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«Olav Bryant Smith The Social Self of Whitehead’s Organic Philosophy Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy has commonly become known as process ...»

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Olav Bryant Smith

The Social Self of Whitehead’s Organic Philosophy

Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy has commonly become known as process philosophy. Whitehead himself regarded his philosophy as the philosophy of organism. His organic philosophy is understood through various types of process that occur in the becoming of actual organic entities in relationship with one another. Whitehead’s conception of the self is one that provides an alternative foundation for psychology, helps to make sense of personal identity over time amidst a series of changing experiences, and offers a ground for understanding an ethic based on shared bonds between self and world. The mind-body problem is solved in the philosophy of organism, and a ground for understanding the lived body is provided.

This paper begins with Whitehead’s deconstruction of the modern analysis of the self, and then discusses in turn Whitehead’s “reformed” ontology and theory of perception, the becoming of a single occasion of experience, the development of societies of occasions of experience, the creation of self-identity over time as a society displaying a selective pattern or “unity of style.” The paper concludes with a discussion of this social self, in the context of evolution, displaying an enjoyment and expression of lasting value through a series of fleeting activities of individual occasions of experience.


Whitehead’s philosophy of organism would not have been created were it not for an analysis of the relations between the self and world. In what Whitehead termed his reformed subjectivist doctrine, he begins as Descartes did with the analysis of an act of experience, and then searches for an adequate model of the self and its experience.

Whitehead believed that modern philosophy’s difficulties stem from a worldview that he referred to as Subjectivist Sensationism. Previous models of the self had been thrown off

by the stress laid upon one, or other, of three misconceptions:

The substance-quality doctrine of actuality.

The sensationalist doctrine of perception.

The Kantian doctrine of the objective world as a construct from subjective experience.

(Whitehead 1978: 156) Due to overconfidence in the power of ordinary language to reveal the inner workings of nature, the Greeks’ ontology of qualities inhering in underlying substances were a direct result of analyzing subject-predicate propositions where the subjects were place-holders for ascribed predicates. Subjects endured in narratives through numerous predicative changes, and thus, substances endured while experiencing only qualitative changes over time. So, on the modern theory, the self’s perception of the environing world, (the self being such an enduring substance), was sensationalist, with only such predicative descriptions being perceivable through the senses. The German idealist movement then began with Kant’s model of the self beginning from such a subjective sensationalist starting point, and expressing an objective world resulting from that experience.

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The combined influence of these allied errors has been to reduce philosophy to a negligible influence in the formation of contemporary modes of thought. Hume himself introduces the ominous appeal to ‘practice’—not in criticism of his premises, but in supplement to his conclusions. Bradley, who repudiates Hume, finds the objective world in which we live, and move, and have our being ‘inconsistent if taken as real.’ Neither side conciliates philosophical conceptions of a real world with the world of daily experience.

(Whitehead 1978: 156) Whitehead was searching for a model of the self and its experience of the world that was adequate to our experience. Hume’s phenomenal theory, as Hume himself attests, had to be set aside when he got up from his desk in order to get on practically with life. Idealists, and other postmodern approaches that accept Kant’s model of the synthesis of the self’s experience from the subjective to an objective construction, find the external world to be somewhat illusory. Whitehead did not believe we can live on the basis of either model.

He believed that our theory should support our practices, or be set aside as inadequate.

This, more than anything else, is the basis of what I will call Whitehead’s speculative pragmatism. Whitehead was certainly not the only speculative pragmatist. Whitehead was influenced by James’s speculation, and though he knew little or nothing of Peirce from what we can tell, Charles Hartshorne later began to point out the marked parallels between Whitehead and Peirce 1.

The model of subjectivist sensationism is a set of twin principles, as Whitehead saw it.

On the one hand, there was an ontological analysis that Whitehead referred to as the subjectivist principle, which in the modern form saw the self’s experience as analyzed purely in terms of the sense impressions 2. The second doctrine, which Whitehead called the sensationist principle, said that the subject’s experience lacked what Whitehead called subjective form 3.

The subjectivist principle is rooted in three premises: (i) The acceptance of the ‘substance-quality’ concept as expressing the ultimate ontological principle. (ii) The acceptance of Aristotle’s definition of a primary substance, as always a subject and never a predicate. (iii) The assumption that the experient subject is a primary substance. (Whitehead 1978: 157) Whitehead rejected all three of these beliefs.

Plato and Aristotle, he believed, came to accept this viewpoint because of their overconfidence in the power of everyday language to disclose the nature of reality. It is all too natural to move from descriptions of the world in terms of subject and predicate to a description of the nature of reality as qualities inhering in underlying enduring substances.

Analyzing the world through the lens of subject-predicate propositions, these philosophers made a distinction between universals and particulars, with the subjects of these 1 Hartshorne, along with Paul Weiss, worked as Whitehead’s T.A. at Harvard while they were editing Peirce’s collected papers. For one example of Hartshorne’s discussions of Peirce and Whitehead, see the chapter on Whitehead in his book Creativity in American Philosophy (Hartshorne 1984: 103-113).

2 Whitehead’s discussion of these matters was very confusing. There has been a lot of discussion through the years about how to untangle his ambiguity. I have written about it in my book (Smith 2004: 90-132), and a paper co-authored by David Ray Griffin (Smith and Griffin 2003: 3-36).

3 Whitehead called this the sensationalist principle, and some Whitehead scholars have shortened this to the sensationist principle.

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propositions becoming known as primary substances, or what Whitehead would call actual entities, and the predicative qualities being recognized as universals.

The last point in this set is that self-analysis in modern philosophy took the experiencing subject to be one of these actual entities that was an enduring substance standing by itself apart from other actual entities in the world. Whitehead said that Descartes took it one step further in that direction by declaring that such substances “required nothing but themselves to exist” (Whitehead 1978: 159).

Whitehead gives Descartes credit for making “the greatest philosophical discovery since the age of Plato and Aristotle” (Whitehead 1978: 159) when he developed the subjectivist bias in philosophy and insisted that philosophy begin with the analysis of self-experience.

But it was left to others, such as James and Bergson, to begin to put the subjectivist bias

more fully into practice. Descartes missed the boat, for as Whitehead put it:

But like Columbus who never visited America, Descartes missed the full sweep of his own discovery, and he and his successors, Locke and Hume, continued to construe the functionings of the subjective enjoyment of experience according to the substance-quality categories (Whitehead 1929: 159).

Rather than relying on the analysis of ordinary language, and the categories derived from it, Descartes and the later modern philosophers including Kant, should have taken subjective analysis more seriously and developed what might be called existential categories based more fully on, and therefore more adequate to, our actual experience.

These subject-substances, never being predicates, were completely separate and distinct entities. They lacked an objective element. Unlike our everyday experience in which the boundaries between us, our bodies, and the world beyond are blurred, the subject-substance ontology led to a doctrine of merely external relations of entities abstractly separated from one another.

This subject-substance ontology was then fatally combined with a sensationist epistemology. Whitehead initially discusses this sensationist principle in terms of “the bare subjective entertainment of the datum, devoid of any subjective form” (Whitehead 1978: 157).

The importance of every element of this definition, just like the definition for the subjectivist principle, only unfolds over the next few pages of Whitehead’s explanations. The sensationist principle, like the subjectivist principle, has two parts. The first is again methodological, for Whitehead approves of the general modern approach to the problem.

A theory of knowledge was also needed. Again philosophy started on a sound principle, that all knowledge is grounded on perception. Perception was then analyzed, and found to be the awareness that a universal quality is qualifying a particular substance. Thus perception is the catching of a universal quality in the act of qualifying a particular substance (Whitehead 1978: 158).

Whitehead agrees that the development of an adequate theory of perception was the place to begin 4. The problem, however, is that it was a “doctrine of mere sensation” (Whitehead 1978: 157). This was Locke’s blank slate upon which sense impressions, deIt is easy to see why Merleau-Ponty would have seen a kindred spirit in Whitehead when he attempted to disclose the lived body through a new theory of perception. This is the work of Phenomenology of Perception (Merleau-Ponty 1962). More recently, Merleau-Ponty’s lecture “The Idea of Nature in Whitehead,” based on Whitehead’s early philosophy of nature and metaphysical works, was posthumously published in Nature (Merleau-Ponty 1995: 113-122).

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tached from objective actual entities, fall. The result of this subjectivist sensationism was the mind-body problem and skepticism about our interaction with a real, objective world.


When Whitehead criticized the modern sensationist analysis of perception as “the bare subjective entertainment of the datum,” he meant that such perception was deemed to be completely subjective. There was no objective element, and this is part of what led to the modern difficulties in philosophy. Whitehead believed that “Descartes’ discovery on the side of subjectivism requires balancing by an ‘objectivist’ principle as to the datum for experience” (Whitehead 1978: 160). Thus, Whitehead proposed a reformed subjectivist principle that begins, as Descartes did, with an analysis of the act of experience, but recognizes an objective datum in that experience. For “common sense,” Whitehead commented, “is inflexibly objectivist” (Whitehead 1978: 158).

His speculative pragmatism, again, requires that we be able to live by the theory that we develop, or we must revise the theory. We cannot live as if there were no objective component in our experience.

Whitehead’s analysis of perception parallels developments in phenomenology in some ways. He says that, if we leave the abstraction of a claim like “the stone is grey” behind and look at what the genuine experience is, we’ll find that we originally experience “my perception of this stone as grey.” With this, we see that Whitehead recognizes the intentionality of perception. My perception is of an objective element in my environing world that has entered into my experience. The perception is the self’s activity of encountering an objective world that in some ways imposes itself upon us. The modern analysis abstracts from the self’s active encounter and interaction with a world, an objective datum, and leaves us with a bare “awareness of sensation of greyness” (Whitehead 1978: 159). Furthermore, the modern theory then assigns the vehicle for such awareness of the world to the sense organs.

The emphasis in modern philosophy has always been on knowledge and conscious thought. For Whitehead, conscious thought is but the tip of the iceberg in human experience, and one that is fleeting at that. It comes and it goes, but we keep on experiencing and expressing ourselves with or without consciousness.

What is most vivid to consciousness are the sense impressions abstracted from process.

With these sense impressions, we picture an extensive continuum of color and shape, but this image is an illusion. It is not the objective world that is an illusion. It is the sensory image that we


from the objective process that is illusory with regard to the underlying nature of things. Modern science has, from the beginning, operated from the principle that things are not the way that they appear to us through the senses. We must peel away the layers of the onion to understand the underlying structure 5.

The appearance of an extensive continuum is the result of the activities of many atomic entities in interaction with one another. We emphasize “the green leaf” as it is lifted up to consciousness and leave behind the vague awareness of the activities that result in the appearance of a green leaf (Whitehead 1978: 167). Whitehead, by contrast, wanted to lift the veil off of unconscious experiences of connection to the world and our past selves. He


5 In this respect, modern science hearkens back to pre-Socratic natural philosophy and the attempt to understand the underlying nature of reality, not settling for easy answers as they appear to us on the surface of sense perception.

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