Glancing through a recent issue of the journal Subjectivity, I noticed that their very first issue — an impressive debut that featured an all-star cast of relational thinkers including Isabelle Stengers, Annemarie Mol, and Nigel Thrift — is freely available online (to non-subscribers). The issue also included an article by Paul Stenner that provides an unusually lucid articulation of Whiteheadian process philosophy in the context of debates about “subjectivity.”
It’s worth sharing Stenner’s 14-point description of “actual occasions,” which is Whitehead’s term for the most fundamental-level events, the process-relational building blocks of the universe (to use a mechanistic metaphor for something that’s the opposite of mechanism). While it’s full of Whiteheadian jargon, and hardly the most friendly introduction to Whitehead for the non-initiated, even if you’re unfamiliar with his basic terms you could still get a good feel for what they might mean and how they cohere into a fairly simple system. Just keep in mind the basic idea: that the universe, from the most microscopic level up, consists not of substances but of processes or events.
1. Consistent with the fundamental concepts of physics, an actual occasion is not a substance or material but an activity of realization.
2. The concepts of realization and activity require the concept of process. Process is defined as the becoming of actual occasions. An ontology of process thus replaces an ontology of state or substance (Stengers, 1997, p. 67): “At an instant there is nothing. Each instant is only a way of grouping matters of fact. Thus there are no instants, conceived as simple primary entities… Thus all the interrelations of matters of fact must involve transition in their essence” (Whitehead, 1934, p. 48).
3. The word “actual” in actual occasions requires a distinction between the actual and the potential. Actuality is the realization of potential in a particular concrete form. An actual occasion – in which a subject concerns its objects – is this process of actualization.
4. The realization of potential into actual form is called the process of concrescence in the sense of becoming concrete. Potential, when actualized in a given occasion, concretizes in a radically specific concrete form (this actuality and not that one).
5. Through concrescence many things (objects, data) are grasped or prehended through a process (i.e. through the becoming of an actual occasion) into a new unity. The many become one.
6. This process of unification effects a reduction in the complexity of the prior potential. Actuality is thus a decision (in the sense of a “cutting off”) amid potentiality. The exclusion of aspects of potentiality that are not selected for actualization in a given occasion is called “negative prehension”.
7. The inclusion of aspects of potential that are actualized is called positive prehension or feeling. A feeling is the operation of passing from the objectivity of an object to the subjectivity of an actual occasion. The concrescence of an actual occasion is thus effected by feelings through which objects enter into the real internal constitution of a subject.
8. An actual occasion is thus a pattern grasped into the unity of an event or a selective and hence “evaluative” patterning of the many into one. In other words, an actual occasion is a passage from a state of disjunctive diversity to a state of conjunctive unity.
9. Creativity is central to this process of conjunctive synthesis. Something new is added to the universe by the actual occasion (e.g. the pattern itself is added). “[T]he many become one and are increased by one” (Whitehead, 1927–1928/1985, p. 21).
10. This principle of creativity stresses the potential novelty of any particular instance of actualization. Potentialities, by definition, can be actualized in various different ways. The way an actual occasion does in fact actualize its potentials into concrete form is a matter of that occasion’s perspective on the many, and its “subjective aim”. Its specific manner of feeling the many is its “subjective form”.
11. The subject with its perspective does not pre-exist its feelings but creates itself through them. Whitehead’s category of subjective unity (Whitehead, 1927–1928/1985, p. 222) expresses that ultimately an actual occasion is a creature that creates itself.
12. One must thus distinguish the process of self-realization from its product. To do this, Whitehead distinguishes the subject from the superject. The subject is the process of self-realization considered in terms of its own novel internal constitution or in terms of the immediacy of its self enjoyment. It is the internal self-becoming of the actual occasion. The superject, by contrast, is the objective product of these experiences – the creature of its creative process. An actual occasion is thus always di-polar, involving the subjective process of feeling and its objective product (Whitehead, 1927–1928/1985, p. 29).
13. As subject, the actual occasion is the becoming unity of conjunctive synthesis. As superject it takes its place as one among the many in disjunctive diversity. In short, the experience of the subject is expressed by way of the superject as an object.
14. Finally, we return to process by way of the principle of relativity, which holds that “it belongs to the nature of every ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming’” (Whitehead, 1927–1928/1985, p. 45). Once an actual occasion becomes a determinate superject, then it can play the role of one of the many objects that are the concern of another actual occasion with its process of creative conjunctive synthesis. The subject becomes the superject, which in turn becomes the object for a new subject.