I'm getting to Whitehead in my reading list, and have started with "Concept of Nature".

Have not finished it yet, but something disturbs me throughout the book (aside from his god-awful convoluted writing style).

It seems that events, for Whitehead, are very similar to Leibniz' monads (I assume this is a common comparison). But the issue is, while Leibniz seems ok with denying the reality of substance and keeping only the monads as the real building block of the universe, Whitehead insists on the experienced reality to be real.

Thus, a question raises: are events ontological, in their attempt to replace atoms, or does Whitehead simply suggests a theory of nature parallel to the atomic theory, rendering the events as "mere" theoretical concept used only to explain the real, experienced world?

I assume that Whitehead would want to consider events to be ontologically real, but it's a bit hard to conclude with him presumably not wanting to talk metaphysics (at least in this book), and his usage of terms such as "abstractive sets", "abstractive element", et cetra, which makes it seem like a purely theoretical practice.

  • See Whitehead's Metaphysics: "In his earlier philosophy of science, Whitehead revolted against the bifurcation of nature into the worlds of primary and secondary qualities [...] Closely linked to this completion of the scientific scheme of thought, Whitehead developed a new scientific ontology and a new theory of perception. His scientific ontology is one of internally related events." And "The relational event ontology that Whitehead developed ..." Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 13:56
  • Whitehead did talk metaphysics, and events were its basic building block for him (in the spirit of spacetime relativity). You may like McHenry's recent revival of it, The Event Universe:"Everything in the universe from medium-size dry goods to planets and galaxies, is interpreted as patterns of properties that are repeated in event sequences. 'Things', as we ordinarily understand them, are postulated by Whitehead to be relatively monotonous patterns in events".
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 21:23
  • @Conifold yeah I assumed he did elsewhere, but in this book he explicitly says in the beginning that he won't do so; hence me searching for the answer. Anyway your answer looks to me in conflict with Charles' one below. Could it be different interpretations? Was he not explicit about that (crucial) aspect? Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 21:39
  • I think Hallett is more or less explicit in the second part that he is not presenting Whitehead's own view, but rather what it should be upon his critical scrutiny. "Rather, as it seems to me, if we can distinguish them from the objects, it is the events that are the fiction", etc. Hallett is a Spinozist like Charles, the full name of the quoted work is Aeternitas - a Spinozistic study (1930).
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 21:53
  • Whitehead's opus magnum is Process and Reality, where we read "We diverge from Descartes by holding that what he has described as primary attributes of physical bodies, are really the forms of internal relationships between actual occasions".
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 21:59

2 Answers 2


It is important to remember that Whitehead adjusted his understanding of event ontology into a process philosophy of actual "occasions." I disagree with Lewis Ford and others who subscribe to the interpretation that Whitehead suddenly had an abrupt break with his earlier thinking and turned to metaphysics. I find Auxier and Herstein's interpretation in Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead's Radical Empiricism (Routledge, 2017) more compelling.

The Concept of Nature (1920) is part of a Triptych (Enquiry into the Principles of Natural Knowledge 1919 and Principle of Relativity 1922) that explicitly eschewed metaphysics. Readers have mistakenly assumed this means Whitehead is not concerned with metaphysics until he gets to Harvard in 1924, but two fundamental problems dominate ANW's thinking for over forty-years: 1) The problem of space; and 2) The accretion of value in the universe. That's it! We cannot forget that his method of presentation and fundamental training was in mathematics and this coincides with his later works. From the criteria of mathematics, each inquiry merits its own independence and proper treatment. This is why scholars fail to often identify how the use of the same term: "actual entity," "God," etc. will be used with slightly altered meanings, in other works. This appears at first glance like an inconsistency--after all, it is said we had a better translation of Plato's Republic than Process and Reality until Griffin and Sherburne "corrected" it. But it is only subtle differences that can make all the difference, and that is one of the beautiful and interesting aspects of ANW's philosophy! Whitehead knows how "beautiful" and profound the imaginative leap of the mathematician's proof can be and, just as each proof defines its terms on the basis of inquiry at hand, ANW follows this "genetic and coordinate" procedure (see, Quantum of Explanation, 24-36).

This brings me to a richer interpretation of Whitehead you might want to consider--The "event," "occasion" is neither metaphysical nor theoretical, but cosmological! All metaphysical knowledge is hypothetical, for ANW, and depends upon the concrete conditions of the environment. Similar to Peirce's evolutionary agapism, the laws of nature are not fixed but changing and mutable. Therefore, even metaphysical (including theoretical) finalities must give way to the coming to be and passing away (what ANW will call "transition" and "concresence," respectively) of the geometric societies that comprise "process and reality." Metaphysical knowledge is contingent upon cosmological factors, which are wholly contingent. Whitehead is a radical empiricist in the manner we find with Henri Bergson and William James.

I wanted to highlight that Whitehead's criticism of Leibniz grows sharper because he gradually finds that "windowless monads" look more and more like Cartesian subjects, disconnected or unrelated to experience and falling into a similar ill-treatment of interrelations within his cosmology. In short, he fails to develop the Principle of Relativity, that everything is potentially related to everything! Whitehead's actual entities and occasions are never "windowless."

  • It seems like the distinction between "metaphysical" and "cosmological" is a bit vague, and could be dependent on the writer. I'm not completely sure I understand Whitehead's usage of each term yet. But I'm sure I have much to learn, he's a bit more complicated than I thought :) Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 12:37
  • Yes, it is 😁No, it is not dependent upon the writer! Quite the opposite. Having cosmology ground metaphysics places the “concrete before the abstract,” and not the other way around. Metaphysics tends to put its model or theory as a guide of reality and ANW Is attempting avoid that! Experience and the world is the guide for metaphysics; metaphysics is more arbitrary and strives to dictate to the world. Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 14:52
  • "metaphysics tend to put its model or theory as a guide of reality and ANW is attempting to avoid that" - meaning basically that it is indeed dependent upon the writer :) Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 14:58
  • Yes, but if you think that is a measure of experience as reality is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. ANW does give you a cosmology solely dependent on the self-interpretation of the theorist. Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 15:01

What follows is an excerpt from H F Hallett. In this segment he is examining what precisely Whitehead meant by 'passage' in its respect to and alignment in 'time'. Is passage a part of space/time, of duration, of sempiternity, or of eternity, and in what way does it 'interact' with nature to produce, 'events'?. That is just offered as context. The answer to the OP's question, at least according to professor Hallett looks like this;

"Now, as I have said, Mr. Whitehead distinguishes, in the Real, between the actual and the possible, the actual being the result of the ‘ingression’ of the possible into actual occasions or events; thus there are two main questions demanding clarification: (i)- granted that the distinction of the possible and the actual is in itself valid in general, to what extent is it possible for them to be separated from each other in the Real and its various diversifications? (ii)- what are the relations of the objects of various kinds to the actual occasions or events in which they are ‘situated’ ? The two questions are, of course, fundamentally related to each other, though the first is metaphysical and the second phenomenological. I deal with the phenomenological question first. A great part of Mr. Whitehead’s philosophy is occupied with the question of the relations of objects and events. With the very precise details I have no immediate concern, but in the general principles I am vitally interested. For Mr. Whitehead, an object is not a complex of events or a complex event simpliciter: it is situated in and pertains to its actual complex event. Thus events, for example, are divisible, while objects are essentially organic and thus cannot be divided: not spatially, for they function as unities; not temporally, for they require their ‘whole period in which to manifest [themselves]’. The object is thus not a mere conventional fiction which, for some extrinsic purpose, we substitute for the events on which it is patterned. Rather, as it seems to me, if we can distinguish them from the objects, it is the events that are the fiction; for the picture of nature as an event/framework, even when it is elevated above mere non-being by a formal decking of sense-contents, is less adequate than that of a world of objects characterized by unity and permanence rather than by diversity and passage, and therefore not in themselves events, but containing spatio-temporal relations, and bearing such relations to each other; and this again is less adequate than that of a world of nature as a total object, not itself in, but containing space-time. For at each stage in the progressive synthesis the diversity gives place to unity; the reputed organic character of events belongs to the objects situated in them, or capable of being so situated, rather than to the pure events. The fact is that the continuum of mere events, or even space-time, is too flimsy to serve the purpose to which phenomenologists are wont to put it.1 The merest object already distorts it by substituting unity and permanence for multiplicity and ‘passage’. Only so are objects constituted: their creation or ‘ingression’ is founded upon the distortion or even destruction of space-time or passage. At each stage in the ‘ingression’ of objects, the continuum of passage becomes more distorted and contracted, until in the limit when totality is reached it must disappear. It is, in fact, only the empty form of occurrence without content, and therefore nothing real; it is a mere fictitious lower limit of abstraction. Actual space-time is essentially occupied, and thus more concretely called ‘enduring thing’ ; while real spacetime, carrying this correction to an ideal limit, is the eternal Extension of Spinoza in which passage is wholly transformed into quality."

from "Aeternitas", pp 244-245

  • I actually haven't gotten to the point where he defines "objects", but as I understand from this passage this means the "objects" are the ontologically real phenomena while "events" are conceptual? Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 20:11

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