an excerpt from Whitehead Word Book: A Glossary with Alphabetical Index to Technical Terms in Process and Reality
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Actual occasions are the actual entities of which the world, meaning thereby this cosmos and any other cosmos that may have been, may now be, or may come to be, is composed. This is a sharp challenge to most of the Western tradition and to the “common sense” inculcated in us by our language. When we say, “the dog barks,” or “the rug is blue,” most of us think of the dog and the rug as actual entities. Whitehead disagrees. To understand his thought we must shift from giving priority to what most of our nouns, such as “dog” and “rug” designate to the experience of the one who hears the barking of the dog or sees the blueness of the rug. The dog-as-barking and the rug-as-blue are abstractions from the experience of the individual who is hearing or seeing. It is the experience of the individual that is fully actual. However, once we understand what kind of thing is actual, we can find actuality also in the barking dog and the blue rug. With the barking dog it is easier. Common sense suggests that the dog is not exhausted by an observer’s hearing the barking. The dog also has a point of view. At any given moment there is the dog’s experience as well as the observer’s. The dog’s experience, in each moment, is just as much an actual occasion as is the experience of the human observer. If we go further than that, we get into questions of physics and chemistry that are best dealt with in a different context, that of quantum physics. For Whitehead there are also quantum events. These, too, are actual occasions. Since everything is composed of them, anyone who believes there really is a world must accord them actuality. Whitehead affirms they are events, but he needs to specify that they are occasions, because events come in all sizes.
A war is an event. So is a conversation. But a war or a conversation can be analyzed into the smaller events of which it is composed. Whitehead believes that this process of breaking down larger events into the smaller events of which they are composed must somewhere come to an end. He sometimes writes of electronic and protonic occasions in these terms. But more generally we should think of a quantum of energy as where we arrive at that end. Quanta are now the “atoms” in the original sense of not further divisible units.
The two clearest examples of actual occasions are, thus, a momentary experience, whether of a human being or of some other animal, and a quantum of energy. By giving them the same name, Whitehead calls attention to what, with all their differences, they have in common. First, we may point out what they are not. They are not “matter” in the Greek or the modern sense. That is, they are not passive recipients of form or action. They act to constitute themselves as what they become. Second, they become what they become out of a given world. What they are is largely a function of what other things are. In the case of the quantum, it is what it is largely because of the quantum field in which it occurs. In the case of a moment of human experience, it is what it is largely because of the character and content of antecedent human experiences and the neuronal events in the brain. But the principle of uncertainty in the case of the quanta and our awareness of an element of choosing indicate that, however much it is limited by the past, an actual occasion does decide exactly what it will become. Also, in both instances, what it becomes informs future actual occasions. An actual occasion is acted on, it acts in its own synthesizing of its data, and it acts in future occasions. The word “actual” is rich in meaning. The word “occasion” also distinguishes Whitehead’s view of what is actual from many others. Most languages lead their users to suppose that an act requires an actor distinguishable from the act. The actor is normally thought of as acting more than once. This implies that the actor’s “self” endures through time and expresses itself in a succession of acts. Similarly, what receives influences from the past is thought of as something distinct from those influences. The idea of a substance that is acted on and acts is hard to eradicate from our thought. But Whitehead calls us to just such an eradication. An occasion is not something substantial being acted on and acting. It comes into being as the act of receiving and of self constitution. In the case of the quantum we cannot get beyond the energy-event to a particle that is being acted on or acting. If there is a “particle,” it is constituted by a succession of actual occasions. Physical things like stones or trees are finally made up of actual occasions. They are not the ultimate actors but rather the outcome of many individual actions of actual occasions. Similarly, an occasion of human experience is not to be understood as a person experiencing. There is no person beneath or behind the experiencing. The act of taking the past into account and constituting itself with a view to the future is the actual occasion. The person is constituted as a long series of such occasions growing out of one another and out of the body.
Cobb Jr, John B. Whitehead Word Book: A Glossary with Alphabetical Index to Technical Terms in Process and Reality (Toward Ecological Civilization Book 8) . Process Century Press. Kindle Edition.
Want the Bigger Picture?
If you are especially interested in the details of Whitehead's philosophy as articulated in Process and Reality, there are six concepts you might want begin with: (1) actual occasions as the fundamental units of reality, (2) eternal objects as pure potentialities, (3) prehensions as what holds the universe together, (4) concrescence as the activity of experiencing a world, (5) creativity as the ultimate reality, and (6) God as the eternal companion of the universe. And you can find no better interpreter of these six ideas than John B. Cobb, Jr. in his Whitehead Word Book. Click on these links for excerpts.