Process and Essence


by William H. Leue, PhD.

The title of this paper is inspired by Whitehead's Process and Reality, and the subject of this paper is a problem which immediately confronts any attempt to understand Whitehead's metaphysics. It is also a problem which has haunted the whole history of metaphysical thought.

The general form of this problem is how to reconcile the Heraclitean and the Parmenidean aspects of things - change and permanence, the fluid and the static, becoming and being, the actual and the potential, the temporal and the eternal. Not all of these distinctions coincide, of course, but they all express oppositions and tensions around which the basic issues with which I am here concerned have clustered.

In terms of Whitehead's philosophy, my specific problem is how to reconcile his emphases on both temporal process and eternal and unchanging essences. Whitehead embraces each of these notions and seems to make each somewhat extreme. On the process side, the primary metaphysical entity for Whitehead is the "actual occasion." Actual occasions constitute the existing world, they are the foci of tremendously dynamic and yet fleeting and evanescent processes. Each actual occasion must generate a perspective on the entire actual and possible world. It is a world-creating process; and yet it is also but a momentary pulsation of existence, a minimal event, which may center in a grain of sand or in a lonely hydrogen atom out in deep space. Furthermore, its internal activity is described by Whitehead as "feeling," a term traditionally associated with vague, subjective, flowing and ephemeral states. Actual occasions are Whitehead's primary and central metaphysical notion, but his major secondary emphasis is his appeal to immutable, static essences; his invocation of what he calls the "realm of eternal objects." I shall try to show that these two metaphysical poles in Whitehead's philosophy are not incompatible, though many philosophical traditions and many critics of Whitehead assume that they are. I contend, on the contrary, that each pole is incomplete and probably unintelligible without the other, and that both are needed for an adequate process philosophy.

Whitehead claims allegiance with those recent philosophers who have been the strongest advocates of process‚ and the strongest foes of static forms and a priori certainties. He says,‚ I am also greatly indebted to Bergson, William James and John Dewey. One of my preoccupations has been to rescue their type of philosophy from the charge of anti-intellectualism which, rightly or wrongly, has been associated with it.

It is my contention that Whitehead invokes eternal objects partly for the purpose of implementing this rescue.

In order fully to see the scope of the problem involved, however, it is necessary to note some of the claims that Whitehead makes for process. According to him, we find in actual process not only efficient causation but also final causes, growth and decay, cognitive processes, generation of novelty, and creative synthesis.

Furthermore, Whitehead claims that all of these aspects are essential to concrete existence. And so must be found to some extent in every event, even though it takes place in a lump of inert clay. Furthermore, it is clear that Whitehead means that the generation of novelty and creative synthesis of actual process must produce something essentially new - :"novel" characters and orders, not just small deviations from type.

Now, the realm of eternal objects would seem to be a reservoir of all possible properties and characteristics, even those which have never yet been seen on land or sea. How to reconcile emphasis on the creative nature of process with the static completeness of eternal objects: that is the most difficult aspect of the problem before us. ...