|Persons and Personal
Personal Selfhood(?) and Human Experience in Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism
ABSTRACT: The focus of this paper is personal selfhood and personal identity in the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Whiteheads theory of human personhood is formulated within the fabric of his highly original western metaphysical vision. Rejecting the Aristotelian doctrine of substantive being, Whitehead embraced instead an ontology of becoming that sought to categorize the things of this world within a naturalistic continuum. His understanding of human selfhood was therefore explicated in terms of this continuum and avoided both the rhetoric and conceptualization of substance philosophy. Thus, human selfhood is better understood in Whiteheads system as a continuously developing series of events or actual occasions, rather than in terms of a substantive soul. After detailing the main lines of Whiteheads doctrine of self and personhood, three detractors of his theory are introduced: A. H. Johnson, Peter Bertocci, and Rem Edwards. Their primary objections revolve around the human experience of self and personal identity and Whiteheads highly controversial epochal theory of time. The primary question that arises is whether or not Whitehead was finally able to do justice to the most profound insights and experiences of human beings regarding personal identity, and it is on that score that his understanding of personal selfhood is tested and found wanting.
Whiteheads objective in Process and Reality was to "frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted." (1) His resulting philosophy of organism remains thus far the single most comprehensive attempt in the history of western thought to formulate a metaphysic based on an ontology of becoming. As part of his overall vision of "reality as social process," (2) Whitehead formulated a non-substantive view of personal identity. It is my intent in this essay first to briefly describe Whitehead's view of personal identity within the context of his metaphysical system, and then to review a number of questions that his interpreters (both sympathetic as well as critical) have raised. My contention will be that while Whitehead's doctrine of personal identity is systematically coherent, his failure to fully incorporate the data of human experience ultimately renders his formulation of the concept of personal selfhood unintelligible.
Because of his process view of reality, Whitehead himself rarely ever spoke of personal identity. (3) He preferred instead, personal order: "A nexus enjoys personal order when (a) it is a society, and (b) when the genetic relatedness of its members orders these members serially." (4) In explicating the intent of his meaning, a broad understanding of his metaphysical system as a whole is indispensable, along with a more detailed examination of his innovative terminology.
The term "serially" gives us a clue to the most important aspect of Whitehead's philosophy of organism: that of succession or temporality. For Whitehead, reality is the process of becoming itself. What is it, one may query, that "becomes"? For the substantialist, the obvious answer is "being." For Whitehead, however, it is but "actual entities" which are the "final real things of which the world is made up." (5) Reality, metaphysically conceived, is ultimately reducible to nothing other than the endless movement of actual entities (or "actual occasions"), a process that Whitehead calls "prehensions" (or "feelings"). In this process, three phases can be identified, beginning with the emergence of the actual entity as a prehending subject, continuing with the prehending activity itself whereby data from other entities are received and then moved toward its completion as informed by what Whitehead calls the "subjective aim," and concluding with the "satisfaction" of the entity wherein it functions as datum for subsequently emerging entities and thereafter finally perishing in its (immortal) objectivity. By this process of prehension, the past comes into the present and becomes a potentiality for the future. The "present" is therefore a "specious present" and never really is. Following this analysis of reality, Whitehead proceeds to designate the grouping of actual occasions by the term "nexus." Reality on the phenomenal level is thus nothing more than the universal series (process of becoming) of interdependent nexus, each composed of actual occasions of "general connectedness" and "mutual immanence." (6)
Personal order then, is in the first place, a societal grouping or nexus. By "society," Whitehead simply meant "a nexus with a social order" (7) where common elements of form are prehended (passed on) by each member (actual occasions). Secondly, personal order is conceived to be any nexus or social order whose members are serially constituted. This serial ordering can best be understood by the phrase "one-way relations." (8) Within the context of Whiteheads ontology, the actual occasions which comprise the nexus exist contiguously so as to form a linear process of inheritance: thus, if A, B, and C were contiguous and linear members of a nexus, B would inherit from A, but not vice versa, and C would inherit from B (and A, by virtue of B's previous inclusion of A), but again, not vice versa. Such a nexus is, for Whitehead, an "enduring object." The combination of many such "enduring objects" results in a "corpuscular society" (the phenomenal "things" of substantive philosophies).
In order to make the jump from "corpuscular societies"or inorganic aggregatesto living societies (animals, humans, etc.), Whiteheads distinction between the physical and mental pole of each actual entity is of profound import. The former is that aspect of an actual entity that is more or less devoid of novelty, and is responsible, in the process of prehension, for the evolution of material reality. The latter is the source of all creative advance in the universe as it is informed by what Whitehead calls "eternal objects," the "pure potentials for the specific determinations of fact, or forms of definiteness." (9) For Whitehead, "the functioning of an eternal object in the self-creation of an actual entity is the ingression of the eternal object in the actual entity." (10) In living beings, and especially in the higher societies, a central direction appears which seemingly acts as a dominating unity that controls the particular corpuscular society in a manner indicative of creative becoming. In the personal ordering of human beings, we reach what Whitehead considers to be the chief exemplification of creativity in our cosmic epoch since it is here that we find the dominance of the mental pole as seen in the "hybrid" (conceptual or impure) prehensions characteristic of mental originality. (11) To summarize, "life is a passage from physical order to pure mental originality, and from pure mental originality to canalized mental originality. . . ." (12)
It is important here to distinguish between "living societies," "entirely living societies," and "living persons" in Whiteheads descriptive categories. (13) While "living societies" have been defined above as those groupings of actual entities which mental pole actively contributes to the prehensive process (this would include the vegetable world, considered thus to be "organisms"), "entirely living societies" included, for Whitehead, the animal kingdom. Here, another distinction of import appears: the between "entirely living societies" and "entirely living nexus." As Whitehead saw it, "in a living society only some of its nexus will be such that the mental poles of all their members have any original reactions. These will be its entirely living nexus, and in practice a society is only called living when such nexus are regnant." (14) Animals are organisms in which some of the groupings of actual occasions are in the form of "entirely living nexus." It should be emphasized that Whitehead denied that "entirely living nexus" could be social in nature, since, as Gregory Vlastos as so acutely put it, Whitehead formulated his philosophy of organism on the central axiom that "social relationship occur only in temporal strings; contemporaries are jointly related via their several derivations from a common past." (15) Thus, "an entirely living nexus is, in respect to its life, not social. Each member of the nexus derives the necessities of its being from its prehensions of its complex social environment; by itself the nexus lacks the genetic power which belongs to societies." (16) This leads to Whiteheads notion of "personal order"an order which belongs to animals as such, who are composed of "entirely living" nexus.
It is against this background that Whiteheads concept of human personhood must be understood. While animals consist of non-social, "entirely living," temporal and continuous nexus, Whitehead insisted that
As an enduring entity, Whitehead called the human being a "living person": "In a man, the living body is permeated by living societies of low-grade occasions so far as mentality is concerned. But the whole is coordinated so as to support a personal living society of high-grade occasions. This personal society is the man defined as a person." (18)
For Whitehead then, the personal ordering of human beings is not disparate from the temporalistic reality of nature as a whole: a tree is a "living society" which is called a "democracy"; an animal is a composition of "democracies" of "entirely living" nexus which is called an "entirely living" or "personal society"; a human being is a composition of "personal societies" within a wider social environment who is called a "living person." It is for this reason that Whitehead was in basic agreement with Humes denial of the traditional substantialist notion of the self. (19) In rejecting a transcendental self (or soul), Whitehead understood the human self to be a serially organized society functioning within the framework of a wider social environment.
How then did Whitehead understand consciousness? He denied any metaphysical importance to the notion and simply attributed it to the higher phases of concrescence subjective forms arising out of the unique serial societal orders. (20) Later on in his career, he explicitly stated that the enduring self-identity of the soul was nothing other than "the succession of my occasions of experience, extending from birth to the present moment." (21) This allowed him to maintain a real continuity between nature and life in his philosophy of organism. He asserted, "as disclosed in the fundamental essence of our experience, the togetherness of things involves some doctrine of mutual immanence. In some sense or other, this community of actualities of the world means that each happening is a factor in the nature of every other happening." (22)
It may be helpful here to draw on the clarity enabled by Charles Hartshornes much more precise development of Whitehead on the prehensions of the personal order. In a concise set of statements, Hartshorne says that "memory and perception are both intuitions of the past. I call the one personal and the other impersonal memory." (23) He then goes on to define, without deviating essentially from Whitehead, personal identity as "the persistence of certain defining characteristics in a very complex bodily society endowed with a preeminent linear society or soul." (24) In keeping with Whiteheads event ontology then, Hartshorne further enumerates the process view of personal identity as "literally partial identity, and therefore partial nonidentity; moreover, the nonidentity refers to the complete reality [of a human life span], and the identity but a constituent [a stage of life, or a spacio-temporal state of being]." (25) To summarize the Whiteheadean-Hartshornian view of the human self, personal identity would be defined as a set of serially ordered occasions wherein the mental pole dominates the process of prehension resulting in the possibility of both a personal memory of the past as well as a creative advance into the future.
While cogently arguing for a temporalistic view of personal identity, Whitehead is by no means oblivious to the arguments that endear a substantialistic view of the same. Further, he assents to the fact that the concept itself, with all of its substantialistic connotations,
In spite of these concessions, however, Whitehead did not acquiesce into the temptation to view personal identity in substantialistic terms. In all probability, Whitehead avoided using the phrase "personal selfhood" when referring to the human person simply because it smacked too much of the classical concept of soul-substance and was better left alone. For Whitehead, the phrase "personal order" was much more congenial, pointing to the main element of process in his vision of reality.
Is, however, Whitehead's view of personal identity intelligible in all of its aspects. Three dissenters will be noted. The first, A. H. Johnson, a student and personal friend of Whitehead, expressed concerns over Whiteheads doctrine of actual entities and its corollary, that of personally ordered societies. Johnson notes the "vehement objection" raised against the view that the actual entity is emergent from or constituted by its feelings. He observes that
Johnson continues his query by pointing out that Whiteheads doctrine of "subjective aim" (by which the latter's actual entities arrive at their satisfaction) seems to require such a possessive center. He concludes that the philosophy of organism "seems to bear witness to a fear of substance rather than a completely accurate report of observed fact. Why should one deny the existence of interacting, developed entities more substantial than those discussed by Whitehead?" (28)
Johnson also chides his teacher for not taking seriously the "factor of endurance which characterizes the human self." (29) He points out that the one subjective aim which may guide an individuals life for years is testimony to this fact which thereby vitiates Whiteheads analysis of human experience. This is an important point. Although Johnson is concerned that Whiteheads anti-substantialist stance hinders the overall interpretation of his metaphysics, he also sees a related as well as perhaps even more damaging criticism: "The objection that Whitehead does not offer an adequate description of the human subject applies most obviously to his analysis of adult human experience." (30) While these protests are but two of Johnsons rather lengthy critical evaluation of Whitehead's doctrine of actual entities, they are representative of his basic charge against the inadequacy of the empirical methodology employed in the philosophy of organism.
More recently, the personalist philosopher, Peter Bertocci, has raised similar complaints against the process view of the self. (31) In an analysis of Hartshorne's defense of the Whiteheadian-Buddhist view of the self, Bertocci appealed to Borden Parker Bownes famous dictum that "there can be no succession of experiences without the experience of succession," (32) and questioned how there could be unity in a linear sequence without a self-identifying experient. Fundamentally, the issue between Bertocci and both Whitehead and Hartshorne revolves around this relationship between the experience of temporality and self-identifying unity. Bertocci strenuously insists that
The third challenge to Whitehead on his doctrine of personal identity comes from Rem Edwards, who could be legitimately understood as a neo-Whiteheadian. Edwards essay is a rather complex reformulation of Whitehead's views on God and time, with radical consequences for the process view of personal self-hood. (34) He begins by posing the question of why Whitehead would consider God to be an actual entity when he had clearly specified that "God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse." (35) Edwards conclusion is that Whitehead's epochal theory of time left him no alternatives on this matter because of his doctrine of continuous divine concrescence. As Edwards notes,
When this conclusion is wedded to the fact that for Whitehead, the epochal theory of time was a cosmological rather than a metaphysical one, Edwards seizes the open window of opportunity to suggest that it is not only conceivable but empirically justifiable to view human selfhood also as an actual entity (analogous then to God) rather than a society of actual occasions. In support of his position, Edwards appeals again to human experience:
In contrast, Edwards rejects the Whiteheadian view of personal "discontinuity" formulated on the epochal theory of time as one which "really confronts us with high abstractions." (38) Thus, it is only when the human being is understood as a continually concrescing actual entity that we can coherently speak of "human selfhood." (39)
It seems fairly clear that Whiteheads effort to understand personal identity and continuity ultimately fails before the bar of normally conceived, interpreted, and understood human experience. While both Johnson and Bertocci point out that Whiteheads philosophy of becoming does not give sufficient heed to substantiality behind the human testimony of self-unity-in-experience and self-identity, by a somewhat ironic twist, Edwards dissents from Whitehead primarily because the epochal theory of time atomizes reality to the extent that becoming remains unintelligible. Since it is true that Whiteheads metaphysical standpoint is an intuitive starting point which is any (and every) philosophers prerogative, both Johnson's as well as Bertoccis questions may ultimately be sidestepped by appealing to such an intuition. Edwards critique, however, is much more formidable. A review of Whiteheads doctrine of actual occasions reveals some startling disjunctions at the core of his metaphysical enterprise. On the one hand, the various phases of actual entities, first as subjects and then as superjects, point to the theoretical abstractions made at the heart of the philosophy of organism which seemingly splits even the supposedly indivisible ultimate units of reality. Furthermore, Whiteheads doctrine of the "perpetual perishing" of actual occasions does not appear to leave any possibility on the experiential level for speaking about the is-ness of reality.
The two issues related to the philosophy of organism that has emerged from this discussion are the ontological enigma revolving around the notion of "continuity" in personal self-hood, and the epistemological/methodological problem surrounding Whiteheads concept of experience. Ontologically, neither Whitehead nor Hartshorne deny the element of continuity in the personal selfhood of human beings. Hartshorne himself is much more clear on this matter, identifying the continuity of the self in terms of the concept of memory, whereas Whitehead himself preferred to remain with the notion of prehension. The questions posed above by Johnson, Bertocci, and Edwards, however, still clamor for answers. Whitehead may indeed give verbal assent to the continuity of the human self, but his overall exposition has failed to convince both sympathetic and non-sympathetic critics of the viability of his formulation. Edwards proposal appears to me to be the most suggestive within a process framework. However, as he himself admits, the course that he has charted does involve a radical departure from orthodox Whiteheadianism. It remains to be seen whether or not process philosophers can satisfactorily answer these questions raised by Whiteheads critics and eventually formulate a more satisfactory notion of personal selfhood.
Resolution to this matter may hinge on the empirical method(s) employed in approaching the problem. Whereas Whitehead claims that his philosophy is fully supported by experience, one wonders whether he has satisfactorily interpreted the entire range of the data of human experience. Whitehead has indeed done an admirable job of translating the possible experiences across the cosmic spectrum, but in the process, his analysis of human experience appears to have suffered. On this count, Johnson, Bertocci, and Edwards again agree. While Whitehead deserves to be commended on his efforts to bridge the gap between nature and human life, one wonders if he has succeeded in this task. It is still debatable whether human experience is fully commensurable with that of nature. Perhaps the epistemological and ontological questions are inseparable after all.
NOTES(1) Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929; rprt.; New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1960), 4.
(2) The title of a volume by one of Whitehead's students, Charles Hartshorne: Reality as Social Process: Studies in Metaphysics and Religion (Glencoe: The Free Press, and Boston: Beacon Press, 1953).
(3) "Personal identity" does not appear at all in the index to Process and Reality, and only twice in Adventures in Ideas.. The reason for this choice appears to lie in part in the primacy of becoming in Whitehead's philosophy.
(4) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 51.
(5) Ibid., 27.
(6) A. N. Whitehead, Adventures in Ideas, (1933; reprint; New York: The Free Press, 1967), 201.
(7) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 50.
(8) Coined by Hartshorne, and explicated in portions of a number of his works.
(9) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 32; for Whitehead, "eternal objects" are located in ("envisaged by") the mind of God, and are analogous to Aristotle's universals.
(10) Ibid., 38.
(11) Ibid., 163; Whitehead considers "hybrid" prehensions to characterize the ingression of the Eternal Objects with the human subjects, or in more traditional language, the lure of divine influence in its interaction with the human process of development.
(12) Ibid., 164. Whitehead further says, "Each actuality is essentially bipolar, physical and mental, and the physical inheritance is essentially accompanied by a conceptual reaction [the mental pole of an actual entity] partly conformed to, and partly introductory of, a relevant novel contrast, but always introducing emphasis, valuation, and purpose" (ibid., 165).
(13) This is especially important considering the fact that Whitehead held that the Universe is coordinated into "societies of societies, and in societies of societies of societies. Thus an army is a society of regiments, and regiments are societies of men, and men are societies of cells, and of blood, and of bones, together with the dominant society of personal human experience, and cells are societies of small physical entities such as protons, and so on, and so on" (Adventures in Ideas, 206).
(14) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 157.
(15) Gregory Vlastos, "Organic Categories in Whitehead," Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, ed. George L. Kline (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963), 164. Vlastos notes Whiteheads statement that "a set of mutually contemporary occasions can not form a complete society" (Adventures in Ideas, 164).
(16) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 163. As Donald Sherburne summarizes, "an entirely living nexus inherits primarily from the complex environment provided by the animal body, and not from its own previous generations" (A Key to Whiteheads "Process and Reality."[Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1966], 243).
(17) Whitehead, Adventures in Ideas, 205.
(18) Ibid., 208.
(19) On this point, Whitehead was also in basic agreement with the Buddhist doctrine of Anatman (no self). As David Griffin points out, Whitehead agreed with the Buddhists that "(a) persons neither are nor have an underlying, uncaused, permanent substantial soul; (b) material things also lack substantiality; [and] (c) nothing should be thought of as 'belonging' to the person." But, Griffin also astutely notes Whitehead's divergence from Buddhism on one key point: he admitted the possibility that in some instances at least, composite entities do amount to more than the sum of their parts (for Whitehead, actual entities; for the Buddhists, the dharmic constituents of reality), a doctrine which the Buddhists rejected; see David R. Griffin, "Buddhist Thought and Whitehead's Philosophy," International Philosophical Quarterly 14:3 (Sept. 1979), 262.
(20) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 240.
(21) Whitehead, Modes of Thought (1938; reprint; New York: Capricorn Books, 1958), 224; Whitehead scrupulously avoided the use of the term "soul" in Process and Reality (it appeared twice, once in his discussion of Plato and the other in reference to Hume), presumably because of the substantialistic connotations which the history of western philosophy had attached to the word.
(22) Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 225.
(23) Charles Hartshorne, "Personal Identity from A to Z," Process Studies 2:3 (1972), 210 (emphasis his); "impersonal memory" would be analogous to the physical pole of Whitehead's prehensions, and "personal memory" to the mental.
(24) Ibid., 212 (emphasis his). My teacher who introduced me to Hartshorne, Professor John Hammond, has pointed out that Hartshornes "complex bodily society" is analogous to Whiteheads "entirely living societies," as well as the formers "soul" to the latters "living person."
(25) Ibid., 213.
(26) Whitehead, "Immortality," The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp; The Library of Living Philosophers, vol. 3; second ed. (New York: Tudor Publishing House, 1951), 690. For an excellent discussion of this aspect of Whiteheads philosophy, see Lynne Belaief, Toward A Whiteheadian Ethics (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1984).
(27) A. H. Johnson, Whitehead's Theory of Reality (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1952), 180 (emphasis his).
(28) Ibid., 181.
(29) Ibid., 182.
(30) Ibid., 181 (emphasis his).
(31) Bertocci terms his a "temporalistic-personalistic" view versus the "organismic-process" view of Whitehead and Hartshorne; see Peter A. Bertocci, "Hartshorne on Personal Identity: A Personalistic Critique." Process Studies 2:3 (1972): 216-221.
(32) Ibid., 217. Bowne is generally recognized as the founder of American personal idealism; cf. his Metaphysics, rev. ed. (Boston: Boston University Press, 1943), especially chapter III on "Change and Identity."
(33) Bertocci, "Hartshorne on Personal Identity," 218-9 (emphasis his). In fact, one may take Bertocci's argument one step further against the Whiteheadean-Hartshornian doctrine of "feeling feeling feelings." If there are those who may object to personalism on the grounds of what appears to be a crude anthropomorphism (persons or personality being posited as the dominant metaphysical reality), does not the philosophy of organism utilize, at the core of its interpretation, a variant form of anthropomorphism in attributing "impersonal memory" to the ultimate constituents of reality?
(34) Rem B. Edwards, "The Human Self: An Actual Entity or a Society?" Process Studies 5:3 (1975), 195.
(35) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 521. Most contemporary Whiteheadian philosophers do not agree with Whiteheads view of God as an actual entity. The theists are more apt to follow Hartshorne who sees God as the universal society of actual occasions. John Cobb has astutely noted that Whitehead made the transition from God as not actual (Science and the Modern World) to God as an actual entity (Religion in the Making) in a volume devoted to both the empirical as well as philosophical analysis of religion (see Whitehead's Religion in the Making [1926; reprint; New York: The World Publishing Company/Meridian Books, 1964], especially chapter III.3, "A Metaphysical Description"). Cobb theorizes that the reason for this is that "the function of providing limitation to ensure order and value could only be assigned to an actual entity. Once God is regarded as an actual entity, the use of personalistic language follows naturally, for our basic clue to the nature of an actual entity is given in our own immediate human experience" (A Christian Natural Theology based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965], 147).
(36) Edwards, "The Human Self," 195. A. H. Johnson has also given careful attention to the reasons for Whiteheads explication of God as an actual entity: Gods consequent nature is regarded by Whitehead as "the continuing prehension of God of other actual entities. If God were a society, each member of which exemplified the distinctively divine primordial nature and then passed on, providing date for another, similar, actual entity, this whole series being called God; then one of the most essential characteristics of God would be lostthe retention of immediacy. If God were a society, there would be an inescapable loss of divine content since the linkage between members of a society is the process of transfer of content [being contemporaneous in nature rather then temporal or sequential], and this involves elimination" (Whiteheads Theory of Reality, 69).
(37) Edwards, "The Human Self," 199-200.
(38) Ibid., 200. Edwards, 202-3 list five objections which together form an impressive argument both against Whiteheads view of the human self as well as his epochal theory of time: a) the epochal theory which posit successive and yet co-existing phases of an actual occasion is both "utterly unintelligible" as well as "self-contradictory"; b) because human experience fails to confirm such a theory of time, Whitehead himself is guilty of the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness" in his speculations on many aspects of the doctrine of actual occasions; c) the Whiteheadian "specious present" (suggested by Hartshorne to last for approximately a tenth of a second) does not purport to define the length of the gap between occasions, and as such, is at best inconclusive as evidence for the epochal theory; d) the theory of time as a continuous flow is not only supported by human experience, but is also more satisfactory as an explanatory temporalistic model of reality; and e) the (Hartshornian) view that God is a society of actual occasions ultimately collapses into the doctrine that God is a "continuously concrescing actual entity" when it is seen that the infinitely dense divine specious present can really be nothing more than a continuum.(39) The substantialist would undoubtedly query Whitehead at this point on the fact that his "continually concrescing actual entity" sounds very similar to the traditional substance!