Process and Reality

Alfred North Whitehead


Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. 1927. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1978. Kindle: 9780029345702.


“One of the major philosophical texts of the 20th century, Process and Reality is based on Alfred North Whitehead’s influential lectures that he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in the 1920s on process philosophy. Whitehead’s master work in philsophy, Process and Reality propounds a system of speculative philosophy, known as process philosophy, in which the various elements of reality into a consistent relation to each other. It is also an exploration of some of the preeminent thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as Descartes, Newton, Locke, and Kant. The ultimate edition of Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process and Reality is a standard reference for scholars of all backgrounds.”



“These lectures are based upon a recurrence to that phase of philosophic thought which began with Descartes and ended with Hume. The philosophic scheme which they endeavour to explain is termed the ‘Philosophy of Organism’” (loc. 160)

Descartes, Newton, Locke, Hume, Kant. Any one of these writers is one-sided in his presentation of the groundwork of experience; but as a whole they give a general presentation which dominates the development of subsequent philosophy” (loc. 169)

“the philosophy of organism is a recurrence to pre-Kantian modes of thought. These philosophers were perplexed by the inconsistent presuppositions underlying their inherited modes of expression” (loc. 169)

“In so far as they, or their successors, have endeavoured to be rigidly systematic, the tendency has been to abandon just those elements in their thought upon which the philosophy of organism bases itself” (loc. 179)

“it must be one of the motives of a complete cosmology to construct a system of ideas which brings the aesthetic, moral, and religious interests into relation with those concepts of the world which have their origin in natural science” (loc. 179)

“The lectures are intended to state a condensed scheme of cosmological ideas, to develop their meaning by confrontation with the various topics of experience, and finally to elaborate an adequate cosmology in terms of which all particular topics find their interconnections” (loc. 188)1

“my obligations to the English and American Realists are obvious” (loc. 188)

“Professor T. P. Nunn, of the University of London. His anticipations, in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, of some of the doctrines of recent realism, do not appear to be sufficiently well known” (loc. 188)2

“I am also greatly indebted to Bergson, William James, and John Dewey. One of my preoccupations has been to rescue their type of though from the charge of anti-intellectualism, which rightly or wrongly has been associated with it” (loc. 198)

“This whole metaphysical position [that is, of realism] is an implicit repudiation of the doctrine of ‘vacuous reality’” (loc. 198)3

“it becomes natural at this point to ask whether the type of thought involved be not a transformation of some main doctrines of Absolute Idealism onto a realistic basis” (loc. 198)

Whitehead then makes a list of repudiations of “prevalent habits of thought”:

  • “The distrust of speculative philosophy”4
  • “The trust in language as an adequate expression of prepositions”5
  • “The mode of philosophical thought which implies, and is implied by, the faculty psychology”6
  • “The subject-predicate form of expression”7
  • “The sensationalist doctrine of perception”8
  • “The doctrine of vacuous actuality”
  • “The Kantian doctrine of the objective world as a theoretical construct from purely subjective experience”
  • “Arbitrary deductions in ex absurdo arguments”
  • “Belief that logical inconsistencies can indicate anything else than some antecedent errors”

“By reason of its ready acceptance of some, or all, of these nine myths and fallacious procedures, much nineteenth-century philosophy excludes itself from relevance to the ordinary stubborn facts of daily life” (loc. 208)

“The positive doctrine of these lectures is concerned with the becoming, the being, and the relatedness of ‘actual entities’” (loc. 208)

“An ‘actual entity’ … is a Cartesian ‘substance,’ and not an Aristotelian ‘primary substance’” (loc. 217)

“But Descartes retained in his metaphysical doctrine the Aristotelian dominance of the category of ‘quality’ over that of ‘relatedness.’ In these lectures ‘relatedness’ is dominant over ‘quality.’ All relatedness has its foundation in the relatedness of actualities; and such relatedness is wholly concerned with the appropriation of the dead by the living–that is to say, with ‘objective immortality’ whereby what is divested of its own living immediacy becomes a real component in other living immediacies of becoming. This is the doctrine that the creative advance of the world is the becoming, the perishing, and the objective immortalities of those things which jointly constitute stubborn fact” (loc. 217)

“The history of philosophy discloses two cosmologies” (loc. 217)

  1. “Plato’s Timaeus” (loc. 217)
  2. “the cosmology of the seventeenth century, whose chief authors were Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Locke” (loc. 217)

“In attempting an enterprise of the same kind, it is wise to follow the clue that perhaps the true solution consists in a fusion of the two previous schemes” (loc. 217)

“The cosmology explained in these lectures has been framed in accordance with this reliance on the positive value of the philosophical tradition” (loc. 228)

“In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to the finality of statement is an exhibition of folly” (loc. 238)

Part 1

Chapter 1: Speculative Philosophy

“This course of lectures is designed as an essay in Speculative Philosophy” (loc. 547)

“Speculative Philosophy is the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (loc. 547)9

“the philosophical scheme should be coherent, logical, and, in respect to its interpretation, applicable and adequate” (loc. 547)

“‘Coherence,’ as here employed, means that the fundamental ideas, in terms of which the scheme is developed, presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless” (loc. 555)

“no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the system of the universe, and … it is the business of speculative philosophy to exhibit this truth. This character is its coherence”10

“this ideal of speculative philosophy has its rational side and its empirical side. The rational side is expressed by the terms ‘coherent’ and ‘logical.’ The empirical side is expressed by the terms ‘applicable’ and ‘adequate’” (loc. 555)

“The adequacy of the scheme over every item does not mean adequacy over such items as happen to have been considered. It means that the texture of observed experience, as illustrating the philosophic scheme, is such that all related experience must exhibit the same texture” (loc. 565)

“the philosophic scheme should be ‘necessary’ in the sense of bearing in itself its own warrant of universality throughout all experience, provided that we confine ourselves to that which communicates with immediate matter of fact” (loc. 565)

“what does not so communicate is unknowable, and the unknowable is unknown; and so this universality defined by ‘communication’ can suffice”

“there is an essence to the universe itself which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality. Speculative philosophy seeks that essence” (loc. 565)11

“Our datum is the actual world, including ourselves; and this actual world spreads itself for observation in the guise of the topic of our immediate experience” (loc. 574)

“The elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought; and the starting-point for thought is the analytic observation of components of this experience” (loc. 574)12

“We habitually observe by the method of difference” (loc. 574)

“the method of pinning down thought to the strict systematization of detailed discrimination, already effected by antecedent observation, breaks down” (loc. 583)13

“the first requisite is to proceed by the method of generalization so that certainly there is some application; and the test of some success is application beyond the immediate origin” (loc. 603)14

“The second condition for the success of imaginative construction is unflinching pursuit of two rationalistic ideals, coherence and logical perfection” (loc. 603)

“coherence is the great preservative of rationalistic sanity” (loc. 612)

“disputants tend to require coherence from their adversaries, and to grant dispensations to themselves” (loc. 612)

“a system of philosophy is never refuted; it is only abandoned” (loc. 612)

“Thus, after criticism, systems do not exhibit mere illogicalities. They suffer from inadequacy [empirical side] and incoherence [rational side]. Failure to include some obvious elements of experience in the scope of the system is met by boldly denying the facts. Also while a philosophical system retains any charm of novelty, it enjoys a plenary indulgence for its failures in coherence. But after a system has acquired orthodoxy, and is taught with authority, it receives a sharper criticism. Its denials and its incoherences are found intolerable” (loc. 622)

“Incoherence is the arbitrary disconnection of first principles” (loc. 622)

“The philosophy of organism is closely allied to Spinoza’s scheme of thought. But it differs by the abandonment of the subject-predicate forms of thought, so far as concerns the presupposition that this form is a direct embodiment of the most ultimate characterization of fact” (loc. 631)15

“The result is that the ‘substance-quality’ concept is avoided; and that morphological description is replaced by description of dynamic process” (loc. 631)16

“Spinoza’s ‘modes’ now become the sheer actualities; so that, though analysis of them increases our understanding, it does not lead us to the discovery of any higher grade of reality” (loc. 631)17

“the process, or concrescence, of any one actual entity involves the other actual entities among its components. In this way the obvious solidarity of the world receives its explanation” (loc. 631)

“In the philosophy of organism this ultimate [that “which is actual in virtue of its accidents”] is termed ‘creativity’; and God is its primordial, non-temporal accident” (loc. 641)

“In monistic philosophies, Spinoza’s or absolute idealism, this ultimate is God, who is also equivalently termed ‘The Absolute.’ In such monistic schemes, the ultimate is illegitimately allowed a final, ‘eminent’ reality, beyond that ascribed to any of its accidents. In this general position the philosophy of organism seems to approximate more to some strains of Indian, or Chinese, thought, than to western Asiatic, or European, thought. One side makes process ultimate; the other side makes fact ultimate” (loc. 641)18

“the chief error in philosophy is overstatement” (loc. 650)

“The verification of a rationalistic scheme is to be sought in its general success, and not in the peculiar certainty, or initial clarity, of its first principles” (loc. 660)

“Metaphysical categories are not dogmatic statements of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of the ultimate generalities” (loc. 670)

“experience is not interrogated with the benumbing repression of common sense” (loc. 670)

“Rationalism never shakes off its status of an experimental adventure” (loc. 689)19

“Rationalism is an adventure in the clarification of thought, progressive and never final. But it is an adventure in which even partial success has importance” (loc. 689)20

“The study of philosophy is a voyage towards the larger generalities” (loc. 698)

“The fate of Newtonian physics warns us that there is a development in scientific first principles, and that their original forms can only be saved by interpretations of meaning and limitations of their field of application–interpretations and limitations unsuspected during the first period of successful employment” (loc. 698)

“The systematization of knowledge cannot be conducted in watertight compartments” (loc. 707)21

“All general truths condition each other; and the limits of their application cannot be adequately defined apart from their correlation by yet wider generalities” (loc. 707)

“philosophy is descriptive generalization. Under the influence of mathematics, deduction has been foisted onto philosophy as its standard method, instead of taking its true place as an essential auxiliary mode of verification whereby to test the scope of generalities” (loc. 716)

“The depositions of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, merely mean that ideas which these men introduced into the philosophic tradition must be construed with limitations, adaptations, and inversions, either unknown to them, or even explicitly repudiated by them” (loc. 716)22

“A new idea introduces a new alternative; and we are not less indebted to a thinker when we adopt the alternative which he discarded. Philosophy never reverts to its old position after the shock of a great philosopher” (loc. 716)

“philosophy redesigns language in the same way that, in a physical science, pre-existing appliances are redesigned” (loc. 716)23

“every proposition refers to a universe exhibiting some general systematic metaphysical character. Apart from this background, the separate entities which go to form the proposition, and the proposition as a whole, are without determinate character. Nothing has been defined, because every definite entity requires a systematic universe to supply its requisite status. Thus every proposition proposing a fact must, in its complete analysis, propose the general character of the universe required for that fact. There are no self-sustained facts, floating in nonentity” (loc. 725)24

“The excessive trust in linguistic phrases has been the well-known reason vitiating so much of the philosophy and physics among the Greeks and among the mediaeval thinkers who continued the Greek traditions” (loc. 734)

“John Stuart Mill writes: They [the Greeks] had great difficulty in distinguishing between things which their language confounded, or in putting mentally together things which it distinguished, and could hardly combine the objects in nature into any classes but those which were made for them by the popular phrases of their own country” (loc. 744)

“little more than a mere sifting and analysing of the notions attached to common language” (loc. 744)25

“Language is thoroughly indeterminate, by reason of the fact that every occurrence presupposes some systematic type of environment” (loc. 744)

“A precise language must await a completed metaphysical knowledge” (loc. 754)

“Metaphysics is nothing but the description of the generalities which apply to all the details of practice” (loc. 763)

“No metaphysical system can hope entirely to satisfy these pragmatic tests. At the best such a system will remain only an approximation to the general truths which are sought” (loc. 763)

“there are no precisely stated axiomatic certainties from which to start” (loc. 763)

“There is not even the language in which to frame them” (loc. 763)26

“meanings are incapable of accurate apprehension apart from a correspondingly accurate apprehension of the metaphysical background which the universe provides for them” (loc. 773)27

“no language can be anything but elliptical, requiring a leap of the imagination to understanding its meaning in its relevance to immediate experience” (loc. 773)28

“An old established metaphysical system gains a false air of adequate precision from the fact that its words and phrases have passed into current literature” (loc. 773)

“We no more retain the physics of the seventeenth century than we do the Cartesian philosophy of that century. Yet within limits, both systems express important truths. Also we are beginning to understand the wider categories which define their limits of correct applications” (loc. 791)

“Mankind never quite knows what it is after” (loc. 791)

“The proper test is not that of finality, but of progress” (loc. 791)

“there are no brute, self-contained matters of fact, capable of being understood apart from interpretation as an element in a system. Whenever we attempt to express the matter of immediate experience, we find that its understanding leads us beyond itself, to its contemporaries, to its past, to its future, and to the universals in terms of which its definiteness is exhibited. But such universals, by their very character of universality, embody the potentiality of other facts with variant types of definiteness” (loc. 801)

“Thus the understanding of the immediate brute fact requires its metaphysical interpretation as an item in a world with some systematic relation to it” (loc. 801)

“Our habitual experience is a complex of failure and success in the enterprise of interpretation” (loc. 801)

“The methodology of rational interpretation is the product of the fitful vagueness of consciousness” (loc. 801)

“yet all occasions proclaim themselves as actualities within the flux of a solid world, demanding a unity of interpretation” (loc. 810)29

“Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of it own initial excess of subjectivity. Each actual occasion contributes to the circumstances of its origin additional formative elements deepening its own peculiar individuality” (loc. 810)

“Consciousness is only the last and greatest of such elements by which the selective character of the individual obscures the external totality from which it originates and which it embodies” (loc. 810)30

“An actual individual, of such higher grade, has truck with the totality of things by reason of its sheer actuality; but it has attained its individual depth of being by a selective emphasis limited to its own purposes. The task of philosophy is to recover the totality obscured by the selection” (loc. 810)31

“Philosophy frees itself from the taint of ineffectiveness by its close relations with religion and with science, natural and sociological. It attains its chief importance by fusing the two, namely, religion and science, into one rational scheme of thought. Religion should connect the rational generality of philosophy with the emotions and purposes springing out of existence in a particular society, in a particular epoch, and conditioned by particular antecedents” (loc. 820)32

“Religion is the translation of general ideas into particular thoughts, particular emotions, and particular purposes; it is directed to the end of stretching individual interest beyond its self-defeating particularity” (loc. 820)

“Religion is an ultimate craving to infuse into the insistent particularity of emotion that non-temporal generality which primarily belongs to conceptual thought alone” (loc. 820)33

“Religion is centered upon the harmony of rational thought with the sensitive reaction to the percepta from which experience originates. Science is concerned with the harmony of rational thought with the percepta themselves” (loc. 829)

“Speculative boldness must be balanced by complete humility before logic, and before fact. It is a disease of philosophy when it is neither bold nor humble, but merely a reflection of the temperamental presuppositions of exceptional personalities” (loc. 857)34

“The ultimate test is always widespread, recurrent experience” (loc. 857)35

“It is the part of the special sciences to modify common sense. Philosophy is the welding of imagination and common sense into a restraint upon specialists, and also into an enlargement of their imaginations. By providing the generic notions philosophy should make it easier to conceive the infinite variety of specific instances which rest unrealized in the womb of nature” (loc. 857)36

Commentator’s Note: Another book from 2020 I started but did not finish, and though having meant to start up again, have yet to do so in 2023.


  1. Iopics as in topoi–“places” or “turns” of experience, which will be joined together in their distinction through the cosmological model to be elaborated. 

  2. “His approach was that of a realist philosopher whose main concern was to reconcile psychological with scientific judgments, examining as carefully as possible the data of experience in order to find the princi- ples which held the data together.” See T. Percy Nunn, The Aristotelian Society,

  3. In the immediate context, reality as being devoid of “feeling.” Whitehead points to this term in the work of Francis Herbert Bradley, Essays on Truth and Reality, 1914. 

  4. Merriam-Webster: “a philosophy professing to be founded upon intuitive or a priori insight and especially insight into the nature of the Absolute or Divine; broadly: a philosophy of the transcendent or one lacking empirical bases; or, theoretical as opposed to demonstrative philosophy” 

  5. Intimations of his relational ontology? That is, given the nature of “prepositions” as spatial or temporal terms, what is Whitehead hinting at with regard to what we might presume to be an ontological preposition, as opposed to a linguistic one? 

  6. “Faculty psychology views the mind as a collection of separate modules or faculties assigned to various mental tasks. It claims that we are born with separate, innate human functions. Thomas Reid mentions more than 43 different faculties, or functions, of the mind that all work together as a whole.” See “Faculty psychology,” Wikipedia,

  7. That is, that we can distinguish subjects from their predicates, consequently objectifying a subject as something that can be described with a given predicate. 

  8. Perception as the (subject’s) sensing of (objective) experience. 

  9. Whitehead is aiming at totality with his speculative system. 

  10. No individual thing can be separated from the system of the universe–which is to say that the very idea of the “individual thing” is a problematic abstraction in the first place. This is very reminiscent of Heidegger’s critique of naïve (specular) objectivity as secondary to original (tactile) contact with what it is. 

  11. And this is reminiscent of Gadamer’s notion of existence as play or game, a self-intending, absolutely enclosed space–which, usefully, is also self-exceeding (for Gadamer, through art, and for Whitehead, if we might hazard a guess, through process). See Gadamer, Truth and Method. The key idea in both thinkers is understanding the possibility of newness, the extensibility of what is, not as a consequence of some external force (the agency of the blind clockmaker) but as intrinsic to what is. 

  12. Very phenomenological of Whitehead. 

  13. So, though our “starting-point” is the “components of this experience,” a reductive picture that remains with the components as such is an impossible foundation for metaphysics. Our analysis of the components will be adequate insofar as each component presents the same “texture” as the greater whole. 

  14. This principle requires something akin to the “cosmological principle.” See Wikipedia, “Cosmological principle,” “the cosmological principle is the notion that the spatial distribution of matter in the universe is homogeneous and isotropic when viewed on a large enough scale, since the forces are expected to act uniformly throughout the universe, and should, therefore, produce no observable irregularities in the large-scale structuring over the course of evolution of the matter field that was initially laid down by the Big Bang.” Or, “The cosmological principle is usually stated formally as ‘Viewed on a sufficiently large scale, the properties of the universe are the same for all observers.’ This amounts to the strongly philosophical statement that the part of the universe which we can see is a fair sample, and that the same physical laws apply throughout. In essence, this in a sense says that the universe is knowable and is playing fair with scientists.” 

  15. That is, that properties might be predicated of a subject, and that this form (predication) is the form of fact as such (i.e., subjects [individual entities] possessed of properties). 

  16. The “morphological description” reminds me of the “synchronic” bias in Saussure, while the “dynamic” points to the “diachronic.” See Saussure, Course in General Linguistics

  17. First, Spinoza’s modes are “the affections of a substance, or that which is in another through which it is also conceived.” See Spinoza, Ethics, 1. Second, this move on Whitehead’s part predates Jean-Paul Sartre’s affirmation of appearance as being and his denial of the dichotomy therebetween. Sartre writes: “In the first place we certainly thus get rid of that dualism which in the existent opposes interior to exterior. There is no longer an exterior for the existent if one means by that a superficial covering which hides from sight the true nature of the object. And this true nature in turn, which one can have a presentiment of or which one can suppose but one can never reach because it is the ‘interior’ of the object under consideration–this nature no longer exists. The appearances which manifest the existent are neither interior nor exterior; they are all equal, they all refer to other appearances, and none of them is privileged … the dualism of being and appearance is no longer entitled to any legal status within philosophy.” See Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 1. 

  18. That God must be “final” by definition, and within nature as nature (in a monistic, Spinozist system), is of course problematic for Whitehead wherein process is fundamental. Process cannot, by definition, be final. Creativity, therefore, is his ultimate, and God is creativity’s eminent work (insofar as God is the most ancient and without time). 

  19. Isabelle Stengers considers science an adventure in her “Reclaiming Animism,” e-flux #36 (July 2012): 2. Giorgio Agamben has written a whole book on the theme. See Agamben, The Adventure

  20. Merleau-Ponty writes: “philosophy itself must not take itself as established in the truths it has managed to utter … philosophy is an ever-renewed experiment of its own beginning … it consists entirely in describing this beginning.” See Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, lxxviii. 

  21. Indeed, because the transcendental subject, possessor of such a system, is a “leaky container.” See McGlynn, “Toward a Generic Aesthetics.” 

  22. That is, following “the fate of Newtonian physics,” we understand that the philosophies of these thinkers cover limited domains of “generality.” This reads in alignment with Karl Popper on falsifiability and metaphysical research programmes. See Popper, Logic of Scientific Discovery and Popper, Unended Quest

  23. Language is an instrument or appliance for philosophy. 

  24. Recalls Heidegger’s “workshop,” the “totality of relevance.” See Heidegger, Being and Time, 70, 84. Whitehead’s “system” is equivalent to the ontic workshop. Whitehead’s “creativity” is akin to the ontological emerging-abiding sway of Being as such. 

  25. Émile Benveniste makes the same point in chapter six of his Problems, “Categories of Thought and Language.” See Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, 54-64. 

  26. Again, echoing Heidegger and his call for a destruction of language in Being and Time

  27. Merleau-Ponty writes: “All forms of knowledge are supported by a ‘ground’ of postulations, and ultimately upon our communication with the world as the first establishing of rationality.” See Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, lxxxv. He continues to discuss the figure/ground structure throughout the book. See, for instance Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 4: “a figure against a background is the most basic sensible given we can have.” 

  28. The hermeneutic circle. See Heidegger, Being and Time, 152: “The fore-conception always also contained in the statement remains mostly inconspicuous because language always already contains a developed conceptuality. Like interpretation in general, the statement necessarily as its existential foundations in fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception.” 

  29. The “flux of a solid world” is a great line. 

  30. “The reason why we see the structure we do is that scientists act like a sieve and focus only on those phenomena that have structure and are predictable. They do not take into account all phenomena; rather, they select those phenomena they can deal with.” See Yanofsky, “Chaos Make the Multiverse Unnecessary.” Replace “scientists” with “individuals” generally and you get Whitehead’s claim. The purpose of philosophy, therefore, is to pull back from the selection to get a better look at the “external totality”–which is, to be clear, external to the individual as a distinct body, but not external to what is, because, as we have seen, Whitehead repudiates the belief in “a higher grade of reality.” 

  31. Indeed, the structure of care [Sorge]. 

  32. This is a rather terrifying suggestions. Taking the rational and empirical and yoking them with religious fervor. I suppose this is what is always already happening–for instance, Heidegger’s Nazism is the religion linking his philosophy with his politics. 

  33. As in Kierkegaard: the absolutely particular

  34. Ha! Demagoguery is not philosophy. 

  35. Empirical verification. 

  36. There is a weak claim and a strong claim here. The weak: that philosophy works in concert with common sense and specialization. The strong: that nature houses an infinity of unrealizes instances. This strong claim is a bold conclusion to casually by which to conclude the final paragraph of the chapter. 

Previous Book Next Book

« Philosophies of Difference A Biography of Ordinary Man »