Whiteheadian Terminology

Alan Anderson

This is a collection of statements that may help to clarify a comparatively small number of terms employed by, and generally originated by, Alfred North Whitehead. I have tried to arrange them in a way that would lead from one topic to another, rather than alphabetically, but I doubt that the arrangement makes much difference. I have put my extreme simplifications of some terms in parentheses immediately after their listing.

Actual entities (The living bursts of energy that are feelings that make up the universe; in my simplified terminology, experiences. See panpsychism.)

William A. Christian writes in his An Interpretation of Whitehead's Metaphysics (Yale, 1959), pp. 12-13:

Actual entities are the real things (res verae of which the universe is made up. An actual entity is an experiencing subject and is constituted by its experience. Its experience is its real internal constitution. . . .

The term actual entity applies either to God or to an actual occasion. God and actual occasions are alike actual entities. God differs from actual occasions in two important ways: (a) The data of the conceptual prehensions of actual occasions are abstracted from the data of physical prehensions. Thus every actual occasion originates "physically." God's conceptual prehensions, on the other hand, are underbid or primordial and constitute his primordial nature. This is his timeless "envisagement" of the multiplicity of eternal objects. God's physical prehensions are his experience of concrete actual occasions and constitute his consequent nature. Whitehead means to say God is one concrete actual entity, not two actual entities, for either "nature" considered apart from the other is an abstraction. (b) Every actual occasion is of limited duration. It is literally an occasion. When its concrescence has been completed it "perishes" or ceases to exist as an experiencing subject. God, however, does not "perish." He exists at all times as an experiencing subject. That is to say, God is everlasting. [However, Charles Hartshorne and some other process thinkers believe that God is a succession of experiences, as we are, in what I call "serial selfhood"]

Donald W. Sherburne, A Key to Whitehead's Process and Reality (Macmillan, 1966), Glossary (arranged alphabetically, and containing many more terms than are given on this site) from which all Sherburne quotations below are taken.

Actual entity--" 'Actual entities'--also termed 'actual occasions'--are the final real things of which the world is made up" [P(rocess) (and) R(eality) 27]. Like the atoms of Democritus they are microcosmic entities, aggregates of which, termed societies or nexus, form the macrocosmic entities of our everyday experience--trees, houses, people. But whereas the atoms of Democritus are inert, imperishable, material stuff, Whitehead's actual entities are vital, transient "drops of experience, complex and interdependent" [PR 28]. To hold that the final real things of which the world is made up are drops of experience is not to imply that consciousness permeates inanimate nature; for consciousness can characterize only extremely sophisticated actual entities, and actual entities have the potentiality for the sophistication productive of consciousness only when they are members of extremely complex societies such as the society we call the human brain. . . .

Actual entities, then, are units of process, and the title Process and Reality is meant to indicate that for Whitehead these microcosmic units of process are the final realities--" there is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real" [PR 27-28]. On the other hand, to mistakenly consider an aggregate of actual entities as a final reality is to commit the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness [see below]; Descartes was guilty of this fallacy when he identified mind and matter as two distinct kinds of reality.

An actual entity is "the unity to be ascribed to a particular instance of concrescence" [PR 323]. A concrescence is a growing together of the remnants of the perishing past into the vibrant immediacy of a novel, present unity. An actual entity endures but an instant--the instant of its becoming, its active process of self-creation out of the elements of the perishing past--and then it, too, perishes and as objectively immortal becomes dead datum for succeeding generations of actual entities. The concrescence of an actual entity begins with a passive, receptive moment when the givenness of the past is thrust upon it; it then completes its becoming through a series of creative supplemental phases that adjust, integrate, and perhaps modify the given data. In simple actual entities there is mere reiteration of the given; they are "vehicles for receiving, for storing in a napkin, and for restoring without loss or gain" [PR 269]. Sophisticated actual entities enjoy a complex inheritance as a result of their social involvement, and this complexity of inheritance begets originality in the supplemental phases as the means for achieving integration and unity.

Actual occasion--For all practical purposes the phrases actual occasion and actual entity are interchangeable. Whitehead notes only one difference: the word occasion implies a spatio-temporal location. God is the one nontemporal actual entity. Hence Whitehead observes that "the term 'actual occasion' will always exclude God from its scope" [PR 135]. It is true, however, that even though "the term 'actual occasion' is used synonymously with ‘actual entity' "[PR 119], the use of actual occasion should alert one to the likelihood that the "character of extensiveness has some direct relevance to the discussion, either extensiveness in the form of temporal extensiveness, that is to say 'duration,' or extensiveness in the form of spatial extension, or in the more complete signification of spatio-temporal extensiveness" [PR 119].

Eternal objects

Christian, p. 13:

Eternal objects are pure potentials. They are in fundamental contrast with actual entities. In themselves they do not determine in what actual entities they are ingredient. This is what is meant by saying that they are "pure" potentials. They are merely possible forms of definiteness. Prehensions of eternal objects are called conceptual prehensions, in contrast with prehensions of actual entities, which are called physical prehensions.


Eternal object--"Any entity whose conceptual recognition does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world is called an 'eternal object'" [PR 70]. Eternal objects are forms of definiteness capable of specifying the character of actual entities; they are "Pure Potentials for the Specific Determination of Fact" [PR 32]. An actual entity's process of becoming is a process of acquiring definiteness by a series of decisions to select or reject various forms of definiteness (eternal objects). "The determinate definiteness of each actuality is an expression of a selection from these forms. It grades them in a diversity of relevance" [PR 69]. It is the actual entities that do the selecting and rejecting: "an eternal object is always a potentiality for actual entities; but in itself, as conceptually felt, it is neutral as to the fact of its physical ingression in any particular actual entity of the temporal world" [PR 70].

Any given actual entity does not make its decisions with utter freedom. "An actual entity arises from decisions for it and by its very existence provides decisions for other actual entities which supersede it" [PR 68]. The past, from which it inherits, presents it with certain forms of definiteness that it is compelled to reiterate. "Some conformation is necessary as a basis of vector transition, whereby the past is synthesized with the present. The one eternal object in its two-way function, as a determinant of the datum and as a determinant of the subjective form, is thus relational. . . . An eternal object when it has ingression through its function of objectifying the actual world, so as to present the datum for prehension, is functioning 'datively'" [PR 249].

To be an individual, concrete fact each actual entity must assume some determinate form; this it does by means of its decisions as to which eternal objects it will permit, and which eternal objects it will not permit, to become ingredient in its con-crescence. The process, the becoming involved in the decision of an actual entity is one with its very being; eternal objects, on the other hand, are essentially aloof from change in that it is of their essence to be eternal. But they are involved in change in the sense that the very process of becoming that is any given actual occa-sion is the process of determining, via selected eternal objects, the specific character, the kind of definiteness, that will make that actual entity what it will be. "The actualities constituting the process of the world are conceived as exemplifying the ingression (or 'participation') of other things which constitute the potentiali-ties of definiteness for any actual existence. The things which are temporal arise by their participation in the things which are eternal" [PR 63].

This sounds Platonic, and to a degree it is meant to be. Whitehead distinguishes between eternal objects of the subjective species and eternal objects of the objective species, and explicitly states that "eternal objects of the objective species are the mathematical platonic forms" [PR 446]. These forms are objective in the sense that they are "an element in the definiteness of some objectified nexus, or of some single actual entity which is a datum of a feeling" [PR 445]. An eternal object of the subjective species is subjective in the sense that it is "an element in the definiteness of the subjective form of a feeling. . . . It is an emotion, or an intensity, or an adversion, or an aversion, or a pleasure, or a pain" [PR 446]. Whitehead's scheme is not Platonic in that it does not allow an eminent reality to the realm of eternal objects. The ontological principle assigns to actual entities reality in the fullest sense of the term, and here Whitehead embodies Aristotle's protest against Plato's "other worldliness." But, by the ontological principle, "everything must be some-where; and here 'somewhere' means 'some actual entity.' Accord-ingly the general potentiality of the universe [i.e., the realm of eternal objects] must be somewhere; since it retains its proximate relevance to actual entities for which it is unrealized. . . . This somewhere' is the non-temporal actual entity. Thus 'proximate relevance' means 'relevance as in the primordial mind of God'" [PR 73]. . . .

Creativity (The fact that endlessly the past is blended with the possible in order to make new units of reality.)

Christian, p. 13:

Creativity is Whitehead's term for the most fundamental character of actuality. Creativity is not an individual thing and has no status apart from actual entities. By saying that creativity is "ultimate," Whitehead seems to mean at least two things: (a) He means that any actual entity, whether God or an actual occasion, is not altogether derived from something else. There is an underived element in every actual entity. Every actual entity, not only God, is in some degree self-creative or causa sui. (b) He means that every actual entity is in some degree novel. The novelty of a actual entity is the uniqueness which results from its self-creativity. It is an essentially new unity of experience. Having in mind both of these meanings, it seems fair to say that an alternative expression for creativity might be "originality," in the fullest and most radical sense of the word.


Creativity is one of three notions involved in what Whitehead calls the Category of the Ultimate; this category expresses the general principle presupposed by all other aspects of the philosophy of organism (Whitehead's name for his own position). The other two notions involved are many and one.

Whitehead's philosophy is a process philosophy, and the notion of creativity is crucial to an understanding of process. The basic presupposition of the whole system is ongoingness: generation after generation of actual entities succeeding one another without end. Creativity expresses that ultimate fact about actual entities that makes ongoingness intelligible.

The principle of creativity enunciates the following relationships between many and one: (1) at any instant the universe constitutes a disjunctively diverse many; (2) "it lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity" [PR 31]; (3) the novel one that results from this unification, this concrescence, is truly novel—i.e., it stands over and against what has been urnfied and as such is disjunctively diverse from the items it has unified; and (4) there is here the same situation from which the process began (i.e., a disjunctive diversity) and it therefore repeats itself "to the crack of doom in the creative advance from creature to creature" [PR 347]. "The ultimate metaphysical principle is the advance from disjunction to conjunction, creating a novel entity other than the entities given in disjunction" [PR 32].

Whitehead's understanding of creativity does not do violence to the ontological principle; creativity is not, nor does it point to, some kind of entity or being more real than actual entities. It is, rather, descriptive of the most fundamental relationships participated in by all actual entities. "'Creativity' is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact" [PR 311]. . . .



Concrescence is the name given to the process that is any given actual entity; it is "the real internal constitution of a particular existent" [PR 320]. Concrescence is the growing together of a many into the unity of a one. (See CREATIVITY.) The initial phase of a concrescence is composed of the separate feelings of the disjunctively diverse entities that make up the actual world of the actual entity in question. Subsequent phases effect the growing together, the concrescence, of these many separate feelings into one unity of feeling, which is termed the satisfaction of that actual entity. "Concrescence' is the name for the process in which the universe of many things acquires an individual unity in a determinate relegation of each item of the 'many' to its subordination in the constitution of the novel 'one'" [PR 321]. With the attaining of its satisfaction an actual entity is completed and perishes--i.e., it becomes a datum for fresh instances of concrescence. . . .

Prehension (The connective tissue of reality; the feeling, inclusion, of one mind [experience] by another.)

Objective immortality (The endless status of a completed experience, after it has finished constituing itself and no longer is aware, but is an influence on experiences that develop after it did.)


Objective immortality--"The attainment of a peculiar definiteness is the final cause which animates a particular process; and its attainment halts its process, so that by transcendence it passes into its objective immortality as a new objective condition added to the riches of definiteness attainable, the 'real potentiality' of the universe" [PR 340].

Simple location (Nothing is isolated, simply being in itself, as it would be as if there were simple location.)

Peter A. Angeles, The HarperCollins Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., 1992.

simple location, fallacy of a phrase coined by Whitehead to refer to what he regarded as fallacious: the belief that reality consists of bits of matter isolated from each other at give locations in space and time.

Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead (Johns Hopkins, 1962), p. 227:

. . . no element in our perceptual knowledge has the characteristic of being "simply located" in space and time (this "simple location" being the defining characteristic of matter, and being "the very foundation of the seventeenth century scheme of nature" [Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 81].

Whitehead, Process and Reality, Macmilan, 1929, p. 208; corrected ed., Free Press, 1978, p. 137:

This presupposition of individual independence is what I have elsewhere called, the 'fallacy of simple location.'
Charles Hartshorne, "Panpsychism," in Vergilius Ferm, A History of Philosophical Systems (Philosophical Library, 1950), p. 443:
[A]s Whitehead has most clearly seen--individuals generally are not simply outside each other (the fallacy of "simple location") but in each other, and God's inclusion of all things is merely the extreme or super-case of the social relativity or mutual immanence of indviduals.

Fallacy of misplaced concreteness (Mistaking the abstract for the concrete.)


concreteness, fallacy of misplaced the phrase coined by Alfred North Whitehead to refer to what he considered the fallacy of taking an abstract characteristic and dealing with it as if it were what reality was like in its concrete form.

A. H. Johnson, in his Whitehead's Theory of Reality, pp. 150-51:

Misplaced Concreteness

In criticizing the work of previous thinkers, Whitehead points to a persistent tendency on the part of many to perpetrate the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. This, as the title indicates, consists in mistaking the abstract for the concrete. More specifically it involves setting up distinctions which disregard the genuine interconnections of things. For example, (a) the old-fashioned "faculty psychology" discussed mere awareness, mere private sensation, mere emotion, mere purpose–each a separate and distinct faculty. (b) Another general illustration of this error is the fallacy of Simple Location. This fallacy occurs when one assumes that in expressing the space and time relations of a bit of matter it is unnecessary to say more than that it is present in a specific position in space at a specific time. It is Whitehead's contention that it is absolutely essential to refer to other regions of space and other durations of time. Whitehead expresses this idea more clearly and briefly by stating that simple location means a mutually exclusive "individual independence." (C) A third general illustration of the fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness is the Substance-Quality concept. This is the notion that each real entity is absolutely separate and distinct from every other real entity, and that the qualities of each have no essential relation to the qualities of others.

As has been said, Whitehead objects to these three variations of the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness because they involve a "break up" of the real continuity of experience. He admits the practical usefulness of these fallacies. His objection is to the use of these patterns of thought without recognizing their serious deficiencies. Whitehead suggests that this approach is useful in metaphysical speculation only with reference to the "subjective form." If the notion of simple location is taken seriously (in general) the reality of temporal duration is denied. Memory and induction become hopeless mysteries. If the subject (substance) - predicate (quality) notion is accepted uncritically the subject is confined to a private world of experience. Solipsism is inescapable. Whitehead also notes that frequently the substance-quality form of thought involves the notion of "vacuous actuality"; that is, there is a denial of subjective experience to the ultimate realities.

See Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Macmillan, 1925, ch. 3, esp. pp. 75 and 77; Free Press pp. 51 and 52.



Metaphysics, or 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. By this notion of ‘interpretation' I mean that everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme. . . . The true method of philosophical construction is to frame a scheme of ideas, the best that one can, and unflinchingly to explore the interpretation of experience in terms of that scheme" [PR 4, x].

Whitehead uses the adjective metaphysical when discussing characteristics of actual entities that are completely general. "The metaphysical characteristics of an actual entity--in the proper general sense of 'metaphysics'--should be those which apply to all actual entities" [PR 138]. There is no hint of dogmatism in Whitehead's attitude: "It may be doubted whether such metaphysical concepts have ever been formulated in their strict purity--even taking into account the most general principles of logic and of mathematics. We have to confine ourselves to societies sufficiently wide, and yet such that their defining characteristics cannot safely be ascribed to all actual entities which have been or may be. . . . In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dog matic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly" [PR 138-139, x].

Ontological principle


Ontological principle--The ontological principle asserts that "every condition to which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance, has its reason either in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence, or in the character of the subject which is in process of concrescence. . . . According to the ontological principle there is nothing which floats into the world from nowhere" [PR 36, 373]. God is a part of the actual world of every actual occasion, and he includes in his primordial nature the realm of eternal objects. "By this recognition of the divine element the general Aristotelian principle is maintained that, apart from things that are actual, there is nothing—nothing either in fact or in efficacy. . . . Thus the actual world is built up of actual occasions; and by the ontological principle whatever things there are in any sense of 'existence,' are derived by abstraction from actual occasions" [PR 64, 113].

For more on prehension, see Prehension.


Charles Hartshorne's Psychicalism [panpsychism]

Brief Excerpts from Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne

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

A Practical Spirituality: Process New Thought

Healing in a Process New Thought Perspective

New Thought Movement Home Page

Created Jan. 6, 2000, by Alan Anderson, Contact Info.

Latest update Feb. 20, 2000