructions as more familiar words might, and its meaning can be more easily controlled by the stipulations of the system. By contrast, a term like ‘participation’ must be rejected, since it is too intimately associated with the Platonic theory of forms, with its implication of the superiority of static forms to dynamic events. (ii) ‘Ingression’ can be understood as a convenient shorthand for the phrase "is an ingredient within." This point is in a sense an etymological one, since ‘ingression’ and "ingredient" have the same root meaning. (iii) There is a metaphorical quality in the word "ingression" contained in its meaning of "a coming or entering into." Used in the context of Whitehead’s system, ‘ingression’ suggests familiar experiences of the "entry" of ideality into actuality, of the capturing of felt possibilities in contemporary matter-of-fact. For example, a man contemplates a past experience and seeks to recapture the satisfaction of that experience in the present moment, or an architect designs a structure in order to give concrete expression to his artistic vision. In both cases there has been an ‘ingression’ of ideality (past or future) into the present. These three reasons for preferring the term ‘ingression’ follow closely criteria five, two, and three, in turn.

Unfortunately, the metaphorical suggestiveness of ‘ingression’ can rather easily get out of hand. Whitehead therefore resorts to approximately equivalent terms to guard against the misleading implications of his preferred term. ‘Ingression’ could be taken to mean that eternal objects subsist in absolute independence of actualities and descend of their own accord from some antecedent realm into the concrescing occasion.16 But such an interpretation would do justice neither to Whitehead’s notion of an actual entity (no entities can be spoken of apart from eternal objects taken as their forms of definiteness), nor to his idea of an eternal object (there can be no complete abstraction of eternal objects from actualities; they can be abstracted from this or that actuality but not from all actualities).

‘Inclusion’ is a term very similar in meaning to the phrase "is an ingredient within," which is part of the meaning Whitehead wants to convey by his term ‘ingression’. It also does not mislead thought in the way described in the previous paragraph. But its greater familiarity deprives it of the technical ring of ‘ingression’, and its static connotation leaves something to be desired, since it is through dynamic prehensions that eternal objects are involved in actual entities.

‘Realization’ has the dynamic quality, and it suggests that the dynamism belongs where it should belong, to the actual occasion, whereas ‘ingression’ might cause the dynamism to be mistakenly applied to the eternal objects themselves. But on the debit side, ‘realization’ could be taken to imply that eternal objects are merely unrealized abstract possibilities having no transcendent status, while Whitehead insists that there is one sense in which eternal objects are immanent and another sense in which they are transcendent. Thus ‘realization’ might mislead thought in precisely the opposite direction from the misconception that could be created by ‘ingression’. Whitehead’s intended meaning is somewhere between the suggestive overtones of these two terms.

Finally, ‘functioning’ has the virtue of suggesting that the eternal object plays a distinctive role or has a peculiar ‘function’ in the context of the actual entity. This is true to Whitehead’s understanding of novelty, as brought about by the unique subjectivity of the occasion. No two occasions ‘feel’ the eternal objects in precisely the same way. But ‘functioning’ would be misleading if it were taken to mean that the eternal object is a ‘function of’ the actual entity, in the logical or mathematical sense of ‘function of’. For this would suggest that, with changes in the actual entity, there are corresponding changes in the eternal object. But actual entities do not change; they are units of change. And eternal objects in Whitehead’s scheme are invariable; they are just what they are and can be nothing else.

The need for this apparent redundancy of mutually corrective terms shows that, for Whitehead, words must be experimented with, their meanings, suggestions, and associations tested and retested in a variety of contexts and uses before the workable ones can be separated out from those which must finally be rejected. And even when the process of selection has been completed, there usually has been no exactly "right" word to be found, either in the existing language or by coinage. And in a real sense, the process of selection is never really finished, because "each phraseology leads to a crop of misunderstandings." (AI 226) This means that there must be a continuing openness to the clarification that terms not yet tried or thought of can introduce into the discussion.17


Some implications of the criteria. If one were to apply the traditional tests of the adequacy of formal criteria to the six principles of selection we have been discussing -- i.e., are they necessary and sufficient; are they consistent; are they specific enough to place the selection of certain terms and the rejection of others beyond the pale of serious debate -- it would not be difficult to show that Whitehead’s principles fall short. But to view them as formal principles would be to miss the point. Whitehead saw them merely as useful rules of thumb. Their value is not so much the aid they can give to a new crop of enterprising metaphysicians bent upon their own program of "redesigning language." Rather, it is the insight they afford into the thinking processes of Whitehead as he went about developing what surely must be recognized as one of the great synthetic and imaginative achievements of this century.

What, then, are some of the implications of these criteria for an understanding of Whitehead? To begin with, awareness of the criteria can help to give content to his repeated claim that "philosophy is akin to poetry." (MT. vii, 237) For as we have seen, he was guided in the selection of his key terms not so much by considerations of literal exactitude as by a concern for the imaginative force and metaphorical impact the terms could have for the reader. The techniques whereby the poet seeks to kindle insight and awaken understanding -- reliance on the suggestive power of certain words, creation of new complexes of meaning by surprising juxtapositions and uses of terms, highlighting the universal meaning in the concrete experience, finding fit images and apt metaphors, evoking the memories and associations that lurk below the threshold of consciousness -- are also techniques of indispensable importance for the metaphysician.

A second implication has to do with the kind of interpretative spirit in which Whitehead apparently hoped the language of his metaphysics would be approached. It is a spirit able to wend its way between the extremes of romanticism. on the one hand, and literalism, on the other. As Victor Lowe has pointed out, a fundamental difference between Whitehead and Henri Bergson is that, while Bergson had recourse to poetic images because he despaired of dealing with metaphysical issues theoretically, Whitehead sought a blending of theoretical explanation and poetic insight. (3:259-60) Or as Whitehead himself expresses it, "the purpose of philosophy is to rationalize mysticism: not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated." (MT 237) Thus, one must be careful not so to emphasize the poetic side of Whitehead that he loses sight of his drive toward theoretical rigor. While he did not judge the attainment of scientific refinement to be possible in a system preoccupied with the totality of experience in its many dimensions, he still aspired to as high a degree of descriptive precision as possible, given the nature of his subject matter.

But this precision, again, is not that of literal exactitude, and the reader must be careful to make due allowance for the poetic quality of Whitehead’s language and not to interpret him too literalistically. The "mystical" undercurrent remains, and it occupies an important place in his system. He has sought to do justice. not merely to those surface features of our experience of which we are well aware, but also to the elusive and yet pervasive traits (e.g., the immanence of the past in the present) which he takes to be of crucial import for philosophical understanding. But so vaguely do we apprehend these traits of our experience, that ordinary diction cannot suffice to bring them into view. The art of the poet must be called into play to make vivid our intuitions of such traits and their relationships, and it follows that a poetic sensitivity will be required for interpretation of the language used for this evocation. To interpret Whitehead’s language literalistically would be to fail to appreciate the need for this kind of sensitivity. The danger of such literalism has been alluded to already in discussing terms like ‘appetition’, ‘satisfaction’, and ‘feeling’. I do not pretend here to have settled the question of how literally or how poetically Whitehead’s language should be interpreted in particular cases. I simply want to emphasize the interpenetration of the theoretical and poetic modes in his metaphysical discourse, an interpenetration that is brought out particularly well, in my judgment, by the criteria which have provided the topic for this study. The full complexity of the hermeneutical problem raised by this interpenetration has not always been recognized.

A third implication has to do with the problem of translatability. In an article on "Metaphysics and Language," John Herman Randall, Jr., has made this statement:

Indeed, a good test of whether a discrimination is actually being forced upon us by an encounter with the world, or is only a linguistic distinction bound up with the grammar of some particular philosophical language, is that of translatability -- of whether that encountered discrimination can be expressed as a distinction in any philosophical language. (4:598)

I am entirely sympathetic with the need to distinguish artificial from real discriminations and well aware of the seductive tendency of language, artfully employed, to blur the distinction. Still, I am uncomfortable with the notion that all real distinctions admit of expression in any philosophical language. At least, I am uncomfortable if this be taken to mean that a discrimination expressed in Whiteheadian quasi-poetic diction could just as easily be rendered into nontechnical prose.

If this were true, it would invite a manneristic construction of Whitehead’s use of metaphor and allusion, i.e., that he has stated in a merely "pretty" way what could as well have been said without poetic ornament. But this is precisely what I doubt. The success of really effective metaphors is in inverse relation to their translatability. They cannot be dispensed with because they are bound inextricably with the concepts they express. Many of Whitehead’s metaphors are, I believe, successful in just this sense. Given the painstaking care he has lavished on his choice and use of these terms, and given his quite self-conscious recognition that poetic stratagems often work to communicate meanings that cannot be as precisely expressed in any other way, it should come as no surprise that many sentences in his scheme do not admit of ready translation into sentences in ordinary discourse. This does not mean that the sentences have no meaning; it simply means that it is inappropriate to apply to them tests of literal meaning.18



1. Black, Max. "Metaphor." Philosophy Looks at the Arts. Edited by Joseph Margolis. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962.

2. Doan, Frank M. "On the Construction of Whitehead’s Metaphysical Language. The Review of Metaphysics, 13 (June, 1960).

3. Lowe, Victor. Understanding Whitehead. Baltimore The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.

4. Randall, J. H., Jr. "Metaphysics and Language." The Review of Metaphysics, 20 (June, 1967).



1. Whitehead is also concerned that his terms have associations with scientific and literary language, and particularly that they be responsive to the insights of the great poets. But he holds it to be absolutely essential that the language of a particular discipline, like philosophy, be richly rooted in the expressive categories of its creative geniuses.

2. Single quotes will be used for technical terms, whether in Whitehead’s or some other philosophers thought. Double quotes are reserved for ordinary language terms outside any technical context.

3. Another interesting example of Whitehead’s use of this first criterion is to be found in PR 50, 70, where the term in question is ‘envisagement’.

4. If this analysis is correct, this first criterion imparts to Whitehead’s terms the flavor of "diaphoric metaphors" functioning as "symbols of ancestral vitality," as these terms are employed by Philip Wheelwright in his Metaphor and Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), Chaps. IV and V. and esp. pp. 94, 105.

5. Cf. also this passage from Wheelwright’s Metaphor and Reality, explaining the author’s notion of "diaphoric" metaphor: "As in nature new qualities may be engendered by the coming together of elements in new ways, so in poetry new suggestions of meaning can be engendered by the juxtaposition of previously unjoined words and images. Such diaphoric synthesis is indispensable as a factor in poetry." (p. 86)

6. He means more by these phrases than the facts and experiences of self-awareness that I have discussed. I have simply tried to stress the predominance of the phenomenological model in his conception of fact and concretion.

7. This term was used with a similar meaning by Leibniz. showing again how the first criterion influenced Whitehead’s selection of terms.

8. See also FR 32. The generality or inclusiveness of the term ‘appetition’ also satisfies criterion four, to be discussed presently.

9. Whitehead’s selection of the term ‘feeling’ also exemplifies the first criterion. He attributes to Bradley and James, for example, a use of the term much like his own. It is also worth noting that criterion number three is implicit in Whitehead’s selection of this term. For not only does it suggest concrete exemplification in an obvious sense; it also suggests a blending of visceral and conceptual elements analogous to the mental and physical poles of an actual entity, taken as a unification of ‘feelings’. Cf. the locution, "I feel sick in my stomach."

10. This list is similar to Whitehead’s detailing of the various species of ‘subjective form’ (the "how" of an entity’s ‘feeling’) "emotions, valuations, purposes, adversions, aversions, consciousness, etc." (PR 35)

11. This feeling that I have now is unique in that it is my feeling and no one else’s; it is infused with the nuances of my mood and outlook at this particular moment; it occurs within the context of my unique personal past, with its accompanying memories.

12 See n. 9 above. In Whitehead’s metaphysics, the ‘physical’ is that part of the concrescence which is taken from the past; the ‘mental’ is that part which pretends possibilities for the future. Thus efficient and final causation are combined in the experience of the entity.

13. It ought perhaps to he noted that, even though ‘feeling’ is all-pervasive for Whitehead, this does not mean that there is no room in his system for the contrastive term "unfeeling." (If the contrastive term could not be used, a serious question would be raised about the meaningfulness of his use of ‘feeling’.) All past occasions, i.e., those which have achieved ‘objective immortality’, are unfeeling. They can be ‘felt’ but can no longer ‘feel’.

14. For other illustrations of this fifth criterion see PR 51-52, 69-70, where Whitehead discusses his rejection of the terms ‘person’, ‘form’, ‘idea’, and ‘essence’, on account of their seriously misleading suggestions.

15. For a detailed citation of places in his writings where Whitehead uses these terms see ‘William Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New Haven Yale University Press, 1959), pp. 208-209, 184-185, 189.

16. I am indebted to Christian for this point. See the pages of his book cited in the previous note. I do not quite agree with him, however, when he complains of the "dynamic connotation" of ‘ingression’ and contends that the term is merely "a name for a relationship, not for an action." (pp. 185, 288) Whitehead probably would not have chosen a term like ‘ingression’ had he not intended it to have a certain dynamic quality, and the prehension of eternal objects by concrescing entities is clearly to be understood as a dynamic process. The dynamism is entirely in the actual entities, however, as Christian points out, and not in the eternal objects themselves.

17. An interesting example of Whitehead’s persistent openness to new terms is his consideration of the Quaker word "concern" in AI 226, 232.

18. Max Black makes the point that, while attempted translation of effective metaphors tray be extremely useful for opening up some of their cognitive content, it cannot do Justice to all of that content. "It fails to be a translation because it fails to give the insight that the metaphor did." See 1:234. An excellent recent study seeks to exhibit in detail the unavoidability of metaphors in conceptual discovery and in the development of new perspectives on problems. Set Donald Schon, The Displacement of Concepts (London: Tavistock Publications, 1963). It is of course also true, as both Black and Schon note, that metaphors are dangerous, especially in philosophy. But they are most dangerous when unconsciously entertained and confused with literal truth. At least Whitehead has had the good sense to give deliberate recognition to the pivotal role of metaphors in his thinking. While translatability as a teat of the reality of expressed discriminations has its limitations, when applied to Whitehead’s metaphysical language, there is a test which he repeatedly invites us to apply. Does the discrimination ring true in our experience, once given formulation in the language of the scheme? Does it help to make self-evident what before we only vaguely discerned? For a discussion of this point see Victor Lowe, 3: 285-86.