A. N. Whitehead’s Process Philosophy (introductory notes)

A. N. Whitehead’s Process Philosophy 

Introductory Notes for Class

— Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes 2016 —

Alfred North Whitehead Process Philosophy Organic Realism

  • Process Philosophy is mostly attributed to the mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) – but Heraclitus (c. 535–475BC) is the godfather.
  • It is the view that actuality consists not of individual objects with attributes, but rather of interwoven processes.
    • e.g. an “atom” does not exist as an isolated substance with essential and accidental properties, but is rather an abstraction that denotes a temporal process consisting of myriad elements constantly in flux, those elements also constituting other processes.
  • The belief in individual objects is an effect both of our evolved perceptual apparatus, notably vision (we perceive relatively isolated objected for practical purposes (cf. Henri Bergson)), and an effect of the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness: reification – we easily slip into believing that an individual word/term must refer to an individual object (e.g. “atom”, “star”). This fallacy is perhaps induced by our Indo-European linguistic emphasis on nouns (rather than verbs).
    • i.e. our language solidifies what is in actuality flux.


Points of Explication:

  • Processes are not ‘things’ changing, but ‘things’ are movements abstracted.
    • We often think that a process must involve at the base level ‘things’ changing (such as water molecules in wave processes), but this is not necessary. Even the molecules are processes. Electromagnetism is an example of the fundamental basis of flux.
  • A process can have a centre of operation, but it extends spatio-temporally into its environment – thus it is a part of its environment (and the environment is a part of it).
    • e. g. a ‘star’ is not only the spherical ‘object’ but also the light emitted therefrom throughout the universe. It is also affected by surrounding bodies that constitute it.
  • Even so-called ‘enduring objects’ (mountains, moons, etc.) are processes, as can be understood over time.
    • As Nietzsche put it (when discussing Heraclitus), if we observed nature at different time scales, we could see trees pop up and wither away, the sun could look like a ‘luminous bow across the sky’; contrariwise at slower speeds, we could observe a flower as being as permanent as a mountain. Everything is in flux, permanence is merely an illusion of timescale. Being is Becoming, as Nietzsche claims.
  • For Whitehead, a process is not merely a flux of ‘matter-energy’ but also such that includes sentience(s).
    • For Whitehead, even the concept of ‘matter-energy’ is an abstraction. It is more parsimonious to claim that matter includes mind at all levels (‘panexperientialism’), rather than that matter ‘produces’ mind at complex levels (which, as we saw, ends in problems of supervenience, emergence, upward and downward causation, etc.).
      • (But note the importance of differentiating aggregates from systemic processes: e.g. a chair and a neuron, respectively. This difference affects the placing of subjectivity.)
  • The Principle of Relativity: a part of a process continues into another process (and thus becomes part of that other process).
    • e.g. a “star” enters into your eye and brain; the star’s process becomes part of you.
      • Therefore one’s perception of the star is part of the star (and part of you).
      • There is no Representationalism.
      • Perception operates in the relation part-to-whole rather than representation-to-object.
  • A process is temporal, the notion of an ‘instant’ (t1, t2, etc.) is an also an abstraction. Thus, if we ask what ‘something’ is at an ‘instant’ we will never receive a proper answer.
    • Whitehead says that notions such as momentum, direction of motion, and wave type become meaningless in such an abstracted instant. We need temporality (i.e. process) in order to identify them as such.
  • A so-called ‘constant’ of nature is also an abstraction for Whitehead. We commit the fallacy of generalizing from the particular when we believe that the regularities (processes) of nature we observe at our timescale are eternal laws of nature (David Hume makes the same point with his Problem of Induction).
    • (There is possibly also a theological origin of this belief (God as eternal and setting eternal laws, mixed with Plato’s influence on Christianity).)
    • For Whitehead, even the physical, spatio-temporal nature of our epoch may change.
  • Understanding the universe as a thriving interwoven mesh of processes leads to the rejection of many purported dichotomies – the fusion of opposites (and thus their resolution). For example:
    • Subject–Object
      • An object is part of the subject: the perception of an object is part of the process that is that object. And likewise the subject (e.g. person) is part of other processes. (The ‘Principle of Relativity’)
    • Substance–Attribute
      • This Aristotelian notion is replaced by the notion that attributes are everything (the substance is the reification of the attributes).
    • Mind–Matter
      • Both terms are abstractions of the concrete reality of ‘mind existing at the basic level of ‘matter’. The emergence of consciousness is thus one of degree of complexity rather than of kind (matter to mind – creatio ex nihilo).
    • Organic-Inorganic
      • An organism is a complex process of sub-processes. But so are molecules, atoms, etc., which also have sentience. As Whitehead writes:
        • ‘Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.’ (SMW, ch. VI)
        • Thus Whitehead’s process philosophy is also known as the Philosophy of Organism, and Organic Realism.
    • Cause-Effect
      • Efficient Causality is the flow of process. Due to panexperientialism, it is also memory and perception (‘prehension’). To differentiate parts of this may be useful but is ultimately misleading.
      • Causation is directly perceived (contra Hume) because of the entry of the object into the subject. That is, the Principle of Relativity ensures the veridicality of causality.
    • Nature-Nurture
      • As a person’s environment is part of him/herself, one should not define a person as a separate entity. Even one’s genes are not isolated entities that fully determine a person. Whitehead foresaw epigenetics in 1938 (MT) when he wrote:
        • ‘[T]he notion of the self-contained particle of matter, self-sufficient within its local habitation, is an abstraction. Now an abstraction is nothing else than the omission of part of the truth … This general deduction from the modern doctrines of physics vitiates many conclusions drawn from the application of physics to other sciences, such as physiology … For example, when geneticists conceive genes as the determinants of heredity. The analogy of the old concept of matter sometimes leads them to ignore the influence of the particular animal body in which they are functioning.’ (MT)
    • Artificial-Natural
      • Mankind is part of nature; nature is wholly present in mankind. Out technology is of the same kind as bird’s nests, bee hives and tortoise shells. As Whitehead puts it:
        • ‘It is a false dichotomy to think of Nature and Man. Mankind is a factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of Nature.’ (AI, 99)


Whitehead’s magnum opus is Process and Reality (1929). It is amongst the most convoluted of all philosophical tomes, so I suggest beginning with his books Modes of Thought, The Function of Reason, Science and the Modern World, Adventures of Ideas. When you are mentally prepared (in both senses) approach the main text.


For my technical summary of Whitehead’s philosophy – click here.

For my public article on Whitehead’s philosophy in Philosophy Now magazine (#114) – click here.

panexperientialism panpsychism introduction notes summary sjostedt-H
Alfred North Whitehead