Whitehead’s Other Aesthetic

by Willliam Dean

William Deanis Professor of Religion at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 104-112, Vol. 13, Number 1, Spring, 1983. 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. Dean discusses Whitehead’s empiricist aesthetics. His rejoinder is that the beautiful speaks in ways not entirely susceptible to rational analysis.

In Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy there are two ways of describing beauty, or aesthetic experience. Whitehead scholars, with damaging effects, have overemphasized one and underemphasized the other. They have so emphasized the rationalistic way, which concentrates on the intellectual organization of the past, that the meaning of aesthetic experience has been exaggerated. They have so underemphasized the empirical way, which concentrates on the physical response to the past, that the power of aesthetic experience has been neglected. The underemphasis on the empirical way is particularly important because it has not only discouraged the aesthetic appreciation of the power of art and of the world of ordinary experience, it has also discouraged the moral action which such appreciation might engender.

To state my point with greater intensity: the genius of the beautiful is its capacity to move us emotionally; when the Whitehead scholar accounts for the beautiful only rationalistically, much of this genius is missed. To say that aesthetic value can be comprehended rationally leaves out about as much as to say that Auschwitz can be comprehended as the misuse of freedom -- in neither instance is the account incorrect; in both instances, when the account is the only account, the picture is distorted, and so are the actions which it might engender.

In this essay, I will emphasize Whitehead’s empiricist aesthetic. My critical discussion will focus on the rationalistic claim that Alfred North Whitehead’s aesthetic can be properly understood in terms of his notion of the proposition. My empiricist rejoinder will be informed epistemologically by Whitehead’s radical empiricism, and aesthetically by the claim that the beautiful speaks in ways not entirely susceptible to rational analysis.

Donald W. Sherburne is the justly recognized foremost proponent of a rationalistic Whiteheadian aesthetic. His A Whiteheadian Aesthetic has subtly influenced numerous process philosophers and theologians.1 Sherburne’s rationalistic approach is embodied in his specific suggestion that for Whitehead an art work is a proposition or a part of a proposition and that aesthetic experience is a feeling of such a proposition; this approach is derived primarily from Whitehead’s Process and Reality. A proposition proposes that certain select matters of fact, called "logical subjects," be interpreted, or theorized about, in terms of a particular "predicate." An art work embodies such a proposition (or, in the case of music, a predicative pattern only2), and the proposition (or its part) is the real meaning of the art, distinguishable from the physical artifact itself. The recreation of this proposal in the conscious, definite, and intellectual awareness of the beholder is called a "propositional feeling," and it is this feeling which is aesthetic experience. This theory is rationalistic in that it identifies aesthetic experience with a clear, distinct, and ordered estimation of the external artistic reality.

Sherburne’s rationalistic aesthetic conforms to a general approach long-standing in process thought. Both Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne have repeatedly argued that art and aesthetic experience arise within a structure of contrast within identity, or unity in variety.3 This structure enables the mind, or the rationalizing self, to grip the beautiful, to hold it within a category, sometimes called a proposition. This aesthetic rationality is, in turn, a remnant of the classical, Platonizing, and Cartesian effort of mentality to fasten onto the physical, to refuse to let the physical go until the physical has yielded some cognizable promise.4

On the other hand, from the empirical side, Whitehead and his colleagues in radical empiricism, William James, Henri Bergson, and John Dewey, have insisted that cognition is only an abstraction from the more fundamental physical experience, and that to treat the cognizable as the more real is -- with a truly Cartesian forgetfulness -- to put the wagon before the horse. So, while those interpretations which stress contrast within identity and propositional meanings are by no means wrong, they are derivative and secondary, and should be treated accordingly.

It is only with regard to emphasis, then, that I respond to Sherburne and his Whiteheadian colleagues. Sherburne does include the empirical in his aesthetic analysis. He rejects the idealism of Benedetto Croce, and insists on the importance of the physical art object;5 he rejects the "overintellectualism" of Vernon Lee, and insists on the importance of emotion;6 Sherburne acknowledges that some art propositions cannot be rendered linguistically; and he acknowledges that art propositions are first felt physically and that the function of aesthetic experience is to bring clarity to the "vague and inarticulate feelings from a dim, prenumbral region."7 Nevertheless, when Sherburne highlights Whitehead’s specific accomplishment, he chooses to take "very seriously" Whitehead’s aim to rescue the type of thought found in Bergson, James, and Dewey "from the charge of anti-intellectualism." "An indispensable step," Sherburne says, in effecting this ‘rescue is the rationalization of ‘the inner flux,’ the giving to it of an intelligible structure." He maintains that Whitehead accomplishes this rationalization through a genetic analysis of conscious intellection. Sherburne, in turn, claims that his own interpretation of Whitehead’s aesthetic is "based on, not opposed to, that analysis of conscious intellection."8 Sherburne’s aim is not to honor the authenticity of the empirically immediate, "vague and inarticulate feelings from a dim, prenumbral region." It is to rationalize, clarify, and specify those feelings; it is, in short, to tame them; in the area of aesthetics, it is to reduce them to a proposition, felt with a propositional feeling.

For Sherburne, then, the art object, as a proposition, is about meaning, or theory; it is something that may or may not be said about events that may or may not belong together. From two sides it abstracts from brute actuality; it is an imaginative predication about an imaginary selection of circumstances. The proposition lures the subject to simply recreate the proposition in subjective experience. While the true art object is real as an hypothesis is real, the physical artifact itself, whether a thing (like a painting) or a performance, is only the medium between the hypothesis and the experience of the hypothesis.

Now Sherburne is certainly not wrong, whether in his interpretation of Whitehead or of art. Any aesthetic which eliminated entirely the propositional nature of art, reduced art to something physical and aesthetic experience to a physical encounter, would be silly. A piece of literature would be ink scrawls on paper, and a great literary critic would be someone with an ocular affinity for black on white. Even if such preposterousness could be overcome, there would remain all of the questions of why perspective would not totally determine interpretation, as would happen if interactions were sheerly physical, and of how good art and good criticism would be distinguished from bad.9 Clearly, art and its impact cannot be understood without some allowance for its status as an imaginative reality, a status deeply dependent on art’s physicalness, but not reducible to physicalness.

Nevertheless, Sherburne, his colleagues, and even the particular Whitehead of Process and Reality, in their devotion to rationalizing the meaning of the world, including the world of art objects, fail to appreciate the aesthetic power of the experienced world. This is a criticism very difficult to sustain, for it refers to something beyond rationalization and, thus, beyond what can be expressed in a rationalistic argument. I could appeal to memory, and question whether the love of art is finally a love of propositions, whether it is that much an affair of cognition. While such an appeal would be definitive in that, in a typically Whiteheadian fashion, it would appeal "to the self-evidence of experience," it would be an appeal more suitable to an entire life than to the short exposition which will follow hereafter. Consequently, in my effort to sketch Whitehead’s empirical aesthetic I must appeal -- even as Whitehead-the-author does -- to definition, to illustration, and to argument from the history of philosophy.

I. Definition

I have suggested that there are two sides to Whitehead’s aesthetic, the rational and the empirical. Or, to state it more dramatically, there are two aesthetics, each mutually dependent on the other. While the rationalizing aesthetic emphasizes the intellectual organization of the world through propositions and propositional feelings, the empirical aesthetic emphasizes the immediate, physical, emotional, and nonconscious response to the world. An empirical aesthetic attempts to honor, rather than tame, those "vague and inarticulate feelings from a dim, penumbral region."

The importance of Whitehead’s empirical aesthetic cannot be understood apart from some discussion of Whitehead’s notion of perception, and perception is best considered through a brief review of Whitehead’s notion of "symbolic reference" which, in turn, involves the notions of "causal efficacy" and "presentational immediacy." When the multiplicity of the past world physically and causally impinges on the body of the present subject, the world is felt only dimly, if at all consciously; the world is felt, Whitehead says, in its causal efficacy. The clear, fully conscious, and definite awareness of this world is a highly selective, abstract, and organized reduction of causal efficacy, giving a sense of an organized world there, in front of us, a sense Whitehead names presentational immediacy. The thousand physical influences of a green, warm, stale, almost-silent, lamp-lit, desk-furnished, late-at-night room are unconsciously eliminated in favor of a line read on the page on the desk before my eyes. We properly interpret that internal and mental impression of the line to refer to parts of the external and physical world of the room through a process Whitehead names symbolic reference. And quite commonsensically and pragmatically we regard the distinct, mental impression of the line as derivative from the physical impact of the world on our eyeballs. We do not -- despite what David Hume and Immanual Kant have said -- finally regard our clear and distinct mental impressions as primary and nonderivative, and the world’s causality as secondary and derived from the mind.10

While, Whitehead says, the clear, distinct, and conscious impressions of the mind are "handy" and provide "the manageable elements in our perceptions of the world," they are not what is most real or most important.11 It is the things in the world which matter most:

But for all their vagueness, for all their lack of definition, these controlling presences, these sources of power, these things with an inner life, with their own richness of content, these beings, with the destiny of the world hidden in their natures; are what we want to know about.12

And we will know them better not by our clear and distinct impressions, but by our dim physical awareness, derivable from their initial impact on our bodies through causal efficacy.

To sense the world through causal efficacy is in essence, Whitehead says, to sense the aesthetic value of the world. It is to sense power at its deepest, and "the essence of power is the drive towards aesthetic worth for its own sake."13 When Whitehead speaks of power this way, he recognizes that the telos of the universe is toward beauty, in that it aims toward the heightening of felt contrast. Consequently, the "sense of external reality -- that is to say, the sense of being one actuality in a world of actualities -- is the gift of aesthetic significance."14

This account of awareness is empirical because it is based on the immediate experience of the causal efficacy of the physical world; it is radically empirical because it claims to sense, in addition to the data for the five senses, the objective embodiments of values, and it senses these values "intuitively" -- that is, physically by, for example, a sense of aversion or a sense of attraction. Because, for Whitehead, those experienced values are essentially aesthetic values, this radical empiricism is aesthetic in orientation, and it can lead, in turn, to a developed, empirical aesthetic.15

An empirical aesthetic, when confronted with a rationalistic aesthetic, would claim that there are aesthetic objects other than propositions, for simply "the sense of being one actuality in a world of actualities" is an experience of something nonpropositional but aesthetic. Such experiences themselves are evidence for the further claim that there are more subjective aesthetic reponses than those which can be called propositional feelings. Finally, an empirical aesthetic would claim, over against a rationalistic aesthetic, to be primary rather than secondary, necessary rather than accidental.16 It would seek to bring to some dim awareness that intimate concourse of the body with the aesthetic worth of the world, and, somehow, in the process to preserve the immediacy of that concourse, as it is, prior to the abstraction of selected elements, the wholesale elimination of "irrelevancies," and the development of propositional feelings, all of which occur in a rational aesthetic judgment. An empirical aesthetic would seek to honor directly those "vast issues vaguely haunting the fullness of existence," to attend directly to that physical reaction to the world which says with incorrigible indefiniteness, " ‘This is important,’ ‘That is different,’ ‘This is lovely.’ " 17

II. Illustration

It is just this empirical sense of the aesthetic which William Carlos Williams had, particularly in his most conscious moments of rebellion from the cognitive and academic orientation of art. In his autobiography, in the midst of an explanation of how his work as a medical doctor facilitated his work as a poet, Williams said,

I was permitted by my medical badge to follow the poor, defeated body into gulfs and grottos. And the astonishing thing is that at such times and in such places -- foul as they may be with the stinking ischiorectal abscesses of our comings and goings -- just there, the thing, in all its greatest beauty, may for a moment be freed to fly for a moment guiltily about the room. In illness, in the permission las a physician have had to be present at deaths and births, at the tormented battles between daughter and diabolic mother, shattered by a gone brain -- just there -- for a split second -- from one side or the other, it has fluttered before me for a moment, a phrase which I quickly write down on anything at hand, any piece of paper I can grab.18

This same radically empirical spirit is manifest in what may be Williams’ most famous short poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow

So much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


The "So much depends" is not the predicate of a proposition, but is an expression of the physical appreciation of a physical phenomenon -- powerful, rich, and, finally, inarticulate. The problem confronted by such a poem is not that of understanding, of explanation or of establishing the rational relation among the logical subjects -- wheelbarrow, rainwater, and white chickens. Rather, the problem is that of sheer knowledge, of how to accede linguistically to the aesthetic value in the sheer relationality and facticity before one’s eyes.20 To regard such a poem as a proposition is to make it a banality; and for the Western, scientifically-minded, academic intellectual that is no trick at all.

III. History

To include the rationalistic aesthetic in an elaboration of Whitehead’s thought is, as we have said, by no means wrong. But to single it out, even to the point of neglecting the empirical, is to fail to give Whitehead the proper intellectual lineage. It could be to make the father the child of the son; it could be to make Whitehead the child of his rationalist successors, like Charles Hartshorne, rather than -- properly, I believe -- to make Whitehead the child of Bergson and James and Dewey, all his philosophical antecedents and all radical empiricists21 in revolt against one form of rationalism or another.

Of course, these radical empiricists have their rationalistic side, as Whitehead does. John Dewey, even in his aesthetic, can be interpreted as a "propositionalist." In Art as Experience, it is valid to say that in one respect art is a proposition, suggesting a structure in terms of which an individual entity, already out of harmony with its environment, can achieve a new and harmonious relation with it.22

To say that alone, however, would be to distort Dewey, for it would leave the impression that art is the artist’s rational construct, imposed on a world which lacks its own significance. Dewey, in fact, proceeds immediately to say,

The live animal does not have to project emotions into the objects experienced. Nature is kind and hateful, bland and morose, irritating and comforting, long before she is mathematically qualified or even a congeries of "secondary" qualities like colors and their shapes.23

Accordingly and as a radical empiricist, Dewey places his emphasis on the discernment of objective value in the objective world. Dewey calls this value "quality," but by the term he means neither mathematical nor secondary qualities; he uses the term to refer, first, to the wholeness or deeper reality, in some aspect of the world, often as that wholeness is presented in a work of art.24 If this were called the objective locus of quality, the subjective locus would be the emotional intuition of the objective quality; this subjective quality gives the experience itself the unity which makes it that particular experience.25 It is this empirical discernment of quality which provides the substance of the derivative and propositional resolution of the conflict between the individual and its environment. So for Dewey the major aesthetic task is empirical; it is to discern properly the aesthetic quality of the external object.26

Similarly, although Whitehead has a propositional aesthetic, for him the major aesthetic task is to discern, through a concentration on causal efficacy, the aesthetic worth of the external world. The primacy of this task, and the derivative nature of a rationalistic aesthetic, is best understood when Whitehead is seen in a line of radical empiricists, a position which is most evident in his Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect and Modes of Thought. There Whitehead compares his own epistemology primarily to Hume’s and Kant’s epistemologies, but also to that trust in mental experience which has passed from Descartes, to Locke, to Berkeley. He notes that these thinkers regarded the clear and distinct mental images of presentational immediacy as primitive, and causal efficacy as derivative. Whitehead calls this "a complete inversion of the evidence," and contends that it leads to the "fallacy of simple location" and the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness."27 His response is, of course, to argue for the primitiveness of causal efficacy, and to contend that the primary aim of knowledge is to elucidate with as little abstraction as possible the immediacy of causal efficacy. This is a separate enterprise, quite different from the elucidation effected by presentational immediacy itself. In this empiricism, Whitehead should be regarded as a successor to Bergson, James, and Dewey, and not primarily as one who would correct their "anti-intellectualism."

While the commonality among James, Bergson, Dewey, and Whitehead will not be established in this short essay,28 it can be at least illustrated by reference to a curious linguistic move made by the three of those who wrote in English. In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead said:

Logicians are not called in to advise artists. The key to the explanation is the understanding of the prehension of individuality. This is the feeling of each objective factor as an individual "It" with its own significance.29

Why the inarticulateness, especially from Whitehead at his articulate best in what may be his most readable book? The answer may be that by using "It" in the way he does, he is attempting to point to a primal, physical, and immediate experience of objective value, an experience inaccessible to normal, conscious, and circumspect language. Virtually the same linguistic awkwardness appears in the writings of his American compatriots, James and Dewey. In Essays in Radical Empiricism James wrote:

The instant field of the present is at all times what I call the "pure" experience. It is only virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet. For the time being, it is plain, unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that.30

In Art as Experience, in his efforts to define that imperceptible "quality" in our experience of the immediate world, Dewey stumbles from language about having "an experience," to illustrations such as "‘that was an experience,’" and "that meal."31 Bergson, however, chose simply to refer to sympathy and intuition, preferring, I suspect, style to awkward American accuracies.32

The burden of this set of remarks is to contend that an empirical aesthetic, which looks through art or through aesthetic experience in order to recover the primitiveness of causal efficacy, is most obvious in Whitehead’s thought when it is considered in a primarily American historical context. From that vantage point it is apparent that a propositional and rational aesthetic, while certainly not guilty of an inversion of the evidence or of the fallacies of simple location and misplaced concreteness, rests on what is derivative and secondary.

This distinction is not, I hope, merely pedantic. It seeks to be a reminder that for Whitehead all propositional estimates of aesthetic worth, while they do lend important handles, are merely provisional, merely the intellect’s feeble effort to account for what is unaccountable. It should emphasize the empirical appreciation of the perishable value of the particular, not only for its aesthetic worth, but for the responsive moral action which it might engender.


1This influence is most pronounced in Biblical interpretation in the work of William A. Beardslee; see, for example, A House for Hope (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), Ch. 8. Directly or indirectly, Sherburne has influenced the group of process Biblical scholars who have written very effectively in a "thematic issue" of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, entitled "New Testament Interpretation from a Process Perspective" (Volume XLVII, No. 1, March, 1979). The issue includes articles by John B. Cobb, Jr., William Beardslee, David Lull, Russell Pregeant, Theodore J. Weeden, Sr., and Barry A. Woodbridge. Beardslee sets the tone of the issue when he speaks of "reading of a text through a theory of propositions" (p.35, see also p.65); and Woodbridge summarizes the group’s contention "that a text is a configuration of various linguistic symbols which tend to elicit ‘lures for feeling’ technically called ‘propositional feelings’ . . ." (pp.122-23). For a comment on propositional notions of Christology see John Cobb, Jr., Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 14-15 and of sacramentology see Bernard J. Lee, SM., "The Sacrament of Creative Transformation, Process Studies, Vol. 8, No. 4, Winter, 1978, pp. 240-52.

2 See Donald W. Sherburne, "Meaning and Music," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XXIV, 4 (Summer, 1966). pp. 579-83.

3Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, Corrected Edition edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (London and New York: The Free Press, 1978), pp.280, 111; Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books 1964), p.212.

4This is not to identify Sherburne with the skeptical mind-body dualism established by Descartes and recently examined in its broadest ramifications by Richard Rorty in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979). Rather it is to suggest that Sherburne’s type of analysis invests primary confidence in an intellectual construct, the propositional feeling, and proceeds to examine the world on the basis of that construct, all in a way somewhat reminiscent of Descartes and of the eighteenth-century British empiricists.

5 Donald W. Sherburne, A Whiteheadian Aesthetic. Some Implications of Whitehead’s Metaphysical Speculation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), p. 171.

6 Ibid., p. 155.

7Ibid., p. 179.

8Ibid., pp. 10-11.

9 See E. D. Hirsch, Jr., The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), Chapters 1-5, especially his attacks on "perspectivism"

10 Whitehead, Process and Reality, Part II, Chapter VIII; Alfred North Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (New York: Capricorn Books, 1959), Ch. II.

11 Ibid., pp. 56-57.

12 Ibid.

13 A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Capricorn Books, 1958), P. 163.

14 Ibid., p. 165; see also p. 161.

15 Such an aesthetic would concentrate, for example, on what John Cobb, following Vernon Lee, calls the "hearer" of music -- that is, one who reacts to music as it is felt in the mode of causal efficacy. It would depart, obviously, from Cobb’s contention that "listeners," responding in the mode of presentational immediacy, are alone "capable of useful criticism or indeed of any serious discussion of musical composition" (John B. Cobb, Jr., "Toward Clarity in Aesthetics, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 18 [1957], p. 178).

16 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, pp. 158-59.

17 Ibid., p. 6.

18 The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (New York: Random House, 1951), pp. 288-89.

19"The Collected Earlier Poems of William Carlos Williams (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions Books, 1951), p. 277.

20 See J. Hillis Miller, "Introduction" William Carlos Williams. A Collection of Critical Essays, ed., J. Hillis Miller (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966).

21 I am using James’s label "radical empiricism" to identify that empiricism which claims that relations as well as atomic data can be perceived and that they can be perceived bodily, emotionally, and evaluatively, as well as through the five senses. Radical empiricism is to be distinguished from a Humian or positivistic empiricism which claims that atomic sense data alone are perceived and that they are perceived through the five senses alone.

22John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn Books, 1958), pp. 14-15.

23 Ibid., p. 16; see also pp. 65-75.

24 Ibid., pp. 191-95; see also John Dewey, Experience and Nature (New York, N.Y.: Dover Publications 1958), p. xii.

25 Dewey, Art as Experience, pp. 37ff.

26 See William Shea’s effort to establish this and to show the religious meaning manifest for Dewey through the aesthetic discernment of quality in "Qualitative Wholes: Aesthetic and Religious Experience in the Work of John Dewey" The Journal of Religion, Vol. 60, Number] (January, 1960), pp. 32-50.

27 Whitehead, Symbolism pp.52,38,39; see also Modes of Thought, Chs. 6 and 8.

28 I have attempted, however, to show Whitehead’s radical empiricism and to associate it with James’s radical empiricism in my "Radical Empiricism and Religious Art," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 61, No. 1 (April, 1981).

29A. N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 262.

30 William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, A Pluralistic Universe (New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1947), Vol. 1, p. 23.

31 Dewey, Art as Experience, pp. 35-37.

32 H. Bergson, Creative Evolution (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1975), pp. 191-95.