The Outsider’s Guide to the Philosophy of Whitehead, Part 4

The Outsider’s Guide to the Philosophy of Whitehead, Part 4

Ophelia among the Flowers, by Odilon Redon

Imagination is the power of prehension; without it, man would be an imbecile, without memory, without forethought, without power of interpreting what he sees and feels. The higher the form of life, the greater its power of prehension; and in man, prehension becomes a conscious faculty, which can be labelled imagination.1

I can’t tear myself away from this quote from Colin Wilson! It is so fertile, so alive with meaning, so full of power in the Nietzschean sense that I must grasp its implications. It drives my renewed interest in Alfred North Whitehead, the creator of this notion. I have studied the human imagination for over twenty years, gleaning knowledge mostly from Carl Jung and James Hillman, but I have never been as excited about the meaning and purpose of the creative potential of imagination as I am at this moment.

I have been confused as to the meaning of the term “prehension.” But just today, while reading a book called Tragic Beauty in Whitehead and Japanese Aesthetics, by Steve Odin, it suddenly seemed to open up to me. Now, I think I know why Wilson equates prehension with imagination, and why it is one of the most profound ideas ever conceived by the human mind. You see, when we prehend, we create, and we are prehending/creating constantly. And the more willing we are to give ourselves to creation, the more creative novelty we bring into this world. Moreover, when we do so, we create more freedom in the universe. But we must be conscientious and concentrate on action. It is our willing action toward creativity that will create more freedom and more novelty. American philosopher and process theologian, Charles Hartshorne, said, “To be is to create. . . . In every moment each of us accomplishes a remarkable creative act. What do we create? Our own experience at that moment.”2

Creativity is Whitehead’s Category of the Ultimate.3 Odin writes:

It can be said that Whitehead’s notion of creativity represents a paradigm shift in the history of Western metaphysics. The Category of the Ultimate (creativity, many, one) states that the ultimate metaphysical principle of creativity is an act of unifying the many into a new one with patterned harmonic contrast toward the aim at realizing a novel occasion of experience with aesthetic value.4

Prehension is the process that occurs when we are unifying the many into the one (which we are doing continuously), the resulting unity being a total novelty that has never existed before. The willed action of “creative synthesis” is a constructive act “which unifies diverse multiplicity into a novel unity directed toward achieving maximum intensity of directly felt pervasive aesthetic value quality.”5 What Whitehead calls “concrescence” is this “creative synthesis.” When Colin Wilson speaks of the “craving for greater intensity of imagination,” he means the “further development of the power of prehension.”6

Odin goes on to discuss a statement made by American philosopher, Stephen C. Pepper (1891-1972):

In his essay “Whitehead’s ‘Actual Occasion'” (1961b), S.C. Pepper argues that Whitehead’s metaphysics of actual occasions with directly felt aesthetic quality is based on a new root metaphor, that of creativity, or the creative act. According to Pepper, the new root metaphor or primary analogate of Whitehead’s actual occasion is a “creative purposive act such as that of an artist, inventor, or imaginative scientist” (1961b, 86). Each occasion is an original act of artistic creativity in that it creates itself as a novel, emergent, and transitory occasion of experience with the consummatory satisfaction of directly felt aesthetic quality.7

This is just an amazing statement. To think that all entities, especially humans, who possess the greatest power of prehension, are from moment to moment self-creating. In humans, this can be far-reaching, depending on how much attention, concentration, and self-discipline you decide to exercise. In order to become a highly-developed human being, you must exert your power of will; you must decide that you have amazing intrinsic value to the universe, and then do something about it. In your experiencing of all things, of the “disjunctive diversity,” exercise your creativity and bring the many into the “one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively.”8 That actual occasion that you have created will be unlike any that has ever existed. Whitehead says, “Creativity is the principle of novelty.”9

Again Charles Hartshorne sheds light on the process of prehension:

Let me restate the basic argument: the stimuli moulding an experience are many: the five or more senses are operating, memory is relating us, at least unconsciously, to thousands of incidents of the past: but all this multiplicity of influence is to produce a single unitary experience, yours or mine right now, let us say. The effect is one; the causes however, are many, literally hundreds of thousands, billions even, considering the cells in our brain, for example. This vast multitude of factors must flow together to produce a single new entity, the experience of the moment. The many stimuli are given, and certainly they tell us much about the response. But it is a logical impossibility that they should tell us all. An emergent synthesis is needed, to decide just how each item is to blend in a single complex sensory-emotional-intellectual whole. . . . To experience is a free act or nothing intelligible.10

You can see now why the Renaissance masters of memory, such as Bruno, were such powerful creators. Their vast memory systems provided an amazing amount of data, the “disjunctive diversity,” the raw material for a creative synthesis to be carried out. But not only memory data, but data from the five senses, or perhaps more, depending on how well your extrasensory perception is honed. All this flowing into the mix, like a black hole sucking everything it can grasp into itself. I don’t think we realize who we are, what we can do. Humans are creators. Just imagine for a second what masses of creators could do with the problems of the world if we would just exercise our wills and act.




Odin, Steve. Tragic Beauty in Whitehead and Japanese Aesthetics. Lexington: New York, 2016.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. MacMillan: New York, 1929

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

  1. Religion and the Rebel, 318
  2. qtd. in Tragic Beauty, 34
  3. Process and Reality, 21
  4. Tragic Beauty, 32
  5. ibid.
  6. Religion and the Rebel, 319
  7. Tragic Beauty, 33, italics mine
  8. Process and Reality, 21
  9. ibid.
  10. qtd. in Tragic Beauty, 34

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