Why Only Two? Why Not Three?

by Lewis S. Ford

Lewis S. Ford is Emeritus Professor at Old Dominion University, and founding editor of Process Studies Periodical (1971 – 1995).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 101-111, Vol. 30, Number 1, Spring-Summer, 2001. 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. Ford argues with Denis Hurtubise concerning the subjectivity and temporality of God. (See One, Two, or Three Concepts of God….by Denis Hurtubise: http://www.religion-online.org.

Hurtubise and I agree on many things. We both find ample evidence for a different concept of God in Process and Reality prior to the final chapter. Besides the familiar concept having both primordial and consequent natures, there is also a more purely non-temporal approach. We agree on the use of compositional analysis for ferreting out these issues. But we disagree as to whether we should consider there to be one or two such non-temporal concepts.

That we should disagree while using the same method and agreeing on the results in many instances shows that the method is relatively neutral, and can be used by many for different results, depending on the assumptions of the practitioners.

I think there are two concepts, an earlier one which does not suggest or imply the notion of a conceptual realization of eternal objects, and one which does, which I label the middle concept. Hurtubise thinks that the early concepts already imply the conceptual realization, at least to the extent that these two concepts cannot be rigorously distinguished and so should be treated as one. A good example of what I regard as an early concept is quoted in Hurtubise’s essay. It is conceivable that the last three sentences in the passage from Process 93 are an addition, although no good reason for such an insertion is evident. Otherwise all the passages identified as early seem to be part of the original text, while those twenty-six passages pertaining to the middle concept appear to be insertions.1 At least some of them are best construed as insertions, while all of them could be.

I conclude that Whitehead used the early concept in developing what I designate as the first version of Process and Reality (i.e., all but V2, IV.1, IV4). During this time he concentrated on developing his cosmology, and mentions God only incidentally and minimally. After that cosmology was substantially completed, he turned his attention to theology, ultimately in terms of the primordial and consequent natures found in the final chapter. The middle concept was transitional at best. These insertions are perhaps best understood as notes or sketches, aids to Whitehead’s creative thinking which flowered in process theism.

Not all of these twenty-six passages explicitly present the middle concept. Many are on other topics, but they all belong to the same train of thinking occasioned by the middle concept. Even so, I find the reduction to three far too drastic. Nevertheless, to make this manageable I will concentrate on the three selected (Process 32, 40, 46), taking them up in reverse order.

(1). The first full paragraph (Process 46) may not be the appropriate insertion. I have previously suggested that the first two sentences might belong to the original text.2 If the whole complex that Hurtubise proposes is original, then these two sentences should be considered as original as well. But this need not pertain to the rest of the paragraph, which could well be an insertion.3 Whether it is or not depends upon whether the ideas it expresses are later than the original text. This cannot be established on the basis of this passage by itself, but on other passages it is linked to, such as the other two to be investigated.

(2). The second passage from Process and Reality is sufficiently important that it be quoted in full:

The two sets ["the things which are temporal" and "the things which are eternal"] are mediated by a thing which combines the actuality of what is temporal with the timelessness of what is potential. This final entity is the divine element in the world, by which the barren inefficient disjunction of abstract potentialities obtains primordially the efficient conjunction of ideal realization. This ideal realization of potentialities in a primordial actual entity constitutes the metaphysical stability whereby the actual process exemplified general principles of metaphysics, and attains the ends proper to specific types of emergent order. By reason of the actuality of this primordial valuation of pure potentials, each eternal object has a definite effective relevance to each concrescent process. Apart from such orderings, there would be a complete disjunction of eternal objects unrealized in the temporal world. Novelty would be meaningless, and inconceivable. We are here extending and rigidity apply Hume’s principle, that ideas of reflection are derived from actual facts.

By this recognition of the divine element the general Aristotelian principle is maintained that, apart from things that are actual, there is nothing -- nothing either in fact or in efficacy. (40)

Hurtubise finds no insertion here, for it is rhetorically continuous throughout. That may simply mean that this is one of Whitehead’s more successful attempts as contrasted with some others (e.g., Process 278). Whether it is an insertion primarily depends upon any contrast with context. Hurtubise finds no such contrast, since for him God is conceived as the nontemporal valuation of eternal objects both in the context (italicized portions) and in the text. If there is no contrast, the passage all blends together into one.

I read the passage differently. Let us first consider the context, which appears to come from the original version of Part 11(C). Let us try to interpret it on its own terms, apart from later ideas, such as found in the insertion. This is a general rule of compositional interpretation, for it enables us to see more clearly the stages of Whitehead’s development.

If we attend to the italicized portions only, Whitehead argues that eternal objects and actual entities are mediated by an entity that is nontemporal like eternal objects yet actual like actual occasions. This is based upon his earlier theory of formative elements (Religion 90) as spelled out in the statement that the process requires a definite entity, already actual among the formative elements, as an antecedent ground for the entry of the ideal forms into the definite process of the temporal world (Religion 152). This divine element, as the ground for the entry of the forms, justifies the general Aristotelian principle that all entities, including the forms, depend for their existence upon actualities.

The context, if we put to one side the inserted material, does not specify how God mediates between the two sets. In particular, it does not appeal to the traditional argument that God contemplates the forms, even though that had already been introduced (Religion 154).

At this juncture we are at an impasse. Hurtubise can argue that both context and text here refer to one concept of God. I argue on the contrary that this passage is an interface between an earlier concept not suggesting conceptual valuation, and the middle concept spelling out just what that conceptual valuation is. To adjudicate between these two positions, it is necessary to consider our contrasting interpretations of Whitehead’s understanding of God.

Hurtubise argues that the notion of a divine conceptual valuation of eternal objects is already present in Whitehead’s earlier book:

He is complete in the sense that his vision determines every possibility of value. Such a complete vision coordinates and adjusts every detail. Thus his knowledge of the relationships of particular modes of value Is not added to, or disturbed, by the realization in the actual world of what is already conceptually realized in his ideal world. This ideal world of conceptual harmonization is merely a description of God himself. Thus the nature of God is the complete conceptual realization of the realm of ideal forms. (Religion 153)

This notion of a "complete conceptual realization" is repeated verbatim later. This is a constant feature of Whitehead’s theory of God, even after the adoption of a consequent nature. So even in texts which barely mention God, or describe other features of God, the notion of conceptual valuation is implicit.

This is a plausible position, one I previously held (Emergence 227), conceiving of God as a synthesis of purely conceptual feelings. Yet we have to reckon with the fact that "Whitehead considered his Religion in the Making a complete failure."4

To see how this might be so, we need to reconstruct Whitehead’s project in that book. He had previously concluded (Science 178f) that God should be conceived as a principle of limitation, and that what further could be known about God needed to be sought in the nature of the various religions. Thus the nature of God, philosophically considered (Religion chapter 3), is minimal. God is conceived as that actuality which is nontemporal.

I take actuality here most broadly to be that which is without alternative. Contingent entities, when merely possible, have many alternatives, but actualization is a decision amid alternatives: only one remains. In the domain of the nontemporal there are many alternatives, yet one core of actuality, namely that which is necessary. The necessary structure of reality as the principle of limitation excludes the impossible, and as a formative element it is both nontemporal and actual, mediating between the two sets.

Whitehead may have tried to see how far his concept of God as constitutive of every actual occasion (Religion 88-90) could be exemplified in the various world religions. As the principle of rightness it was exemplified In most. He had no difficulty finding it exemplified in eastern religions, but western theism was more of a challenge, to which the fourth chapter was devoted. This is not a metaphysical endorsement of an individual transcendent God as an exploration of that hypothesis. On the assumption that God is personal, this is how that concept can be understood as compatible with God as formative element. In this way Whitehead could show how a rationalized Western theism illustrates his more abstract concept of God.

Now, if God is to be both personal and nontemporal, God must be nontemporally subjective. While Whitehead himself conceived God in nonsubjectivist ways, thinking that the nontemporal must be like eternal objects, he allowed for the possibility of nontemporal subjectivity in this fourth chapter. But as his theory of concrescence developed, this possibility became more and more unfeasible. For concrescence was seen to be inherently temporal, and the contrast between subjectivity and objectivity could be understood as the contrast between present immediacy and past determinateness. The rejection of nontemporal subjectivity meant that the project of Religion and the Making was at least a partial failure.

From the perspective of the final concept, it seems an easy step to infer that if God cannot be nontemporally subjective, perhaps God could be temporally subjective. It seems, however, that Whitehead resisted that solution for a quite some time. The brief mentions of God in what I have called the first version (basically all but the final chapter and insertions) are silent on the question of divine subjectivity.

At that time actuality was understood purely in terms of the concrete determinateness which an occasion had achieved, not in terms of its concrescence. This is seen most clearly in the original formulation of the ontological principle. It does not appear in Process and Reality, but was presented to his Harvard students at the outset of the Fall 1928 term.5 I present it according to the categoreal scheme, in order to emphasize (by italics) the portion which was not yet there:

(xviii) That every condition so which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance has its reason either in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence, or in the character of the subject which is in process of concrescence. (Process 24)

In the first version only determinate actualities can serve as reasons. They must be either concretely determinate, excluding all contingent alternatives, or in the case of God, excluding all impossibilities.

(3). Process 32: Sometime later Whitehead came to realize that becoming was just as real, if not more so, than the being achieved by becoming. In the first flush of these realization, he concluded that concrescence alone was fully actual, and that therefore the ontological principle, referring reasons to actualities, should be formulated solely in terms of the formal reality of concrescence:

In what sense can unrealized abstract form be relevant? What is its basis of relevance? ‘Relevance’ must express some real fact of togetherness among forms. the ontological principle can be expressed as : All real togetherness is togetherness in the formal constitution of an actuality.6 So if there be a relevance of what in the temporal world is unrealized, the relevance must express a fact of togetherness in the formal constitution of a non-temporal actuality. But by the principle of relativity there can only be one non-derivative actuality; unbounded by its prehensions of an actual world. Such a primordial superject of creativity achieves, in its unity of satisfaction, the complete conceptual valuation of all eternal objects. This is the ultimate, basic adjustment of the togetherness of eternal objects on which creative order depends. It is the conceptual adjustment of all appetites in the form of aversions and adversions. It constitutes the meaning of relevance. (Process 32)7

Hurtubise and I both recognize this to be an insertion. It is very loosely attached to its present context by mention of relevance in the penultimate sentence of the preceding paragraph, but nothing prepares us for a discussion of how unrealized forms can be relevant. Since nearly all the material of this chapter on "Derivative Notions" (1.3) consists of passages originally belonging elsewhere but later displaced, not to be simply discarded but to be assembled here,8 Hurtubise sees this particular passage as originally belonging to the account of the Category of Subjective Harmony (Process 27). Yet this makes no mention of relevance, realized or not. More importantly, if this had been its original location, why should it have been displaced from there?

I think it originally belonged to the discussion of the Category of Conceptual Reversion (Process 249f), and was bumped by the paragraph announcing abolition of reversion. Reversion had been Whitehead’s key theory for showing the relevance of novelty or unrealized possibility; and our paragraph grounded that relevance in the formal constitution of God. When he realized that later notions of subjective aim and hybrid prehension of God could adequately account for novelty, he determined to abolish reversion as superfluous. The paragraph abolishing reversion was then placed as close as possible to the main statement of the theory, and this meant replacing the paragraph in question, displacing it to its present location in (Part I, chapter 3.)

Once actuality is ascribed preeminently to concrescent becoming rather than to concrete being, it became urgent how to construe God’s actuality. Since he had rejected nontemporal subjectivity, God had been formulated solely in terms of being. But if God were only being, God would be derivative from something greater. By this time Whitehead had articulated his theory of concrescence and could apply it to the divine instance. The multiplicity of eternal objects could be ordered into a well-structured realm, and that ordering by actuality could serve as the reason why each eternal object is what it is and is definitely related to all other eternal objects.

This conceptual realization is given several different names, but never concrescence. Though this theory is clearly fashioned after the concrescence of the many into one, concrescence had two intertwined connotations for him which made it unacceptable. A concrescence was seen to be temporal, to have a contrast between an earlier multiplicity and a later unity. As temporal it meant the present immediacy of subjectivity, and Whitehead at this time saw no necessity to ascribe subjectivity to God. The glowing final chapter of Religion in the Making merely indicates how his minimal theory could be applied to Western theism, and was in any case vitiated by his growing doubts about nontemporal subjectivity.

Thus this divine "concrescence" was qualified in two ways. Concrescent unification was applied to its limiting case in which there could be no temporal lapse between the initial multiplicity and consequent unity. At best this could be expressed in counterfactual conditionals: apart from divine activity, these eternal objects would have been unordered. Moreover, it is a process which does not require the subjectivity of any divine mind contemplating the forms. "Concrescence" thus offered a way in which "the complete conceptual realization of the realm of ideal forms" (Religion 154) could be reintroduced, for it need not connote the difficulty of nontemporal subjectivity.

In the passage at hand the ontological principle refers to actuality solely in terms of becoming: "The ontological principle can be expressed as: All real togetherness is togetherness in the formal constitution of an actuality" (Process 32). Later he comes to realize that both being and becoming can be forms of actuality, and thus formulates the principle as quoted above, now including the italicized phrase (Process 24)10

Also in this passage Whitehead somewhat incautiously uses some terms for conceptual realization that might suggest subjectivity, or at least "concrescence." Consider: "Such a primordial superject of creativity achieves, in its unity of satisfaction, the complete conceptual valuation of all eternal objects." I once seized on these terms to ascribe a theory of nontemporal subjectivity to Whitehead.11 While in many ways I regard that essay as one of my best achievements, its general premise was wrongheaded. It is noteworthy that in all subsequent mentions of the middle concept Whitehead seems to be at pains to avoid all hints that he is describing a "concrescence," let alone one that could be nontemporally subjective.

Now the ease with which subjectivity could be excised from the nontemporal counterpart of concrescence may well have alerted Whitehead to a deficiency in his own theory of subjectivity as so far developed in part three (apart from later insertions). At this juncture subjectivity was simply understood in terms of the general categoreal obligations, somewhat like Kant’s analysis of the Understanding. These categories ought to apply to the divine conceptual valuation, and yet he found no subjectivity there. In addition subjectivity required particular decision, and none was forthcoming from the action of the categories alone.

Whitehead’s theory of becoming placed stresses upon his theory of subjectivity that substantialist alternatives could avoid. For it is only at the satisfaction that the subject has come into being as the feeler of all its feelings. On the other hand, the subject is required in some form from the very outset as that which brings the various feelings together. Only if the subject is somehow active in the process can it make the decisions it must to exercise in freedom and self-creativity Thus the subject must be operative within concrescence, and yet can only come into being at its conclusion.

As a step towards meeting this problem Whitehead introduced the notion of a "subjective aim." It is important to realize that "subjective aim" did not mean all that we now ascribe to it. The earliest mentions may not mean anything more than the aim of the subject (Process 277, 278, 279; 102, 104). He appreciates that a common aim will bring the various feelings together, but that aim’s place among the feelings is problematic. Then he recognizes that the subjective aim is "the basic conceptual feeling of subjective aim" capable of having its own phases of modification (Process 224). Even so, the subject and the subjective aim were still treated as distinct, such that the subjective could only be one feeling among others. Here see the extraordinary sentence:

[H]owever far the sphere of efficient causation be pushed in the determination of components of a concrescence -- its data, its emotions, its appreciations, its purposes, its phases of subjective aim -- beyond the determination of these components there always remains the final reaction of the self-creative unity of the universe. Process 47)12

"Subjective am" is here ranged on the side of efficient causation in order to contrast it with "the final reaction." It is not yet conceived as the subjective means by which that final reaction is to be made. "The final reaction can only refer to the subject making its own free self-creative decision, and yet Whitehead describes the subject in extravagant terms. Here we must bear in mind that terms like "the universe" are token-reflexive terms, vet his intent would have been clearer had he said: "the self-creative unity of [its] universe." The unity of its universe, that is, its initial multiplicity, would be the final subject. This extravagant circumlocution seems to be an elaborate way to avoid to the term "subject," either because he did not wish to contrast it with "subjective aim," or because he was uncertain just how the subject should now be conceived.

Subsequently Whitehead reduces this complexity by placing the subject in the subjective aim:

The initial subjective aim " determines the initial gradations of relevance of eternal objects for conceptual feeling; and constitutes the autonomous subject in its primary phase of feelings." (Process 244)13

Rather than simply being the passive recipient of the feelings, the subject is inserted right into the concrescence itself as a privileged conceptual feeling affecting all the others. Thus we have both the subject in the making and the subject as made, reflecting the contrast between becoming and being. Objectively conceived, this subjective aim can be construed as an emergent essence. Unlike the traditional essence, which is invariant during the activity of the substance, this essence emerges from a bare possibility, to be determined in the course of concrescence as the form of its satisfaction. Subjectively considered, it is the transformative activity guiding the many prehensions into their final unity.

Though conceptual valuation, like concrescence, exemplifies various categoreal obligations,14 we should not expect subjectivity in the form of subjective aim to apply as long as God is conceived as purely nontemporal. One text suggests otherwise:

His conceptual actuality at once exemplifies and establishes the categoreal conditions. The conceptual feelings, which compose his primordial nature, exemplify in their subjective forms their mutual sensitivity and their subjective unity of subjective aim. (Process 344, my emphasis)

"Conceptual actuality," rather than "conceptual nature," indicates that God’s actuality as a whole is constituted solely Out of conceptual feelings. This section (Process V.2.2), however, has been edited from the standpoint of the two natures to fit into the final chapter, and I have indicated this editing by italics.

"Subjective unity of subjective aim" is grammatically a strange redundancy. We should have expected either "unity of subjective aim" or "subjective unity of aim." Even so, "their unity of subjective aim" would be an odd circumlocution, for how are the many feelings united by one conceptual feeling? I take the original wording to be "their subjective unity of aim," where aim is conceived as a common feature by which all feelings are ordered together.15 Note that the unity of aim is quite static, for the divine conceptual actuality is itself static.

The introduction of the two natures radically transforms Whitehead’s conception of God. Instead of purely nontemporal, it acquires a temporal and subjective side. These two features are inextricably interwoven, for in order to subjectively respond to particular circumstances, God must be capable of entering into temporal relationships.16

Now it becomes appropriate to introduce "subjective air" applicable to God, and not merely as a feature supplied to nascent occasions. If we think of this subjective aim simply as a conceptual feeling, or even as analogous to an ordinary subjective aim embracing its whole career, we apt to think of it as some very general ideal, necessarily vague in order to be all-inclusive. This would miss the dynamic subjectivity I believe Whitehead intended. For the subjective aim for God provides the conceptual means whereby divine temporal responsivity can be expressed.

Consider this parallel formulation:

The perfection of God’s subjective aim, derived from the completeness of his primordial nature, issues into the character of his consequent nature. . . The wisdom of [God’s?] subjective aim prehends every actuality for what it can be in such a perfected system . . . woven by rightness of feeling into the harmony of the universal feeling. . . (Process 345-46)

Now, subjective aim cannot literally prehend other actualities, but it can serve as the basis whereby God’s physical feelings are harmonized together. God’s wisdom expresses itself in this process, for the divine conceptual imagination perfectly matches each physical prehension, enabling this harmonization. The subjectivity behind that wisdom is the divine subjective aim, which as a conceptual feeling is derived from the primordial nature.17

How can a single subjective aim direct every physical prehension to its proper place within the all-inclusive divine harmony? The more accommodating it would be, the vaguer it would have to be, and the less useful it could be to the proper needs of the particular physical prehension. I submit that this subjective aim, as the very subjectivity of a God alert and responding to every situation as it arises, must be conceived as multifaceted, modifying itself at every turn. It is one subjective aim in the sense that it is one continuous conceptual response. It is not the conceptual prehension of one single eternal object, although all the eternal objects it exemplifies are derived from an inexhaustible primordial nature.

We may sum up this line of thought by seeing that there is an important difference between divine conceptual valuation as it appears earlier (Religion 154) and later in the middle concepts for God. The earlier use presupposes subjectivity. The middle concept, based upon the theory of concrescence to be sure, is based on nonsubjectivity. Subjectivity requires subjective aim, which is not ascribed to God until the final chapter asserting the everlasting, temporal nature of God.

For the early and the middle concepts, God is a nontemporal actual entity. But the early concept restricts itself to the being of God. The middle concept sees the divine actuality primarily in terms of God’s becoming, although understood nontemporally.

If the conceptual contrast between God as being and God as becoming is kept firmly in mind, we should be able to discern insertions based on the middle concept (such as Process 40). An adequate account of Whitehead’s development of God cannot afford to leave home without all three concepts. Two will not do.



I See my essay, "Riddle" 42-50, which lists all known instances of the early concept (50, n14), the middle concept (50n13), and the final concept (49, n7).

2. See Ford "Growth" 21, n28.

3. I regard the last sentence, however, to be a still later insertion. It presupposes God as primordial and consequent. As we shall see, it was only then that God was deemed to be subjective. The notion of a "primordial mind" assumes subjectivity,

4. From the transcript A. H. Johnson made of a tutorial with Whitehead during the fall of 1936 (Explorations 8f.)

5. See The Emergence 323f. The third of these eight metaphysical principles is referred to at Process 212. See the editor’s notes to 212.37 of the corrected edition.

6. This formulation of the ontological principle vests all reason in becoming actualities, not (as previously) in actualities as being. His later formulations vest it in both (e.g., Process 24). See my "Perfecting" 122-49.

7. I omit the last sentence of this paragraph as a two natures addition.

8. Thus section 2 was replaced by Process II.3.5; section 3 by Zeno’s argument discussed at Process 69f. Section 4 has so far defied attempts to identify its original location, but its very presence is best explained as displaced material.

9. Never, that is, while the middle concept holds sway. Once, after the consequent nature has been introduced, we read: "The ‘primordial nature’ of God is the concrescence of a unity of conceptual feelings" Process 87f). By then, however, God is conceived of as temporal, at least in part.

10. See my "Perfecting."

11. See my essay "Non-Temporality."

12. In this case, the whole of this section (II.1.4) is an insertion (Process 46-48). Part III knows only of eight categoreal conditions, as they were then known. The ninth categoreal obligation was inserted here, I suspect, because Whitehead wanted to place this doctrine of intrinsic freedom as close as possible to the beginning of his philosophizing.

13. Again the whole section (III.3.1) is an insertion, as is the next.

14. Several categoreal obligations, however, would be inapplicable, e.g., conceptual reproduction, reversion and transmutation.

15. This notion of "aim" is a precursor of "subjective aim" in all of its permutations. See e.g. 222, 254f, 277-79, and my essay, "Subjectivity in the Making."

16. I have developed this theme extensively in The Transformation of Process Theism, particularly in chapter 4.

17. The same reasoning, that the physical prehensions are guided by the subjective aim derived from the primordial nature, is also present in the other mention of "subjective aim" in this final chapter:

This prehension into God of each creature is directed with the subjective aim, and clothed with the subjective form, wholly derivative from his all-inclusive primordial valuation. (Process 345)


Works Cited

Ford, Lewis S. "The Non-Temporality" of Whitehead’s God." International Philosophical Quarterly 13 (1973): 347-76.

____The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. Albany: State U of New York P, 1984.

____"Subjectivity in the Making." Process Studies 21 (1992): 1-24.

____The Riddle of Religion in the Making." Process Studies 22 (1993): 42-50.

____Perfecting the Ontological Principle." Metaphysics as Foundation: Essays in Honor of Ivor Leclerc. Ed. Paul A. Bogaard and Gordon Treash. New York: State U of New York P, 1993.

____"The Growth of Whitehead’s Theism." Process Studies Supplements vol. 1, Issue I (26Jan. 2000): 1-99 <http://wxvwctr4process.org/PSS/>

____The Transformation of Process Theism. Albany: State U of New York P, 2000.

Ford, Lewis S., and George L. Kline, eds. Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy. New York: Fordham UP, 1983.

Whitehead, Alfred North, Science and the Modern World. New York: Macmillan, 1925.

____ Religion in the Making New York: Macmillan, 1926.

____Process and Reality. 1929. Corrected Edition. Ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W Sherburne. New York: Free Press, 1978.