Modes of Thought

Lecture Five: Forms of Process

Alfred North Whitehead

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THE TOPIC of this, and of the next, lecture originates in the consideration of the various modes of unity exhibited by compositions within the historic world. Examples of such organizations are throbs of pulsation, molecules, stones, lives of plants, lives of animals, lives of men. The discussion then passes into the vaguer forms of unity, such as sociology in its widest meaning, laws of nature, spatio-temporal connections.

The argument passes to the consideration of that final mode of unity in virtue of which there exists stability of aim amid the multiple forms of potentiality, and in virtue of which there exists importance beyond the finite importance for the finite actuality. In other words, How does importance for the finite require importance for the infinite?

In this connection, Descartes discusses Perfection. He chose a notion which is too limited and too ambiguous. He slipped into his discussion


( 118) a false premise, namely, that one final perfection with static existence constitutes a notion which is relevant to our experience. He should have taken the wider notion of Importance. In what sense is there 'importance for the universe'? Does not 'importance for the finite' involve the notion of 'importance for the infinite'?

2. The first point to make is the transition from accident towards necessity as we pass from the smaller to the larger units of composition. There is a large element of accident in a single sentence of a lecture. The lecture as a whole reflects with some necessity the character of the lecturer as he composes it. The character of the lecturer arises from the moulding it receives from the social circumstances of his whole life. These social circumstances depend on the historic epoch, and this epoch is derivative from the evolution of life on this planet. Life on this planet depends on the order observed throughout the spatio-temporal stellar system, as disclosed in our experience. These special forms of order exhibit no final necessity whatsoever. The laws of nature are forms of activity which happen to prevail within the vast epoch of activity which we dimly discern. A problem now arises. There are forms of order with vast extension throughout time. There is no necessity in their nature. But there is necessity that the importance of ex-


( 119) -perience requires adequate stability of order. Complete confusion can be equated with complete frustration. And yet the transitions of history exhibit transitions of forms of order. Epoch gives way to epoch. If we insist on construing the new epoch in terms of the forms of order in its predecessor we see mere confusion. Also there is no sharp division. There are always forms of order partially dominant, and partially frustrated. Order is never complete; frustration is never complete. There is transition within the dominant order; and there is transition to new forms of dominant order. Such transition is a frustration of the prevalent dominance. And yet it is the realization of that vibrant novelty which elicits the excitement of life.

The essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established order. The Universe refuses the deadening influence of complete conformity. And yet in its refusal, it passes towards novel order as a primary requisite for important experience. We have to explain the aim at forms of order, and the aim at novelty of order, and the measure of success, and the measure of failure. Apart from some understanding, however dim, of these characteristics of the historic process, we enjoy no rationality of experience.

The development of western philosophy has been hampered by the tacit presupposition of the


( 120) necessity of static spatio-temporal, and physical forms of order. The development of scientific knowledge in the last two hundred years has completely swept away any ground for the assumption of such necessity. But the presupposition remains even among men of science. It is a tacit presupposition, among those who explicitly deny it. In current literature we find the same authors denying infractions of natural order, and denying any reason for such denial, and denying any justification for a philosophical search for reasons justifying their own denials.

What we have to explain is the trend towards order which is the overwhelming deliverance of experience. What we have also to explain is the frustration of order, and the absence of necessity in any particular form of order.

3. We must first examine the notion of Process. The comprehension of this notion requires an analysis of the interweaving of data, form, transition, and issue. There is a rhythm of process whereby creation produces natural pulsation, each pulsation forming a natural unit of historic fact. In this way, amid the infinitude of the connected universe, we can discern vaguely finite units of fact. If process be fundamental to actuality, then each ultimate individual fact must be describable as process. The Newtonian description of matter abstracts matter from time.


( 121) It conceives matter 'at an instant'. So does Descartes' description. If process be fundamental such abstraction is erroneous.

We have now to consider in more detail this interweaving of data, form, transition and issue which characterizes each unit of fact. We must however proceed by violent abstraction. Each fully realized fact has an infinitude of relations in the historic world and in the realm of form; namely, its perspective of the universe. We can only conceive it with respect to a minute selection of these relations. These relations, thus abstracted, require for their full understanding the infinitude from which we abstract. We experience more than we can analyse. For we experience the universe, and we analyze in our consciousness a minute selection of its details.

The data for any one pulsation of actuality consist of the full content of the antecedent universe as it exists in relevance to that pulsation. They are this universe conceived in its multiplicity of details. These multiplicities are antecedent pulsations, and also there are the variety of forms harboured in the nature of things, either as realized form or as potentialities for realization. Thus the data consist in what has been, what might have been, and what may be. And in these phrases the verb 'to be' means some mode of relevance to historic actualities.


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Such are the data; and from these data there emerges a process with a form of transition. This unit of process is the 'specious present' of the actuality in question. It is a process of composition, of gradation, and of elimination. Every detail in the process of being actual involves its own gradation in reference to the other details. The effectiveness of any one such factor involves the elimination of elements in the data not to be reconciled with that detail playing that part in the process. Now elimination is a positive fact, so that the background of discarded data adds a tone of feeling to the whole pulsation. No fact of history, personal or social; is understood until we know what it has escaped and the narrowness of the escape. You cannot fully understand the history of the European races in North America, without reference to the double failure of Spanish domination over California in the nineteenth century, and over England in the sixteenth century.

All actuality involves the realization of form derived from factual data. It is both a composition of qualities, and it is also a form of composition. The form of composition dictates how those forms as thus realized in the data enter into a finite process of composition, thus achieving new actuality with its own exemplifications and discards. There is a form of process dealing


( 123) with a complex form of data and issuing into a novel completion of actuality. But no actuality is a static fact. The historic character of the universe belongs to its essence. The completed fact is only to be understood as taking its place among the active data forming the future.

When we consider the process under examination as completed, we are already analysing an active datum for other creations. The universe is not a museum with its specimens in glass cases. Nor is the universe a perfectly drilled regiment with its ranks in step, marching forward with undisturbed poise. Such notions belong to the fable of modern science—a very useful fable when understood for what it is. Science deals with large average effects, important within certain modes of observation. But in the history of human thought no scientific conclusion has ever survived unmodified by radical increase in our subtleties of relevant knowledge.

4. In order to examine the notion of a form of transition, we will dwell on its simplest example. Consider arithmetic as being concerned with special forms of process. We shall here be contradicting the fashionable notion of 'tautology'. Conceive the fusion of two groups, each characterized by triplicity, into a single group. The whole essence of the notion of 'twice-three' is process, and 'twice-three' expresses its special


( 124) form of process. This form derives its peculiar character from two sources. One source is the triplicity of each of the two groups in process of fusion. This triplicity arises from some principle of individuation dominating the process of aggregation of each group. As a result of this principle, each group exemplifies three-ness. There is then a process of fusion of both groups into one. We are considering the characterization of this resultant group in terms of number. It is not true that this process of fusion necessarily issues in a group of six, in which the same principle of identifying individual things is preserved.

For example, consider drops of water, each drop with its own skin of surface-tension. Let there be two groups, each of three drops. The process of fusion may result in coalescence so that one drop results; or it may result in shattering the original drops, so that a group of fifty drops appears. The process, normally presupposed in the phrase 'twice-three', is such that the relevant principle of individuation is kept undisturbed. In such a case, twice-three is six. But this phrase 'principle of individuation' has a vague interpretation. A doctor orders a dose of two teaspoonfuls. The dose is in fact taken in one dessert spoon. Thus the actual individualization into teaspoons may be unimportant, and may never be achieved.


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The statement 'twice-three is six' is referent to an unspecified principle of sustenance of character which is supposed to be maintained during the process of fusion. The phrase 'twice-three' refers to a form of process of fusion sustaining this principle of individuation. Putting this in a more general statement, arithmetical phrases refer to special forms of process, issuing in a group characterized by some definite arithmetical character. The process has its strict form, and in the circumstances mentioned it issues in a complex entity with that character.

I am sorry to insist on this triviality at such wearisome length. Perhaps some of you will have recognized that I am contradicting a widespread belief. A prevalent modern doctrine is that the phrase 'twice-three is six' is a tautology. This means that 'twice-three' says the same thing as 'six'; so that no new truth is arrived at in the sentence. My contention is that the sentence considers a process and its issue. Of course, the issue of one process is part of the material for processes beyond itself. But in respect to the abstraction 'twice-three is six', the phrase 'twice-three' indicates a form of fluent process and 'six' indicates a characterization of the completed fact.

We are naive in our interpretation of language and of symbolism. We neglect subtle differences


( 126) of meaning. If we say that 'six is not equal to seven', we are denying the identity of 'six' and 'seven'. In this phrase, the word 'equality' means 'identity'. If we say that 'twice-three is six', we are saying that the issue of a process is an entity with the character 'six'. If we are saying that 'twice-three is equal to the sum of two and four', we are saying that two distinct processes issue in compositions with the same numerical character. The meanings of 'equality'—or of the word 'is'—differ in each of these cases. My final point is that mathematics is concerned with certain forms of process issuing into forms which are components for further process. In the previous lecture, we noted that the concept of a form of process gave its meaning to the concept of an infinite series, as employed in mathematics.

This discussion is a belated reminder to Plato that his eternal mathematical forms are essentially referent to process. This is his own doctrine when he refers to the necessity of 'life and motion'. But only intermittently did he keep it in mind. He was apt to identify process with mere appearance, and to conceive of absolute reality as devoid of transition. For him, in this mood, mathematics belonged to changeless eternity. He then has accepted 'tautology'.

5. The nature of any type of existence can only be explained by reference to its implication


( 127) in creative activity, essentially involving three factors: namely, data, process with its, form relevant to these data, and issue into datum for further process—data, process, issue.

The alternative is the reduction of the universe to a barren tautological absolute, with a dream of life and motion. The discovery of mathematics, like all- discoveries, both advanced human understanding, and also produced novel modes of error. Its error was the introduction of the doctrine of form, devoid of 'life and motion'.

The 'supreme being' of Greek philosophy was conceived by thinkers under the influence of the then recent development of mathematics, when the active-minded Greeks came into contact with Egyptian thought. They misconceived the relevance of mathematical notions. All mathematical notions have reference to process of intermingling. The very notion of number refers to the process from the individual units to the compound group. The final number belongs to no one of the units; it characterizes the way in which the group unity has been attained. Thus even the statement 'six equals six' need not be construed as a mere tautology. It can be taken to mean that six as dominating a special form of combination issues in six as a character of a datum for further process. There is no such en-


( 128) -tity as a mere static number. There are only numbers playing their parts in various processes conceived in abstraction from the world-process.

The notion of the world-process is therefore to be conceived as the notion of the totality of process. The notion of a supreme being must apply to an actuality in process of composition, an actuality not confined to the data of any special epoch in the historic field. Its actuality is founded on the infinitude of its conceptual appetition, and its form of process is derived from the fusion of this appetition with the data received from the world-process. Its function in the world is to sustain the aim at vivid experience. It is the reservoir of potentiality and the co÷rdination of achievement. The form of its process is relevant to the data from which the process is initiated. The issue is the unified composition which assumes its function as a datum operative in the future historic world.

The data of our experience are of two kinds. They can be analysed into realized matter-of-fact and into potentialities for matter-of-fact. Further, these potentialities can be analysed into pure abstract potentialities apart from special relevance to realization in the data or the issue, and into potentialities entertained by reason of some closeness of relevance to such realization. These potentialities entertained in respect to


( 129) their close relevance are the agents dictating the form of composition which produces the issue. This dictation of a form of composition involves the birth of an energetic determination whereby the data are subject to preservation and discard.

In so far as there is large mutual conformity in the data, the energetic form of composition is such as to transmit this conformity to the issue, thereby preserving that, uniformity for the future. We have here the basis of the large scale preservation of identities, amid minor changes. The planets, the stones, the living things all witness to the wide preservation of identity. But equally they witness to the partiality of such preservation. Nothing in realized matter-of-fact retains complete identity with its antecedent self. This self-identity in the sphere of realized fact is only partial. It holds for certain purposes. It dominates certain kinds of process. But in other sorts of process, the differences are important, and the self-identity is an interesting fable. For the purpose of inheriting real estate, the identity of the man of thirty years of age with the former baby of ten months is dominant. For the purpose of navigating a yacht, the differences between the man and the child are essential; the identity then sinks into a metaphysical irrevelancy. In so far as identities are preserved, there are orderly laws of nature. In so far as identities decay, these


( 130) laws are subject to modification. But the modification itself may be lawful. The change in the individual may exhibit a law of change, as, for example, the change from baby to fully-grown animal. And yet such laws of change are themselves liable to change. For example, species flourish and decay; civilizations rise and fall; heavenly bodies gradually form, and pass through sequences of stages.

In any of these examples, as the changes occur, new types of existence are rendered possible, subject to new laws of nature dependent upon that new environment. In other words, the data, the forms of process, and the issues into new data, are all dependent upon their epoch and upon the forms of process dominant in that epoch.

Nothing is more interesting to watch than the emotional disturbance produced by any unusual disturbance of the forms of process. The slow drift is accepted. But when for human experience quick changes arrive, human nature passes into hysteria. For example, gales, thunderstorms, earthquakes, revolutions in social habits, violent illnesses, destructive fires, battles, are all occasions of special excitement. There are perfectly good reasons for this energetic reaction to quick change. My point is the exhibition of our emotional reactions to the dominance of lawful


( 131) order, and to the breakdown of such order. When fundamental change arrives, sometimes heaven dawns, sometimes hell yawns open.

6. Too much attention has been directed to the mere datum and the mere issue. The essence of existence lies in the transition from datum to issue. This is the process of self-determination. We must not conceive of a dead datum with passive form. The datum is impressing itself upon this process, conditioning its forms. We must not dwell mainly on the issue. The immediacy of existence is then past and over. The vividness of life lies in the transition, with its forms aiming at the issue. Actuality in its essence is aim at self-formation.

One main doctrine, developed in these lectures, is that 'existence' (in any of its senses) cannot be abstracted from 'process'. The notions of 'process' and 'existence' presuppose each other. One deduction from this thesis is that the notion of a 'point' in process is fallacious. The concept of 'point' is here meant to imply that process can be analysed into compositions of final realities, themselves devoid of process.

For example, consider the notion of a moment of time devoid of any temporal spread—for example, at noon on such-and-such a day. Such a notion is the concept of a point devoid of process. Again, a point in space is another such


( 132) example. On the contrary, the extension of space is the ghost of transition. It is only to be experienced by some process of transition. This truth has, within the last thirty years, conquered modern physics in the somewhat na´ve form of doctrines about light.

The general principle, underlying these special cases, is that the erroneous notions of process devoid of individualities, and of individualities devoid of process, can never be adjusted to each other. If you start with either of these falsehoods, you must dismiss the other as meaningless.

The notion of number, as elaborated in arithmetic, has been traditionally treated with this bias towards such an erroneous separation. Each individual thing is devoid of numerosity; whereas, a static group is characterized by number. In this way process seems to be absent in our treatment of arithmetic. Thus mathematics has been conceived as the test case, which is the citadel for a false metaphysics.

When Plato thought of mathematics he conceived of a changeless world of form, and contrasted it with the mere imitation in the world of transition. Yet when Plato thought of the realities of action, he swayed to the opposite point of view. He called for life and motion' to rescue forms from a meaningless void.

In these lectures Plato's second doctrine, of


( 133) life and motion, has been adopted. The mathematical modes of fusion, such as 'addition', 'multiplication', 'serial form', and so on, have been construed as forms of process. The very notion of 'multiplicity' itself has been construed as abstraction from the form of process whereby data acquire a unity of issue into a novel datum.

7. Process and individuality require each other. In separation all meaning evaporates. The form of process (or, in other words, the appetition) derives its character from the individuals involved, and the characters of the individuals can only be understood in terms of the process in which they are implicated.

A difficult problem arises from this doctrine. How can the notion of any generality of reasoning be justified? For if the process depends on the individuals, then with different individuals the form of process differs. Accordingly, what has been said of one process cannot be said of another process. The same difficulty applies to the notion of the identity of an individual conceived as involved in different processes. Our doctrine seems to have destroyed the very basis of rationality.

The point is that every individual thing infects any process in which it is involved, and thus any process cannot be considered in abstraction from particular things involved. Also


( 134) the converse holds. Hence the absolute generality of logic and of mathematics vanish. Also induction loses any security. For in other circumstances, there will be other results.

In approaching this problem, the first point to notice is that its difficulty is in accordance with common sense. The distinctions between various sciences, and various topics for study, illustrate this point. No one would study geology as a preparation for appreciation of the sonnets of Shakespeare or the fugues of Bach. The things discussed in geology are so different from sonnets and so different from fugues. The result is that the interconnections discussed in a treatise on geology are very different from those disclosed in the structure of a sonnet or of a fugue. But faint analogies do occur. Sometimes these analogies rise in importance. For example, the Greeks discovered analogies between the lengths of strings and the harmonies of musical notes, and between the measurements of the dimensions of a building and the beauty of the structure.

Thus the differences arising from diversities are not absolute. Analogies survive amid diversity. The procedure of rationalism is the discussion of analogy. The limitation of rationalism is the inescapable diversity. The development of civilized thought can be described as the discovery of identities amid diversity. For example,


( 135) the discovery of identities of number as between a group of days and a group of fishes.

The whole understanding of the world consists in the analysis of process in terms of the identities and diversities of the individuals involved. The peculiarities of the individuals are reflected in the peculiarities of the common process which is their interconnection. We can start our investigation from either end; namely, we can understand the process and thence consider the characterization of the individuals; or we can characterize the individuals and conceive them as formative of the relevant process. In truth, the distinction is only one of emphasis.

But this possibility of abstraction, whereby individuals and the forms of process constituting their existence can be considered separately, brings out a fundamental intuition which lies at the basis of all thought. This intuition consists in the essential passage from experience of individual fact to the conception of character. Thence we proceed to the concept of the stability of character amidst the succession of facts. Thence we proceed to the concept of the partial identity of successive facts in a given route of succession. Thence we proceed to the potentiality of the facts for maintaining such partial identity amid such succession.

In other words, as soon as we abstract, so as


( 136) to separate the notions of serial forms and of individual facts involved, we necessarily introduce the notion of potentiality: namely, the potentiality of the facts for the series and of the series for the facts. All our knowledge consists in conceiving possible adjustments of series and of individual facts to each other. We say in effect, such and such facts are consistent with such and such serial forms. We are considering possibilities for individuals and possibilities for series. The mere immediate exemplification is only one aspect of our experience.

8. The notion of potentiality is fundamental for the understanding of existence, as soon as the notion of process is admitted. If the universe be interpreted in terms of static actuality, then potentiality vanishes. Everything is just what it is. Succession is mere .appearance, rising from the limitation of perception. But if we start with process as fundamental, then the actualities of the present are deriving their characters from the process, and are bestowing their characters upon the future. Immediacy is the realization of the potentialities of the past, and is the storehouse of the potentialities of the future. Hope and fear, joy and disillusion, obtain their meaning from the potentialities essential in the nature of things. We are following a trail in hope, or are fleeing from the pursuit in fear. The potentiali-


( 137) -ties in immediate fact constitute the driving force of process.

At this point the discussion must be halted. It has run into exaggeration. The essence of the universe is more than process. The alternative metaphysical doctrine, of reality devoid of process, would never have held the belief of great men, unless it expressed some fundamental aspect of our experience. For example, Newton's belief in absolute space may be mistaken. All the same it bears witness to the fact of the obviousness to him of factors in the universe to which the notion of process does not apply. At least the potentiality of spatial relations among the realizations of history stood for him as a timeless fact. He did not state it in this way. This formulation tones down his own belief in the independent actuality of space.

But as expressed in this way, the notion of spatial relations is an example of connected forms with overwhelming relevance to the present epoch of history. Also it illustrates the main principle on which Induction is based. This principle is that form of process chiefly derives from the dominant facts involved and thence tends to sustain itself so as to govern realizations in its own future. This is the doctrine of the varying relevance of potential forms. Thus the doctrine of the potentiality of the present to char-


( 138) -acterize the realizations of the future lies hidden in the beliefs of Bacon and of Newton. It is the sense of the form having a dual activity in the present. It characterizes the present and it thereby fashions the form of process in the future.

Two other names must be added. Plato with his supreme realm of forms, and Leibniz with his monads each with its form of process. Leibniz's doctrine is curiously reminiscent of Descartes' science of Analytical Geometry with its curves, each expressed by an algebraic equation, which is the form for the description of the curve. The difficulty is to relate the static form to the active process. There is an analogous difficulty in relating the static immediacy of fact to the historic process with its past and its future. There is the further problem to express the interconnections of facts, each with its measure of self-sufficiency. Each fact is just that limited thing that it is. How then do facts require each other? Finally, each immediate fact is a realization of itself. In what sense, then, can a fact harbour potentiality, which is the capacity of form for realization. In other words, How can the realization of form involve in its own nature reference to the realization of other forms in other occasions?

The topics thus enumerated are generalized


( 139) statements of the commonplaces of experience. They merely express what of course our lives mean to us in every moment of experience. For this very reason language fails in its analysis. We do not have to indicate for each other the necessities of existence. Language mainly presupposes the necessities and emphasizes the accidents. We rarely mention what must be present. We do mention what might be absent. The whole difficulty of philosophic discussion is this feebleness of language. The title of one outstanding philosophic treatise in the English language, belonging to the generation now passing, is 'Space, Time, and Deity'. By this phrase, Samuel Alexander places before us the problem which haunts the serious thought of mankind. 'Time' refers to the transitions of process, Space refers to the static necessity of each form of interwoven existence, and Deity expresses the lure of the ideal which is the potentiality beyond immediate fact.

9. Apart from Time there is no meaning for purpose, hope, fear, energy. If there be no historic process, then everything is what it is, namely, a mere fact. Life and motion are lost. Apart from Space, there is no consummation. Space expresses the halt for attainment. It symbolizes the complexity of immediate realization. It is the fact of accomplishment. Time and


( 140) Space express the universe as including the essence of transition and the success of achievement. The transition is real, and the achievement is real. The difficulty is for language to express one of them without explaining away the other.

Finally, there is Deity, which is that factor in the universe whereby there is importance, value, and ideal beyond the actual. It is by reference of the spatial immediacies to the ideals of Deity that the sense of worth beyond ourselves arises. The unity of a transcendent universe, and the multiplicity of realized actualities, both enter into our experience by this sense of Deity. Apart from this sense of transcendent worth, the otherness of reality would not enter into our consciousness. There must be value beyond ourselves. Otherwise every thing experienced would be merely a barren detail in our own solipsist mode of existence. We owe to the sense of Deity the obviousness of the many actualities of the world, and the obviousness of the unity of the world for the preservation of the values realized and for the transition to ideals beyond realized fact.

Thus, Space, Time, and Deity are general terms which indicate three types of reflective notions. The understanding of the nature of things in terms of such concepts is what distinguishes the human species from the other ani-


( 141) -mals. The distinction is not absolute. The higher animals show every sign of understandings and of devotions which pass beyond the immediate enjoyments of immediate fact. Also the life of each human being is mainly a dumb passage from immediacy to immediacy devoid of the illumination of higher reflection. But when all analogies between animal life and human nature have been stressed, there remains the vast gap in respect to the influence of reflective experience. This reflective experience exhibits three main characteristics which require each other for their full understanding. There are the experiences of joint association, which are the spatial experiences. There are the experiences of origination from a past and of determination towards a future. These are temporal experiences.

There are experiences of ideals—of ideals entertained, of ideals aimed at, of ideals achieved, of ideals defaced. This is the experience of the Deity of the universe. The intertwining of success and failure in respect to this final experience is essential. We thereby experience a relationship to a universe other than ourselves. We are essentially measuring ourselves in respect to what we are not. A solipsist experience cannot succeed or fail, for it would be all that exists. There would be no standard of comparison. Human experience explicitly relates itself to an external


( 142) standard. The universe is thus understood as including a source of ideals.

The effective aspect of this source is Deity as immanent in the present experience. The sense of historic importance is the intuition of the universe as everlasting process, unfading in its deistic unity of ideals.

Thus there is an essential relevance between Deity and historic process. For this reason, the form of process is not wholly dependent upon derivation from the past. As epochs decay amid futility and frustration, the form of process derives other ideals involving novel forms of order.

Science investigates the past, and predicts the future in terms of the forms of past achievement. But as the present becomes self-destructive of its inherited modes of importance, then the Deistic influence implants in the historic process new aims at other ideals.

Science is concerned with the facts of bygone transition. History relates the aim at ideals. And between Science and History, lies the operation of the Deistic impulse of energy. It is the religious impulse in the world which transforms the dead facts of Science into the living drama of History. For this reason Science can never foretell the perpetual novelty of History.

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