Chapter 2 Some Basic Concepts

What Is Process Theology?
by Robert B. Mellert

Chapter 2 Some Basic Concepts

Alfred North Whitehead was a man of many interests and many talents. Born in England in 1861, he entered the intellectual life before the deluge of scientific knowledge and the age of specialization. As a result, he was able to pursue and develop an expertise in several fields in a way that is perhaps no longer possible for anyone today. His interests first took him into the realm of science, and he made important contributions in both physics and mathematics. Only later did he turn his attention to philosophy. Throughout his life he maintained a lively interest in the literary and the fine arts. In addition, he was always an avid student of history.

Such a broad range of interests gives Whiteheadian philosophy a rare richness. But this richness is the cause of difficulty for the reader of a narrower ken. To master Whitehead is a long, arduous task. Even a comfortable acquaintance can be difficult because of the new terminology that Whitehead formulates and the new meanings he sometimes gives to old terms. Without these precisions of vocabulary, however, his unique insights are in danger of being lost.1

Whitehead’s basic insight is that reality is a series of interrelated becomings. How a thing becomes constitutes what a thing is. The process of becoming is more fundamental than the being that is achieved, and thus it is more important for philosophical study. It is perhaps interesting to note that the term "being" is actually a form of the verb, even though most philosophers use it as a substantive noun. To say that something is a "being" or has "being" is to attribute to it more than static reality. It is to infer a continuous existence in that reality through time. It is a being because it is being. Because this temporal connotation has been lost in speaking philosophically about "beings," Whitehead prefers to speak philosophically about "becomings." In this way he wishes to emphasize the fundamental processive character of reality.

This insistence on the temporal dimension of reality requires that Whitehead formulate a vocabulary that can lure us out of our static representations of reality. If, for example, someone were asked to identify the smallest unit of reality, he would probably say "the tiniest bit of matter, an atom, or perhaps an electron." The problem with this answer is we not generally think of tiny bits of matter as becomings; we think of them as beings. Hence, to use bits of matter as the model for our philosophical understanding of the fundamental elements of reality is to freeze us into a static pattern of philosophical thought. Whitehead frees us from this kind of thinking by coining a new term: the fundamental elements of reality are actual occasions (which he sometimes calls actual entities or occasions of experience).

To enable us to understand what he means by this new term, Whitehead suggests a new model. Instead of bits of matter, we might better think of the basic units of reality as moments of experience. Moments of experience provide a more suitable model for understanding these fundamental elements of reality because they have a temporal thickness to them which bits of matter do not have. Thus, when we think of reality as consisting of moments of experience, we are conscious that reality is always becoming.

Another advantage of the "experience" model is that it demonstrates the essential interrelatedness of reality. A moment of experience cannot be thought of in isolation or as an independent entity. It is always an experience by someone of something, and it always requires antecedent experiences to give it meaning and relative importance. A moment of experience necessarily implies a reference to the world around it. Both process and interrelation are thus built into this model of reality, whereas they were only accidental to the old "bit of matter" model.

The concept of actual occasion is the central notion of Whiteheadian thought. Actual occasions, or "drops of experience," are the final real things of which the world is made, and there is no going behind them to find anything more real. All of reality, from God to the most trivial puff of existence, is explainable in terms of actual entities, and only in these terms. They are the reasons for things. Outside of actual entities, there is nothing at all.

One clarification may be needed at this point. For Whitehead, experience need not be conscious experience. The latter belongs only to certain kinds of actual entities. Everything experiences: the balloon experiences relative air pressures; rock experiences the earth upon which it rests. Experience is basic to all real things. It is the reason why reality is interrelated as well as processive in character.

The other fundamental type of entity in Whitehead’s philosophy is called the eternal object. Eternal objects are pure possibilities. They are similar to Aristotle’s universals or Plato’s forms in that they are abstract. But they differ because they do have a real mode of existence in actual entities. They likewise have a reference to other eternal objects, because relatedness is a condition of organism even at the level of abstraction. Examples of eternal objects are colors, sounds, scents and geometric characters. They are required for nature but they do not emerge from it the way actual entities do. They appear and disappear in many different contexts, and yet whenever they appear they are always the same. However, they do not have an independent or ideal existence apart from the actualities in which they are manifested. They are merely possibilities available for actualization. Whitehead defines them as pure potentials for the specific determination of fact.

The way in which every actual occasion is the subject of experiences brings us to the third important concept, prehension. At first glance, this term may look like a misspelling of "apprehension." The similarity is not accidental. Both are derived from the Latin, meaning "to take." The word "apprehension" connotes "taking hold of" something, understanding it, and finding its meaning. It is the action of a subject perceiving an object and evaluating its import for the future. However, before a subject can take hold of and understand an object in this sense, it must be relate to that object. The fact of being related to something is more fundamental than a subjective perception of an object. Prehensions, says Whitehead, are the concrete facts of relatedness.

The fact of relatedness has a further implication that is not contained in the word "apprehension," but which is essential to Whitehead’s notion of "prehension." A child is related to his parents differently from the way in which his parents are related to him. Whereas parents are only externally influenced by their children, a child’s very existence, his genetic inheritance, and parental influences during early childhood all help to determine how he is to mature and grow. He "takes" from his parents his very reality as an individual person. An emerging entity is similarly related to eternal objects and past actual entities in that these are the elements out of which the new entity is to become. Prehension, therefore, also indicates that the relatedness of these elements to the emerging actual entity is determinative because the relatedness constitutes the entire data available to that entity in its process of becoming. In the language of the Scholastic philosophers, a prehension would be roughly equivalent to a "real relation." That is, the relation of the things prehended to the subject prehending determines what that subject will become.

Another way of understanding "prehension" is in terms of "feeling." As an actual occasion or moment of experience emerges, it "feels" all the data available to it in its own universe. These are its prehensions. They can be of two kinds, physical or conceptual. Physical prehensions relate the emerging entity to the actual occasions of the immediate past that are within its scope and enable it to "feel" them. Conceptual prehensions are "feelings" of relevant eternal objects.

Every actual occasion prehends both physically and conceptually during the formation of its own unique synthesis. The more it prehends physically, the more it tends to repeat what it feels from the past; the more it prehends conceptually, the more novelty is introduced. It is important to emphasize again in this context that because a prehension is a determinative relationship, these "feelings" are not accidental additions or modifications of the actual entity (as "apprehension" would imply), but constitutive of it. An actual entity is what it feels.

Because an actual occasion is merely a drop of experience, we are generally conscious only of groups of actual occasions, or nexus (plural of nexus). A nexus is a set of actual occasions experienced as related to each other. Sometimes it is called a society of occasions. The human body is a society of this type because the actual occasions of each part of the body are experienced as being spatially connected in the formation of a single body. An illustration of this kind of nexus might be a loosely crocheted garment, where the knots constitute the actual occasions and the connecting threads their relatedness. Man is, in addition, a serial nexus, i.e., a series of actual occasions, or a stream of personal experiences that can be traced through a definite period of history. A serial nexus might be described as a "motion picture" film, in which a rapid series of individual occasions of experience project movement.

The nexus is the way in which Whitehead explains the real connections of things in space and time. Moments of experience are intrinsically related to each other by prehensions to form nexus. It is the real connections of things that we perceive, not the individual actual occasions. Our experience of reality is in terms of networks and patterns. Nothing is experienced alone. Each nexus is perceived in the context of a wider nexus, just as each element of a nexus emerges out of the environment of that nexus. Every part of reality is as we perceive it -- a part of a larger whole.

These four terms -- actual occasions, eternal objects, prehensions and nexus -- are the most important terms in the Whiteheadian vocabulary. We are now ready to explain how they fit together to form a philosophical perception of reality. The explanation will require the introduction of still more new terminology, but the new terms will be of lesser importance and will be more easily defined.

Each actual occasion emerges at a particular locus in time and space when that locus becomes the center of converging feelings, or prehensions. As it emerges it has its own particular subjective form, which controls the becoming of that subject. This subjective aim is directed toward the particular satisfaction that the actual occasion seeks to achieve. An emerging occasion prehends its relevant data according to its subjective aim and gives it focus according to that satisfaction.

The key to how an actual occasion becomes lies in the interaction that takes place between the subject (actual occasion) prehending and the data (past occasions and/or eternal objects) being prehended. How this interaction takes place is determined by the subjective form, which is the particular mood or attitude by which the subject prehends a particular datum. There are many species of subjective forms. Examples are emotions, valuations, purposes, aversions, aversions and consciousness. While an actual occasion can have only one subjective aim, the subjective forms depend upon its prehensions. One occasion, therefore, can involve a number of subjective forms.

Every act of prehending has its subjective form, but not every prehension contributes its datum to the emerging occasion. This is the reason for distinguishing between positive and negative prehensions. A prehension whose datum is included as a constitutive aspect of the occasion is a positive prehension; one in which the datum is eliminated from feeling is called a negative prehension. This is why the new actual occasion is constituted by its prehensions of the past but it is not necessarily a mere repetition of the past. It can be constituted into a new and novel synthesis because it can prehend the elements of its past in different ways. In one sense, then, the past determines the present moment of experience, in that it is the only data available for the present; in another sense, the present moment of experience is free to determine how it is to become.

And yet, nothing of the past is ever really lost. Every actual occasion lives on, contributing its reality to the occasions that succeed it. This is the meaning of objective immortality. After the actual occasion achieves its subjective aim and reaches its own particular satisfaction, it perishes. That is. it can experience no longer. But it is not lost or annihilated, because it can still be experienced. It becomes an objective datum for future occasions to take account of, positively or negatively, in the continuance of process. As it is prehended, it is immortalized as a constitutive element of the nexus of occasions that continue to "feel" its impact on history.

Because each actual occasion is its own unique synthesis of its past, each contributes its own actualization to the totality of reality. Each becomes part of the many, and adds itself to the complex environment that gives rise to a new occasion. The new occasion emerges by the unique way in which it objectifies, immortalizes and brings to a new unity the elements of its relevant past. When it achieves that satisfaction, it, too, perishes, clearing the way for the process to continue. In Whitehead’s succinct phrase, "The many become one and are increased by one."2

This is what Whitehead means by creativity. It is the ultimate principle by which the multiplicity of relevant data become one actual occasion, illustrating the fact that it is the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity. The three ultimate notions, then, are creativity, many, and one.

The above description of the process by which an actual entity becomes explains both the processive character of reality and the essential integration of reality as a whole. It should be noted that at every level of Whiteheadian thought we are dealing with unities of pluralities in dynamic inter-relation. In the above analysis of actual occasions as moments of experience, we have been discussing reality at its smallest, or microscopic level. Even at ‘this level the actual occasion, which is the smallest reality considered in process thought, is the unity of many prehensions. That is why actual occasions must themselves be understood as organisms.

On this point Whitehead’s thought is essentially different from those philosophical traditions where the miscroscopic elements are bits of matter. The presupposition in the latter is that every unity can be further broken down into its components, which are also real. One finally arrives at an ultimate unit of reality -- an electron, for example -- which can then be described abstractly in terms of locus, function, quality and quantity, etc. For Whitehead, there are no such fundamental units of reality because reality is composed of moments of experience and not bits of matter. When a moment of experience is analyzed into its components, these components (prehensions) are not real apart from the moment of experience, or actual occasion itself, even though they contribute reality to that occasion. Actual occasions, which are the final real things of the universe, are thus unities, not units of reality. Hence, ultimate reality is organismic reality. It cannot be broken down for further analysis except by forsaking the realm of real things for the realm of abstraction.

By analogy, nexus, or societies of actual occasions, are also organisms, because they are unities of more fundamental elements. Larger organisms are complex unities of smaller organisms. At the largest, or macroscopic level of reality the same pattern obtains. Reality as a whole is a complex unity of pluralities. Here, too. Whitehead’s central notion is manifested. The many become one and are increased by one. Each group of smaller unities that occasions the emergence of a larger, more comprehensive unity adds to the total sum of organisms in reality and thus adds to reality itself. For this reason, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts because the whole is itself a new reality beyond the parts. Therefore, both in its processive character and in its relational structure, creativity is achieved when multiplicities give rise to new unities and are thereby increased by those unities.

This, in very brief outline, is the basic structure of Whitehead’s thought. There are many other terms and concepts which have been purposely eliminated for the sake of simplicity. There are also many controversies regarding various aspects of the interpretation presented here, and these, too, have been set aside. Our main purpose has been merely to introduce the reader to what is fundamental in process philosophy so that the theological chapters which follow can be more fully and positively prehended.



1. The discussion in this chapter is based upon Whitehead’s "Categorial Scheme." as outlined in Process and Reality (New York: The Macmillan Company, Free Press Paperback edition, 1969), pp. 22-35.

2. Ibid., p. 26.