The Outsider’s Guide to the Philosophy of Whitehead, Part 1

The Outsider’s Guide to the Philosophy of Whitehead, Part 1


My heroes are not the typical ones, the movie stars, sports stars, musical stars, et al. Rather, they are philosophers, writers, poets, thinkers who can all be grouped under the rubric of Outsider, to borrow from Colin Wilson. My heroes are all Outsiders. People such as Nietzsche, Jung, Dostoevsky, Goethe, and more recently Sylvia Plath, James Hillman, and Colin Wilson. These are the kinds of individuals I respect and admire most. No, they are not sports heroes, racing drivers, politicians, or men and women of commerce. Those people are all Insiders. I do not admire Insiders in the least. Most of the time, I detest them. To refresh your memory as to what constitutes a Wilsonian Outsider, it is just this:

…the Outsider is a man [or woman] who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. ‘He sees too deep and too much’, and what he sees is essentially chaos. For the bourgeois, the world is fundamentally an orderly place, with a disturbing element of the irrational, the terrifying, which his preoccupation with the present usually permits him to ignore. For the Outsider, the world is not rational, not orderly. When he asserts his sense of anarchy in the face of the bourgeois’ complacent acceptance, it is not simply the need to cock a snook at respectability that provokes him; it is a distressing sense that truth must be told at all costs, otherwise there can be no hope for an ultimate restoration of order. Even if there seems no room for hope, truth must be told.1

That being said, I believe the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead may hold the key to a twenty-first century existentialism that could metamorphose into a new religion, and that could incorporate all religions. The Outsider’s main objective is a robust spirituality that provides meaning and purpose for life. But there is also a need for a “restoration of order,” as Wilson says.

One of the topics in Religion and the Rebel that really excited me was Whitehead’s notion of prehension. I had heard the term for many years, and had studied it somewhat in my undergraduate program in Philosophy, but I’ll be honest: I didn’t understand it. Now, after researching it for the Religion and the Rebel series, I think I’ve scratched the surface, but I need a more complete understanding. Wilson really astounded me when I read this:

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. 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. This craving for greater intensity of imagination is the religious appetite.2

Before I can move forward with a fuller understanding of prehension, there are a few other Whiteheadian ideas I must assimilate. First, there is the idea of an “actual entity.” He also calls them “actual occasions.” They are the “final real things of which the world is made up.”3 Writing about something forces me to think about it until I grasp it, hence this article. The “skin example” I used in my last article from Mayra Morales’ blog clarified things somewhat for me, but I need to go deeper down this rabbit hole. 

To equate prehension with imagination is an amazing development, but I suppose this idea may be latent in Jung to a certain extent with his notion of “active imagination.” One could also place the Aristotelian idea of “entelechy” into the mix. I did manage to find a very interesting statement by ethnobotanist, Terence McKenna, that seems related:

. . . 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 . . .4

I’m getting ahead of myself, however. I must back up and be certain I can wade through the basics before I jump into the deep water. By the way, I am using Donald W. Sherburne’s, A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality, to help in  understanding Whitehead’s thick style of writing. It is good, so far, but I will use other sources to supplement. 

“Actual occasions,” or “actual entities” are the final real things the world is made of. They are not substances; they are events. Actual occasions are instances of concrescence, another Whiteheadian term, which is “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 individual ‘one.'”5 Actual occasions are simply “the unity to be ascribed to a particular instance of concrescence.”6 Whitehead mentions Locke’s phrase, “real internal constitution,” in regard to the actual occasion’s concrescence. The process of concrescence “itself is the constitution of the actual entity.”7 Collins English Dictionary defines concrescence as “a growing together of initially separate parts or organs.”8 This definition helps quite a bit to picture what occurs in the process of concrescence.

Earlier, I was reminded of when we studied Leibniz and his idea concerning monads in my undergraduate days. Whitehead is, indeed, proposing a theory of monads, but it is different than Leibniz’s. In Leibniz, the monads change. In Whitehead’s theory, “they merely become.”9 What is the difference? Leibniz’s monad is a simple substance that is indivisible. An aggregation of monads can form compound substances. In Whitehead, “each monadic creature is a mode of the process of ‘feeling’ the world, of housing the world in one unit of complex feeling, in every way determinate. Such a unit is an ‘actual occasion’; it is the ultimate creature derivative from the creative process.”10 Whitehead’s use of the word, “feeling,” is curious. It is to be understood as “a process of ‘feeling’ the many data, so as to absorb them into the unity of one individual ‘satisfaction.'” It is a term “used for the basic generic operation of passing from the objectivity of the data to the subjectivity of the actual entity in question.”11

This word ‘feeling’ is a mere technical term; but it has been chosen to suggest that functioning through which the concrescent actuality appropriates the datum so as to make it its own. A feeling appropriates elements of the universe, which in themselves are other than the subject, and absorbs these elements into the real internal constitution of its subject by synthesizing them in the unity of an emotional pattern expressive of its own subjectivity. Feelings are ‘vectors’; for they feel what is there and transform it into what is here.12

So, yes, the use of the word seems appropriate for the meaning Whitehead is intending. And, to assist in my next article, which will be primarily on prehension, Whitehead’s use of “feeling” is synonymous with “positive prehension,” which I’ll come to soon. There is also a “negative prehension.”

I have believed in a process philosophy for a long time, but never took the time to study Whitehead, except at a passing glance. Since I learned about quantum mechanics in the eighties and Heraclitus’ philosophy in the nineties, I have understood that Nature is in a process of continual flux. It makes much more sense than a static viewpoint. The Outsider requires such process to exert his or her will to power and transform himself or herself continuously, ever striving for a deeper spirituality, and deeper gnosis.

Stay tuned. More to come.



Works Cited

Collins English Dictionary.

Sherburne, Donald W, Editor. A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. MacMillan: Chicago, 1966.

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

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

Wilson, Colin. The Outsider. Diversion Books. New York, 1956. Kindle Edition.

  1. The Outsider, 15, italics mine
  2. Religion and the Rebel, 318-319
  3. A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality
  4. The Psychedelic ‘Religious’  Agenda
  5. A Key, 7
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. Collins,
  9. A Key, 8
  10. ibid.
  11. ibid.
  12. ibid

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4 thoughts on “The Outsider’s Guide to the Philosophy of Whitehead, Part 1

  1. Wow! That quote from Terrance McKenna alone could be a number of essays! I’d say the many topics & deep, deep rabbit hole that this stuff is leading you should keep you busy for a couple of lifetimes at least… I’ll try & keep up the best I can with this series but so far it’s sailing WAY over my head!

  2. I think Whitehead’s thought will be a big part of future philosophies of consciousness. I haven’t been this excited about someone’s thought since I found Jung and Hillman.

    The McKenna quote is amazing. I still don’t quite understand what he’s saying. I need to think about it more.

    I think the next article on prehension will help open it up a bit. If not, let me know. Gary Lachman writes about Whitehead in a couple of his books: Caretakers of the Cosmos and Beyond the Robot. I’ll have some of those quotes in the next installment.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. The McKenna quote has me baffled as well. I basically imagined it could be unpacked & written about for awhile… Looking forward to reading where this leads you!

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