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As THE SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT DEVELOPED in twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy, Whitehead and Russell came to epitomize the speculative and the analytic approaches, respectively. (1) The former focused on the construction of a comprehensive metaphysics; the latter emphasized the quest for conceptual clarity via rigorous logical and linguistic analysis. But the antithetical relationship between these two warring factions is less apparent when we examine the common goals shared by Whitehead and Russell just after their collaboration on the foundations of mathematics in their monumental Principia Mathematica. (2) It was here that both were engaged in another foundational project in the philosophy of physics. Whitehead and Russell separately developed an event ontology as the most obvious consequence of the revolutionary advances of modern physics, but there were differences in their respective views as to how this ontology was to be interpreted as a metaphysical foundation of physics. In this essay, my goal is to explore these affinities and contrasts in Whitehead and Russell's views regarding how the extended universe, including matter and "empty" space, is to be conceived as a manifold of events. I also show how much of Russell's metaphysics was influenced by Whitehead's early work. In spite of the fact that Russell generously acknowledged this influence, it is seldom recognized by commentators on Russell's philosophy.


The development of Whitehead and Russell's philosophical thought can be characterized by what Russell called a "revolt into pluralism." (3) As he put it, the universe is more like a heap of shot than a pot of treacle. (4) This is not quite Whitehead's view, but the theory of temporal atomicity that emerged from his earlier holistic theory falls safely within the general characterization of a pluralistic universe. For Whitehead, the universe is more like shot in the treacle, but the shot arise from previous shot and only last a fraction of a second.

Russell says that he began to work on the foundation of physics after he completed his work on the foundations of geometry in 1896, but since he was under the influence of Hegelianism, the dominant philosophical movement in Britain, what little came of this, he said in retrospect, was "complete nonsense." (5) Russell had accepted the notion that the sciences are limited to some portion of reality and thereby produce little more than appearances in the reality of the Absolute. This was a point shared by British Hegelians such as F. H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet, and Harold Joachim. According to them, the sciences fracture reality into parts and therefore deal only in abstractions. As Russell examined Hegel's views on mathematics and science, however, he became skeptical about all of Hegel's views. When he was finally liberated from the unquestioned authority of Hegel, he adopted the opposite extremes; realism replaced idealism, pluralism replaced monism, and the doctrine of external relations replaced the doctrine of internal relations. He also rejected the idealistic view of the omnipresence of experience or consciousness in the totality of the universe for the view that experience is a very tiny and cosmically trivial part of the universe. Russell regarded all of these changes as more scientifically informed and much better suited for his second attempt at the foundation of physics. In fact, Russell and Whitehead were part of the movement to overthrow Hegelianism; both saw that the armchair speculation of the Hegelians was a sort of misguided megalomania compared with the stunning successes of the sciences, especially physics. (6)

When James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein reset the agenda for physics, Russell's work on the foundation of physics gained a strong footing. Here he says he began to think about the physical world largely under Whitehead's influence.'


Russell identified the axiom of internal relations as the key doctrine that impeded clear thinking in mathematics and in the conception of the physical world. As noted above, this was a central part of his revolt into pluralism. In his Principles of Mathematics he therefore attacked the monistic view of relations and in particular Bradley's critique of relations in which all appearances of individuality and relation are to be understood as illusions. The axiom of internal relations, according to Russell, asserts that "every relation between two terms expresses, primarily, intrinsic properties of the two terms and, in ultimate analysis, a property of the whole which the two compose." (8) He equated this metaphysical doctrine with the monistic theory of truth because nothing can be considered true except in relation to the whole. As Russell makes the point, he wrote:
   When we consider merely that part of A's nature in virtue of which
   A is related to B, we are said to be considering A qua related to
   B; but this is an abstract and only partially true way of
   considering A, for A's nature, which is the same thing as A,
   contains the grounds of its relations to everything else as well as
   to B. Thus nothing quite true can be said about A short of taking
   account of the whole universe. (9)

While Russell's attack focused on the monistic theory of relations generally, he appears to regard Bradley as holding the doctrine of internal relations and cites Appearance and Reality as one of the key works in the stranglehold of the monistic theory. (10) Bradley, however, argued in Appearance and Reality that no relations, whether internal or external, correctly characterize the nature of reality. It is only in immediate experience untainted by thought that we encounter concrete reality in its true nature, but given that there are degrees of truth and reality, internal relations distort reality less than external relations. In other words, internal relations more closely represent reality as one, rather than many, and are therefore to be considered higher in degrees of truth and reality yet still relatively unreal. What Bradley actually argued was that relations considered either with or without their terms lead to contradictions. (11) Notwithstanding this slight misinterpretation on Russell's part, his general argument stands against the monistic theory.

For Russell, the main problem with those who hold the monistic theory is that they unconsciously construe a relational proposition as having the subject-predicate form, that is, as ascribing a predicate to a single subject, rather than treating the terms as separate individuals in relation. Under the influence of the monistic theory, Russell says, the relation becomes "a property of the whole composed of a and b, and as such equivalent to a proposition which we may denote by (ab)r." (12) Bradley, for example, wrote in The Principles of Logic that "in 'A precedes B,' this whole relation A--B is the predicate, and, in saying this is true, we treat it as an adjective of the real world ... the reality to which the adjective A--B is referred is the subject of A--B." (13) By "real world," Bradley of course has in mind the total unity in the Absolute--the only single Subject. In his logic, every judgment predicates some property or relation of the ultimate Subject, but in doing so distorts reality.

Regarding the proposition, "a is greater than b," Russell contends that the monist will say that this "does not really say anything about either a or b, but about the two together. Denoting the whole which they compose by (ab), it says, we will suppose, '(ah) contains diversity of magnitude.'" (14) But Russell effectively argues that views of this sort merely obstruct our comprehension. They fail to do justice to asymmetrical relations necessary to understanding relations of whole and part, temporal order, causation, and especially increasing magnitude in mathematics.

Russell said that that new logic of relations developed by Peirce and DeMorgan and put to work in Principia Mathematica gave thought wings, whereas Aristotelian categorical logic put it in fetters. (15) aRb expresses the relation between two particulars rather than the subject a having a predicate--the relation to b. Moreover, it is important to note that the formalization of a relation as aRb is read "the relation of a to b" not "a in relation to R in relation to b." Bradley's arguments appear to make the mistake of reifying the relation R, of treating it as an entity on a par with the terms, rather than a derivative abstraction from the concrete process. It is largely due to this mistake that he finds relations unintelligible, for example, in generating infinite regresses and thereby "proving" that relations are unreal.

So, as Russell explained, in opposition to everything asserted by Hegelians, he adopted the view that external relations are essential to making sense of basic mathematical notions, and this view also becomes central to his philosophy of logical atomism. That is, the world consists of a plurality of independently existing things exhibiting qualities and standing in external relations. Whitehead, however, advanced a third alternative to the dichotomy of internal--external relations, or what I call "the Russell-Bradley problem." What appear to be mutually exclusive alternatives can be combined in a satisfactory 15 * theory based on the asymmetry of time. This is where Whitehead contributes a radically new theory. (16)

First, Whitehead saw that an exclusive view of external relations, such as that held by Hume or Russell, treats the basic entities of one's ontology as self-subsistent and is thereby incapable of explaining causal influence, memory, genetic inheritance, and evolution. He called this "the fallacy of simple location," the idea that entities can be simply located here in time or here in space and held up on either side by purely external supports. (17) Hume, for example, held that events known to us in perception are distinct, separate, and have no need of anything else to support their existence. (18) Russell confirms his commitment to this view in his "Beliefs: Discarded and Retained," when he says of his heap of shot analogy that: "I still think, on the whole, this view is right ... the world is made up of an immense number of bits, and that, so far as logic can show, each bit might be exactly as it is even if other bits did not exist." (19) Second, while Whitehead agreed with Russell's complaint that the importance of the asymmetrical relation had been neglected by previous philosophers, he made it clear how the asymmetrical relation functions as a basic principle of his metaphysics. In order to accomplish this he, unlike Russell, did not abandon internal relations. While Whitehead modified his view from a four-dimensional monism to an event pluralism expressed in his mature metaphysics, as Russell observed, "he was considerably influenced by Bergson," and he "was impressed by the aspect of unity in the universe." (20) This is a reference to Whitehead's development of his process philosophy. Whitehead's actual occasions are the "atoms" of his system, and his concept of prehension is the central idea that expresses the relations among actual occasions. Prehensions in Process and Reality are defined as "concrete facts of relatedness." (21) Crucially, Whitehead's view of prehension does not treat the relations as abstractions, as entities in their own right, but rather as concrete functions of actual occasions. The relation is the present occasion's absorption of past actual occasions in its process of self-creation. In this manner, the unity of the universe grows from the bottom up. This marks the most radical departure from the position Russell advanced.

Whitehead's concept of prehension expresses the creative advance of the universe whereby the many become one in the temporal process. The present concresing actual occasion selects the data of the immediate past in creating a novel unity. In this manner, the past is internally related to the present, but the present is externally related to the past. That is, any present actual occasion's prehension must be of what is already settled in the past, and so the past becomes part of the present; but the settled past is no longer active, so what is in the future of those past occasions is external. This is closely related to Whitehead's understanding of "subject" and "object." A present occasion in a process of becoming is subjectively immediate as it prehends the past, but once that occasion completes its process of becoming, it perishes in subjective immediacy and becomes an object or being. This is a metaphysical explanation for creativity analogous to an explanation for how genetics accounts for inheritance of physical characteristics in biology, but the crucial point is that this process is teleological in Whitehead's metaphysics since the explanation for how novelty arises in the world is internally driven by the subjective aim of the actual occasions.

In the logic of relations, Whitehead's concept of prehension can be formalized as xRy, meaning "x is prehended by y." The formal properties of prehension are:

1. Asymmetry - (x)(y) (xRy [contains] ~yRx)

For all finite actual occasions x and y, if x is prehended by y, then it is not the case that y is prehended by x. A present occasion prehends a past occasion, but a past occasion cannot prehend a present occasion because it cannot prehend what does not exist from its standpoint, and once an occasion perishes as subject, it becomes an object for future occasions. Contemporary actual occasions cannot prehend one another because as present, occasions are in a process of becoming and do not yet exist as determinate entities.

2. Irreflexivity - (x) ~xRx

For any finite actual occasion x, it is not the case the x prehends x. An occasion as present cannot prehend what does not yet exist as object.

3. Transitivity - (x)(y)(z) [(xRy x yRz) xRz]

For all finite actual occasions x, y, and z, if x is prehended by y, and y is prehended by z, then x is prehended by z. If an actual occasion has positively prehended an immediate predecessor and that predecessor has positively prehended its immediate predecessor, then the actual occasion of the present has prehended the positive prehension of its predecessor.

There is a qualification of the relational property of transitivity if one takes into account Whitehead's doctrine of negative prehension. That is, according to Whitehead, an actual occasion in the process of becoming selects the data compatible with its subjective aim and in doing so will reject that which is incompatible with its aim. So, if z prehends positive prehensions of x indirectly by z's prehending y, there is a question concerning whether z exhaustively prehends all of the content of x, since x is not an immediate, proximate, contiguous occasion of z. Some almost infinitesimally small aspect or aspects of x might be negatively prehended by z. And this being the case, not all of x is prehended by z. But if y positively prehends x, and z positively prehends y, the fullness of the transitive property is preserved. (22)

Whitehead's view of prehension as an asymmetrical relation contrasts with theories in which symmetry is viewed as basic. For example, in the four-dimensional space-time of Einstein's theory of relativity, time is treated as a sort of illusion. Within the block universe of space-time, all events have the character of being intrinsically present and only relatively past or future. In such a theory, the world is treated as a timeless, four-dimensional entity. So, being earlier or later in time is analogous to being next to in space. In other words, there is no ultimate reality to our experience of a direction of time because time is treated more like space. Also, in certain physical laws, namely, those that do not distinguish between past and future such as laws in classical mechanics, any physical process described by the law is equally described by a time-reversed process. Other laws of physics, however, are based on an asymmetry of time. This would include thermodynamics in which disorder or entropy increases and the expansion of the universe in cosmology. The question, of course, is what laws of physics are overriding for the ultimate unified theory? (23)

Now that pluralism has been established in Whitehead and Russell's views of relations, in the remainder of this essay I show the consequences of this doctrine for their views regarding the foundations of physics.


As Whitehead's work progressed from mathematics to physics, he applied logico-mathematical techniques to his fundamental problems. In this connection, Dorothy Emmet wrote:
   Whitehead's philosophy of nature was marked on the one hand by his
   concern with logico-mathematical schemes and on the other by an
   insistence on the rich, complex world of experience. He wanted to
   show how the former could be abstracted from and related to the
   latter without the abstractions being treated as if they were real
   elements. (24)

For example, Whitehead asked: "How does exact thought apply to the fragmentary, vague continua of experience?" This, he said, is the fundamental question of scientific philosophy. (25) Victor Lowe insightfully called this Whitehead's doctrine of "the rough world and the smooth world." (26) The smooth world is the rationalist's conception of the world as matter in motion described by the precise concepts of mathematical physics. The rough world is the empiricist's conception of the world as the data of sense experience. Whitehead's method of extensive abstraction is rightly considered a bridge between the two. Points, lines, planes, and instants of time are all abstractions out of sense data via sets of diminishing regions. A point, for example, is defined as the route of the whole set of diminishing regions, such as circles or squares, one extending over another ad infinitum. The merit of defining the geometrical entities in this way is that they are viewed as logical functions of extension instead of actual particulars in nature, yet they do the same mathematical work that is required for physics. Consider, for example, the physicist's explanation of uniform circular motion. At any instant of time, the instantaneous velocity is tangential to the circle. In a time interval At the object moves along the circular path from one point to another point. Objects in uniform circular motion exist, but instants of time and points in space are now understood via extensive abstraction as ideal entities derived from the diminishing regions. This project was fundamental to Whitehead's three books, Principles of Natural Knoivledge, Concept of Nature, and The Principle of Relativity, in which he presented his view of the physical world as a four-dimensional space-time manifold influenced by Einstein's theory of relativity. He showed in these works how the geometry of space-time could be constructed via his method of extensive abstraction and how relative motion could be understood by innumerable parallel durations constituting different time-systems.' This corresponds to the inertial frames of reference in Einstein's special theory of relativity.

For Whitehead, the whole idea of beginning with the data of immediate experience and deriving abstractions from sense data avoids what he calls "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness," namely, treating abstractions as if they are the concrete things or building blocks of the system. (28) He viewed Newtonian physics as the prime example of misplaced concreteness because it treats nonempirical instantaneous material configurations as the particulars of nature. The physicist or philosopher who assumes there is a stock of precise concepts from which to begin has the epistemological foundation all backward. Matter is as much an abstraction of thought as points and instants.

Russell was quick to recognize the significance of Whitehead's novel invention and credits Whitehead for his awakening from "dogmatic slumbers." (29) It would become part of the maxim in his epistemology--"Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities." (30) As he said in the preface of Our Knowledge of the External World: "The central problem by which I have sought to illustrate method is the problem of the relation between the crude data of sense and the space, time, and matter of mathematical physics. I have been made aware of the importance of this problem by my friend and collaborator Dr. Whitehead." (31) Russell pays tribute to Whitehead for this idea repeatedly in his writings, as, for example, when he wrote: "in proportion as physics increases the scope and power of its methods, in that same proportion it robs its subject matter of concreteness.... Dr. Whitehead has done more than any other author to show the need of undoing the abstractions of physics." (32) Russell saw the method of extensive abstraction as a fresh application of mathematical logic and, very broadly conceived, as an application of Occam's razor in physics, for one need not assume the abstract constructions as part of the furniture of the world. (33) The elements of geometry are not included among the entities recognized in our ontology but are rather viewed as abstractions or ideals of pure thought that are derived from experience. Russell also saw it as a way of connecting psychology and physics. As we move in thought from the rough world to the smooth world or from the crude data of sense to the matter of mathematical physics, we form a conception of the external world that is empirically based yet informed by theory and the ideal constructions of the mathematician.

Russell extended the scope of Whitehead's method of extensive abstraction from mathematics to physics. Just as he saw points, lines, and planes as logical constructions, the particles of mathematical physics and ordinary physical objects are likewise logical constructions. As he put it: "The persistent particles of mathematical physics I regard as logical constructions, symbolic fictions enabling us to express compendiously very complicated assemblages of facts." (34)


Both Whitehead and Russell believed that physics had become dislodged from its empirical foundations with the acceptance of the Newtonian paradigm, but with the revolution launched by Einstein's special and general theories of relativity at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a fresh opportunity to rethink the foundations of physics. On this very issue Whitehead wrote in the preface to his Principles of Natural Knoivledge: "Modern speculative physics with its revolutionary theories concerning the natures of matter and of electricity has made urgent the question, What are the ultimate data of science?" (35) Similarly, Russell wrote in The Analysis of Matter. "There is first the epistemological problem: what facts and entities do we know of that are relevant to physics, and may serve as its empirical foundation?" (36) In what follows in both of these works, the answer to the question is "events."

The first important development in the influence of modern physics on a new ontology was Maxwell's electromagnetic field. In fact, the very concept of an energy field, beginning with Faraday's experiments with electricity and magnetism and ending with Maxwell's mathematical equations expressing the unification in electromagnetism, was the most revolutionary idea that began the breakdown of the classical notion of atoms and the void. There is no such thing as empty space or the Newtonian receptacle. Instead, space is a field of electromagnetic energy. For Whitehead, this physical concept pointed to the ontological concept of a network of events underlying the energy field. The ultimate facts contemplated by Maxwell's theory are events occurring throughout all of space. (37)

Along with Whitehead, Einstein saw that a radically new ontology was required by the physical facts. The second development that pointed to an ontology of events was Einstein's special and general theories of relativity. Crucially, the special theory of relativity denies that there is a cosmic, instantaneous "now" or privileged frame of reference and replaces this with the notion of innumerable frames of reference in relative motion, each with its own "now." The idea of the whole material universe existing at an instant is therefore abandoned. Moreover, with the fusion of space and time that was accomplished by Minkowski's mathematical treatment of Einstein's theory, a four-dimensional view replaces the three-dimensional view of classical physics. According to this conception of space-time, events appear to be basic since all physical objects are stretched out in four-dimensions. A physical object is conceived as a "space-time worm" in a four-dimensional manifold, of which each spatial and temporal part is an event.

Lastly, in particle physics, where the search for fundamental particles reveals higher and higher energies, matter is reduced to events. Quantum theory, at least on certain ontological interpretations, leads to the conclusion that nature appears to be dematerialized at the most fundamental level. Because of the extremely short life span of subatomic particles in modern physics, there is very little that remains of the classical concept of atoms as the constant and indestructible building blocks of matter. As Whitehead contemplated these developments, he wrote in Process and Reality.
   the change ... is the displacement of the notion of static stuff by
   the notion of fluent energy. Such energy has its structure of
   action and flow, and is inconceivable apart from such structure....
   Mathematical physics translates the saying of Heraclitus 'All
   things flow', into its own language. It then becomes, all things
   are vectors. (38)

Russell followed Whitehead's lead in advancing the view that events rather than substances are known in sense perception, and building from this foundation, events form the basis of a system of whole-part relations that create the space-time manifold. ' Russell accordingly argued that without "an interpretation of physics which gives due place to perceptions ... we have no right to appeal to the empirical evidence." (40) The status of physics would therefore be vastly improved by a theory of the physical world that makes events continuous with perception. "[W]hat we experience," Russell wrote, "has certain characteristics connected with our experiencing." (41) Taking into account the physiology, we do not experience external objects directly, but rather infer objects from sense experience. What we perceive are events triggered, for example, by light waves or sound waves. This is the epistemological link that Russell sought to close the gap between perception and physics. Science, he concludes, is concerned with groups of events rather than with things because "the objects that are mathematically primitive in physics, such as electrons, protons, and points in space-time, are all logically complex structures composed of entities which are metaphysically more primitive, which may be conveniently called 'events.'" (42)

If we take into account how perception works, common sense and modern physics clash, as our commonsense notion emphasizes the "perception" of objects as they really are, yet physics tells another story. Our visual receptors, for example, are sensitive only to a narrow band of electromagnetic radiation--roughly within the range of visible light. Within this narrow band the entities we see appear as objects rather than events, but the electromagnetic field itself and the range of entities within it and perceived through it are predominately of an event character. When one takes into account the entire spectrum of known electromagnetic phenomena, from gamma rays to radio waves, it becomes obvious that what we really see are properties situated in events. In this connection, Russell points out a further difficulty for common sense and naive realism, namely, the velocity of light post relativity theory. The idea that we see an actual physical object is very hard to reconcile with the scientific fact that our perception occurs somewhat later, even if a very little later, than the emission of light by the object. (43) Russell clarifies this further when he wrote in The Analysis of Matter:
   Common sense holds--though not very explicitly--that perception
   reveals external objects to us directly; when we 'see the sun,' it
   is the sun that we see. Science has adopted a different view,
   though without always realizing its implications. Science holds
   that, when we 'see the sun,' there is a process, starting from the
   sun, traversing the space between the sun and the eye, changing its
   character when it reaches the eye, changing its character again in
   the optic nerve and the brain, and finally producing the event
   which we call 'seeing the sun.' Our knowledge of the sun thus
   becomes inferential; our direct knowledge is of an event which is,
   in some sense, 'in us.' (44)

Since the event ontology and modern physics are at odds with common sense and the whole tradition of substance philosophy, we are left with 42 43 a choice. But, as far as Russell was concerned, there is "no reason for finding fault with physics." (45)

Whitehead's theory of perception accords with the scientific view of physics in that any perception is a perception of the past. His metaphysical concept of prehension is a generalization of this idea from relativity physics, but it is also influenced by the phenomena of memory, genetic inheritance, and evolution. The past literally becomes present in prehension as the present occasion in its self-creation actively selects data from past occasions. In human perception, the actual occasion that is the specious present of one's consciousness prehends the past actual occasions constituting one's immediate environment. This involves three elements: "causal efficacy," "presentational immediacy," and "symbolic reference."

Whitehead distinguishes two distinct perceptive modes that he calls "presentational immediacy" and "causal efficacy." (46) Presentational immediacy is our clear, distinct consciousness of the external relations in the contemporary world. The data it presents are sharp, clear-cut presentations of sensa, spatially located and temporally self-contained. Presentational immediacy, however, does not supply any information as to the continuity of events, that is, the relevance of the past or the anticipation of the future. This led Whitehead to adopt a more primitive and fundamental mode of perception as causal efficacy. Presentational immediacy is an elaboration upon certain aspects of what is already present in the flow of experience and involves in essence a projection of images onto the present. Where evolution has given us such acute receptors, we naturally focus our attention on what is clear and distinct in experience, that is, various patches of color, size, and shape, but this mode of perceptual activity presupposes the whole context of passage in time. Causal efficacy is the mode of perception that is simply felt as an awareness of the persistent inheritance of the given past world. It is our experience of the immediate past in the process of becoming present.

The functioning together of presentational immediacy and causal efficacy in ordinary human perception is what Whitehead calls "symbolic reference." Whether it is the sun we are seeing or a stone on 45 46 the ground, we are experiencing an event structured by properties. Again, to quote Russell from above: "our direct knowledge is of an event which is, in some sense, 'in us.'" (47) But that event is past. What is taken in, as for example in the perception of a grey stone, is a historical route of inheritance via causal efficacy that is then projected via presentational immediacy onto what appears to be the contemporary region. As Whitehead made this point, he wrote:
   The term 'stone' is primarily applied to a certain historic route
   in the past, which is an efficacious element in this train of
   circumstance. It is only properly applied to the contemporary
   region illustrated by 'grey' on the assumption that this
   contemporary region is the prolongation, of that historic route,
   into the presented locus. (48)

This is not to say that Whitehead and Russell have the same view of perception, even though Russell says he is in complete agreement with Whitehead's protest against the bifurcation of nature that resulted from the causal theory of perception. (49) Russell, for instance, has no concept of prehension that parallels Whitehead's basic idea. But with the rejection of substance philosophy and the doctrine of primary and secondary qualities, electromagnetic theory and relativity theory required a new theory of perception in which what is experienced and experience itself are explained in terms of events.


In accordance with Whitehead and Russell's revolt into pluralism, events are the basic, concrete particulars of their respective systems. Particulars, or individuals, are unique, nonrepeatable entities. The metaphysical category of the particular has traditionally been assigned to substance, but as we have seen above, modern physics has revolutionized the idea of a particular. Science has outgrown substance. As Russell made the point: "The old notion of substance had a certain appropriateness so long as we could believe in one cosmic time and one cosmic space." (50) Particulars are normally contrasted with universals or abstract objects. Given that events have replaced substances as basic particulars, we can distinguish two sorts of repeatable entities: properties and physical objects. Whitehead, for example, clearly contrasted events with properties or repeatable entities such as individual colors, shapes, sounds, textures, and physical objects as patterns of properties that recur in nature. In the metaphysics of Process and Reality, properties are called "eternal objects," and physical objects are called "societies."

Whitehead viewed a physical object as an abstraction, a "society" of actual occasions. (51) What he called a "nexus" (plural nexus) is a togetherness of the basic entities. The things that endure over a period of time, identified as substances in Aristotle's metaphysics or "space-time worms" in relativity theory, are composites of the more basic momentary things. Actual occasions become and perish, whereas societies endure. A society, as defined by Whitehead, is the massive average objectification of the dominant characteristics, the eternal objects, in the actual occasions forming the society. So-called empty space would be a nexus of actual occasions. As Whitehead explains the structure of matter arising from the actual occasions, he also defines a "structured society" as one that includes subordinate societies and subordinate nexus with a definite pattern of structural interrelations. A molecule, a cell, a planet, a solar system, and a galaxy are all examples of structured societies. Each society is an organism that is harbored within the environment of another larger society, which serves as an organism for another, and so on. The special sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy study some layer of society or organisms and their environment--subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, plants, animals, planets, galaxies, to the widest society of actual occasions whose immediate relevance to ourselves is traceable, namely, cosmic epochs. (52)

So, for Whitehead, the actual occasions or events are the particulars and eternal objects that give definition and structure to the societies are properties. Eternal objects function more or less in the traditional role of universals. The events are at one place at one time, whereas the properties are the recognita in events. They are distinguished by the fact that they can be many places at many times or, as the term "eternal object" implies, they are pure potentials available for ingression in the temporal process.

When Russell took up this subject, he wrote:
   The world may be conceived as consisting of a multitude of entities
   arranged in a certain pattern. The entities which are arranged I
   shall call 'particulars.' The arrangement or pattern results from
   relations among particulars. Classes or series of particulars,
   collected together on account of some property which makes it
   convenient to be able to speak of them as wholes, are what I call
   logical constructions or symbolic fictions. The particulars are to
   be conceived, not on the analogy of bricks in a building, but
   rather on the analogy of notes in a symphony. The ultimate
   constituents of a symphony (apart from relations) are the notes,
   each of which lasts only for a very short time. We may collect
   together all the notes played by one instrument: these may be
   regarded as the analogues of the successive particulars which
   common sense would regard as successive states of one 'thing.' But
   the 'thing' ought to be regarded as no more 'real' or 'substantial'
   than, for example, the role of the trombone. (53)

This is perhaps the clearest passage in Russell's writings that shows how he viewed particulars as events and how he interpreted physical objects as logical constructions. Under Whitehead's influence he came to see that "the stuff of the physical world could consist of events, each occupying a finite amount of space-time." (54) "Matter has had to be replaced by series of events." (55) On this view, matter appears as qualitative characteristics of series of events.

Events are the things that qualify as the ultimate particulars or building blocks of the physical structure rather than the things that reveal structure themselves, for example, traverse or longitudinal waves, molecules, atoms, and the like. Russell says that this does not mean that a particular does not have structure, but only that there is nothing in the known laws of its behavior and relations that gives us reason to infer a structure. (56) He clarifies this again when he says that having no structure means having no space-time structure, that is, parts that are external to one another in space-time. (57) Structure in the external parts of events is that to which physical formula refer. Formulas for motion, for example, refer to changes in strings of events. For the same reason that substances cannot be basic particulars, events cannot be conceived as points in space or instants of time, but Russell claims that they occur in less than a second. If they were more than a second long, they would be analyzed into a structure of events. (58)

Russell's view of a thing also has a certain affinity to Whitehead's concept of a society. Physical objects are "[classes or series of particulars, collected together on account of some property which makes it convenient to be able to speak of them as wholes," (59) and there is no significant difference here between microscopic and macroscopic objects, both of which obey the laws of physics in a publically observable space. Russell's account of a "thing," however, differs from Whitehead in that he understands physical objects as logical constructions out of the "hard data" of sense experience. So, for example, to say that there is a stone in front of me is to say something about the various experiences I and others have or would have, but there is no stone over and above that structure of experiences if we understand claims about physical objects correctly. Whitehead did not view physical objects as logical constructions.

Returning to Russell's maxim--"Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities"--the known entities are events and the properties that give events their structure. (60) This is what we perceive. The unknown entities are understood to be constructions inferred from events such as geometrical entities, the particles of mathematical physics, and physical objects. Here again is Russell's parsimonious treatment of the entities required in the ontology of physics, largely inspired by Whitehead's method of extensive abstraction.


Both Whitehead and Russell provide analyses of matter in terms of structures of events. Events are concretely known in sense experience; matter is an abstraction from concrete events. Russell's theory of events differs most from Whitehead's in that Russell views events as externally related whereas Whitehead regards events as both internally and externally related in accordance with an irreversible direction in time. Russell used two analogies in the attempt to clarify his pluralism, the heap of shot and the notes in a symphony. Both analogies appear to function within the context of assuming that the external and the symmetrical relations are fundamental. For Whitehead, asymmetry rather than symmetry is the fundamental relation because he views process as real. When he modified his view from his four-dimensionalism to an event-atomism of his process metaphysics, the arrow of time is explained by the prehensive activity of actual occasions. This is a theory that takes time seriously.

I close this essay with a brief consideration of two criticisms and my response to these criticisms. First, the claim that events are known in experience or that events are the most concrete entities, of which everything else is derivative abstraction, is subject to question. The claim runs up against the objection that any attempt to discover the most concrete entity is colored by a conceptual framework that finds in experience what is already privileged by that conceptual framework. "Concrete" in this sense functions in the same way as "real," but there is only abstraction and no Archimedean point to establish firmly a basic class of entity. Whitehead and Russell are no exception in their attempt to discover a foundation of physics. Second, if the event ontology is dependent on the developments of modern physics, a paradigm change occasioned by a future scientific revolution could result in a decisive refutation of the event theory. Such anti-foundationalism, of course, leads down the road to relativism and skepticism. (61)

Neither Whitehead nor Russell expressed any certainty for their theories. Russell states clearly that the so-called truths of physics are not dogmatic statements of authority since no one supposes the physics of one's time to be infallible. (62) Whitehead, always with process in mind, never believed that science or philosophy arrived at any absolutely secure foundations."' Our current theories are compared to Neurath's ship. Just as the busy sailor must rebuild the ship plank by plank while staying afloat on the open sea, the philosopher inherits the ongoing theoretical structure, discovers errors in its foundations, and makes adjustments from within. Scientific theories and their philosophical implications in ontological speculation are evaluated by their comprehensive explanatory power, fruitfulness in applications, direction for further discovery, and, ultimately, progress in theoretical understanding. Whitehead and Russell's event ontologies are to be judged by these criteria, not by any claim to finality.

(1) For interesting affinities and contrasts between the speculative Whitehead and the analytical Russell, see also George R. Lucas, "'Muddleheadedness' versus 'Simplemindedness'--Comparisons of Whitehead and Russell," Process Studies 17, no. 1 (1988): 26-39.

(2) Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, Volumes I-III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910-1913).

(3) Bertrand Russell, My Philosophical Development (1959; London: Routledge, 1995), 42.

(4) Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory and Other Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1956), 40-41, 43.

(5) Russell, My Philosophical Development, 32-33.

(6) Like Russell, Whitehead said that Hegel's remarks on mathematics struck him as "complete nonsense." He repeatedly denied any direct influence of Hegel although he confessed to influences from Hegelians such as F. H. Bradley, R. B. Haldane, and John M. E. McTaggart. See Alfred North Whitehead, Science and Philosophy (1948; New York: Philosophical Library, 1974), 14, 124.

(7) Russell, My Philosophical Development, 10.

(8) Ibid., 42.

(9) Ibid, 43.

(10) Ibid., 44.

(11) F. H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality (1893; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 21-29, 512-24. For a detailed examination of Bradley's arguments see Leemon B. McHenry, Whitehead and Bradley: A Comparative Analysis (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 73-102. For a critical evaluation of Russell's treatment of Bradley, see Timothy Sprigge, "Russell and Bradley on Relations," in The Importance of Subjectivity, ed. Leemon B. McHenry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010), 159-77.

(12) Bertrand Russell, The Principle of Mathematics (1903; London: George Allen & Unwin, 1956), 221.

(13) F. H. Bradley, The Principles of Logic (1883; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922), 28.

(14) Russell, The Principle of Mathematics, 225.

(15) Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World (1914; New York: Mentor Books, 1956), 44, 53.

(16) The view that internal and external relations are fundamental to the asymmetry of process and prehension is made explicit in Charles Hartshome's process metaphysics. Hartshome says Russell once told him: "A philosopher can be an absolute monist or an absolute pluralist, and I see no rational ground for making the decision one way or another." But this is a false dichotomy because it assumes symmetry either way. Charles Hartshome, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method (1970; Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983), 216.

(17) Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925), 61-62. 19 20

(18) David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739; Oxford: Clarendon, 1958), 233.

(19) Russell, Portraits from Memory and Other Essays, 43-44.

(20) Ibid., 93.

(21) Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected ed., ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (1929; New York: Free Press, 1978), 22.

(22) The view that Whitehead's concept of prehension can be expressed in the logic of relations is supported by John Lango in Whitehead's Ontology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1972), 12.

(23) argue that Whitehead's metaphysics provides a plausible direction for a unified theory in The Event Universe. This involves modifications to both quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. See Leemon B. McHenry, The Event Universe: The Revisionary Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

(24) Dorothy Emmet, "Whitehead," Philosophy 71 (1996): 103.

(25) Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1932; London: Williams and Norgate, 1955), 158.

(26) Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead (1962; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966), 181.

(27) For an exposition of Whitehead's method of extensive abstraction see my chap. 6, "Pan-physics: Whitehead's Philosophy of Natural Science, 1918-1922," in Victor Lowe, Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, Volume II: 1910-1947, ed. J. B. Schneewind (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 108-30.

(28) Whitehead, Science and the Modem World, 64.

(29) Russell, My Philosophical Development, 77.

(30) Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, ed. David Pears (1924; La Salle, 111.: Open Court, 1985), 161.

(31) Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, v.

(32) Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Matter (1927; New York: Dover Publications, 1954), 130. In spite of such praise for Whitehead's method of extensive abstraction and his employment of this method in Our Knowledge of the External World, and later in The Analysis of Matter, Russell provides a criticism of this method as regards the construction of points. Specifically, Whitehead claims that every entity encloses and is enclosed by other events; thus, there is no lower limit or upper limit to events. Russell's complaint was that there is no empirical evidence for this claim and accordingly devised his own method for the definition of points based upon the relation of "copunctuality" of events. Russell, The Analysis of Matter, 292-302. After comparing his method to Whitehead's, Russell concludes that this does not make any important difference. Russell, My Philosophical Development, 81.

(33) Russell, My Philosophical Development, 10, 77-78, 81.

(34) Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (New York: Longman, Green & Co. 1918), 97.

(35) Alfred North Whitehead, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1919), v. 37

(36) Russell, The Analysis of Matter, 7.

(37) Whitehead, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge, 25.

(38) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 309.

(39) The claim that events are concretely known in sense experience requires qualification. We have an experience of the events that occur within the duration of a specious present, and via whole-part relations, those events can be discriminated into smaller events, but we do not have an experience of the basic events that Whitehead calls "actual occasions" in his later metaphysical works. Whitehead's epochal theory of time requires minimal events or epochs of time to avoid Zeno's paradox of infinite divisibility and establishes atomism in his system. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 69.

(40) Russell, The Analysis of Matter, 7.

(41) Ibid., 17.

(42) Ibid., 9.

(43) Ibid., 155.

(44) Ibid., 197.

(45) Ibid., 155.

(46) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 176.

(47) Russell, The Analysis of Matter, 197.

(48) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 172.

(49) Russell, The Analysis of Matter, 257. Whitehead's critique of the bifurcation of nature and the doctrine of primary and secondary qualities can be found in The Concept of Nature. There he argued that the representative theory of perception of the seventeenth-century cosmology led to an epistemological dead end since we "suffer" inadequate representations of what is beyond the veil of phenomena, namely, an unknowable matter or substance. Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920), 26-48.

(50) Russell, The Analysis of Matter, 286.

(51) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 89.

(52) Ibid., 91.

(53) Russell, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays, 98.

(54) Russell, My Philosophical Development, 10.

(55) Ibid., 13.

(56) Russell, The Analysis of Matter, 277.

(57) Ibid., 286, 293.

(58) Ibid., 286-87.

(59) Russell, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays, 98.

(60) Russell, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, 161.

(61) The view that foundationalist epistemology is misguided has been expressed in various ways by conventionalists, postmodernists, and social constructivists. See, for example, Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979).

(62) Bertrand Russell, "Replies to Criticisms," in The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp (La Salle, 111.: Open Court, 1946), 700-01.

(63) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 8.

Correspondence to: Department of Philosophy, California State University, Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff Street, Northridge, CA 91330.

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Title Annotation:Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell
Author:McHenry, Leemon B.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2017

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