Books Philosophy Reviews

Book Review: A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality

A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality by Donald W. Sherburne is a great guide to Whitehead’s philosophy! Alfred North Whitehead’s book Process and Reality (commonly referred to as PR) is extremely difficult to read.1 PR is rich and suggestive, but its opacity is monumental.2 The text of PR is in very poor condition. Whitehead refused to have anything to do with the publishing process.3

The challenge Donald W. Sherburne faced was to make the philosophy of PR more accessible than it is in the original.4 The book is, however, not just a series of comments about Whitehead. Sherburne makes sure that Whitehead speaks himself by drawing together Whitehead’s scattered observations topic by topic.5 Sherburne doesn’t give an exhaustive account of all aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy, and he doesn’t attempt a critical evaluation of what it does present.6 Sherburne has, however, added many explanatory paragraphs. He has also added several helpful diagrams not to be found in PR.7

Actual Entities
Whitehead presents an organic philosophy where actual entities, or actual occasions, are organisms that grow, mature, and perishes. The whole of PR is concerned with describing the characteristics and interrelationships between these actual entities.8 There is, according to Whitehead, no going behind actual entities to find anything more real. Whitehead’s presumption is that there is only one genus of actual entities.9 An actual entity is furthermore a process. It’s not describable in terms of ‘stuff.’10

Organism and Reason
Whitehead’s doctrine of organism is an attempt to describe the world as a process of generation of actual entities.11 Actual entities are the only reasons. This means that to search for a reason is to search for actual entities.12

Formative Elements
Actual entities emerges from the interaction of three formative elements. The first is pure potentiality.13 The second is the Whiteheadian concept of God.14 And the third formative element is creativity.15

Creativity is the concept that account for the perpetual creative advance into novelty, which is a cornerstone of Whitehead’s process philosophy.16 Creativity is the outcome of the interdependence of actual entities, the Principle of Relativity, and that every actual entity is superject as well as subject.17

Time and Consciousness
Whitehead incorporates the relativity theory in physics into the basic principles of his system. This means that there is no absolute time.18 It’s also important to grasp Whitehead’s analysis of consciousness. Consciousness presupposes experience, and not experience consciousness.19

Transmutation and Nexus
Transmutation enables Whitehead to move from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic realm. Whitehead analyzes the way actual entities group themselves into aggregates.20 Transmutation is the operation whereby an aggregate of actual occasions, forming a nexus, is prehended not as a many, but as a unity, as one macrocosmic entity.21

Society and Order
A society is a nexus with social order.22 There is furthermore a hierarchy of societies.23 A structured society as a whole provides a favourable environment for the subordinate societies which it harbours within itself.24 Molecules are structured societies, and so are in all probability electrons and protons. But gases are not structured societies.25

Life and Conceptual Novelty
A structured society may have more or less ‘life.’. The primary meaning of ‘life’ is the origination of conceptual novelty. A society is only to be termed ‘living’ in a derivative sense.26 All societies require interplay with their environment. This interplay takes the form of robbery in the case of living societies.27 Living societies develop together with other societies which constitute an epoch.28

Metaphysics / Speculative Philosophy
I find Whitehead’s In Defense of Speculative Philosophy, in the Appendix, particularly interesting.29 It gives insights into the nature and scope of Whithead’s undertaking. It also gives insights into the subject of metaphysics, or speculative philosophy, itself.

Donald W. Sherburne’s book is excellent! It takes the reader into the heart of Whithead’s philosophy more quickly and easily than would have been possible otherwise. Whitehead is sometimes brilliant, but often incomprehensible. He frequently introduces new bewildering terminology. According to Sherburne, Whitehead is nevertheless often closer to traditional positions than his mode of speaking initially suggests.30 I am grateful for Sherburne’s impressive effort.

Surprisingly, reading Donald W. Sherburne’s book gave me insights into my own metaphysics. I can see that I’m very much influenced by David Bohm, who also thought about mind and matter, creativity and order. Interestingly, I think that Bohm went beyond Whitehead’s actual entities, or process. Order arises from process, but process arises from a deeper order. Active information, rather than process, is constitutive of the world.

This means that my metaphysics is a philosophy of in-form-ed order. Life itself has a complex and subtle order of infinite complexity and subtlety. Life’s various suborders are all arranged, connected, and organized together, clearly inseparable from the greater whole. Life is, therefore, orders of order.

1 Donald W. Sherburne, A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality (The University of chicago Press, 1981, first published 1966), p. 1.¨
2 Ibid., p. 2.
3 Ibid., p. 5.
4 Ibid., p. 2.
5 Ibid., p. 3.
6 Ibid..
7 Ibid., p. 4.
8 Ibid., p. 6.
9 Ibid., p. 7.
10 Ibid., p. 8.
11 Ibid., p. 17.
12 Ibid..
13 Ibid., p. 20.
14 Ibid., p. 25.
15 Ibid., p. 32.
16 Ibid., p. 33.
17 Ibid., p. 35.
18 Ibid., p. 38.
19 Ibid., p. 69.
20 Ibid., p. 72.
21 Ibid., p. 73.
22 Ibid., p. 78.
23 Ibid., p. 80.
24 Ibid., p. 84.
25 Ibid., p. 85.
26 Ibid., p. 88.
27 Ibid., p. 91.
28 Ibid., p. 95.
29 Ibid., pp. 191–204.
30 Ibid., p. 126.

By Jan Höglund

I share my reading, book reviews, and learning in my blog.

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