George Allan's most recent book, Whitehead’s Radically Temporalist Metaphysics: Recovering the Seriousness of Time (2020), has recently come to my attention. Before reading it, I have looked into some of his essays. (I understand the book itself is a collection of essays, so I may well be reading the book's earlier drafts.) One, "Diagrams and Myths," is in the recent edited volume Whitehead at Harvard: 1924–1925. The other is "A Functionalist Reinterpretation of Whitehead's Metaphysics" (The Review of Metaphysics 62, 2008). Reading them has prompted a return to some of Whitehead's concepts pertaining to time, form, and originality.
Consider three actual occasions: A, B, and C. A is in the actual world of B; and both A and B are in the actual world of C. Thus, A precedes B, and both precede C. In our cosmic epoch, we are inclined to suppose that this means A, B, and C are temporally ordered such that C only has access to through B's prior access to A. (Whitehead would, I think, say A is "included in" B rather than use the word "access.") However, this temporal ordering depends on C having felt all actual occasions in its actual world via the physical prehension of its totality. The order of entities according to both the extensive continuum in its ultimate generality and the more specialized social order of C's background cosmic epoch is a consequent result of C's concrescence of those entities. Their order does not precede C but, rather, depends on C's aesthetic synthesis for its perpetually renewed existence as objective datum for the creative advance. To be sure, there is a massiveness of valuation that practically ensures the reenaction of their order. But in terms of ultimate metaphysical generality, all that can be presupposed is their common availability to C, that is, their like inclusion in C's actual world.
What I am driving at is a suspicion that George Allan cannot decide, at least based on the internal coherence of Whitehead's philosophy, whether there is an eternal Past that is temporally modified or whether there is just the inherence of the past insofar as it conditions novel immediacy. While I am sympathetic to Allan's move to "take time seriously," and I do find, of those two options, that the latter makes more sense within the philosophy of organism, I do wonder whether it necessarily forecloses the former option. Instead, it may explain it. To be sure, the primordial actuality God should have no place in Process and Reality because it contravenes those lectures' metaphysical principles. On this point, I agree with Allan. But let us remain with the ontological status of satisfaction, because that is the core issue of which God is a derivative proposal.
To be is to be potential for every future becoming. This is Whitehead's principle of relativity, the flipside of which is the ontological principle: no actual entity, then no reason. The past cannot be everlasting because of process's character of perpetual perishing. That is essential to the temporal nature of actuality. The superject persists qua real potentiality "thus appropriated" (and again: "selectively appropriated") by a novel becoming (PR 219, 233). It does not perdure in some eternal receptacle.
Allan levies these points against Whitehead's assertion that there must be some Eternal aspect to reality, without which novel entities would neither be conditioned by antecedent occasions nor even come into existence in the first place. "Whitehead's solution is to ground it in an Eternal receptacle, a reality that is not itself temporal but is able to sustain the things of the past, and to do so in a way that makes it possible for them to have an impact, to perish and yet to live forevermore" (304). I agree with Allan that this is neither necessary nor consistent with Whitehead's philosophy of organism. However, I disagree with Allan that Whitehead means by the "Eternal" an atemporal receptacle into which all satisfactions rest. Or at least, that is not all he can mean given the centrality of both the settled world and eternal objects to his account of the atomic becoming of continuity. I agree with Allan that the temporal aspect of actuality is integral and sufficient for Whitehead's metaphysics. Yet I also contend that there is an eternal aspect bound up with the temporal, without which the temporal would not make sense.
What does it mean that actual entities are temporal? It means that actual entities never again become; their felt data are dis-unified in the selective appropriation of the actual world, "in other words 'objectified,'" so as to be re-unified as novel feelings in the process of concrescence (233). The crux of the problem pertains to which occasions are included in a novel entity's actual world. Whitehead insists on the totality of the settled world being available; but that what qualifies as an actual world is that world as felt by the final satisfaction.
Thus, any one percipient occasion that contributed yesterday to the enduring object that is my conscious, living personality is not, to my knowledge at least, directly felt in any of its feelings as constituting my actual world; it is re-enacted via a chain of entities, what Whitehead calls a "historic route" of occasions. While the entity itself is not recreated, enough of its pattern of feeling is integrated into a novel unity of experience. However, that past percipient occasion must be neither more nor less a component condition on the novel immediacy of the most recent percipient occasion than any other. Satisfaction does not admit of degrees in some absolute sense of succession. That would require positing an absolute Time, an Eternal receptacle that keeps track of when occasions became.
But so, too, would the assumption that only the most "recently," so to speak, satisfied occasions compose the settled world's real potentiality for novel becoming—this would also presuppose an Eternal receptacle that has the sole function of determining the cutting off point between satisfaction, condition, and final perishing beyond which its role as conditioning element is replaced by a relatively more novel occasion. Rejecting an Eternal as receptacle in favor of only the most recent actual occasions merely constrains the function of that receptacle; it does not refute it. The reason for this comes from my presentation above of entities A, B, and C. Whether entity A precedes B is a matter for the feelings contributive to C's satisfaction to decide. There is no absolute determination outside of a temporal actual entity's self-determination, and this applies to everything, not only to temporal succession. The intuitive assumption that A must precede B, and that A is felt by C only through B's own feelings of A, is not a metaphysically general case but an achievement owing to the real potentiality of this cosmic epoch's social order. Metaphysically considered, just because A is in B's actual world and not vice versa does not preclude C from feeling A either directly or as not mediated through B's feelings of A. To be sure, B's feelings of A, as part of the real internal constitution of B (B's "formal reality"), must be taken into account; but they can be negatively prehended. Any claims to the contrary—e.g. that even were C to feel A with a temporal order after B, it would not change the facts of A and B—depend on another actuality, let's say D, that feels A, B, and C (and perhaps a contemporary of C's, C1). And the conditions for entity D do not differ with regard to A and B but only with regard to C (and all of C's contemporaries that have perished) being potential for its becoming. To say otherwise is to impose an Eternal receptacle in which all past occasions subsist in static order, offered up everlastingly to novel creatures.
Yet, there is one insistent detail that prevents this cosmological picture from devolving into an arbitrary tale of caprice. What then is impossible in our scenario? It is impossible for C to negatively prehend A's inclusion of B in its actual world, since that is just not an option provided by the matters of fact. So perhaps there is a sense of metaphysically general succession to be garnered from the ineluctable matter of fact that B includes A in its actual world but not vice versa. While it may be felt otherwise, the negative prehension will nonetheless qualify that positive feeling of A as not prior to B. Not to be left out is Whitehead's own pragmatic recurrence to pre-Kantian modes of thought, including pre-skeptical naive realism: we experience the world as having a strict sequence in time. This sequentiality must have its basis in the "concrete procession of reality itself" (HL1; qtd. in Allan 303). It is never the case that C's potential for directly feeling A has only B to contend with; there is a multitude of occasions, many of which were contemporaries of B, for which A is included in their actual worlds. My concern is with the legitimacy of generalizing that sequentiality from the massiveness of realization in our cosmic epoch to metaphysical generality. In Process and Reality, Whitehead does assert that an actual entity necessitates a successive entity, though it does not necessitate a preceding occasion. (I would argue that the necessity of consequent entities implies the necessity of antecedent occasions.) Is this enough to attribute to Whitehead's philosophy a metaphysical presupposition of absolute temporal order? Well, he does give difficult-to-parse hypotheticals, along the lines of my own case with entities A, B, and C, which resist that assumption. But that cannot be the same as "the individual independence of successive 'perceptions,'" which Whitehead criticizes in modern philosophy and science as the fallacy of simple location (PR 137). Indeed it is not the same. Paraphrasing Locke, feeling is "determine[d] to this or that particular existence" (see Locke's Treatise, Bk. I, Part I, Sect. II; qtd. in PR 138). That is not the same as guaranteeing a "most recently satisfied" set of occasions as potential for becoming. They are potential for every becoming and not, to paraphrase Allan, potential for only those "immediate successors."
Let's briefly touch base with Allan's purely temporal interpretation. Allan argues for a "sequential transmission of influence," which he attributes to what Whitehead calls in his first year of lectures at Harvard "strain[s] of conditioning (of control)" (HL1, 31; qtd. in Allan 303). "A past occasion has its own past, of course. The conditions its shadow imposed on each of its nascent immediate successors were shaped by the shadows its immediate predecessors imposed on it, and similarly for the predecessors of those predecessors, ad infinitum" (Allan 302). But the determination of "immediate successor" is a decision to be made in the concrescence of those successors. I wonder whether Allan's solution might be a sleight of hand that depends on our familiarity with temporal succession according to the historic routes of occasions that constitute our cosmic epoch. He privileges a kind of actual entity he deems an "immediate predecessor," when what he ought to consider is the belonging to actual worlds. Immediacy of precedence is part of real potentiality, a pattern of definiteness upon which a novel concrescence decides. The metaphysical analog, or basis, to temporal distance is the inclusion in many occasions' actual worlds.
If there isn't a function of immediate precedence baked into concrescence, then how does a Whiteheadian metaphysics avoid recourse to an interpretation of the settled world as an Eternal receptacle? The answer to that question must apply equally to those occasions in an actual world that do not also belong to the actual world of another occasion (this is entity "B" in my example) as well as to those occasions that do belong to nested actual worlds (this is entity "A"). I think the solution needs to recognize the validity of the eternal not as a "ground," as Allan shows is sometimes the case for Whitehead, but as an integral aspect of the temporal: namely, the sense in which forms or potentials are eternal. (Just to be clear: I pretty much agree with Allan's "functionalist interpretation" of Whitehead's process philosophy.) Whitehead prefers the novel term "eternal object" for these forms because it is unlikely to be confused for concepts associated with extant terminology (like form, eidos, ideas, concepts) and because it captures the function played by this "type of existence" (PR 22). The eternal object plays a "two-way rôle" as mediator between perished and final fact of feeling, on the one hand, and the becoming unity of feeling, on the other hand.
It is eternal because it is not determined to a particular existence; it is ideal (like logical generalities, rules, concepts, etc.). By "determined to a particular existence," I do not mean to say that an eternal object is apart from its ingression in actual occasions (more on this below). Rather, for potential to transition from satisfied occasion to novel entity, it must be capable of abstraction from any particular existence. An eternal object names that component aspect of actuality which can recur, which can be extricated from the singular unity of a concrescence. It is what remains the same across contingent facts and thus what affords the possibility of change across singular novelties.
On this point, I differ with Allan in an interpretation of a passage from PR: "Any entity whose conceptual recognition does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world is called an 'eternal object'" (44). Allan, in his 2008 essay "A Functionalist Reinterpretation of Whitehead's Metaphysics," takes this definition to imply a non-temporal receptacle of the totality of eternal objects (331). He says: "An eternal object need never be actualized, but should it be it may then recur." I disagree. The key word to focus on in Whitehead's sentence is "necessary." Whitehead is not saying that absolutely no reference occurs to definite actual entities; he says only that no particular reference is necessary. The eternal object is that entity felt in such a way that it does not necessitate reference to one definite actual entity. That is the whole point of conceptual valuation (the fourth categoreal obligation, though I find the fifth, which is conceptual reversion, to be necessary as well). There is no separate set of eternal objects here, subsisting timelessly. They are not "real" in and of themselves. All eternal objects are derived from actuality, from the temporal world (this is Dewey's proposal, which Allan takes up). They are the metaphysically general case of "derivative abstraction." Their reality always depends upon concrescence and does not presuppose a non-temporal, timeless world as counterpart to the temporal world of definite actual entities. Nor does it presuppose a primordial actual entity. (I agree with Allan's critique of such a primordial actual entity, and I would further say that Whitehead reconceptualizes eternal objects to fit with it; he does not derive God from them by the necessity of their concept.)
The significance of the "object" side of the term means that the eternal object's eternity is not a self-subsistent Being, but always ingressed as the forms of feelings determined to this or that existence. It is an object because of its intractable participatory status in actuality. In order to be at all, an eternal object must provide the medium of objectification (physical prehensions) and be objectified (via conceptual and hybrid prehensions). There is no grounding eternity that transcends temporal entities; nor is there an oxymoronic temporalization of eternity (i.e. the dual natures of God in Part V of Process and Reality). Instead, there is an eternal aspect to the thoroughly temporal nature of concrete process. Without it, there would be neither perishing nor novelty, for the metaphysical role of the eternal object is to link those two sides of the processual swinging. Eternal objects account for the functioning of transition without positing another distinct kind of actuality that would intervene between perished satisfaction and novelty in becoming. They are a methodological abstraction from the real potentiality that bookends either side of actuality and suffuses its real internal synthesis. Or as Allan himself explains Whitehead's account of the singular achievement of an entity's subjective aim: "These references to the timeless, the ultimate, and the eternal do not imply any reality independent of temporal becoming and perishing, however. Creativity is the ultimate principle asserting the primacy of temporal process" (339).
One approach I consider capable of eliminating the need for eternal objects would be to argue that there is no such thing as an entity that "does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world" (PR 44). For in the case of conceptual valuation, whereby some general potential is felt without strict reference to a singular occasion in the actual world, it would still be the case that that feeling has its own necessity rooted in the satisfaction to which it contributes. Conceptual feeling, of which an eternal object is the object, does "involve necessary reference" to a "definite actual entit[y] of the temporal world," namely the one that finally feels it.
I also agree with Allan's criticism that with Whitehead's God, the eternal object's "relational features are purely extrinsic" (332). He maintains the importance of the categoreal obligation of Conceptual Reversion, which he explains as the manner by which concrescence introduces a "new kind of possible unity" (340). It achieves this "by interpreting the divergent conceptual feelings as version of a more general or more fundamental possibility" (340). In other words, instead of having recourse to God for an eternal object that would allow for the necessary contrast, the actual entity, by virtue of the creative process that it is, already has the resources for the conceptual complexification that becomes a contrast. In my article on "Interstitial Life," I similarly argue for an implicated relationality inspired by the differential logic of structural linguistics. Its relationality is not a "real togetherness" in the sense of concrescence (PR 32, qtd. in Allan 332). But a tacit, or potential, relationality that depends on being felt together with other conceptual feelings. This does not replace God's provision of the ordering of eternal objects' relevance to the best satisfaction of a subjective aim. That function is simply unnecessary. Relevance is pragmatic, not timeless and total. It can be proposed, attempted, and compared over the course of historic routes of occasions. Some sort of object for feeling that is not necessarily in reference to any particular actual entity is required in order to account for "possibilities never before entertained" (Allan 335). Having never been entertained, such possibilities are not, counter to Allan's assumption, "available, potent features of the realities impinging on the present." They must be derived via the phases of concrescence through the conceptual recognition of potentials, possibly their reversion to more general definitions of potential, and via feelings of contrast.
Finally, to return to the issue of "immediate predecessors," Allan, in his reading of Adventures of Ideas, gives an account of the becoming of novel entities in line with Whitehead's "settled world."
"The 'Reality' from which this new occasion emerges is 'the past,' which is composed of 'diverse individual occasions.' This Reality is an 'initiating' power, an 'energizing' force—the originating impetus of the process of concrescence. The past is described not merely as an inheritance, a passive lump of brute fact that must be taken into account. It is a vector force calling forth the new concrescence. This process is then 'urged onward' by the operation of the occasion's mental pole, which provides 'conceptual subject-matter for synthesis with the Reality'" (349; citations are to p.281 of AI).
What determines the creation of novel occasions? We know that novel occasions become. But Whitehead does not, to my knowledge, attempt to explain whether there is a one-for-one vector from perished superject to novel subject. Perhaps, however, there is a clue in his assertion that while an actual entity does not require a preceding entity, it does necessitate a subsequent one. It is at least the case that every actual occasion is superceded by one actual entity. I interpret Whitehead to be saying that with the satisfaction of concrescence, that superject's vector feeling of its future incites its own recreation. Given the underdeveloped character of Whitehead's claim, this interpretation is not necessarily correct, though it does seem to accord with the overwhelming stability and continuity of our experience. It also lends credence to Allan's notion of "immediate predecessors."
Let us widen the interpretation. Could a satisfaction be followed by more than one novel becoming? Could one entity fulfill this requirement for multiple superjects? Perhaps—though what is of greater interest to me is the possibility that an actual entity could correspond to multiple satisfactions that were contemporaries of one another. If possible, then would it occur for every possible combination of contemporary perished occasions? Or would there need to be a condition met for such composite incitation? (For instance, two contemporary subjects could, via presentational immediacy, project one another to an accurate enough degree that their propositions for consequent feeling align.)
Alternatively, would an entity without an explicit precedent be possible? Would it lack a valuative content in its physical prehension of its actual world, since its perspective would not be dedicated, as it were, to any particular past occasion? What would such an entity finally feel? Everything evenly? In order to maintain the positive prehension of the entire settled world, it would be incapable of subordinating any data to any other and thus would diminish the importance of the multiplicity of potential patterns for definiteness to the bare remainder of actuality as such. Such an entity would concretely feel the opening to Hegel's Science of Logic: "Being, pure being—without any further determination," which "is in fact nothing." "Nothing, pure nothing: it is simply equality with itself, complete emptiness, absence of all determination and content" (Hegel, trans. Miller, 82). I think not, because even without a subjective aim lured to feeling by a particular superject, this entity would still be swayed by the intensity of its actual world's superjects. It is not ex nihilo but ex omnibus. Could such an entity become? It sounds similar to the consequent nature of God; except, instead of being a container that iteratively expands through the recurrent unifications of itself, it is temporal entity that doubles the rest of existence with no individuality of its own. I can imagine equating its synthesis to a total accounting of all the contemporary entities in their disjunctive unity as novel real potentiality. But then, that is what the settled world is: a tensed, ephemeral unity that is nothing without its supercession by novel processes. Such an entity makes no sense. Moreover, like all actual entities, it would incite a novel becoming transcending it; thereby obviating the creation of a novelty without immediate predecessor—unless, of course, another entity ex omnibus were to become. Why would it not, if one ever did? Well, I think that for a creature to become without preference to its actual world is akin to having no subjective aim, to lacking a conceptual pole, and thus to mechanistic determinism.