“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them”.
- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality
John Cobb on Eternal Objects
To get into the right ballpark, we can begin by saying that mathematical forms and formulae are eternal objects and that qualities of all kinds are eternal objects. E=mc2 is an eternal object; so is a definite shade of yellow. These eternal objects are directly illustrated in our world—in quite different ways. Anything that can be abstracted from experience and then can recur is an eternal object. There are also eternal objects that have never been actualized and never will be. A seven-dimensional space, also, is an eternal object, in that it can be thought about by mathematicians.
- John Cobb, Whitehead Word Book
The Platonic Side of Whitehead: A Personal Appreciation
Three cheers for the Platonic side of Whitehead. Or at least two cheers. I'm speaking of that side of Whitehead's thought, developed in Process and Reality, that speaks approvingly of two timeless realities: (1) the non-temporal pure potentialities, otherwise called eternal objects which may or may not be actualized in the universe and (2) the timeless side of God's primordial nature that envisions them. It is interesting that these two are co-eternal. It's not clear that, for Whitehead, God "creates" the eternal objects. They are already there for God to behold. I am reminded of the Pythagorean tradition that saw things in a similar way. For my part, I appreciate this non-process side of Whitehead because it speaks to a side of human experience that leans into the Eternal and provides a bridge to countless traditions across the world, philosophical and mystical, that are likewise attentive to something timeless in the nature of things.
Of course I know that many process thinkers neglect or reject this side of Whitehead, and that, even for Whitehead, the timelessness of the pure potentialities (eternal objects) and of God are not more real than the actual universe itself, which is indeed in process. Moreover, the eternal objects are not normative, as they are in Plato. They are not Truth and Goodness and Beauty but rather, as John Cobb proposes, a definite shade of yellow and E=MC2 and a seven dimensional space. Whitehead's eternal objects are timeless potentialities which may or may not be actualized in the temporal universe and which reside in timeless God's mind even if not actualized.
These critics notwithstanding, I think Whitehead was wise to include the timeless within his outlook on life. An overemphasis on process is short-sighted and unwittingly "modernist" in a negative sense. A constructively postmodern approach to life will include the timeless and the temporal. When we reach toward the Eternal, we are reaching toward something that is real, even if not fully actual.
Indeed, reality may well include, as did Whitehead, "the everlasting," which is not timeless but rather temporal without end. Whitehead offers a trinity of sorts: the timeless, the temporally finite (because it involves a perishing of immediacy), and the everlasting. To be technical: (1) eternal objects as held in the primordial nature, (2) actual occasions, and (3) the consequent nature of God, which is the universe in flux, as felt and everlastingly contained and loved in the ongoing life of God. This trinity offers fruit for inter-faith dialogue and comparative philosophy that is missed if process philosophy is reduced to "process" alone.