This paper was delivered at the philosophy department of the University of Budapest, March 7, 2002. Used by permission of the author, it is reposted from Religion Online
Gabor Karsai suggested that I might explain to you some of the contributions that Alfred North Whitehead has made to philosophy. I will, of course, speak as an American and in terms of the philosophical situation in the United States. I should also say that I am a theologian, and that means that my interest in philosophy is not purely theoretical. I am interested in its existential or personal implications and how it shapes human sensibility.
The topic on which I focus, and to which Whitehead made a particularly important contribution, is the relation of human experience to the remainder of the world. My plan is to identify schools of thought in terms of their accounts of this relationship.
Most American philosophers in the past half-century have belonged to the school of analytic philosophy. Since this label refers to a style of approach to philosophical issues rather than to underlying convictions about the way things are, analytic philosophers do not all adopt the same position with regard to the issue I have in view. Accordingly, my classification of major options does not correspond to the way American philosophers are likely to identify themselves.
Recognizing, then, that my typology is tendentious, I offer it nonetheless as one useful way of describing the present scene. The first three positions, the ones that I criticize, are materialism, Humean empiricism, and Kantian dualism. I identify the fourth school, the one in which I locate Whitehead, as nonmaterialist naturalism. Since I want to devote most of my time to explaining Whitehead's contribution, my treatment of the first three options will be extremely schematic.
I should also acknowledge that I am an anti-foundationalist in the sense that I do not believe that there is any place to begin philosophizing that does not already express important assumptions. That means that philosophers cannot prove and demonstrate. I will not make any effort to prove that Whitehead is correct and others are wrong. I will, however, explain why I find his treatment of the relation of human experience to the natural world more satisfactory than the major alternatives.
I also acknowledge that I begin with a bias toward common sense. By this I do not mean the culturally-conditioned common sense that is notoriously unreliable. I mean, instead, those convictions that everyone lives by in practice whatever they may say in theory. My colleague, David Griffin, has labeled these "hard-core common sense." For example, I believe that anyone who speaks presupposes that there are hearers who have a reality similar to that of the speaker. I believe, further, that the speaker presupposes that he or she has some kind of self-determination, that is, is not simply a complex arrangement of matter or a mere product of the past. Arguing the contrary seems to me a self-contradictory activity. Indeed, I believe that philosophically arguing against the assumptions entailed in the activity of arguing is self-defeating.
With respect to my major concern in this paper, I believe that noone can actually avoid believing that she or he is intimately involved with a physical body whose reality is not dependent on conscious thought. Further, I doubt that anyone can avoid acting as if this body is continuous in character with other bodies that make up our environment or can doubt that there are causal interactions among these bodies. In short, whatever we say about the external world theoretically, we continue to act as though it has a reality prior to and independent of our mental activity.
These convictions provide for me norms by which I judge philosophies. That is, I favor philosophies that explain, rather than explain away, these common sense assumptions. Of course, adequacy to universal common sense is not the only norm. There is much else to which a philosophy should be adequate. Also I am committed to consistency, coherence, and relevance. But I assume that my convictions about the importance of explaining hardcore common sense beliefs rather than explaining them away may be the most distinctive part of my assumptions. Obviously, these preferences and prejudices play a large role in my objections to materialism, Humean empiricism, and Kantian idealism.
Materialism continues to be widespread in the United States. A great many scientists have been socialized into accepting it, even if they rarely attempt to provide a sophisticated account. A smaller number of philosophers do attempt to defend it, and many others, even if they rarely discuss the question directly, show their materialistic bias when they discuss such questions as the mind-body relation. Probably the most widely accepted views in the United States are psychophysical identism and supervenience. Since both deny any causal role for human experience, locating all causality in the material brain, they seem to be continuations of epiphenomenalism under different labels. Although this may not be an extreme form of materialism, since it does not flatly deny the occurrence of conscious experience, by rejecting any role of such experience, it comes close enough for me to use the label.
Obviously, this kind of thinking fails to account for the ongoing experience of being affected by our bodies and of, in turn, influencing them. It must count the latter, at least, as wholly illusory. It requires that we suppose that the apparent influence of our experience in one moment on our experience in the next is also illusory. Since I believe noone can act as if this is so, I regard adopting such a belief as a profound philosophical weakness. This is to say nothing about the extreme difficulty of providing a coherent notion of matter in the first place, a problem well explained by both Hume and Kant.
I have qualified the empiricism of which I want to speak as Humean. I do so because I regard my own position as a form of empiricism. The empiricism I reject holds that all knowledge of what is outside the body is mediated by the senses and that what is provided by the senses are sensa or sense data. I call it Humean because Hume gave it its classical expression, and subsequent discussion of sensory empiricism has largely accepted his work as a starting point.
Hume showed that when we take the data of sense experience as the basis for all our knowledge of the world, many of those assumptions that we all make in practice are unintelligible. We cannot explain why we suppose, unfailingly, that there is a world consisting of something other than these sensory data. We cannot explain why we are so sure that there other subjects. We cannot explain our sense that one event happens because other events have happened. We cannot explain the role of our bodies in the experience of the world.
Despite these problems, Humean assumptions are still widely asserted, and many analytic philosophers employ them, at least part of the time. Many discussions of causality in American philosophy still follow Hume's lead. Sometimes Humean empiricism is combined in remarkable ways with materialist habits of mind, as they were even in Hume himself.
My own judgment that this whole approach is wanting is obvious in the way I have set up this discussion. Humeans "solve" many problems by simply deducing conclusions from the assumption that all knowledge of the world must be developed from the data of sense experience. The fact that these solutions contradict many beliefs that in practice no one escapes is not allowed to count against them. For me, on the other hand, it counts heavily against them.
Probably most Americans are vaguely, if not explicitly, dualistic. They are quite sure of the reality of their own feeling and thinking. They also suppose that the world they see and touch is for the most part of a quite different order. Perhaps Cartesian dualism is still the cultural common sense of Americans, and it plays its role in philosophical discussions as well.
Nevertheless, I have qualified the dualism I want to discuss as Kantian, because this is the form of dualism that is most likely to be systematically and critically defended by philosophers. Just as, after Hume, earlier forms of sensory empiricism came to be chiefly of historical interest, so also, after Kant, earlier forms of dualism were largely superseded.
Kant, of course, shared my dissatisfaction with the results of sensory empiricism. His response has been of enormous importance in the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is my impression that, on the European continent, it is the basis for almost all subsequent philosophical developments. In the United States the situation is more diverse, as I have already indicated, in that Humean empiricism and materialism still flourish in various guises. But Kant has been very influential there also, partly directly, and partly through the many other European thinkers he has influenced.
It would be foolish for me to attempt to instruct you about Kant. I suspect that you are all better Kant scholars than am I. I have the impression that in his Critique of Judgment there are formulations that differ markedly from the features of the Critique of Pure Reason that I am highlighting. I believe that book may contain resources for my topic that still remain to be mined. However, my interest here is not to discuss the intricacies of Kant's thought but to lift up his impact on subsequent thinkers with respect to the relation of human experience to the external world.
Kant accepted Hume's account of sensory experience and the extreme limits of what can be learned from it, when it is taken by itself. Indeed, Kant went even farther than Hume. He showed, for example, that from the data of sense experience we gain no sense of time. But Kant knew that in fact we have a sense of time and also that we are aware of causal relations in a way not accounted for by the regular succession to which Hume appealed. Accordingly, Kant argued, the organization of the data of sense experience is the work of the mind.
Kant posited a noumenal world that in some way supplied the sensory data. But this acknowledgment of an external world was not successful. He could say nothing about what it is, and his own account of causality precluded assigning it any causal role in relation to the phenomena. Accordingly, his followers generally gave up Kant's noumenal world and adopted a more fully idealist position.
I call this idealism dualistic, nevertheless, because it affirms two quite distinct spheres. There is the sphere of the creative activity of mind. There is the sphere of the nature that appears to us because of that creative activity. These are to be understood and studied in radically different ways.
From my perspective, the greatness of Kant's contribution lies in showing the immensely creative activity of the human mind in constituting the world in which we live. In the United States today, there are relatively few who follow Kant himself closely, but there are many who emphasize how human languages construct and constitute the world in which human communities live. Much is said of the social construction of reality. Feminists have been particularly influential in showing how reality is constructed in many societies for patriarchal purposes. Some philosophers of science argue that the work of science is to construct the world rather than to describe it. Since so much of social construction is an expression of power, there is now much interest in its deconstruction.
The emphasis on the construction of the world can also be quite individualistic. Much has been written on how our diverse life experiences lead us to construct our worlds differently. A psychotherapist can hardly help patients without provisionally entering into the ways they have constructed their worlds. The purpose of therapy can be understood to be to help patients reconstruct their worlds in ways that bring them less conflict and pain.
The Protestant denomination that calls itself "Christian Science" developed out of the New England transcendentalism that was deeply influenced by Kant. Practitioners believe that the mind constructs the body, so that if one's mind is fully healed there will be no sickness or disruption in the body. They refuse medical care because this is based on physicalist assumptions. Although this denomination is now declining, similar ideas are widespread in related movements and in some New Age groups.
Much as I appreciate and admire the brilliant analyses that have followed from the view that our worlds are constructed by our minds or our language, I am convinced that, taken by itself, it leaves central features of our experience unintelligible. No language could construct our bodies in such a way that they cease to need food. The explosion of an atomic bomb is not simply a word-event. This does not mean that we cannot study the diverse ways in which societies have constructed the eating of food. Nor does it mean that the way we interpret the explosion of an atomic bomb is unimportant or that the prior construction of the world was not a major factor in the occurrence of this event. But a philosophy that does not recognize a distinct physical component in food and atomic explosions, one that is impervious to how humans think about them, is inadequate. What I am calling Kantian dualism fails to account for the autonomous reality, activity and causality of the natural world.
I am calling the school of thought in which I locate myself nonmaterialistic naturalism. It reflects the understanding of some physicists that what they have called matter in the past is better viewed as energy. Among its members are William James, Henri Bergson, John Dewey, and C.S. Peirce. My own teacher was Charles Hartshorne. But because of limited time, I will confine myself to Alfred North Whitehead, who is generally recognized as the most rigorous and comprehensive thinker in this group.
When critically discussing the limits of empiricism above, I was careful to speak of sensory empiricism. This is because another label for this group of thinkers is "radical empiricism." They agreed with Kant that sensory empiricism cannot account for our experience, but they undertook to overcome this limitation through a more exhaustive, or radical, examination of what is given in experience. Despite differences in emphasis and style, they have much in common with some schools of phenomenology.
Whitehead deconstructed ordinary sense experience into two elements. One he called "presentational immediacy". When we attend to what is most clearly conscious, this is what appears, and it is understandable that Hume, and some of his predecessors limited themselves to this. In vision, for example, presentational immediacy presents to us as immediately given patches of color. Hume took these as exhausting what is given in visual experience, and he drew consistent implications.
Ironically, these consistent implications do not account for the fact that we experience these patches of color as derived from beyond ourselves. The naïve notion that the brown of the rug as such characterizes the rug in itself apart from visual experience can, of course, readily be shown to be absurd. But that the rug is such that, given suitable lighting, it causes multiple persons to have the visual experience of brown when attending to the region in which it is located is not a naïve view. It fits the facts as we know them. Also, it can be investigated by physics and physiology. From a scientific point of view, there is an indirect causal effect of events in the rug on the neurons in the brain. From the subjective point of view, there is a sense of derivation of elements of experience from beyond themselves. The correspondence here gives some justification for the claim that when we examine our experience radically we discover that the perception in the mode of presentational immediacy to which Hume gave exclusive attention arises out of "perception in the mode of causal efficacy".
This doctrine, that we perceive the causal efficacy of the world, is the radical and distinctive contribution of Whitehead. Because it is unfamiliar, it is this that I want to discuss in the remainder of my paper. To convince you that it is an idea to be taken seriously will require approaching it from several angles.
I have begun with the aspect of experience (vision) in which the experience of causal efficacy may be the most difficult to identify phenomenologically. Let us turn to another kind of reflection in which the argument that causal efficacy is empirically experienced may be more readily accepted. I ask you to focus on the flow of your own experience. Consider the relation of one moment of experience to its immediate predecessor. It is my judgment that what we find on such an examination is that the earlier experience flows into the later one. The later one is what it is largely because of this influence of the earlier one. On the other hand, the earlier one does not determine every feature of the later experience.
One way to focus attention on this relationship is to consider the experience in which one is hearing the final chord in a musical phrase. If we focus on presentational immediacy alone, the sound would be just what it is in itself. But in fact we hear it as the completion of a phrase. The sounds we were hearing in the preceding seconds are still resonating in our present experience. Otherwise there would be no music.
The point is equally clear when we listen to speech. In presentational immediacy we have only a single sound. The sound may be the completion of a word. But as such, in presentational immediacy, it is simply the sound that it is. That it is for the hearer the completion of a word depends on the continuing presence in that moment of what was heard before.
Or consider another thought experiment. Bertrand Russell once argued, based on his own commitment to sensory empiricism, that there is no reason not to suppose that the world came into being just as it is in the present moment. In other words, sensory empiricism provides us no evidence that there has been a past. Yet we all know that there has been a past. In a very significant way, we experience that past. We know that this moment of experience is not the first because we feel the present experience as growing out of past experiences.
The argument here is that actual empirical experience does not have the character it would have if all that is given in experience from outside itself were sense data. Empirically, or phenomenologically if you prefer, there is a sense of derivation from the past that is particularly clear in relation to one's own immediately past experiences. This does not have the vividness of the sense data, and it is rarely attended to, but it remains experiential. Whitehead believes it deserves an attention it has rarely received in the history of thought.
Whitehead calls the relation of one occasion of experience to its predecessor a "prehension". A prehension is the way in which one momentary experience incorporates or takes account of earlier such moments. The prehension to which I have directed attention is the one in which we can, at least vaguely, be conscious of both the act of prehending and the occasion that is prehended. We prehend the earlier occasion of our experience as itself a subject prehending other occasions. Through its mediation we prehend these other occasions, and through them, others.
This prehension of past occasions of experience is central to understanding both epistemology and causality. It is the way past occasions participate in constituting present ones. It also explains our deep conviction that experience has as its object or data things that have some reality apart from our experiencing them. That is, my prehension of the immediate past experience is an example of the way past occasions of experience exercise causal efficacy in my present experience. At the same time such prehensions are the reason that I know that I am experiencing a past reality.
Now, if we are to go on to Whitehead's rich speculations about the role of prehensions in the world, I must ask you take the example I have given you and reflect about it. I hope you will find meaningful the notion that experience flows from one occasion into the other. The earlier occasion participates in constituting the later one. The later one incorporates the earlier experience in part, integrating that into itself. This is the prehensive relation.
I have urged you to focus on the prehension by one occasion of your experience of the immediately preceding one because we can be more or less consciously aware of this relation. But most of the time we are not aware of it. Certainly it is not the sort of thing to which we normally attend. In the evolutionary process conscious awareness and attention have been directed to events in the vicinity of our bodies. Our ancestors needed to be alert to danger, on the one hand, and to prospects of food, on the other. Attending to the internal flow of experience would not have contributed to their survival.
If this prehensive relationship is constantly taking place quite apart from any conscious awareness, it is not hard to suppose that other prehensive relationships occur that can never become conscious at all. Whitehead speculates that each occasion of human experience prehends not only past human experiences but also the events in the brain and through them events in other parts of the body and beyond. To put it in another way, there is a flow of causal efficacy from the events external to the body to bodily events and from them to the occasions of human experience.
Although we cannot identify in experience the prehensions of events in the brain, we do discover in our experience a vague but indubitable awareness of our bodies as causally effective in our experience. This awareness is heightened when there are acute pains of pleasures. My misery is caused by an aching tooth, or my pleasure, by the massaging of my back. Whitehead assumes that the prehensive relations involved follow the lines traced by physiologists. He also notes that in the evolutionary process bodily functioning developed to highlight for conscious awareness events in some parts of the body and not others. We feel the events in nerve endings but not in their transmission through other nerves.
This movement between human experience and bodily events is rendered plausible only by emphasizing the primacy of events. An occasion of human experience is an event. The firing of a neuron is also an event, as is the aching of a tooth. Metaphysically, Whitehead affirms that events are the primary realities, not objects or substances. Some events are partially conscious. Most have no consciousness at all. But all are related to others by prehension. That is, each event takes into account earlier ones and flows into later ones. The presence or absence of consciousness is not decisive for this process.
Although consciousness is rare in the universe, subjectivity is not. Since so many philosophers identify subjects with conscious subjects, this point must be stressed in any explanation of Whitehead's philosophy. He speculates that every event is both subject to the influence of other events and acts in its own constitution and causal efficacy for others. In these respects it is like conscious human experiences. Since most of what transpires even in the most highly conscious human experiences is not conscious, it should not be too difficult to understand that events with no consciousness at all still prehend antecedent events and are prehended by others. These prehensions constitute the natural causes that Hume thought could not be asserted and that Kant posited as the contribution of the human mind. Human experiences are complex events fully immersed in this web of natural causes.
It is important to see that in this cosmology causes are influences. A cause determines some feature of the event in which it exercises causality. It never necessitates that the event in question have, as a whole, just the character that it does. In human experience we cannot but believe that although much of what we are each moment is simply the result of the past, in each moment there is also some freedom. Just how to assimilate all the causal influences from the past and to integrate them in the present is decided in that present. The range of choice may be quite limited, but, in some moments, it is of immense importance for the future.
Whitehead sees no reason to deny that self-determination is also present in the experiences of other living things. Since consciousness contributes to the width of the range within which decision is made, as the role of consciousness declines, we would expect decision to play a smaller role. But even in human experience the moment-to-moment decisions are not conscious choices. So, even when consciousness is wholly lacking, we need not posit that events are totally determined by the past. How much spontaneity we can attribute to events of diverse sorts, and how precisely they can be predicted from their boundary conditions, are questions for investigation, not dogmatic prejudgment.
One caution is important here. The word "events" has a wide range of uses. We speak of a conversation as an event. But that event can be broken down into sub-events and those into other sub-events. A moment of human experience is the sort of sub-event that can no longer be broken down. It either occurs or it does not. It is these unitary, indivisible events that are the final subjects that take account of others and act on others. Cellular events seem to have this kind of unity, as do electronic ones. The event of a rock falling does not. We must look for the indivisible events in this case by analyzing the larger event at least into molecular ones. The prehensive relations are among the molecules or smaller units in the rock. The rock as a whole is a society of unitary events, and as a society it does not itself prehend or have any self-determination. Whatever spontaneities there are in the unitary events that compose the rock are statistically cancelled out by their vast number and randomness.
Thus far I have suggested a vision of a universe of interconnected events. Of course, the actual picture is far more complex since these events vary greatly in their relations and in their complexity. But the main point here is to show how the notion of prehension provides a way of understanding the causality that pervades nature, inclusive of human experience, without suggesting a deterministic world. I turn now to the epistemological side.
Whitehead believed that ordinary sense experience is in fact an integration of perception in the mode of presentational immediacy and perception in the mode of causal efficacy. He called this integration "perception in the mode of symbolic reference". Perception in the mode of causal efficacy is the kind of prehension of which I have been speaking, viewed from the side of the receiving subject. My personal past and my body influence my experience. They bring into the here-now what was there-then. The aching in my tooth a tiny fraction of a second ago is my aching now. But it is felt as derived from the tooth. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy locates it in clear consciousness there-now in the place where the tooth's aching occurred a fraction of a second ago. When abstracted from the perception in the mode of causal efficacy from which it arises, perception in the mode of presentational immediacy gives no clue as to its source or as to time. When integrated with perception in the mode of causal efficacy in symbolic reference, we have the experience of the tooth as aching now.
In presentational immediacy there is no truth or error. The sensa are as they are. But in actual sense experience, there is error, because the sensa are referred to the real, present world. With regard to the aching tooth, the great likelihood is that the tooth is continuing to ache in the present much as it was aching a fraction of a second ago when nerve impulses carried the message to the brain. There is unlikely to be significant error. But we all know about phantom pains, when one continues, in symbolic reference, to locate the pain in the amputated limb.
Similarly, with visual experience of nearby objects the error in locating the color in the present object is normally trivial. If, however, we are gazing at the night sky, presentational immediacy locates the star in terms of the place from which the light came, which may be far indeed from where the star now is.
There is another kind of error involved in much symbolic reference. When we attribute aching to the tooth, there may be little error. What is happening in the cellular events in the tooth may not be drastically unlike the pain we attribute to that source. But when we attribute greenness to the grass, the difference is quite considerable. This is often dismissed as naïve realism. Greenness as a color is brought into being out of light waves by the eyes and brain. The cells in the grass have no comparable experience. This suggests that the world as given us in presentational immediacy may be totally discontinuous with the real world despite the fact that in Whitehead's vision all of nature is intricately interconnected.
Whitehead speculates that the disconnection is not quite that sharp, and Charles Hartshorne developed this speculation in a remarkable book, The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation, in which he provides supportive scientific data. The theory is that colors and sounds, textures and tastes, all have strong emotional bases. We often use adjectives that seem more appropriate in one sensory realm in application to another. For example, a color may be cool or warm. These terms apply directly to the subjective, emotional component of the perception of that color, which is derived from the perception in the mode of causal efficacy that gives rise to the perception in the mode of presentational immediacy. Some colors, some sounds, and some tactile sensations may all have much the same emotional basis.
Whereas it is certainly naïve and erroneous to suppose that the cells in the grass experience greenness as a sense datum, it is not necessarily absurd to think that cellular experiences have an emotional component. Presumably this is quite unconscious, but so are most human emotions. One may then speculate that the emotional character of the experience in the cells in the grass are somewhat replicated in the emotional component of their prehension in the mode of causal efficacy from which the sense datum, green, arises visually.
I have stressed that this is speculation. Of course, this whole discussion of causality and epistemology is speculation. But I highlight the speculative character of the present discussion because it is unnecessary to the basic structure of the cosmology. Its importance to Whitehead and Hartshorne is existential or religious rather than conceptual. For both of them, it is important not only to know that we are part and parcel of the natural world but also to feel this. There are many people who do have this sensibility, and it involves a sense of connectedness and kinship, some would say, oneness. The belief that the feelings that the objects of sense experience arouse in us have no continuity with what is felt contributes to a sense of isolation or alienation. To show philosophically, with some scientific support, that those who intuit closer connections may not be wrong seems of some importance to Whitehead and Hartshorne – and to me. We believe that it makes sense to think that the world in some ways replicates itself in our experience.
Thus far I have spoken only of one type of prehension. Whitehead writes about two basic types and the many complex ways in which they are integrated. The one of which I have been speaking Whitehead calls "physical". A physical prehension is a prehension of another occasion of experience. The prehension of one's past experiences is physical. Of course, the prehension of neuronal events is also physical. This is the causal efficacy of the world for the occasion.
But Whitehead is convinced that we cannot understand human experience as simply physical. We also prehend pure potentials, or pure possibilities, in abstraction from any embodiment. The colors of which I have been speaking are such possibilities. Initially, the point here is that from the actual entities we prehend physically, we can abstract some forms, potentialities, or possibilities. All of our sciences depend on the ability to entertain these in abstraction from their specific embodiment. We can imagine ways in which these may be combined with each other and embodied in the world. All conscious experience depends on the ability to compare what simply is with what may be. In short, "conceptual prehensions", as Whitehead calls these, are of immense importance in human experience.
Much of Whitehead's writing consists in a detailed account of how conceptual and physical feelings are integrated in human experience. He speaks of physical purposes and transmuted feelings as well as of various kinds of propositional feelings and intellectual feelings. The discussion of symbolic reference that I offered above can fit into this rich analysis of experience.
The doctrine of conceptual feelings opens the way to its own share of interesting speculations. Whitehead believes that we can entertain possibilities that we do not abstract from the data of physical prehensions. He believes that the realm of possibilities has a certain order that makes possible order in a world pervaded by freedom. He believes that the activity of creatively integrating the past in the present, moment-by-moment, depends on the lure of particular relevant possibilities. He believes that all these possibilities must be "somewhere" and that somewhere must be in some actual entity. His speculations about conceptual feelings lead him to an original and distinctive doctrine of God. For me, as a process theologian, these speculations are of great interest and provide a welcome alternative to the dominant theological cosmologies.
However, my topic today is prehension. If one accepts this doctrine, one can account for the highly complex conscious experiences of human beings in a fully non-reductionistic way, while at the same locating human beings fully in the context of the natural world. Nature no longer appears as passive, mechanical matter. It is dynamic. Even those things that we call inanimate are made up of entities that are continuous with simple forms of life. The emergence of life and consciousness in the evolutionary process is no longer sheer mystery. Our study of the natural world can be continuous with our study of the human world. Our experience is continuous with that of other animals and even with much simpler entities. Our deeper understanding of the world will reject objectification as its mode. We live as subjects in the midst of subjects. For me this is a great gain over materialism, sensationalist empiricism, and all forms of dualism.
Whiteheadians are almost of necessity ecologically oriented. Our concern about the natural environment is, of course, partly motivated by our concern for the well being of humanity. But we are also concerned about other beings for their own sake. Everything has some value in itself. Everything has value for other things. All things are related. All things are akin. Nothing exists in itself and of itself, least of all human beings. Humans cannot be saved apart from the natural world. We have enormous influence in the shaping and reshaping of that world. But it is equally true that that world shapes us. Indeed, we are simply one form – one very special and valuable form -- taken by that world.
Prehensions are feelings of things. The things that are felt are the data of the prehensions; they are what is felt. The prehensions are the feelings 'of' them. The feelings cannot exist without the data, but the feelings are not the same as the data. When you feel the presence of a leaf, or another person, or your own body, or a distant star, the leaf or person or bodily sensation or star are one thing, and your feeling of it, with its own emotional response, another. This is true for you and also for all other actualities in the universe. Their feelings of other things are their subjectivity, their subjective immediacy. What we call energy at a physical level is feeling in its primal form. There is feeling everywhere.
Prehensions are how the universe is held together: Every actual entity, every moment of experience, consists of many acts of experiencing or prehending many realities which "become one" in the act of experiencing them. Prehensions are the most fundamental element in actual entities, the means by which the universe is held together and things are present in one another. They are acts of taking something into account from subjective point of view.
Prehensions can be positive or negative: Prehensions can be positive or negative. Positive prehensions are feelings of other things that partake of the qualities of what is felt Negative prehensions are acts of taking other things into account without such partaking. They eliminate what is felt from further feeling.
Prehensions are always prehensions 'of' something: The realities that are prehended can be other actual entities or pure potentialities, or combinations of them. Whitehead speaks of the objects prehended as the data of the prehensions. Thus all prehensions are prehensions 'of' something; and when we talk about prehensions we must always ask: "What is it that is being prehended?"
Prehensions may be conscious or unconscious. In human life most are unconscious. Most of our human experience is subconscious; it is taking other things into account, albeit without the clarity of consciousness. And so it is with other actualities: other animals, the cells in plants, the quantum events in the depths of atoms.
Prehensions are everywhere. These acts of taking into account are found in each and every moment of concresence throughout the universe. They are what makes up a single moment of energy in the depths of an atom in a distant galaxy, and they are what makes up a single moment of experience in a human life. They are the fundamental units of experience. Some process philosophers speak of Whitehead's approach as pan-experientialism; it might also be called pan-prehensionality. There is prehension, feeling, everywhere.
Prehensions are of many kinds: They come in many forms: physical prehensions of the immediate past, conceptual prehensions of pure potentialities, imaginative prehensions, anticipatory prehensions, and a very unique form of prehension called "hybrid prehensions," which, so Whitehead speculates, transcend the restrictions of space by prehending other actualities (or, more specifically, the mental poles of other actual entities, at a distance.)
Prehensions are always clothed by subjective forms, by emotions, such as appreciation or aversion. This means that there is emotion everywhere, too. We live in a universe of feeling and emotion. What we call energy at the physical level is what we call emotion at the psychological level.
-- Jay McDaniel
* Whitehead speaks of positive prehensions as feelings, but he does not use the word for negative prehensions.
I have with difficulty avoided using the term “prehension” thus far. The idea the term represents could not be avoided, and the term “feeling,” to be discussed below, has had to bear the weight. Prehension may be the single most important and original concept in Whitehead’s philosophy. A “prehension” consists in an objective datum as well as a subjective form. The objective datum is what it prehends. The subjective form is how it prehends it.
In the simplest case, we have a prehension of a single actual occasion, so that the objective datum is the aspect of that occasion that is prehended. But the datum of most prehensions is a nexus. For example, especially in conscious experience, I prehend a stone, not the individual molecules of which if consists, much less the individual quanta. And the objective datum of the occasion as a whole is always a nexus, namely, the actual world of the occasion.
Prehensions are the way that what is there becomes something here. A prehension is the bond between two actual occasions. The past occasion shares in the constitution of the new occasion. From this perspective, we can say that something there becomes something here. This is the “causal efficacy” of the past occasion for the new one. Returning to the point of view of the new occasion, we can say that the new occasion draws the past occasion into itself. Thus one and the same relation can be viewed as the causal efficacy of the past or a prehension in the present.
A prehension is an internal relation. That is, it is internal to the prehending occasion while being external to the prehended occasion. The prehension does not change what it prehends, but the subject of the prehension becomes what it becomes through its prehensions. The relation is not symmetrical. The latter occasion prehends and is thus partly constituted by the earlier one. The earlier occasion does not prehend and is not affected by the later one.
* There is one kind of prehension that is not a feeling. It is called a “negative prehension.” This is the exclusion of something from playing a role in the constitution of an actual occasion. The great majority of Whitehead’s talk of prehensions is about “positive prehensions,”
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.