Prehension


Alan Anderson

Through Whitehead's category of prehension, the nonsensory sympathetic perception of antecedent experiences, we are able to reduce several apparently very different types of relations to one fundamental type of relation. [It] explains not only memory and perception, . . . but also temporality, space, causality, enduring individuality (or substance), the mind-body relation, the subject-object relation in general, and the God-world relation. David Ray Griffin, "Charles Hartshorne," in David Ray Griffin, John B. Cobb, Jr., Marcus P. Ford, Pete A. Y. Gunter, and Peter Ochs, Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Peirce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), p. 209. Griffin's writing in this book is quoted extensively in "Charles Hartshorne's Psychicalism".

Sorry, those of you who got here from A Practical Spirituality: Process New Thought; avoiding prehending is impossible. It is not the whole story to say that that page or anything else is powered by prehension, but no actuality can exist without it, and it may suggest more of a sense of power than the other ingredient in any act of co-creation: intelligent free selection from among the two types of realities prehended (felt, taken in, appropriated): (1) the completed experiences that constitute the past and (2) the perfect possibilities provided by God for newness. Prehension is the basic, extrasensory awareness, or grasping, that all experiences have of all earlier experiences. One might call it the super intuition on which all conventionally recognized extrasensory perception and sensory perception are built.

If it seems as if too much emphasis is given to experience, that is because there is nothing actual but experiences. Process thought, or process philosophy, sometimes is called panexperientialism--all is experience. Alfred North Whitehead wrote that apart from experiences "there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness [Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 254, corrected ed. p. 167]." What we take to be solid things are, as science recognizes, only collections of bursts of energy, or activity or process, which Whitehead interpreted as living experiences (occasions of experience, actual entities). Even souls are rapid successions of experiences, rather than some enduring nonmaterial substance that has experiences.

Charles Hartshorne says of Whitehead's theory of prehension:

In a single conception it explains the spatiotemporal structure of the world, the possibility of knowledge, and the reality of freedom. It is, in my opinion, one of the supreme intellectual discoveries. Whitehead's Philosophy: Selected Essays, 1935-1970, p. 127.

The word "prehension" is created by dropping the first syllable from "apprehension." Prehension is a part or aspect of the more or less complex whole which is an act of awareness. It is the element of pure givenness in this act; experience as the having of an object. An experience for Whitehead is a unitary event or process termed an "actual entity" or "occasion [of experience]." Every concrete thing which is given to or prehended by an entity is a prior event or actual entity, or a group of such entities. Contemporary events are not, strictly speaking, prehended, nor are occasions subsequent to the act of prehending. Thus memory and perception are alike in that the object of both is in the past. This assimilation of perception to memory is a highly original element in the doctrine. Ibid., p. 125.

It is amazing how many questions are answered at one blow by accepting the doctrine of prehension. Are there internal relations of events to other events? Yes, for so far as events prehend others, they are constituted by their relations to these others. Are there external relations? Yes, for so far as events are prehended by subsequent events which they do not themselves prehend, they must be independent of these; also, so far as events, being mutually contemporary, are without prehensions running either way, there is mutual independence. Is there causal connectedness? Yes, first, because the occurrence of events strictly entails that of those events which they prehend; second, because process is bound to go on, and subsequent events must have enough in common with their predecessors to be suitable prehendors for these, in order to objectify, or "pastify" them (so to speak). Finally, is there any freedom of indeterminacy in reality? Yes, and in all cases, since events never strictly depend upon or imply their precise successors. And here Whitehead furnishes perhaps the neatest, strongest argument for freedom ever proposed. The subject prehends not one but many prior actualities. (Otherwise the world would have temporal but not spatial structure.) "The many become one and are increased by one [Whitehead, Process and Reality p. 32, corrected ed. p. 21. Hartshorne refers to this as "Whitehead's Novel Intuition," in an article with that title in Whitehead's Philosophy, pp. 161-170, reprinted from George L. Kline (ed.), Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, pp. 18-26]. A single new actuality contains as its data the previous many actualities; but how could the many unambiguously prescribe their own unification into a new unity? There must be an emergent or creative synthesis, to constitute not merely that but how the many are made into a new one. Determinism, I suspect, cannot get around this difficulty. The that is necessary, causally fixed, but not the how.

Thus, Whitehead's view of givenness not only solves certain epistemological problems; it also gives an answer to Hume's skepticism about causal connections, and yet it avoids the contrary extreme, absolute idealism's denial of contingency and freedom. [At this point he gives the two sentences quoted at the beginning of this Hartshorne material]. Whitehead's Philosophy, pp. 126-27.

Victor Lowe, in his Understanding Whitehead, p. 349, says:
The past has had its chance at becoming; it transfers the opportunity to the next runner. The past is now there to be apprehended, but not to grow and change. The present is creatively active but is not apprehended.
In his An Interpretation of Whitehead's Metaphysics, p. 12, William A. Christian writes:
A prehension is an operation in which an actual entity "grasps" some other entity (actual or nonactual [see "eternal objects" on the terminology page]) and makes that entity an object of its experience. . . . A prehension is a "concrete fact of relatedness." It has a subject (the prehending actual entity), an object or datum that is prehended , and a subjective form. The subjective form of a prehension is the particular manner in which that subject prehends that object. Subjective forms are forms of emotion, consciousness, purpose, etc. A prehension need not be conscious--indeed, most prehensions are not.

There are positive prehensions and negative prehensions. Negative prehensions "eliminate" their data, so that these data do not make a positive contribution to the experiences of the subject. A positive prehension is generally called a feeling.

The "becoming" of an actual entity consists in a concrescence (from concrescere), a "growing together" of various details of experience into a unity. This process of concrescence is organized teleologically by the subject's subjective aim at unity of experience. The satisfaction of an actual entity is the "concrete" unity of experience which the concrescence achieves. The living experience of an actual entity is its subjective immediacy.

Prehension of one actual entity by another means the objectification of the former for the latter. The former is then said to have "objective" existence. It exists and functions as an object, not as an experiencing subject. . . . The objective existence of an actual entity is its objective immortality.

In the alphabetically arranged Glossary of his A Key to Whitehead's Process and Reality (Macmillan, 1966), Donald W. Sherburne writes:

Prehensions are defined as "Concrete Facts of Relatedness [PR 32]. Prehensions are the vehicles by which one actual entity becomes objectified in another, or eternal objects obtain ingression into actual entities; they "are 'vectors'; for they feel what is there and transform it into what is here" [PR 133].

Prehensions are what an actual entity is composed of: "The first analysis of an actual entity, into its most concrete elements, discloses it to be a concrescence of prehensions, which have originated in its process of becoming" [PR 35]. The very nature of a prehension reveals its relational character: "Every prehension consists of three factors: (a) the 'subject' which is prehending, namely, the actual entity in which that prehension is a concrete element; (b) the 'datum' which is prehended; (c) the 'subjective form' which is how that subject prehends that datum" [PR 35].

Physical prehensions are prehensions whose data involve actual entities; conceptual prehensions are prehensions whose data involve eternal objects. Both physical and conceptual prehensions are spoken of as pure; an impure prehension is a prehension in a later phase of concrescence that integrates prehensions of the two pure types. A hybrid prehension is the "prehension by one subject of a conceptual prehension, or of an 'impure' prehension, belonging to the mentality of another subject" [PR 163]. A positive prehension (also termed a feeling) includes its datum as part of the synthesis of the subject occasion, but negative prehensions exclude their data from the synthesis.

"The perceptive constitution of the actual entity presents the problem, How can the other actual entities, each with its own formal existence, also enter objectively into the perceptive con-stitution of the actual entity in question? This is the problem of the solidarity of the universe. The classical doctrines of universals and particulars, of subject and predicate, of individual substances not present in other individual substances, of the externality of relations, alike render this problem incapable of solution. The answer given by the organic philosophy is the doctrine of prehen-sions, involved in concrescent integrations, and terminating in a definite, complex unity of feeling" [PR 88-89].

Whitehead acknowledges an indirect debt to Leibniz in his use of this term. Leibniz employed the terms perception and apperception for the lower and higher ways, respectively, that one monad can take account of another, can be aware of another. While needing a set of terms like this, Whitehead does not wish to utilize the identical terminology, for as used by Leibniz the terms are inextricably bound up with the notion of representa-tive perception, which Whitehead rejects. But there is the similar term apprehension, meaning "thorough understanding," and, using the Leibnizian model, Whitehead coins the term prehension to mean the general, lower way, devoid of any suggestion of either consciousness or representative perception, in which an occasion can include other actual entities, or eternal objects, as part of its own essence.

Peter Farleigh, in his "Whitehead's Even More Dangerous Idea", says:

Having established in general what Whitehead's 'actual occasions' are, some explanation of their nature needs to be made. It might be thought that such an explanation is to be found by starting at the bottom and working up from there. In fact, the place to start, and the place that Whitehead wants us to start, is at the level of human experience. For two reasons: first, because human experience at any moment is itself, an actual occasion, and the occasion we know better than any other, and known from the inside. Second, because high-level occasions are themselves highly coordinated societies of low-level occasions, certain features of human experiential events can be generically applied to more primitive occasions.

Consider the act of perception. It is by perception, and this involves cognition, intentionality and affective tone, that we take account of our environment. I look at a pencil in front of me, for example. I have an immediate sense of its overall look-its shape, its length, its color. The pencil is set against a background of my desk and other things in my field of vision, but not things I am at that moment acutely aware of. Also I am only vaguely aware of my body and its relation to the desk and pen. In seeing the pencil, too, whole streams of associative memories are stirred. All of these perceptions and memories are gathered together into the unity, which is this single percipient event-a 'specious present'. The focal point or center of this event being my body. The pencil and the background, as well as the memories, are all internal constituents of my experience, and are therefore causally efficacious of that experiential event. They are said to be internally related to this event. Those objects at that moment are unaffected by my act of perception and so are said to be externally related to the event.

The act of perception then, establishes the causal relation of a subject to the external world at that moment. Perception and memory recall for Whitehead are high level instances of a more general concept, which he calls prehension. Most simply, for a subject to prehend an object, it is to experience it, perceive it, feel it, or 'take it into account,' though not necessarily in a conscious or reflective way. An object can be a physical object, like a pencil, or a conceptual object like a memory. Prehension is also a feature at lower levels of nature. Single cells 'feel' or take account of their environment (which is often other cells). Within a series of sub-atomic events, each event prehends its antecedent event, and is almost entirely determined by it.

The concept of prehension does sound a lot like the more familiar concept of intentionality. Indeed, Nicholas Gier has examined in depth the relations between the two concepts. Gier points out their similarities: "Both prehension and intentionality describe the relationship of a subject and an object in such a way as to overcome this subject­object split. In the same way that intentionality is always 'consciousness of an object,' prehension is always 'feeling of' some datum. This means that any prehensive unification or intentional act is codetermined by the respective data." (Gier 1976) One major difference is that intentionality is only discussed in terms of human consciousness, while prehension is extended far beyond the human realm. Both affirm a doctrine of internal relations so that consciousness is never simply 'there' without content or object, but with phenomenology the relationship of consciousness and its object is not considered a causal one. Whitehead had solved this problem of causation with his doctrine of asymmetrical relations between a present event and its past. Lewis Ford sums up the comparison by stating "Rather than being simply identical with intentionality, prehension generalizes both intentionality and causality, thus unifying both phenomenology and science." (Gier 1976 [Gier, N. 1976 "Intentionality and Prehension," Process Studies Vol. 6 No. 3])

In his Science and the Modern World, pp. 101-106 (paperback edition 69-72), Alfred North Whitehead writes:

The word perceive is, in our common usage, shot through and through with the notion of cognitive apprehension. So is the word apprehension, even with the adjective cognition omitted. I will use the word prehension for uncognitive apprehension: by this I mean apprehension which may or may not be cognitive.

. . . For Berkeley's mind, I substitute a process of prehensive unification. . . . In the first place, note that the idea of simple location has gone. The things which are grasped into a realised unity, here and now, are not the castle, the cloud, and the planet simply in themselves; but are the castle, the cloud, and the planet from the standpoint , in space and time, of the prehensive unification. In other words, it is the castle over there from the standpoint of the unification here. It is, therefore, the castle, the cloud, and the planet which are grasped in unity here. You will remember that the idea of perspectives is quite familiar in philosophy. It was introduced by Leibniz, in the notion of his monads mirroring perspectives of the universe. I am using the same notion, only I am toning down his monads into the unified events [in later Whitehead writings, actual entities or occasions of experience]in space and time. . . . In the analogy with Spinoza, his one substance is for me the one underlying activity of realisation . . . Thus, concrete fact is process. Its primary analysis is into underlying activity of prehension, and into realised prehensive events.

. . . The difficulties of philosophy in respect to space and time are founded on the error of considering them as primarily the loci of simple locations. Perception is simply the cognition of prehensive unification, or more shortly, perception is cognition of prehension. The actual world is a manifold of prehension; and a ‘prehension' is a ‘prehensive occasion'; and a prehensive occasion is the most concrete finite entity, conceived as what it is in itself and for itself, and not as from its aspect in the essence of another such occasion. . . . For space and time are simply abstractions from the totality of prehensive unifications as mutually patterned in each other.

[In answer to Berkeley's claim that the reality of nature is] the reality of ideas in mind [Whitehead maintains that nature is] a complex of prehensive unifications. Space and time exhibit the general scheme of interlocked relations of these prehensions. You cannot tear any one of them out of its context. Yet each of them within its context has all the reality that attaches to the whole complex. Conversely, the totality has the same reality as each prehension; for each prehension unifies unifies the modalities to be ascribed, from its standpoint, to every part of the whole. A prehension is a process of unifying.

. . . The realities of nature are the prehensions in nature, that is to say, the events in nature.

David Ray Griffin, in his Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration helps to explain prehension by reference to more widely recognized extrasensory perception and religious experience:

As to what kind of perception is primary and what is derivative from it:

The fact that religious, moral, and aesthetic knowledge is based primarily on nonsensory perception should not make it seem less empirical (experientially based) than scientific knowledge, for two reasons. First, nonsensory perception is our fundamental mode of perception, so that science, insofar as it is based on sensory perception, is based on a derivative mode of perception. Second, science is also directly based on nonsensory perception, in two ways. On the one hand, insofar as science is based on both mathematics and logic, it is based on things whose status in the nature of things is similar to that of moral and aesthetic values and principles and must be known in the same way: through nonsensory perception--which we often call "intuition." . . . On the other hand, although natural science's explicit data (aside from its mathematical data) are based on sensory perceptions, the categories it uses to interpret them--such as an actual world, causality, and time--are based on nonsensory perception, as pointed out in Chapter 3. Accordingly, in terms of nonsensory and sensory perception, the differences between theology (or philosophy of religion), ethics, and aesthetics, on the one hand, and the natural sciences, on the other, is only a difference of degree. . . .

In any case, parapsychology, by giving evidence of nonsensory perception, sometimes quite dramatic evidence, provides scientific disconfirmation of the sensationist theory of perception, which has been one of the two major bases for assuming that we can have no perceptual knowledge of values (the other basis being the assumption that values have no objective existence in the nature of things). Parapsychology thereby proves itself to be not only, as J. B. Rhine suggested, religion's science, but ethics' science and aesthetics' science as well. pp. 284-85

On how evidence of telepathy contributes to theology:
[It provides an analogy to our having] a direct experience of the mind or soul of the universe. [since any telepathy is experience of one mind by another]. In our experience of God . . . there would be no "distance" involved, assuming as do both traditional theism and panentheism, the all-pervasiveness of God. p. 286.
About the relationship between parapsychological and other experiences:
Parapsychology . . . provides an analogy for suspecting that they represent merely an extreme form of experience that is being enjoyed all the time. What is usually called "extrasensory perception," accordingly, is probably unusual only in that occasionally this constant direct nonsensory prehension of other minds or things rises to the conscious portion of one's experience. By analogy, we would be having direct experiences of the Holy Reality all the time. Those very rare experiences in which we have a religious experience in the strong sense, a numinous experience, would be unusual only in rising, in those rare moments, to consciousness. The constant but generally unconscious experience of God could account, then, for our presupposition, even if we consciously affirm otherwise, that there is something of ultimate intrinsic worth. This idea, incidentally, would fit with James's thesis that the kinds of experiences reported in The Varieties of Religious Experience are simply extreme versions of experiences common to everyone.

This experience of the divine experience, analogous to telepathic experience of other finite minds, may also be important for moral experience beyond the way mentioned abave. There I spoke of our prehension of God's appetitive envisagement of values, what Whitehead called God's "primordial nature." Abraham Heschel has suggested that the Hebrew prophets spoke out of an experience of the divine "pathos," God's suffering with the poor and opressed. This idea corresponds with Whitehead's suggestion that we can also have a prehension of God's "consequent nature," which is God's sympathetic response to the world: God's delight in the joys of the creatures and compassion with their sufferings. Parapsychologists can allow us to take Heschel's suggestion more seriously than we otherwise might. . . . pp. 286-87.


For a simple presentation of prehension, see Intuition and Then Some, from Spring 2000 New Thought.

For some Whiteheadian terms other than prehension, see Whiteheadian Terminology.

John B. Cobb, Jr., "Prehension"

Brief Excerpts from Whitehead and Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne's Psychicalism [panpsychism]

Panpsychism

A Practical Spirituality: Process New Thought

Process Philosophy and the New Thought Movement, with links to other process sites

Healing in a Process New Thought Perspective

New Thought Movement Home Page

Created Jan. 6, 2000, and neweverymoment.com copy added Nov. 11, 2000
by Alan Anderson
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Latest update Sept. 25, 2002