The Outsider’s Guide to the Philosophy of Whitehead, Part 2

The Outsider’s Guide to the Philosophy of Whitehead, Part 2

Whitehead’s formulation of prehension could be one of the most important discoveries ever made by a human being, for it has the potential to totally transform mankind into what Nietzsche called Übermenschen. These are the ones who are neither masters nor slaves, who are adepts at self-discipline and self-realization, who do not lord it over their fellow humans, but bring wisdom and peace to the earth. This is what humanity may look like in the next stage of human evolution. But, on the other hand, the Übermensch need not be a literal species of future human, although he or she could be. Author, Rüdiger Safranski, writes that the image of the Übermensch “can also function as an ideal for anyone who wishes to gain power over himself and cultivate his ‘virtues,’ anyone who is creative and knows the whole spectrum of the human capacity for thought, fantasy, and imagination.”1 Colin Wilson tells us that “if life is to advance yet a stage higher, beyond the ape, beyond man the toiler or even man the artist, it will be through a further development of the power of prehension.”2 This power involves the will, self-determination, and self-mastery. Our worst enemy is ourselves. We must develop an adamantine determination in our confidence to overcome ourselves. It is mankind’s only hope. And even this will take a “further development” of prehension to get to the next stage of evolution.

Something must be said here about Wilson’s idea of evolution. He did not care for what he called Darwin’s theory of “accidental selection.” In 1957, he much preferred Lamarck’s evolutionary theory because Lamarck believed species evolved because they wanted to, because they willed it. Wilson wrote that “Lamarck held that giraffes have long necks because they wanted to develop them; that, as the food became scarcer on the lower branches of trees, the giraffes strove to reach the higher branches, and willed their necks to grow longer.”3 In 1965, in his book, Beyond the Outsider, Wilson states “man is able to take his evolution into his own hands,” but only on the level of mind.4 In 1965, he admits that “post-Mendelian biology has confirmed the Darwinian position”5 of natural selection. Wilson certainly realizes by this time that Lamarckian evolution is obsolete. The point of all this, however, is that Wilson believes in a purposive form of human evolution, at least in the area of consciousness. Man “cannot be contented with purposes that come from outside; he hungers for an inner drive.”6

Wilson believes the idea of prehension is the nexus between Whitehead’s philosophy and existentialism. Whitehead’s thought also connects to the idea of Bildung in Goethe. Michael Bell says that Bildung is “a post-religious, Enlightenment ideal of humane self-cultivation forming a rounded personality by imbibing a range of experience, knowledge and skills.”7 Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novels are good examples of this kind of literary idea. Now, we must find out what prehension really entails.

Wilson quotes a passage from Whitehead’s book, Modes of Thought:

. . . the notion of life implies a certain absoluteness of self-enjoyment. This must mean a certain immediate individuality, which is a complex process of appropriating into a unity of existence the many data presented as relevant by the physical processes of nature. Life implies the absolute, individual self-enjoyment arising out of this process of appropriation. I have, in my recent writings, used the word ‘prehension’ to express this process of appropriation.8

Gary Lachman draws an even better picture of how prehension operates in the human consciousness:

For Whitehead, prehension is a much more active process than perception. Perception in our common understanding is a passive process. I open my eyes and look out my window and see a tree. In this scenario my consciousness passively reflects the tree, as a mirror would. With prehension, consciousness “does not merely see something; it actively grasps and digests; the process is active, like the stomach digesting food, not passive, like receiving a slap.”Think of listening to music. I can have it on in the background and its melodies accompany whatever I am doing. A tune may get through to me here and there, but I am not really attending to it. My relation to it is passive. Then think of what happens when I recognize a melody from a favorite piece of music. I focus my attention. The music becomes richer; its meaning “spreads out,” as it were, and stimulates memories. It enters me more deeply and I can find myself moved by it. This is prehension; I take the experience into myself and digest it. I absorb it and it becomes part of me, just as my food does. I participate with the experience, rather than passively having it.9

These last two sentences provide an excellent image of how prehension works. One “takes” an experience into oneself and digests it. This is an act of conscious, deliberate action. Once one absorbs the experience, there is a period of rumination and digestion, eventually assimilating into one’s body and mind. This involves an act of participation.

I would like to return to the Terence McKenna quote in the last article for a moment and try and see if we can unpack it. It’s very thick. I thought it would help if I provided a bit more of the quote to get a more contextual look at what he is trying to say. Here it is:

I think it’s that there are ways to push the mind by extraordinary pharmacological encounters or stress into a kind of higher dimensional space. This would be sort of like the idea that the indeterminacy that adheres to matter at the quantum mechanical level, the fact that it displays itself as particle or wave depending on the questions being asked – that that fundamental indeterminacy apparently has to be amplified through every level of nature, including the human level. So that when you get to ourselves, the mystery of ourselves is the particulate, finite and dissolving body and the intuition of the unseen wave like infinite spirit, the indwelling entelechy that creates the cohesion of the nexus of actual occasions that is the coordinated prehension of an organic system, right?10

Let’s see what nuggets we can extract from this very deep gold mine. McKenna is discussing the precognitive abilities of shamans, and how they use  “pharmacological encounters” to elevate consciousness, into what he calls a “higher dimensional space.” Shamans, indeed, ingest certain chemicals to invoke visionary states where precognition sometimes occurs. Then, he begins to compare this with indeterminacy at the quantum level, whether electrons act as either particle or wave, depending on what the observer is asking. He is saying that the indeterminacy is amplified “through every level of nature, including the human level.” The mystery of the human is “the indwelling entelechy,” which could be interpreted as the soul, or the Imagination, capital “I.” The mystery also includes the “dissolving body,” finite, and particulate. Upon our death, our bodies begin to dissolve back to the earth from which they came, back into subatomic particles. The soul, however, “creates the cohesion, or what Whitehead calls the “concrescence,” of “actual occasions,” through the process of prehension. Apparently, McKenna intuits a correlation between the human person and the subatomic particle. Both can appear as particle and wave, the appearance as wave corresponding to the entelechy, soul, or “infinite spirit,” and the appearance as particle corresponding to the physical body. It’s not dualistic because, at the quantum level, all things are interconnected. This is how reality really is. McKenna is always full of surprises. I am not of the opinion that one must ingest pharmaceuticals to enter a state of elevated consciousness, but it certainly does occur. From my own personal experiences in the 1970’s, I do not think it is a safe route to take. That’s just me. I’m not certain I am correct in my interpretation of this passage. It definitely opened a door of perception for me.

Now, if we think of what Gary Lachman says above about prehension, it creates an interesting comparison:

I take the experience into myself and digest it. I absorb it and it becomes part of me, just as my food does. I participate with the experience, rather than passively having it.11

The creation of, as McKenna says, “the nexus of actual occasions” requires an act of the will to “participate with the experience,” to absorb it until it becomes part of you. This is not for lazy people who sit around and watch TV all the time. Prehension works automatically up to a certain level of human maturity. Afterwards, it requires conscious, purposive action in order for development to continue.


Works Cited

Michael Bell, « Goethe and Lawrence: Bildung and Wholeness. », Études Lawrenciennes [Online], 47 | 2016, Online since 06 December 2016, connection on 19 August 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.268

Lachman, Gary. Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (pp. 124-125). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Psychedelic ‘Religious’ Agenda. lecture by Terence McKenna, 1993. Transcribed by Dominator Culture.

Safranski, Rudiger. Nietzsche: a Philosophical Biography. Trans. Shelley Frisch. New York: WW. Norton, 2002.

Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.


  1. Nietzsche, 271
  2. Religion and the Rebel, 318-319
  3. Religion and the Rebel, 115
  4. Beyond the Outsider, 123
  5. ibid.
  6. Beyond the Outsider, 125
  7.  Goethe and Lawrence: Bildung and Wholeness
  8. qtd. in Religion and the Rebel, 310
  9. Beyond the Robot, 124-125, italics mine
  10.  The Psychedelic ‘Religious’ Agenda
  11. Beyond the Robot, 125

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