Whitehead’s Psychological Physiology: A Third View

by William Gallagher

William Gallagher received his Ph.D. from the New School of Social Research in 1974 with a dissertation on “Whitehead’s Theory of the Human Person.”

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 263-274, Vol. 4, Number 4, Winter, 1974. 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 Sherburne model, with certain modifications, is closer to Whitehead’s intentions than Cobb’s model, and fits the spirit of Whitehead’s philosophy better. It also is closer to the facts of empirical psychology. Thus it is not necessary to reconceive the relation of “soul” to body in terms of regional inclusion.

Whitehead’s doctrine of the atomicity of occasions of experience raises many problems when it is applied to human mental life. In a recent issue of Process Studies (3/1 [Spring, 1973], 27-40), John Cobb and Donald Sherburne debate whether the unity of human mental experience is better understood if the relationship between the dominant society of personally ordered occasions which Whitehead calls the "soul," and other occasions in the brain which support it, is reconceived in terms of regional inclusion. Sherburne maintains that this position violates essential Whiteheadian principles and that human mental life can be understood without such an innovation. Nevertheless, Cobb presents strong objections to Sherburne’s model, based on the argument that the dominant occasion as Sherburne wants to conceive it would have to perform some amazing feats as it races around its supportive environment.

I will argue that the Sherburne model, with certain modifications, is closer to Whitehead’s intentions than Cobb’s model, fits the spirit of Whitehead’s philosophy better, and also is closer to the facts of empirical psychology. Thus it is not necessary to reconceive the relation of "soul" to body in terms of regional inclusion.

Whitehead writes that the human body is pervaded by a complex structure of many enduring objects. If we recall his definition of an enduring object as "a genetic character inherited through a historic route of actual occasions" (FR 166), we realize the extreme generality of this expression. There are types of objects which form material bodies, for example, and others which do not. The human mind, in Whitehead’s view, is an example of the latter: "There is also an enduring object formed by the inheritance from presiding occasion to presiding occasion" (PR 167).

The notion of an enduring object becomes especially interesting when we raise the question of whether nonmaterial enduring objects other than the presiding route of occasions exists in the human subject. We find the connection between the dominant thread and the physical structure of the body described in Process and Reality as follows: "Thus in an animal body the presiding occasion, if there be one, is the final node, or intersection, of a complex structure of many enduring objects" (PR 166f). A question might be raised here as to what might be the character of this complex structure of enduring objects, upon which the presiding object, the dominant thread, stages its private satisfactions. If, as White-head puts it, the dominant thread "wanders from part to part of the brain, dissociated from the physical material atoms" (PR 167), then those enduring objects cannot possibly be material. The only alternative is that they are historic routes of occasions within the supportive nexus. I am thus persuaded to view the "nonsocial" nexus supportive of unified dominant mentality, which receives so much attention in Sherburne’s model, as being more social than other passages might lead us to expect.

In fact, what I am urging is a broadened understanding of the word "soul" as it is employed in Whitehead’s treatment of human mentality, so that historic routes of occasions are admitted which are neither physical objects nor dominant routes. Such a view, I feel, makes more sense of Whitehead’s belief that the inheritance of bodily experience is always organized: "The harmonized relations of the parts of the body constitute the wealth of inheritance into a harmony of contrasts, issuing into intensity of experience" (PR 167). The dominant occasion would have too burdensome a job if it alone were responsible for the integration of bodily experience. Furthermore, such a view would be incompatible with the description of the final percipient route of occasions in part V of Process and Reality "It toils not, neither does it spin. It receives from the past; it lives in the present. . . . Its sole use to the body is its vivid originality: it is the organ of novelty" (PR 516).

Various passages indicate that a high degree of transmutational activity has already taken place every time the dominant occasion is shaken by its private intensities. I conclude that human mentality is not correctly identified solely with the one nonmaterial enduring object generated by the dominant series of occasions. I propose that we entertain the notion that the soul contains subordinate nonconscious "living persons."

Such a suggestion is not so far from Whitehead’s intentions as might at first appear. If we view the soul as an effective social system for the procurement of intense experience, we can legitimately apply to it Whitehead’s statement in "Immortality" that "the more effective social systems involve a large infusion of various soils of personalities as subordinate elements in their make-up -- for example, an animal body, or a society of animals, such as human beings" (IMM 690).

Whitehead stresses that the mind is not to be loaded down by its own acquisitions. An over-busy dominant occasion, one of Cobb’s objections to the Sherburne model, is hard to reconcile with this intention, whereas a kind of division of labor within mental life, which I am proposing here, fits better. Whitehead himself characterizes human mentality in three ways, rather than one. He writes that it is "partly the outcome of the human body, partly the single directive agency of the body, partly a system of cogitations which have a certain irrelevance to the physical relationships of the body" (PR 164f). The first description points to a level of mental functioning in which bodily experience is merely registered without much enhancement of the mental pole in the occasions other than perhaps a general feeling tone; the second points to an habitual form of bodily unity; and only the third suggests a flight from environmental obligations in the interest of greater depth of experience. This threefold description allows for the possibility of threads of inheritance of lesser intensity of experience than the dominant one, threads more closely bound to the reiterative aims of the body. The ultimate percipient draws upon these unconscious cogitations which have their own partial independence from the occasions of the brain and body.

This notion of nondominant living strands may also throw light on Whitehead’s view of how mental originality is "canalized": "By this transmission the mental originality of the living occasions receives a character and a depth. In this way originality is both ‘canalized’ -- to use Bergson’s term -- and intensified. Its range is widened within limits. Apart from canalization, depth of originality would spell disaster for the animal body" (PR 163). If we recall Whitehead’s position that the living cell canalizes the initiatives of its entirely living members in the interest of preserving the entire cellular society, it can be seen that our position here applies that strategy to the human soul. Our interpretation of the statement that "Life is a passage from physical order to pure mental originality" (PR 164) is that the initiatives within the dominant nexus of occasions are canalized in the supportive nexus by way of threads of inheritance, so that personal mentality may combine originality of response with an adequate order upon which it depends.

Does our emphasis on sociality in human mental behavior violate Whitehead’s insistence that inheritance explains why a mentality should be swayed by its past, whereas what ought to be emphasized is the element of originality? I think not, for such statements about immediacy must be balanced with ones which show that life’s survival power depends on adaptation and regeneration. On pages 160-67 of Process and Reality, stability and intensity are presented as potentially conflicting demands. Sheer conceptual appetition must be integrated with its substructures or else it is deficient in survival power. Threads of personal order would satisfy this requirement. The notion of canalization suggests that social order, far from decreasing the intensity of experience, may actually increase it: "The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order. . . . The old dominance should be transformed into the firm foundations, upon which new feelings arise, drawing their intensities from delicacies of contrast between system and freshness" (PR 515).

Furthermore, Whitehead’s statements about life in Adventures of Ideas support the idea that social order is not opposed to the notion of the living occasion. In fact, they suggest that the theory of nonsocial occasions alone is insufficient to explain life. For example, he writes:

In so far as the mental spontaneities of occasions do not thwart each other, but are directed to a common objective amid varying circumstances, there is life. The essence of life is the teleological introduction of novelty, with some conformation of objectives. Thus novelty of circumstances is met with novelty of functioning adapted to steadiness of purpose. (AI 266)

And in the same discussion, he denies that any single occasion can be called living, for "Life is the coordination of the mental spontaneities throughout the occasions of a society" (AI 266). In the case of human mentality, we maintain that the requisite order is supplied by a vast reservoir of unconscious temporal societies, which sustain its higher initiatives. Thus the complex structure of enduring objects, of which the presiding occasion is described as being the final node or intersection, is this reservoir, organized into many historic routes of inherited character. Such subordinate nexuses possess a diminished degree of mental spontaneity as compared to the dominant living person.

Whitehead nowhere in Process and Reality argues explicitly for such intermediate entities, but it is interesting that he maintains a gradation of enduring objects, from the one extreme of the atomic material body to the opposite extreme of the presiding thread: "But just as the difference between living and non-living occasions is not sharp, but more or less, so the distinction between an enduring object which is an atomic material body and one which is not, is again more or less." (PR 166).

The types of enduring object for which we have argued are intermediates: they share to some extent in the character of materiality as Whitehead uses the term, in that they are more affected by their contiguous bodily occasions, hence more reiterative, than the dominant thread. In spite of this relatively diminished freedom, they nonetheless reduce the wealth of bodily inheritance to an adequate level of order upon which the ultimate percipient can stage its own contrasts. Below, we demonstrate the applicability of this view to the more habitual forms of human behavior, such as inattentive speech, motor habits, etc. Further down the scale toward materiality, other groupings of occasions can be assumed, which are still more tied to biorhythms, as for example the reticular system, balance and appetite centers, and so on.

Because such enduring objects are more tied to the body, they are more dominated by particular forms of definiteness in their successive satisfactions than the final percipient route, whose sole value to the body, as we pointed out above, is its vivid originality. They might be described as the feudal underlords of the personality, of which Whitehead speaks in Modes of Thought: "Finally, the overlord tends to relapse into the conventionality of routine imposed upon the subordinate governors, such as the heart. Animal life can face conventional novelties with conventional devices" (MT 35).

There is much empirical evidence for mental operations of high complexity below the level of conscious attention. For example, the pioneering work of Moruzzi and Magoun established that the reticular activating system, a small network of nerves in the brain stem, "awakens" the brain and prepares it to receive and respond to incoming information. Conscious awareness, memory, and learning depend on a minimal level of electrical activity in the cerebral cortex. When this activity decreases below the thresh-hold level, as evidenced by EEC recordings, consciousness ceases. The organism loses both awareness of, and ability to respond to, its environment (2:457). Tibbetts points out that the reticular network is not connected to any particular brain region; its fibers appear to spray the entire cortex. Hence its contribution to awareness is a general one, covering all high-grade mental activities. In an anesthetized animal, signals continue to reach the cortex but the animal is unable to respond to them. Damage to the reticular formation in human beings makes all consciousness impossible, and permanent injury results in an irreversible coma. The organism lapses into a level of low intensity of experience (3:27).

What interests us here is that this system operates at a high level of conceptual discrimination, in Whitehead’s technical use of the term. I. D. French describes it as follows: "It is as if the Reticular Activating System becomes endowed by experience with the ability to discriminate among stimuli, disregarding those it has found unimportant and responding to those that are helpful" (1:56). It should be recalled that, according to Whitehead, selectivity of response to data is what characterizes any advance in mentality.

Wooldridge characterizes the reticular system as the establisher of an optimal signal-to-noise ratio, so to speak, upon which higher levels of experience are staged: "‘Volume-control’ signals are generated in the reticular system to reduce our sensitivity to uninteresting or irrelevant stimuli and thereby permit us to achieve the peculiar but highly useful phenomenon of mental concentration" (4:143).

Further, Tibbetts points out that the reticular formation is sensitive, in different people, to different stimuli, and can discriminate, "as in the case of the mother awakening when her child is crying, though the husband remains unaffected" (3:27).

Apparently, then, this specialized group of nerves is the material locus for a "critical node," as Whitehead puts it, at which point bodily feelings are transmuted so that "there is an increasing development of special emphasis" (PR 477). Not all high-level conceptual feelings need be localizable within the dominant thread of inheritance. Physiology here persuades us to the belief that an occasion within the dominant nexus lives off a massive bodily experience already highly "mentalized," since "emphasis is valuation, and can only be changed by renewed valuation. But valuation arises in conceptual feelings" (PR 477). Both Cobb and Sherburne try to unify human experience within the dominant thread of occasions, but our supposition is that the unity of many bodily experiences occurs within threads of nondominant occasions within the supposedly nonsocial nexus.

Cobb’s objection to Sherburne’s model of the mind would be valid if the ultimate percipient were affected by a multiplicity of discrete sensations. If it were the case that there were a single terminal occasion in the nonsocial nexus which is directly connected to each separate part of the body, the unity of experience would indeed be difficult to explain. But on my interpretation, occasions in the supportive nexus do not inherit a bare neural impulse, but a structured experience. Whitehead writes that the isolated impression is an artificial construct: "In fact we can never isolate such ultimate irrationalities" (PR 479).

The passage from a stimulated point on the body, for example, up to the ultimate percipient, is more than mere transmission of nerve impulse in Whitehead’s schema. Even the passage from without to within the animal body is the enhancement of the mental pole in the occasions. Further, the transmission within the body is one which introduces increased emphasis from occasion to occasion as the experience rises to the level of the final percipient, which we maintain need not be a member of the dominant nexus. This is the meaning of Whitehead’s statement that emotion is never bare entertainment but is always accompanied by subjective enhancement (PR 248). Depth of experience is achieved when freshness can be contrasted with systematic structure: "The variety sought is the variety of structures, and never the variety of individuals" (PR 485).

Nondominant threads of occasions in the soul have their own preferred forms of definiteness, which they reiterate. The description of the reticular system suggests that there are levels or organization of experience of high intensity below the level of the dominant thread of inheritance. Such a structuration of mental life warns us against locating the organization of experience in the dominant thread. The data which Cobb cites in opposition to Sherburne’s model -- discrete impressions from the big toe, the ear drum, and so on -- are not found in inattentive experience, but are rather the products of intellectual analysis. Whitehead writes that the body as a whole is the organ of sensation: "There may be some further specialization into a particular organ of sensation, but in any case the ‘withness of the body’ is an ever-present, though elusive, element in our perceptions of presentational immediacy" (PR 474f). Focussing of attention is possible because the dominant occasion is able to stage its own contrasts among other threads of inheritance.

When Whitehead describes the approach to intellectuality as a gain in the power of abstraction, so that "the irrelevant multiplicity is eliminated, and emphasis is laid on the elements of systematic order in the actual world" (PR 388), we take this to mean that mentality becomes habitually effective when its potentially anarchic initiatives are both nourished and preserved at lower, more reiterative levels of conceptual functioning. And when he describes the body as achieving "a type of social organization, which with every gradation of efficiency constitutes the orderliness whereby a cosmic epoch shelters in itself intensity of satisfaction" (PR 182), we argue that our view of the supportive structures for the soul’s highest achievements satisfies this demand for orderliness. Whitehead’s revision of his view of life in Adventures of Ideas adjusted ‘the balance toward social order; my socializing of mental life does the same.

Introspectively, my position is verified by the shifting nature of conscious attention, with its structure of a central focal awareness surrounded by an horizon of indeterminate yet always accessible oblique experience, upon which the searchlight of attention may at any moment be turned. A decline of conscious attention, as in exhaustion, in which the figure-ground structure dissolves into a homogeneous field, illustrates that consciousness is derivative from a more complex experience, which I have located in the overwhelmingly nonconscious occasions in the "nonsocial" nexus.

The dominant occasion is not necessarily conscious. Consciousness depends on the variety and intensity of its feelings. Even within consciousness, the amount of our experiences which are entertained at one moment is limited; hence the penumbral quality of attention. Much is dismissed into the background so that focal experience may be heightened. Yet there are patterns in our non-focal experience. For example, Whitehead writes: "We enter the room already equipped with an active aesthetic experience, and we are charmed with the forms and coloring of the furniture. The sensory experience of the room adds vividness and point to an activity of feeling already possessed" (MT 149). Such patterns we have located within nondominant groupings of occasions.

Here it is useful to explain how the dominant occasions at successive moments are related to the vast nexus of conceptually less intense occasions. The dominant living person is a particular temporal thread of inheritance for selected members of the "nonsocial" nexus. Over the course of time, this thread rises and falls between extremes of focal attention and a more diffused, conformal experience of its bodily inheritance as transmuted within the various threads of the supportive nexus. Domination is limited, as Whitehead points out, and may vanish in the pathological case (PR 167).

The question of whether the dominant thread of occasions controls the body cannot be answered by a simple yes or no. Whitehead writes that I am always partly the outcome of my bodily experiences and partly the director of them: "I shape the activities of the environment into a new creation, which is myself at this moment; and yet, as being myself, it is a continuation of the antecedent world" (MT 228). We are interpreting "environment" here as the "nonsocial" nexus of occasions, since this is the dominant occasion’s most immediate environment. Dominance then rises and falls, and this explains the vast range of awareness. At times I act "in the first person," while at other times, in fact most of the time, a more habitual or pre-personal thread of occasions unifies my behavior.

Occasions in the dominant temporal nexus hold a dual membership: they are entirely living occasions and so do not differ in the qualities of life from other members of the "nonsocial" nexus. At the same time, as members of a living person, they experience their predecessors with particular intensity and also are capable of high anticipatory feeling. As the living person draws upon a wider bodily experience, so the conscious ego, if there should be one at a particular moment, draws upon a vast ocean of unconscious feeling which sustains it. Social order within these feelings explains, as one example, a string of associations following on the conscious perception of some important object in the environment.

My revised version of Sherburne’s theory here is more applicable to the workings of the unconscious mind than Cobb’s inclusive occasion. It avoids placing an impossible integrative task on the dominant occasion. Also it explains better the fact that coordinated mental activity varies from person to person and within the same person from occasion to occasion. In Cobb’s model, it would seem that the schizophrenic would have to work much harder than the normal subject to disunify his experience.

While I have admitted the notion of the unconscious into my discussion, I am not using it in any esoteric sense. I am assuming that most of the oblique inheritances prolonged within nondominant historic routes are accessible to the dominant occasion. We might think of the consciousness of visceral functioning in illness and of the retrieval of elements dismissed into unimportance in previous perceptual acts. Other experiences unconsciously inherited may be recovered with more difficulty. A traumatic experience prolonged in unconscious memories may be brought up to conscious awareness and thus re-entertained without the shackle of the past.

A more mundane example of the applicability of the idea of non-dominant strands can be found in habit. The body is not an inert substance which is put into action by explicit acts of intending. There are levels of subjective experience which intervene between the togetherness of organic structures and the togetherness of unified focal attention. Let us suppose that I am concentrating on reading a passage in literature, and at the same time am experiencing a physical craving for food. Let us also place a sandwich within reach. I do not have to locate my hand in objective space and direct it toward the desired object, nor do I have to identify the hand as my own. The natural direction of my hand toward the object is accomplished "impersonally"; my body remembers its pre-ferred series of moves based on previous experience, and launches itself forthwith. Should the object be just out of reach, my book recedes from. foreground to background as the complex of hand-intervening space-sandwich becomes thematized.

In both situations, we are supposing that the dominant thread of occasions has become a thread of the "nonsocial" nexus which is experiencing heightened intensity of feeling. When the sandwich is not a "problem," the thread of nondominant occasions may be presumed to be directing the relevant parts of the body in a way those parts often follow; the reservoir of canalized previous initiative suffices and conscious awareness does not intervene. In the second case, feelings of straining, communicated from muscles along neural paths up to the brain and there transmuted into a general conceptual entertainment of the momentary project, are first entertained inattentively, then attentively. High-grade decision is only necessary when the multiplicity of data cannot find a compatible integration into one satisfaction on a lower level; i.e., in an unexpected gap between hand and food. Only in the second case does higher mentality intervene to resolve the potential contradiction between visceral craving and temporary inaccessibility of food. If the hunger were slight, we might find the hand returning to its previous rest position, the conflict having been dismissed rather than raised to awareness.

The entertainment of a stimulus within a grouping of occasions furnishes a dim background which may in its turn be vivified by a dominant occasion. The "movement" of the dominant occasion is its fixing of attention upon particular threads of occasions which are enjoying some satisfactions successively. This answers Cobb’s objection to the Hermes-quality of the dominant occasion, as it supposedly races around the brain. At the same time, the figure-ground quality of conscious attention is explained as a focal enjoyment of data inherited from occasions of particular intensity together with a lesser inheritance from adjacent occasions of slighter but analogous satisfactions.

Attention is a fluid experience, in which background and foreground can reverse suddenly, as in the case of ambiguous figures such as the twin human profiles which "turn into" the outline of a chalice. In such cases, I assume that the dominant occasion actively reorganizes satisfactions given to the "nonsocial" occasions enjoying analogous experiences. Normal figure-ground experience contrasts with such cases, because of the conservatism of inattentive perception. Habitual groupings of sensory messages are transmuted within the nonsocial nexus, based on learned and reiterated satisfactions, prolonged as perceptual habits. A high-level mental act is founded on a base of adequate order at a lower level, a level Whitehead refers to as "unconscious habit" and "acquired instinct controlling action" (PR 514).

Further support for this interplay of novelty and habit can be found in speech. There is a wide range of attentiveness involved in my verbal behavior. In my everyday use of language, neither I nor my hearer posit the meaning of what I say in a very explicit way. Such verbal utterances might be said to take advantage of a common world of meanings already established by former acts of speaking. Each word can be viewed as a kind of invitation to the hearer to rearrange his stock of canalized, previously traced meanings by participating in a slightly revised structure of meanings. This invitation-character might not be so obvious in ordinary speech and may only rise to explicitness in forms of speech which demand great novelty in the grasping acts, such as poetry or highly technical language. But in any case, I can only be responsive to a language whose general stock of meanings I have already traced, whose shapes I am presently retaining below the level of conscious awareness. I must have my language "at hand" for any novel undertaking, to use Merleau-Ponty’s phrase.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead describes a knowledge of Greek in terms of an historic route of occasions which inherit from each other to a marked degree: "That set of occasions, dating from his first acquirement of the Greek language and including all those occasions up to his loss of any adequate knowledge of that language, constitutes a society in reference to knowledge of the Greek language" (PR 137). Such knowledge is transmitted along a route, presumably nondominant in the absence of any speaking act. I argue that the availability of the Greek language as a whole during acts of speaking or writing it would have to involve a high degree of conceptual entertainment; otherwise, speech would be an impossible foraging operation among physical memory traces.

At the same time, it is also implausible that the entire language should be entertained in dominant occasions at a single moment. The remaining alternative is that the language is present along a thread of nondominant occasions within the so-called "nonsocial" nexus. My possession of language is neither purely physical nor purely conceptual. I do not posit my understanding of my language thematically as I listen or speak, nor is it the case that inert memory traces in my brain cells carry my act of understanding along, for each spoken word modifies that stock into a novel experience for me. What I in fact do is to take in the speaker’s words and integrate them with my own "hold" on the language he uses. The speaker makes sense to me because my dominant thread of experience reenacts previous meaning-experiences.

Hence the act of understanding language is partially a case of high-level conceptual occasions, and partially one of reiterative expectations. What carries over from word to word is in part continuity of a lower-level set of occasions in the "nonsocial" nexus. Whitehead himself describes the utterance of the phrase "United Fruit Company"; "The final occasion of his experience which drove his body to the utterance of the word ‘Company’ is only explicable by his concern with the earlier occasions with their subjective forms of intention to procure the utterance of the complete phrase" (AI 234f). He points out that if the expression had been uttered on many previous occasions, then the present experience would be an energizing of subjective forms of a reiterative type. This is also indicated by the phrase "drove his body to the utterance of the sound." Ordinary speech is not a hunting operation, because inheritances are organized into habitual low-level conceptual inheritances which fulfill themselves. If the final word of the phrase were not spoken for some reason, the lacuna would probably be filled in by the hearers, or else the anonymous train of expectations would be broken, giving rise to more conscious acts of surprise, puzzlement, etc.

Merleau-Ponty’s use of the expression "gestural ensemble" in The Phenomenology of Perception similarly describes this habitual availability of language. He writes: "What remains to me of the word once learnt is its style as constituted by its formation and sound. . . . It is enough that I possess its articulatory and acoustic style as one of the modifications, one of the possible uses of my body. I reach back for the word as my hand reaches toward the part of my body which is being pricked" (PP 180).

Whitehead maintains that in cases of psychopathology central domination decreases or vanishes. Empirically, we find that behavior does not become random in the absence of a dominant occasion, but merely loses its novel character and becomes ritualized. In the case of aphasic speech, for example, the body remains that "instrument for the production of art in the life of the human soul" (AI 349), but the final artist merely lives off his previous acquisitions. Speech retains its quality of being organized for novel expressions, but the novel expressions themselves cease. Merleau-Ponty describes the case of a patient who loses, not a stock of words but the ability to use them for novel purposes:

It does happen that vocabulary, syntax, and the body of language appear intact . . . but the patient does not make use of these materials. He speaks practically only when he is questioned, or, if he himself takes the initiative in asking a question, it is never other than of a stereotyped kind, such as he asks daily of his children when they come home from school. He never uses language to convey a merely possible situation, and false statements are meaningless to. . . . It cannot be held that language in his case has become automatic; there is no decline in general intelligence, and it is still the case that words are organized through their meaning. But the meaning is, as it were, ossified. . . . His experience never tends toward speech, it never suggests a question to him. (PP 196)

In this perplexing availability of speech for certain concrete purposes and unavailability of it for conceptual initiative, we are reminded of Whitehead’s belief that the final percipient inherits normally from a rightly organized environment, yet lives intensely in the present: "life novel and immediate, but deriving its richness by its full inheritance" (PR 515) The description above illustrates by contrast that normal mental life is an interplay between social order and free acts. In the case above, we see a loss of conceptual initiative resulting in a decline to a lower level of organization of the supportive nexus, in this case to one which allows for no novel speech-acts. Note that the weakening of initiative does not result in a chaos of behaviors but rather in a more primitive level of organization of mental life. The normal interplay of habit and novelty, which we have explained in terms of the relation between the dominant occasion and the supportive occasions, is disturbed. But the fact that the patient retains his use of language at all illustrates that a certain organizational level persists within the "nonsocial" nexus.

Cobb’s use of regional inclusion is understandable, since it is motivated by desire to explain the plain fact that human experience is organized. But both Cobb and Sherburne overlook the fact that mental life is a social system which persists in the absence of high-level conceptual initiative. This is clear when Cobb argues against Sherburne that even the visual field would have to be organized by the dominant occasion: "Probably we must be held to see different parts of the visual field successively, perhaps one color at a time" (PS 3:28). Again, we see the assumption that the basis for experience is simple transmission of a given message. In fact, the pathology of sight teaches us that what we experience in attentive vision is founded on an order which exists habitually within the mind. In cases of gradual destruction of sight, there is a regressive reorganization of the perceptual field at more and more primitive levels. Colors are first affected, losing their saturation; the spectrum is gradually simplified, first to four, then to two colors, and finally a gray monochrome stage is reached (PP 9).

I have tried to show in various ways that the notion of subordinate persons introduces a necessary flexibility into our view of mental operations, without requiring any major revision of Whitehead’s conceptual scheme. On my view, it is possible to hold that unified selfhood is an achievement rather than a given, and that experience fluctuates widely in its integrative success. The individuality of enjoyment in the momentarily dominant occasion is a shaping of the various activities of a mental environment into an esthetic pattern. It is this complex artistry which allows us to say that the healthy human person is a unity of aim. Aristotle speaks, in the Nichomachean Ethics (III, 1119b2f; VII, 1149a32f), of the necessity for submitting the appetites to the rule of reason, because otherwise they grow into a separate selfhood of their own, deficient in wider goals than the immediacy of enjoyment. Now in Whitehead’s schema, the complex transformations of bodily experience into higher levels of integration with mental initiatives of wider scope is a similar requirement for sustained realization of value, rather than momentary purposes (IMM 690).

Differences of tempo of the various levels of organization of the soul can reduce the intensity of experience for the entire organism unless emotional and conceptual experiences are reconciled (PR 23). Otherwise the "unity of style" which characterizes successful mental activity is absent: "A unity of style amid a flux of detail adds to the importance of the various details and illustrates the intrinsic value of that style which elicits such emphasis from the details. The confusion of variety is transformed into the coordinated unity of a dominant character" (IMM 690). Without a fusing of the various tempi of organic existence, the personality is a multiplicity of conflicting aims, dominated by various shorter range initiatives, such as bodily drives and their reductions.

This view is not at odds with our everyday experience of human character. Some persons are more directed by immediate satisfaction, others live in terms of a more sustained life-purpose, a wider future. Some are more the product of their past than others. The coordination of initiatives is not a given but a task if unrealized ideals are to play an important part in a human life.

The soul then exemplifies the interplay of potentially conflicting demands for safety and adventure. Whitehead writes: "The world is thus faced by the paradox that, at least in its higher actualities, it craves for novelty and yet is haunted by terror at the loss of the past, with its familiarities and its loved ones" (PR 516). Routine is the god of every social system, as Whitehead puts it in Adventures of Ideas, and this includes the human soul. Yet the highest reaches of mentality are nerved by the impulse to strive beyond the safety of habit. One of the most noticeable characteristics of schizophrenia is the immersion in the familiar round of early satisfactions.

We can summarize the relation between the dominant occasion and the supportive nexus by saying that, only because lower levels of mentality are more routinized, more closely bound to the rhythms of the body, can the ultimate percipient occasion be free. In this sense, the human mind exhibits a resolution to a problem which first emerges with life itself; namely, the reconciliation of security and adventure: "The universe is to be conceived as attaining the active self-expression of its own variety of opposites, of its own freedom and its own necessity, of its own multiplicity and its own unity" (PR 531).



IMM -- Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed. The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1951, for Whitehead’s essay, "Immortality," pp. 682-700.

PP -- Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962.

1. J. D. French. "The Reticular Formation," Scientific American 1965 (1957), 54-60.

2. G. Moruzzi and H. Magoun. "Brain Stem Reticular Formation and Activation of the EEC," Journal of Electroencephalography awl Clinical Neurophysiology 1 (1949), 455-73.

3. Paul Tibbetts. "Some Recent Empirical Contributions to Problems of Consciousness," Philosophy Today 14 (1970), 23-31.

4. D. Wooldridge. The Machinery of the Brain. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.