Wolfe Mays on Whitehead: Seeing Through a Glass Darkly

by John Robert Baker

John Robert Baker received his ThD. in 1969 from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in 1972. He is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 257-273, Vol. 5, Number 4, Winter, 1975. 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.


John Baker criticizes Wolfe Mays’ interpretation of Whitehead in Mays’ claims about the aesthetic-religious and the logico-mathematical. Baker holds that Mays’ interpretation is difficult to argue against, not because it is obviously incorrect, but because it is so heavily dependent upon a kind of argument from similitude whose value is difficult to assess..

In this paper I shall investigate the interpretive method which Wolfe Mays brings to Whitehead’s later philosophy as well as the resultant interpretation, particularly in The Philosophy of Whitehead (PW).

According to Mays (RSW 429, RL 284) there are two approaches to the interpretation of Whitehead’s later writings: (1) the aesthetic-religious and (2) the logico-mathematical. Most discussions are based on the aesthetic-religious approach; and, on the assumption of a shift in the issues and problems which exercise Whitehead in this later period, these discussions make a sharp division between his work in mathematics and nature philosophy and his metaphysical work. Mays adopts the second approach, whose cardinal tenet is the continuity of Whitehead’s earlier and later writings. Whereas the first approach pictures Whitehead’s philosophical interests as developing in a linear manner -- from mathematics, to nature philosophy, and finally to metaphysics, Mays uses the analogy of a spiral (RW 237, 259; of PW 20/15). From the speculative endeavor of "On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World" (1906) in which Whitehead was showing how one could construct alternative concepts of the physical world, i.e., cosmologies, he moves into his nature philosophy in which his speculative work is infused with empirical studies. In his later philosophy Whitehead returns to his speculative endeavors.

In Process and Reality, however, Whitehead has not merely returned to the position of the earliest period. Were that Mays’s interpretation, a cyclical analogy would better suit him. Yet there is a continuity between the first and final periods of Whitehead’s philosophizing, for "despite the formidable terminology [of PR],the ideas contained in his later work are much simpler than is usually assumed, since he is working Out some of his earlier ideas on a larger philosophical canvas" (PW 18/12). It is this point which is crucial to understanding Mays’s interpretive method:

"Whitehead’s later writings are to be interpreted in terms of his earlier ones and in the light of his logical and scientific ideas" (RL 284; my italics). This gives to Mays’s works a gnostic quality as he interprets what Whitehead really means. Don’t be deceived by the obscure language, Mays cautions us. Just remember that "the key words [of PR] derive their meanings from his earlier studies in mathematics and the philosophy of science" (RL 284).

In particular, Mays interprets Process and Reality in light of two central notions: "the postulational method of modern logic with its emphasis on complex relational systems, and the field theory of modem physics with its emphasis on the historicity of physical systems" (PW 20/14). The axiomatic method in logic is the key to Whitehead’s metaphysics; field theory is the key to his cosmological speculation about perception and causation.


Let us look first at Mays’s interpretation of Whitehead’s metaphysics and then at the implications and shortcomings of such an interpretation. Mays recognizes that Whitehead’s method in speculative philosophy is akin to the hypothetico-deductive method of the sciences, where from particular observed data one frames a theory and then tests it against other data. Even as science seeks theories of high generality, so in his metaphysics "Whitehead is trying to find a scheme of the highest order of generality made up of more general notions than those found in any of the sciences -- notions which are applicable to every kind of experience" (PW 30/22). These notions are required not merely to be applicable to every experience of our particular cosmic epoch but to be applicable to every cosmic epoch, for they are "the logical conditions to which all possible experience must conform" (PW 30/22). One might think that the Categoreal Scheme (PR I, chapter 2) provides such notions. Not so, according to Mays, for they are only "classificatory principles descriptive of empirical processes" (PW 35/28) and do not hold for all cosmic epochs. Mays uses the term ‘cosmology’ to refer to those general principles true of our cosmic epoch but not all others and the term ‘metaphysics’ to refer to those more general principles true of every epoch (PW 34/27).1

Mays’s dismissal of the Categoreal Scheme as not being truly metaphysical is curious. Utilizing Whitehead’s discussion of the marks of speculative philosophy (PR 4), Mays argues that all metaphysical systems are :1 coherent, logical, and necessary. Moreover, since the Category of the Ultimate, i.e., Creativity, is an essentially temporal notion, it is not logical, coherent, and necessary. Hence, it is not a metaphysical principle. Quite strictly, all one could conclude from this is that creativity is not a metaphysical system; but on the supposition that all metaphysical first principles are coherent, logical, and necessary, the argument is valid.

Mays offers no explanation why being essentially temporal implies being nonlogical, noncoherent, or nonnecessary. The notion of Creativity does have an essential reference to a temporal process, but that does not render the notion illogical or incoherent. And merely to assume that temporal process is not characteristic of all cosmic epochs, and hence not necessary, is to assume the very conclusion in question. This is particularly problematic in that Creativity is usually understood as a metaphysical principle. For example, Robert M. Palter writes that "creativity is not only a necessary feature of any possible world but it is the single trait common to all actualities" (WPS 111),

Whitehead’s own use of the term ‘metaphysics’ is not systematic, as is well-known,’ so not much is gained by pointing out that Whitehead speaks of Creativity as "the ultimate metaphysical principle" (PR 32; my italics). It does seem unusual, however, that the section immediately following Whitehead’s discussion of metaphysics and method in metaphysics is an overview of a cosmological scheme. I shall not pause to argue that the Categoreal Scheme has a wider generality than this cosmic epoch, simply noting that, in excluding the Categoreal Scheme and its application, Mays is working with a restricted view of what Whitehead’s metaphysics concerns.

According to Mays, Whitehead’s metaphysics is that coherent, logical, and necessary system of general ideas whose model is a purely abstract system of mathematics and formal logic. And where do we find such a system of general ideas in Process and Reality? It is the "abstract scheme of extensive relations which, owing to its generality, applies to every cosmic epoch" (PW 34/27). Thus the essentially metaphysical section is the chapter on "Extensive Connection" (PR IV, chapter 2: PW 43/37). The logical systematic framework of extensive relations is the formal or metaphysical side of speculative philosophy, whereas the empirical or cosmological side concerns the way this scheme applies to the actualities of our present cosmic epoch (cf. PW 36/29, 43/37). In light of Mays’s remarks it is astonishing to find that he devotes a mere ten pages to the method of extensive abstraction (PW 109-18/115-25), and these do not begin to offer any clarification of the exact nature of this metaphysical scheme.

The relation which Mays suggests between the formal and empirical sides of speculative philosophy is puzzling. When he emphasizes the formal side of speculative philosophy, he considers the empirical process as providing an interpretation of the formal system, in the way that "an abstract system is spoken of as being given an interpretation by definite values" (PW 32/25). We have then an abstract system (i.e., a set of formulas) for which we provide an interpretation by specifying a domain of discourse and by assigning a set of meanings to the primitive symbols.2 Consider the abstract system composed of the one formula

(1) (x) (y) Qxy.

We provide an interpretation for (1) when we specify its domain as the set of all living human beings and let Q be the identity relation. Under this interpretation (1) is false. Letting the meaning of Q remain as before, we readily see that (1) is true only in single-membered domains.

The point is that an abstract system in isolation from some interpretation is neither true nor false, but is true or false under some interpretation or other. Thus, given Mays’s understanding of the relation of the formal and empirical sides of speculative philosophy in Whitehead, if we were to discover that our abstract system was false under the interpretation of "our concrete spatio-temporal scheme" (PW 32/25), we would not conclude that the system was false, rather that we must look elsewhere for an interpretation or a model under which it is true. But this is just where Mays’s analogy becomes untenable, for if the complex scheme of generalities were found to conflict with present experience, the scheme as a whole would be rejected as false. Otherwise, what would be the point of the application of philosophic generalizations beyond the data of their immediate origins (PR 8)? Hence the analogy which Mays suggests for the relation of the formal and empirical sides of Whitehead’s philosophy is unsatisfying.

One might suggest that Mays’s position could be strengthened if the notion of an intended interpretation were utilized. Briefly, often when one sets up a formal system, it is to characterize precisely the assertions of some theory (Euclidian geometry, for example). The formal system is judged on the basis of whether or not on its intended interpretation the resulting theorems coincide with the assertions of the theory. In our particular case the intended interpretation of the formal system would be our cosmic epoch, and provided that there were truths about it that the formal system either did not express or contradicted, the formal system could be judged inadequate. The problem with such a tactic is that for Mays the intended interpretation of the formal system cannot be just this cosmic epoch. Every cosmic epoch is an interpretation of it ideally, and no particular one is the intended interpretation. The set of all cosmic epochs is the intended interpretation. And with this understanding of the intended interpretation the initial distinction between the formal system (which is metaphysical) and its interpretation (which is cosmological) is blurred. Both the formal system and its intended interpretation have essential reference to all epochs, and the relation between the general and the particular which Mays sought to elucidate is not clarified.

Although he interprets Whitehead’s ideal for a metaphysical system as being "a super-deductive system" (PW 40/34), Mays realizes that Whitehead had some severe remarks to make about the deductive method in philosophy (PR 9-12). According to Mays, the trouble to which Whitehead called attention was not deduction per se but the assumption of dogmatic premises on which the deductive system was founded (PW 50f/46f). Whitehead tentatively asserts generalizations whose deductive implications are then tested against the facts of experience. Deduction provided the means of schematizing the general principles into a coherent system as well as making clear the implications of the principles (PW 45-51/39-47). Coherence of the system is not enough. In this sense Whitehead is closer to a mathematical physicist than a pure mathematician (PW 47/43); the metaphysical system must be tested against experience and "depends for its truth upon its empirical verification, and not merely upon its logical criteria" (PW 51/47).

A problem which Mays never addresses is how with this understanding of Whitehead’s metaphysics and method one can legitimately speak of the empirical verification of a metaphysical principle. Even if the principle somehow holds in this cosmic epoch, how do we determine that it holds in others? How could such a principle be verified by one instance, i.e., this cosmic epoch?

Wherever Whitehead does metaphysics, he is talking about general patterns of connectedness at the base of all cosmic epochs. It is not unusual that Mays finds Whitehead’s talk of God metaphysical, but it is unusual that he interprets it as being vague talk about the extensive scheme (or system).’ "Whitehead’s deification of the extensive scheme" in his natural theology is a not too happy means of expressing the abstract notions which permeate his philosophy (PW 61/59). Hence Mays sets for himself the task of translating Whitehead’s theological terminology into a neutral, less misleading language (PW 57/54, 59/56). In places even Mays despairs of this heroic attempt at demystification: "It is difficult to follow Whitehead when he says that ‘the consequent nature of God is conscious’ [PR 524], but it is questionable whether he means by this more than that we are consciously aware of the concrete world in perception" (PW 61/59). Consciousness cannot be a quality of an abstract deductive structure, yet Whitehead speaks of consciousness; hence White-head must be affirming consciousness of human perception in the passage in question -- so the inference goes.

How did Mays ever come to identify God with an abstract deductive structure? The argument is not clear, but Mays proceeds by comparing two passages. Mays takes the statement that "The order of nature, prevalent in the cosmic epoch in question, exhibits itself as a morphological scheme involving eternal objects of the objective species" (PR 447f) and renders it: The order of nature is a morphological scheme of mathematical Platonic forms (PW 58/56). Then a theological passage, ‘Eternal objects, as in God’s primordial nature, constitute the Platonic world of ideas" (PR 73), is translated: God’s primordial nature is an abstract structure of mathematical Platonic forms (PW 59/56). Hence ‘God’s primordial nature’ is but an imprecise way of speaking about the order of nature -- a formal structure expressing the theory of extension in its most general form (PW 58/56).

Absent is Whitehead’s distinction between eternal objects of the objective species and eternal objects of the subjective species (PR 445-47). The latter are not susceptible to cataloguing as mathematical Platonic forms; hence, despite Whitehead’s explicit remarks that the Primordial Nature includes all eternal objects (PR 134; cf. 70), the Primordial Nature is identified with the eternal objects of the objective species. Even if this identification were permissible, a problem of assimilating the Primordial Nature to the general order of nature would remain. The order of nature, as interpreted by Mays, could not include all eternal objects of the objective species, but only those involving the most general extensive relations. It will not do to argue that the less general relations are derivable from the structure of general relations, for Whitehead’s point is that numerous, mutually exclusive sets of less general relations are compatible with the general structure. Moreover, to identify the nontemporal actual entity with some multiplicity of eternal objects is surely to blur systematic distinctions which Whitehead labored to make. For Whitehead God is the chief exemplification of metaphysical principles (PR 521); but for Mays Whitehead’s God is the scheme of metaphysical principles. Recall that metaphysics, according to Mays, concerns the principles of extension.

The elaborate scheme by which Whitehead relates the Primordial Nature to God’s working in the world via subjective aims (PR 523-27) is ignored by Mays as he recognizes no difference in the Primordial Nature as "the ordering entity in nature" and "the order of nature" (PW 58/56). This also means that Mays fails to do justice to Whitehead’s early remarks wherein the concept of God is seen as a principle of limitation beyond the realm of eternal objects (SMW, chapter 11).

Mays claims that for Whitehead the framework of extensive order (i.e., God) lays the conditions to which all events have to conform and thus makes induction possible (PW 60 ff./57 ff.). For Whitehead those principles general enough to hold for all cosmic epochs are not sufficient to warrant induction. Those principles may justify our future claim of the transitivity of extensive inclusion (i.e., if region A includes region B, and if region B includes region C, then region A includes region C;) but they are too general to guarantee most scientific inductions. Water may boil at 90°C at sea-level tomorrow, and this event will not conflict with the general principles of extensive order. Whitehead’s discussion of induction is not centered around these general notions of extensive relation, but around the idea of societies dominant in a particular cosmic epoch (PR 312-16). These dominant societies in conjunction with the ordering of possibilities in the Primordial Nature provide the metaphysical basis for induction.

Mays recognizes that his rendering of Whitehead’s theological discourse may leave the reader puzzled. One may ask:

If Whitehead in his account of God is really only dealing with certain logical features of our experience, why has it been assumed that he was erecting a ‘Natural Theology’? Why has it been taken for granted that he was simply talking about moral and aesthetic values? (PW 61/59)

Mays responds that if we remember Whitehead’s early mathematical training, then it is evident that the values he later deals with are more akin to "the sort one meets within books on mathematics and mathematical logic, than those found in works on ethics, aesthetics and theology" (PW 61/59). But this is no argument for Mays’s interpretation; it merely repeats what is at issue: Whitehead’s later philosophy is just his earlier viewpoints in obscure language. It offers no further justification that the interpretation is correct.5

Eschewing Platonic realism in Whitehead, Mays claims that ‘by the realm of eternal objects Whitehead is really referring to an abstract logical structure derivative from the relation of extensive connection holding between events" (PW 74/75). It is notable that in his discussion of eternal objects Mays makes but one passing reference to Whitehead’s main work (PW 77/79), particularly since his book purports "to be a commentary on some of the more important aspects of Process and Reality" (PW 13/8). Mays’s discussion leans heavily on the chapter concerning abstraction (SMW, chapter 10), for Whitehead’s discussion there of the realm of eternal objects tends to lend support to Mays’s interpretation. One should note, though, that Whitehead does not later speak of a "realm" of eternal objects, but instead speaks of a "multiplicity" (PR 46, 69) of eternal objects whereby he seeks to deny some fixed order and unity inhering in the eternal objects (PR 73; cf. IWM 258-77).

Yet even Mays’s interpretation of "Abstraction" is itself questionable. He does not argue, but merely asserts that the relational essence of an eternal object A refers to "a set of extensive relations which give it [A] a status in this abstract system" and "to logico-mathematical relationships" akin to eternal objects of the objective species in Process and Reality (PW 77/79). Thus "by ‘the general systematic relationships among eternal objects’ [SMW 232] Whitehead is really referring to the extensive relations which . . . underlie every epoch" (PW 78/80).

I shall not present a full discussion of Whitehead’s notions of individual essences and relational essences, as such discussions are already available (PCW 91-98). A relational essence admits of many other relations than just extensive relations and represents a variety of possibilities for realization (SMW 231). Consider some eternal object such as the color green. Its individual essence is "the eternal object considered in respect to its uniqueness" (SMW 229). As a unique, determinate entity, the color green has a set of definite relations to all other eternal objects. In this way the whole realm of eternal objects and relations is determinate. Green with respect to other colors participates in relations such as ‘x is lighter than y’ or ‘x is darker than z,’ as well as in such complex extensive relations as ‘x lies between y and z on A,’ where x, y and z represent colors and A some general term as ‘house.’ Each relation belongs to the relational essence of green and together are constitutive of the eternal object green (SMW 230).

Mays is correct in his claim that the spacetime continuum functions as a limitation on the generalized system of possibilities in respect to the actual world (PW 78f/79f; of SMW 231-33). He goes wrong in two respects. First, though the spatiotemporal continuum does represent one of several possible extensive relations among eternal objects, it does not follow that all relations between eternal objects are extensive. Second, the limitation of which Whitehead speaks is not merely that of one particular value given to an abstract scheme (PW 78/79), but concerns the fact that there are particular, ordered actualities rather than "an indiscriminate modal pluralism" (SMW 256). But even this limitation does not suffice to explain the creative fact of a synthesis of actualities conforming to a standard; there needs to be a limitation of antecedent selection, the ordering of possibilities of actuality and value by God (SMW 256, cf. UW 100f). Mays does not mention this, for God has been assimilated to the general order itself.

It is also interesting to see how Mays seeks to avoid the Platonic character of Whitehead’s claim that every actual occasion has associated with it an infinite abstractive hierarchy (SMW 244). Mays understands this to be the empiricist’s claim that an object or event presents an indefinite number of perspectives to an observer (PW 89-91/92-95). I would suggest that Whitehead is saying every occasion is associated with an infinite hierarchy of relations, relations which reflect the unique determinations of the object. That is why one is closer to the concrete fact (i.e., less abstract) when he predicates some complex relation of it than if he merely predicates some simple fact of it (SMW 245f). That it is an infinite abstractive hierarchy of relations is why it is impossible to complete the description of an actual occasion by means of concepts (SMW 245) and not because of its perceptual perspectives. The latter understanding is more akin to Mays’s own position and his interpretation of Whitehead as an empiricist, pure and simple (PW 74/75), than to the Platonic quasi-world of forms which actual occasions mirror via ingression. Mays wants, of course, to interpret Whitehead as a non-Platonist (PW 20/15, 74/75).

Mays raises an interesting hermeneutical issue when he admits that his interpretation of Whitehead’s metaphysics as a search for a logical structure of utmost generality may be said to be "largely circumstantial, based upon attempts to set up correspondences between different parts of his writings" (PW 94/98). How are we to judge the validity of his interpretation? He claims that there is a decisive bit of evidence in his favor, and that is found in Whitehead’s 1937 response to John Dewey (reprinted in ESP 122-31). There appears Whitehead s celebrated remark: "We must end with my first love -- Symbolic Logic" (ESP 130).

Mays claims this piece provides a clear statement of Whitehead’s later philosophical method. In this regard Mays makes several points. The first is that according to Whitehead the algebraic method is "the best method we have on our hands for the expression of metaphysical first principles" (PW 97/101f). But then Mays makes a further claim: the algebraic method becomes the foundation of our methodological approach to the study of direct experience" (PW 99/104). Hence the method is similar to that of a deductive system, i.e., the axiomatic method (PW 98/103). Mays’s view of the final goal of the method is predictable, viz., a pattern of logical relationships . . . [of] complete generality," which is "the extensive continuum or the logical structure of fact" (PW 97/l02).

Since Mays stakes so much on this article, I should offer an alternative interpretation of it. Whitehead’s discussion of the algebraic method arises out of considerations pertaining to the deficiency of language. There are nuances of meaning and insights of experience which we apprehend, but which resist verbalization. "Philosophy is largely the effort to lift such insights into verbal expression" (ESP 127). The algebraic method offers a partial remedy of defective language in that the basic connectives retain an invariant meaning throughout their use, irrespective of the complexity of the arrangement of the algebraic patterns. At least such variations as may occur are irrelevant (ESP 128). Thus when we wish to express the patterns of experience with precision and clarity, we have at hand a technique for doing so. Yet "the clarity is deceptive," and our use of the method is precarious "unless care be taken" (ESP 128).

The warnings suggest that the statement of the principles which concrete events evidence is incompletable (ESP 128). The problem, as elsewhere stated, is that the precision of language and arguments cannot take the place of a philosophic method in which imaginative generalization and insight are paramount. We must not be seduced by the exactness.

As I read it, Whitehead’s response to Dewey focuses on one aspect of Dewey’s interpretation, "the primacy of the static over process" in Whitehead’s philosophy (DWP 177). Hence Whitehead dwells on the relation of accidental fact and essential pattern. Dewey’s purpose was to draw attention to what he saw as a tension in Whitehead’s philosophy. What status does the systematic statement of first principles have? If modeled after a mathematical scheme, the system will represent actual logical relations in the world, "an aboriginal structure, the components of which are . . . deductively woven together" (DWP 175). A kind of rational intuition is needed to perceive the general principles which are there ready-made in actuality.6 Or if patterned on the genetic-functional model, the generalizations have as their subject-matter "distinctions that arise in and because of inquiry into the subject-matter of experience-nature, and then they function or operate as divisions of labor in the further control and ordering of its materials and processes" (DWP 175). The distinctions and relations arise out of experience and are then applied to the world for our own manipulation of it. But the important thing is that these distinctions and relations which we form are not claims about the way the world is, but mere means of working with the world (DWP 175-77).7

Whitehead does not wish to choose between these two options concerning first principles, but stresses the need for attention to both pattern and process. Perhaps it was because of some ontological priority to general characters implicit in Dewey’s statement of the mathematical model 8 or because of the rather static epistemological methodology inherent in the characterization of the mathematical model that led Whitehead to refuse to ally himself with it. As far as metaphysical generalizations representing knowledge about the world (rather than being mere functional conveniences), he does adopt the mathematical model. His remark that "the historic process of the world . . . requires the genetic-functional interpretation" seems to be within context no more than an emphasizing of the creative process, for the mathematical model is not committed to a denial of the reality of the historic process. The complete statement reads: "The historic process of the world, which requires the genetic-functional interpretation, also requires for its understanding some insight into those ultimate principles of existence which express the necessary connections Within the flux" (ESP 123). Surely this indicates that Whitehead has not thrown over the mathematical model for the genetic-functional model. Whitehead in his response to Dewey ignored the conflicting epistemological status of generalizations in the two models and adopted the language of Dewey to make a familiar point. Whitehead used ‘the mathematical model’ to represent the pattern within the process and the ‘genetic-functional model’ to represent the ontological ultimacy of the historic process. He did not hold to both models in Dewey’s terms, but he did hold to the importance of both pattern and process.

In any event Whitehead uses the algebraic method as an example of how one can with precision express pattern within process, necessity amidst accident. When symbolic logic has expanded so as to examine patterns depending on connections other than those of space, number, and quantity, then it can be utilized in examining the patterns in aesthetic experience (ESP 130). But it is an error to suggest, as Mays does, that Whitehead is here adopting a deductive method of inquiry. Whitehead writes that "the algebraic method is the best approach to the expression of necessity" (ESP 128; my italics); he does not say it is our best means of discerning the pattern. As a linguistic tool symbolic logic can be adopted, but insight into the Connections and patterns so symbolized requires imagination and insight beyond mere deduction. Whitehead remarks elsewhere on this point:

The conclusion is that Logic, conceived as an adequate analysis of the advance of thought, is a fake. It is a superb instrument, but it requires a background of common sense. . .

My point is that the final outlook of philosophic thought cannot be based upon the exact statements which form the basis of the special sciences.

The exactness is a fake. (ESP 96)

Whitehead comes down clearly on the side of Dewey’s mathematical model when he is concerned with the "ultimate principles of existence which express the necessary connections within the flux" (ESP 123). The true statement of a connection tells us something about the world as it is and is not merely the reflection of a commitment to use concepts in a certain way. Mays, on the other hand, is most sympathetic to the reading of metaphysical first principles according to the genetic-functional model. These conceptualizations may be a convenient tool for investigating nature, but Mays questions "whether Whitehead’s account of ‘metaphysical necessity,’ or ‘the necessary connections within the flux,’ refers to anything more than this conceptual superstructure" (PW 100/105).

Such a disposition on Mays’s part renders him a most unsympathetic reader of Whitehead. For instance, Mays interprets the extensive continuum as a system of logical relations by which we represent nature (PW 103/108, 106/111). But for Mays these logical relations, at least those of great complexity, are not met within experience and are intellectual creations for dealing with experience, not components of experience itself. But, according to Mays, Whitehead mistakenly confuses these logical structures with contingent fact, giving to the former existential status (PW 103-07/108-13). Mays sees Whitehead’s mistake as analogous to that of the schoolboy who expects to encounter a parallel of latitude or a meridian of longitude over the next hill; they may be convenient ordering devices, but they are fictions.

Whitehead is guilty of such a confusion only if we read his philosophy in terms of the genetic-functional method. On this reading logical distinctions and orderings are human artifices, not to be identified as constitutive of the world as on the mathematical model described by Dewey for traditional metaphysics (PANW/657). But if we understand Whitehead in light of the mathematical model, then his identification of the extensive continuum with the most general limitation upon general potentiality, the fundamental determination of order in this epoch (PR 103, 148), does not represent confusion but straightforward metaphysics. Hence Mays’s charge of confusion rests upon his claim that Whitehead is not doing metaphysics, and Mays’s discussion of the extensive continuum does nothing to establish that claim.


Mays’s discussion of Whitehead’s speculative cosmology covers a variety of topics and does so with seemingly little concern for exploring Whitehead’s system. It is, as one reviewer put it, a discussion of "those things in Whitehead which interest Mays" (TPW 277). If there is a basic thesis, it is that Whitehead has used the concept of the electromagnetic field in physics as a model for human experience (PW 125/134, 183/201; RL 285). But understanding this as Mays’s interpretive key is not sufficient to prepare the reader for Mays’s interpretation, and criticisms of Whitehead. We must remember that Whitehead is not a metaphysician seeking to describe the ultimate facts of existence (so WM 17-20), but a realist philosopher of science remarking on uniquely human matters such as perception and freedom. Moreover, Mays has a phenomenological axe to grind, namely that human experience in its particularity is not explicable on the general terms and theories of physical science. Add to this Mays’s scientific instrumentalism, and then one may be prepared for his analysis.

The number of topics which Mays discusses is sufficiently large to preclude my commenting on each. What I propose to do is to sketch Mays’s interpretation on a variety of points, mentioning along the way its shortcomings.

Mays refuses to use the language of actual entities (except in direct quotes from Whitehead) but instead speaks of ‘events’ and ‘event particles.’ Nowhere do we find any justification for this omission, but doubtless for Mays the idea of an actual entity carries with it too much of the idea of a subject. According to Mays there are subjects (human beings particularly), and there are things. And we must be careful not to be confused by Whitehead’s language, for he too accepts that fact. Other interpreters may have been misled by Whitehead’s language of feeling, but not Mays. Simple physical feelings are but "the transmission of a form of energy from event to event in the physical world" (PW 123/131). Complex physical feelings deal with the perceptual events of human beings (PW 123f/132f).

Granting that Whitehead speaks of the subjective form of all events and the category of subjective unity, Mays is undaunted and proceeds to demystify Whitehead’s language. With respect to perceptual events, subjective form refers "to the complex patterns we are aware of in direct experience" (PW 127/136). A subjective form at the level of physical events is merely a particular pattern or characteristic of the event. That is, the subjective form is some form of the subject, for "by a ‘subject’ in this context, he [Whitehead] usually means an event causally influenced by some other event in its past" (PW 127/136). Mays does not comment on the remark (PR 35) that a subjective form is how that subject prehends its datum, the manner of prehension including various emotional and attitudinal characteristics. But we can utilize Mays’s own techniques and interpret this as referring to some characteristic of an event in light of its causal history.

Mays’s translation of the category of subjective unity (PR 340/44) is noteworthy in that he seeks to avoid the idea of a subject altogether. In discussing this category, Mays offers the following interpretation:

The many characters transmitted from the past, though as yet unintegrated into a definite event . . . are yet capable of being thus integrated, by reason of the unity of the perspective standpoint in the immediate future. Thus the unity of the future event.. is already present as a condition (in the form of such a perspective) determining the transmission of character into the future. It hence determines the form of the novel event, since With the creative advance of nature the abstract region becomes a definite event. (PW 129/138)

These remarks are hardly pellucid. Somehow the future event e conditions the influences of the past so as to achieve a unity--a pattern characterizing e itself. The questions is, how does this conditioning work? Since e is a future event, it can hardly be an efficient causal condition. If e functions as some sort of final cause, Mays does not inform us how; and if it were so to function, we seem to introduce an element of subjectivity and intentionality which Mays would eschew at the level of physical events. In this regard Mays’s demystification of the idea of a subjective aim is pertinent. He writes:

That an event moves toward its final cause (which is its subjective aim) . . . means that it has a ‘vector character,’ that it is a passage from immediacy of the present into the future. When he [Whitehead] tells us that the process of an event creating itself is dominated by a subjective aim which directs its process of realization, that ‘This subjective aim is this subject itself determining its own self-creation,’ he is merely drawing our attention to the ‘perpetual transition of nature into novelty.’ (PW 186f/205f)

This interpretation is not bolstered by detailed textual argument. In fact, no textual evidence is even cited.

Mays claims that the process of integration of past influences is a rather straightforward notion -- the influences of the past are superposed in a region of spacetime so that incompatible features are eliminated, leaving one complex pattern that characterizes the novel event e (PW 129/138). The complex pattern is the subjective unity, much like the subjective form on Mays’s interpretation. This is an example of a malady that affects Mays’s whole interpretive scheme: Whitehead’s systematic utterances are so interpreted that what apparently represent different concepts end in a dull similitude. If Mays is correct, one must be struck by the paucity of Whitehead’s ideas and the variety of his remarks.

Despite Whitehead’s talk of self-causation at the level of physical events, he is really a determinist. Taking his cue from Whitehead’s remarks on scientific objects as fields of force (AE 297), Mays notes that the field at any time, having its focus in an electron, is completely determined by its previous history. Moreover, the influence of the electron or its field streams away from it with finite velocity, transmitting its character into the future (PW 205/225). Now if we look just at the electron and its past, we have efficient causation; the present state is determined by its past. However, if we look at the present state of the electron, we see that its future state is determined by the present event in which it is situated. This is what it means for an electron to be entirely self-determined (PW 206/226). It would appear that we do not have two different kinds of causation but two ways of speaking about a process, dependent on the speaker’s perspective on a particular stage of the event-succession Supposing we are contemporaneous with an electron, we look at its present state in relation to its past, and we say "efficient causation"; if we look at its present state in relation to its future, we say "final causation." In any case we have determinism at the level of physical causation.

Whitehead agrees with Aristotle in affirming that there is direction toward a goal. Yet for Aristotle this direction is completely determined in advance by the essential nature of the object, whereas for Whitehead the direction is a function of several variables: the object in relation to its environment (PW 187/206). Whitehead’s teleology is then descriptive of the event’s process of actualization; it says nothing about the event as striving to give rise to a specific character determined beforehand by its essential nature (PW 188/207), nor is it in conflict with physical determinism (PW 206/226).

Not surprisingly, Mays finds Whitehead’s attempted solution of the problem of determinism and free will unsuccessful. The molecules comprising the human body exist within a deterministic framework, for "the future state of the molecule could be calculated from a knowledge of its past and present history within the system" (PW 233/258). The molecules in our body run blindly according to certain general laws, transmitting their determination to all parts of the body, including volitions (which are part of the total pattern of the body). The volitions are determined by these general laws; hence there is no free will. But, volitions are supposed to modify the molecules, enabling man to exercise individual control over parts of his body. Then it follows that molecules are not determined by general physical laws. Hence Whitehead is involved in contradiction on two-sides: volitions are both self-determined and physically-determined; molecules are and are not determined by general physical laws (PW 234/259f).

The issue of freedom and determinism, even in Process and Reality, is much too involved to pursue here.9 But Mays’s discussion (PW, chapter 17) contains not one footnote to this basic text. He refuses to take seriously the Whiteheadian affirmation of freedom in all occasions (PR 355) and makes a sham of Whitehead’s attempt to avoid a bifurcation of nature. As to the latter, Whitehead may have failed; but surely this failure must be demonstrated on the basis of the speculative scheme itself and not on the basis of a patchwork of remarks drawn from other sources. The position which Mays criticizes is problematic, and for the reasons he gives. But is it Whitehead’s?

Mays’s dissatisfaction with Whitehead’s treatment of freedom and determinism is really symptomatic of a more basic disagreement as to philosophical method. He sees Whitehead as a scientific realist striving after some sort of correspondence between the world as understood by modern physics and the world of direct experience (PW 214/236) Whitehead represents the opposite of Bertrand Russell in his phenomenalist period. Russell sought to construct scientific objects from the immediate sense objects of direct experience, whereas Whitehead begins with scientific objects and seeks to provide an explanation for the character of our direct experience. For instance, Whitehead draws a parallel with forms of energy in physics and emotionally toned sensory qualities. Mays complains that even if physical concepts were more than pragmatic devices (which they are not, according to Mays), this isomorphism between forms of energy and sensory qualities does not hold (PW 210-16/231-38). Generally Whitehead begins with the understandings of physical science and attempts to show how this is compatible with the world of direct experience; for instance, the doctrine of transmutation is his means of explaining our perception of continuous regions rather than of atomic particles. Other times, as when he argues from the supposed uniformity of our perceptual field to the uniformity of the spatiotemporal continuum, Whitehead begins with direct experience (PW 217-21/240-45). Mays generally claims that the similarity between the world of physical science and that of direct experience "is usually of an extremely attenuated nature" (PW 215/237).

Thus Whitehead’s discussion of psychological physiology is completely misguided, according to Mays. Whitehead as a physicist begins with inorganic entities and attempts to show how these are structured in man so as to give rise to a conscious personality (PW 200-03/219-23). But Whitehead also wants to allow the volitions and cognitions of that personality to modify the events throughout the rest of the body. But this is to confuse entities of different grades of generality, correlating scientific concepts with direct experience (PW 202/222, 226/251). Whitehead’s discussion of the human soul is notoriously difficult," but that he is involved in such a category confusion rests on Mays’s failure to appreciate Whitehead’s metaphysics, built around the notion of a dipolar actual entity as a vibrant, dynamic center of integrative processes having both physical and mental poles. Whitehead was steering a via media between the usual monisms and dualisms of mind and matter. This is generally accepted, even though his resolution may not be equally as well accepted. But it is extremely doubtful that he is subject to Mays’s criticism, since these criticisms assume a dualism that Whitehead was at pains to circumvent.

The general topics of perception and cognition occupy the first half of the section devoted to Whitehead’s cosmology. These topics are of chief concern to Mays because it is here that Whitehead’s failure to bridge the gulf between direct experience and the world of scientific realism is most evident. Although we must ignore most of Mays’s discussion here, several problematical features require attention. Mays observes that the concept of causal efficacy concerns sense-reception, that process whereby an animal body receives and transmits forms of energy through itself. By an elaborate process of analysis and emphasis (transmutation, e.g.) we perceive the common-sense world of physical objects, situated in spacetime with definite sense-qualities (PW 140/151). A proposition is on Whitehead’s terms what we consciously experience, specific sensory qualities located at a definite place and time. Whitehead’s statement that propositions are "lures for feeling" (PR 395) means that the commonsense world which we perceive is symbolic of the throbbing world of physical activities (PW 141/153). Propositions are percepts in the mode of presentational immediacy; they are theories about the world -- some adequately symbolizing facts, others not. The entertainment of a proposition by a perceiver is called a ‘propositional feeling."

It is remarkable how many issues Mays ignores or glosses. Propositional feelings need not involve consciousness (PR 399, 402). Secondly, because May’s ties propositions to human consciousness, he must involve propositions in judgments of truth or falsity. Whitehead explicitly remarks that this is the false interpretation of overintellectualized philosophers dominated by logical concerns. Propositions are not primarily for judgments of truth or falsity, but for feeling (PR 283), Propositions are lures for feeling in that they involve an actual entity’s (not necessarily conscious) decision for or against the value of some predicative pattern. The proposition’s importance to an actual entity stems not from its truth value but from its focusing of interest (PR 395f).

Quite apart from these problems, his discussion of perception is most unsatisfactory. He makes no use of perception in the mode of symbolic reference in his discussion of "Perception and Propositions" (PW, chapter 9). Later, symbolic reference is alluded to as the theory "according to which our sensory perceptions stand as symbols for the activities in the external world" (PW 169/186). Whitehead’s developed theory of the integration of pure and impure modes of perception is passed over. Mays’s discussion suggests that presentational immediacy is the mode of perception characteristic of human beings whereby we are aware of enduring objects with particular qualities (PW 142/153), when clearly this mode of perception is much more limited than that. It is a perception of a contemporary region (temporally thin) as having some quality (PR 184f). Accordingly, in this mode of perception we might say, "Grey, there!", but not "The stone is grey.


What may be said, in conclusion, about Mays’s interpretation? One thing is certain: his interpretation is difficult to argue against, not because it is obviously correct, but because his interpretation is so heavily dependent upon a kind of argument from similitude whose value is difficult to assess. Early works, late works, Russell’s works, all present views similar to ("suggestive of," "corresponding with," "seemingly identical to") views of Process and Reality. How would one ever know this is the case? Presumably, one would take the book itself, treat it as a coherent piece, and by a process of analysis arrive at an interpretation that could be compared with other works. But this cannot be Mays’s approach, for he is convinced that it is filled with abstruse items that demand illumination from other sources. The overall impression one gets is that Process and Reality is the work of a garrulous old fool whose ability to mislead was exceeded only by his prolixity.

Perhaps one could use the other sources to interpret certain of these features and then utilize these to interpret and structure the other items. We have then a sort of hermeneutical key whose validity is dependent upon two prime considerations: (1) Does it illuminate other passages without contradicting their apparent meaning? And if such a contradiction does occur, can the apparent meaning be reasonably rejected on grounds other than merely its contradicting some implication of our interpretive scheme? (2) Does it provide a means for interpreting all other features of the work in question?

Mays adopts something akin to this alternative. I have indicated that in several ways he falls afoul of condition (1). Mays’s interpretive scheme fares no better with respect to condition (2) -- so much of Whitehead’s philosophy is ignored! Mays interprets certain aspects by means of similitude, but rarely attempts to bring this interpretation to bear on related concepts and problems. These issues remain unclarified. Ultimately, perhaps, Mays does not have to extend his interpretation to the varied utterances in Process and Reality and can content himself with providing an interpretation for some of them. For the others, he can simply ask, "Now don’t you see?" To that I answer, No!"



DWP -- John Dewey. "Whitehead’s Philosophy," The Philosophical Review, 46/2 (March, 1937), 170-77.

IWM -- William A. Christian. An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.

PANW -- Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed. The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Evanston: Northwestern University, 1941.

PCW -- Paul F, Schmidt. Perception and Cosmology in Whitehead’s Philosophy. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1967.

PW -- Wolfe Mays. The Philosophy of Whitehead. The Muirhead Library of Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1959. (Page references left of the ‘/‘ are to this edition, while those to the right are to the 1962 Collier paperback edition.)

RL -- Wolfe Mays. Review of Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition, by Ivor Leclerc. Philosophical Quarterly, 10/40 (July, 1960), 284-85.

RSW -- Wolfe May’s. Review of Whitehead’s Theory of Experience, by Ewing P. Shahan, and Process and Unreality: A Criticism of Method in Whitehead’s Philosophy, by Harry Kahlsaat Wells. Mind, 61/243 (July, 1952), 429-32.

RW -- Ivor Leclerc, ed. The Relevance of Whitehead. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1961. For Wolfe May’s, "The Relevance of ‘On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World’ to Whitehead’s Philosophy."

TPW -- John Tucker. Review of The Philosophy of Whitehead, by Wolfe Mays. Philosophy, 35/134 (July, 1960), 276-77.

UW -- Victor Lowe. Understanding Whitehead. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press 1966.

WM -- Ivor Leclerc. Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition. New York: Macmillan Company, 1958.

WPS -- Robert M. Palter. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.



1 This terminological distinction is likewise adopted by Schmidt (PCW 140). He too sees the bulk of Process and Reality concerned with cosmology, though it is unclear that he would include under that term just those things which Mays does.

2 Nathaniel Lawrence (review of Perception and Cosmology in Whitehead’s Philosophy, by Paul F. Schmidt, in PS 2:233) writes that the term ‘metaphysics’ is "unstable in Whitehead through the years and even within a single work, e.g., Process and Reality." In AI 221, 236 Whitehead uses ‘metaphysical’ where Mays would assuredly read ‘cosmological.’ In one passage Whitehead distinguishes a general metaphysics from a more limited investigation of the order of nature in the p resent epoch: "The remainder of this chapter will be devoted to a discussion -- largely conjectural -- of the hierarchy of societies composing our present epoch. . . . It is to be carefully noted that we are now deserting metaphysical generality. We shall be considering the more special possibilities of explanation consistent with our general cosmological doctrine, but not necessitated by it" (PR 147; my italics). Not only does he fail to utilize the terminological distinction which Mays adopts, Whitehead controverts it, for here he acknowledges the scope of metaphysics and cosmology as equally general.

3 I am aware that tins sketch is incomplete and that an interpretation can be given a set of formulas without recourse to meanings by assigning a denotation to each nonlogical symbol. But for my purposes here the presentation is adequate.

4 A typical response to Mays’s interpretation of Whitehead’s theological statements is that of Lowe (UW 232, 252n).

5 In An Introduction to Mathematics (London: Williams and Norgate, 1911), p. 9, Whitehead writes: "The leading characteristic of mathematics [is] that it deals with properties and ideas which are applicable to things just because they are things, and apart from any particular feelings, or emotions, or sensations, in any way connected with them. This is what is meant by calling mathematics an abstract science." Thus Whitehead in his later philosophy attempts to state abstract mathematical structures in the language of feelings and emotions, according to Mays.

6 In another place Dewey makes a similar point: "It [a system of descriptive generalizations] makes . . . an assertion about what the constituents of nature itself must be in and of themselves. This conception of the nature and office of philosophy is in line with the classic tradition, according to which philosophy is that branch of theory which tells, in the theoretical form appropriate to knowledge as knowledge, the story of the ultimate metaphysical or ontological structure of the universe" (PANW 657).

7 Cf. PANW 657, where Dewey writes that on such a model philosophy "will not take itself to be a kind of knowledge."

8 Cf. PANW 657f, where such a statement of ontological priority appears in Dewey’s remarks on the mathematical model.

9 The problem of human freedom has become a central issue in Whiteheadian scholarship with the publication of Edward Pols’s Whitehead’s Metaphysics: A Critical Examination of Process and Reality (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967). For responses to Pols, who argues that Whitehead’s philosophy precludes human freedom, see Lewis S. Ford, "Can Whitehead Provide for Real Subjective Agency?" in The Modern Schoolman, 47/2 (January, 1970), 209-25 and John B. Cobb, Jr., "Freedom in Whitehead’s Philosophy in The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 7/4 (Winter, 1969-70), 409-13.

10 Recent discussions include Donald W. Sherburne, "Whitehead’s Psychological Physiology," The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 7/4 (Winter, 1969-70), 401-07; John B. Cobb, Jr., and Donald W. Sherburne. "Regional Inclusion and Psychological Physiology," PS 3:27-40; William Gallagher, "Whitehead’s Psychological Physiology: A Third View," PS 4:263-74.