Nature and its Possibilities. The Human Experience According to Whitehead

The Anthropological Limit

1 Whitehead’s philosophy presents itself as a vast speculative inquiry into the contemporary legacies of the concept of nature and the conditions of its transformation. From his first philosophical works, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge and The concept of Nature, to his last, Modes of Thought, including Process and Reality and Science and the Modern world, Whitehead’s philosophy is defined by a remarkable constancy in the project that animates it. The question, at the center of his work, is how to rethink, on new ground, the project of a philosophy of nature, placing it in astonishing proximity with philosophies such as those of Spinoza and Schelling. From one end to the other of his work, questions of a new kind are constantly being asked, which form the different articulations: How was the concept of nature constituted, as we moderns have inherited it? To which necessities, notably experimental, correspond the gestures and operations from which arise the oppositions that have governed modernity – the oppositions of the real and the apparent, of the natural and the constructed, of the objective and the subjective? How are the abstractions that gave the concept of nature its consistency confronted today with changes in the composition of what used to fall within the realm of nature and the knowledge practices associated with it? In his work, nature no longer occupies the place of a particular domain, forming an object whose contours could be established by contrast with other dimensions of our experience. It forms the matrix of all forms of experience, the element giving consistency to our knowledge and the place of constitution of the main categories of metaphysics. Thus, at the end of the introduction to Process and Reality, Whitehead defines the function of philosophy as a systematic construction aimed at expressing the actual forms and potential powers of nature:


The useful function of philosophy is to promote the most general systematization of civilized thought. […] Philosophy is the welding of imagination and common sense into a restraint upon specialists, and also into an enlargement of their imaginations. By providing the generic notions philosophy should make it easier to conceive the infinite variety of specific instances which rest unrealized in the womb of nature. [1]

3 Philosophy is thus presented as a systematic activity aiming to account for the greatest generalities, that is to say, to deploy generic notions, allowing us to interpret the “infinite variety of specific instances”, actual or potential, of nature. The project, celebrated by philosophers as different as Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, Wahl or Deleuze, implies a real decentering of human experience, whose contours and limits must be established in order to leave room for the multiplicity of forms of experience in nature. One could express the function that Whitehead attributed to philosophy in terms similar to those that Deleuze used to speak about that of Bergson: “to open us up to the inhuman and the superhuman (durations which are inferior or superior to our own), to go beyond the human condition: This is the meaning of philosophy”. [2] Whitehead had indeed, for his part, spent a long time showing the influence of the evidences proper to our “human condition” in the formation of the frameworks of ontology and the main categories of metaphysics. Thus, he detected two anthropological presuppositions of metaphysics, all the more effective insofar as they would remain most often implicit. The first one is an overvaluation of the perceptive experience, essentially visual, in the constitution of the categories of metaphysics. Whitehead names “immediate presentation” a very elaborate mode of experience, requiring biological functions of differentiation of the channels of perception and of distinction in the perceptive field. Immediate presentation is the “familiar immediate presentation of the contemporary world, by means of our projection of our immediate sensations, determining for us characteristics of contemporary physical entities. This type is the experience of the immediate world around us, a world decorated by sense-data dependent on the immediate states of relevant parts of our own bodies”. [3] It implies a capacity of simplification of the perceptive field and the projection of the modalities of our sensations on the surrounding world. Whitehead shows that, far from breaking with perceptive experience, metaphysics was, on the contrary, most often its generalization. Thus, in the choice of his examples, which implicitly value the “permanences of things – the solid earth, the mountains, the stones, the Egyptian pyramids, the spirit of man, God”, [4] in the qualities it gives to the ultimate elements of reality (identity, simplicity, and analogy), we would find again the qualities of the perceptive experience familiar to human subjects. Whitehead places the second anthropological presupposition at the level of language, and more particularly of the “subject-predicate” form. This structure would have, according to him, determined the ontology and the principles of Greek thought. He writes:


Greek philosophy had recourse to the common forms of language to suggest its generalizations. It found the typical statement ‘That stone is grey’; and it evolved the generalization that the actual world can be conceived as a collection of primary substances qualified by universal qualities. [5]

5 Modern philosophy would have inherited it implicitly, in a new language, a new terminology, but which could not break with the difference between subject and predicate: “[a]ll modern philosophy hinges round the difficulty of describing the world in terms of subject and predicate, substance and quality, particular and universal”. [6]

6 Even more than the reduction of nature to the sole human perspective, these two presuppositions are, according to Whitehead, responsible for an essentially anthropological anchoring of nature with which it would be a question of breaking, by detecting all the workings, the implicit forms and the interests from which their generalization derives, in order to give nature its plural forms, of which human experience is neither the finality nor the model. Yet, in his last work, Modes of Thought, Whitehead does not hesitate to write, as a kind of acquired evidence: “When we come to mankind, nature seems to have burst through another of its boundaries”. [7] How can we understand this reintroduction of the human experience, which seems to go against everything Whitehead had tried until then? What status should be given to these last words according to which we would be dealing with mankind at the bursting of a boundary of nature? Isn’t Whitehead surreptitiously reintroducing what he had been fighting against until then, namely the establishment of an ontological difference between Man and nature? There is no doubt, however, that Whitehead, far from rejecting human experience, makes it an essential element to which a philosophy of nature must hold. Thus, again in Modes of Thought, Whitehead confirms: “The distinction between men and animals is in one sense only a difference in degree. But the extent of the degree makes all the difference. The Rubicon has been crossed”. [8] Let us try to understand the meaning of these passages, which are fundamental for understanding the conditions of a philosophy of nature. Whitehead affirms two apparently distinct things. First of all, he affirms the continuity of nature. Man in no way extracts himself from nature, but it is nature that he says seems to have “burst another of its boundaries”. In the second excerpt, Whitehead speaks of a simple difference in degree between human and animal experience. In short, in these two passages, Whitehead maintains very clearly the idea of an absolute continuity of nature, without breaks and without leaps. From the embryonic forms of plant life to the complex organizations of animal bodies, Whitehead sees only a continuity of functions, and the task of philosophy is to make itself capable of interpreting this vast continuity of nature. Like Lovejoy, one should speak of a “great chain of being” where each existence continues, resumes, intensifies, without radical rupture, what others carried before it. Then, Whitehead affirms, still in these two passages, that there are indeed qualitative changes– the Rubicon has been crossed– linked to the gradation of the intensity of certain functions. It is as if the intensification of a common quality entailed a real change, the passage to a new form of existence, a new possibility within nature itself.

Possibilities in Nature

7 As we can see, Whitehead rejects any starting point that would lead to a division between what would belong to nature, to its qualities, to the beings that compose it, and to what would belong to human experience, seeking to define its specificity. This way of proceeding is necessarily doomed to failure and can at most only permanently displace the boundaries that are supposed to differentiate distinct domains, whose existence would finally only come from the abstract divisions that we produce there. Thus, we must change our perspective. It is no longer nature, nor the human, which must form the right starting point, but elements of existence in general, activities common to all beings, human and non-human, because the question is indeed to know what the human experience exacerbates as a dimension of existence in general, without ever being its origin, the human being defined by the qualities whose meaning it intensifies.

8 One might expect Whitehead to favor, in the manner of naturalism, bodily or biological functions that would obviously link the human in its vital, or physical, dimensions to other beings. It is not so. Whitehead points out an attention, a particular sense, a dimension that can be more or less intense and that we will name “the sense of the possible”. It is the degree of importance that humans attribute to the possible that defines human experience. Thus, he writes, “[t]he conceptual entertainment of unrealized possibility becomes a major factor in human mentality”. [9] These unrealized possibilities are all those contingencies, alternatives, “would bes” that accompany every moment of our experience. This sense of fact – that it could have been otherwise in a situation and that it is always possible for events to take a different turn – is for Whitehead a “major factor in human experience”. It is with them that a real “culture of possibilities” is invented, a sense of the hypothetical dimensions of situations, an active attention to the possibilities that accompany any event, an anxious sensitivity as to the dangers they conceal. Whitehead confirms this:


In its highest development, this becomes the entertainment of the ideal. It emphasizes the sense of importance […]. And this sense exhibits itself in various species, such as, the sense of morality, the mystic sense of religion, the sense of that delicacy of adjustment which is beauty, the sense of necessity for mutual connection which is understanding, and the sense of discrimination of each factor which is consciousness. [10]

10 The technical term that Whitehead uses, to speak of this sense of unrealized possibilities, is “propositions”. We tend to think of propositions as linguistic forms, ways of speaking, naming, indicating or referring, through language, to a reality that is supposed to be more or less devoid of them. On the one hand, there would be the space of silent things, deprived of language, forming the reality we are dealing with, and on the other hand the linguistic space that would find its origin in human activity and that would define it in its exceptionality. However, Whitehead, who has not ceased, at least since The Principia Mathematica, to seek the meaning of the plurality of the modes of propositions (logical, aesthetic, historical, ontological), sees only a confusion in the identification of propositions with linguistic forms. Propositions, for him, do not presuppose language at all, and he sees no reason not to attribute propositional dimensions to all forms of existence, from physical beings to elaborate forms of consciousness, so that it is the whole universe that is a bundle of propositional beings.

11 But how to understand that a physical or biological entity, independently of any reflexive power, of any conscious intentionality, can be the bearer of propositions? It is because each being carries with it the traces of what it could have been, the marks of the alternatives that could have, at each moment of its existence, oriented it in another direction. Every being carries within it, in its very materiality, the traces of the possibilities that its existence has discarded. What it is at a given moment cannot be thought, if not by an act of abstraction, of the bundle of possibilities that it embodies in each part of its existence. Whitehead expresses it in a formula of which he makes one of the primordial characteristics of his metaphysics: a being “bears on itself the scars of its birth; it recollects as a subjective emotion its struggle for existence; it retains the impress of what it might have been, but is not”. [11] In each being, as small as it may be, as far as it may be from all the qualities that we attribute to consciousness, to reflection, to the capacities of projection into the past and the future, we find traces of what it could have been and of what it could become, a sense, certainly inchoative, but not negligible, of the possibilities that it carries with it. What could have been, the choices that were made and the selections that took place, define a subject just as much as what it is now. A feeling carries with it all these “would bes”, these possibilities that it had to discard in its actual existence, all the alternatives that presented themselves to it. It “bears on itself the scars of its birth”; it retains “the impress of what it might have been, but is not”. It is thus not with the human that the question of the possible – nor even of the alternative – begins. It is in this sense that we must understand what Whitehead means by the propositional dimension of beings. They are simultaneously fully real, but their existence is inseparable from a bundle of possibilities, from what they might have been or might be. We see, then, that propositions, for Whitehead, are neither reducible to forms of enunciation, nor to judgments, nor to modes of knowledge by which we would give an account of the things we are dealing with; they are within these beings themselves and are mixed with their constitution to such an extent that we cannot distinguish what a thing is from the possibilities it carries with it.

The Culture of Possibilities

12 Propositions are therefore everywhere in nature, and they do not wait for Man or any faculty to exist. But the importance they have, for each existent, varies. And Whitehead, in two of his works, Process and Reality and Modes of Thought, went so far as to propose the rethinking of the realms of existence in the universe (the physical, plant, animal and human worlds) according to the degree of importance of the propositional dimensions of the beings that constitute them. Heavily covered in physical realities, they are intensified in living realities and celebrated for themselves in humans. It is not important here to deepen this typology of existents at the center of Whitehead’s cosmology. What is important here is to extend the notion of propositions to both human and non-human realities. From inanimate bodies to humans, we find, according to Whitehead, these articulations of the actual and the potential, of the fact and the possible. Nature is not a set of things, connected according to laws fixing their development and their interactions: for Whitehead, it is an immense fabric of propositions, of articulations between acts in the process of being made and possibilities which accompany them. We see that it is, after all, only a difference of degree, and that there are just as many possibilities, just as many propositional dimensions in inert matter, but the attention paid to them makes all the difference. It is in animals that the question becomes intense and vital.

13 Cultivating a sense of what might have been and what may be is part of the very conditions of existence of the living; their survival depends on it. The relationship that they maintain with their environment, with its fluctuations, with its changes, is entirely marked by this attention to what exceeds the “simple given fact”, to these vague presences, these harbingers of a change, these reminiscences of former situations that insist in their present. Whitehead makes it the primordial attitude of the living. Thus, in a passage from The concept of Nature, he writes: “We are instinctively willing to believe that by due attention, more can be found in nature than that which is observed at first sight. But we will not be content with less”. [12] The “we” referred to in this passage is indeterminate. It concerns both humans and non-humans and cannot be reduced to an attitude of epistemological observation of nature. The animal on alert for possible danger, worried about small variations in its environment, attentive to clues and signs pointing to the possible presence of a predator or a prey–all this testifies to a primordial attention to these possibilities anchored in the present fact, in the factuality of a particular moment. It is a vital question, forming the very condition of maintaining the existence of the living. It takes on an increased dimension in humans. The alternative, the unrealized possibility, the sense of what might have been or what may be, acquire a predominant place. Through language, memory, the transmission of adventures from one era to another, the sense of the precariousness of historical events, the ideals that carry them beyond themselves, humans define themselves by their immoderate interest in the potentialities of the situations they deal with; they are interested in “the infinite variety of specific instances which rest unrealized in the womb of nature”. [13] In their relationships with nature, beings, their history and their institutions, humans are characterized by their attachment to the propositional dimensions of the events they deal with. They prolong, by intensifying it, this animal dimension of attention to possibilities, and cultivate it on a proper mode. No break, no leap, no anthropological difference, if at least we understand by this a radical difference in the qualities that animate beings, but an intensification that includes remarkable features.

14 The influence of this culture of possibilities is particularly felt in the relationships that humans have with their history, the narratives that constitute historical events, the sometimes- dramatic sense of alternatives that accompany the decisive moments of a change of era: “No fact of history, personal or social, is understood until we know what it has escaped and the narrowness of the escape”. [14] From political events to religious reforms, including the history of science and the history of philosophy, Whitehead has constantly questioned these propositional dimensions of any event. For each historical moment, for each new abstraction, for each new scientific invention, he intends to highlight both the radical contingency of their genesis, i.e. the fact that it could have been otherwise, and the extreme precariousness of their existence. The “defeat of Napoleon”, for example, is not inscribed in history of all time, as a necessity of which the event would only have been the actualization; it could, in a strong sense, not have taken place and “the possibilities of another course of history which would have followed upon his victory are relevant to the facts which actually happened”. [15] The elements of an event thus “consist in what has been, what might have been, and what may be”. [16] Whitehead probably knew Renouvier only from the tributes paid to him by James. Yet the affinities are strong with the inventor of the term “uchronia”, [17] who had made this question of alternatives, of unrealized possibilities of which events bear the trace, a real method of analysis of historical events. Presenting “uchronia” as a “utopia in history”, Renouvier rewrote the history of Europe by imagining what it might have been if the Roman emperors had banished Christians from the East. What Renouvier did to history, namely to cultivate the alternatives buried in historical events as they occurred, Whitehead does to all levels of human existence: history, modes of perception, the possibility of choice and moral sense, relationships with other beings and their environment.


15 Possibilities are everywhere in nature. Every being, every action, every event, is surrounded by a halo of insistent possibilities indicating what it might have been and what it may now be. These possibilities are not external to the beings that carry them, but they define them just as much as the actual forms of what they are. From the most elementary forms of matter to historical events, through the societies that make up plant and animal bodies, Whitehead sees an immense interwoven web of heterogeneous possibilities, irreducible to each other. There is therefore not a single being, a single form of existence, which is not defined by the possibilities it embodies. This is why Whitehead makes it one of the main features of existence in general and gives the formula in a passage of Process and Reality: “The actual cannot be reduced to mere matter of fact in divorce from the potential”. [18] Humans, in this sense, do not form a separate realm, are not defined by any exceptionality. They are, like all beings, carriers of possibilities; their existence is inseparable from a potential that accompanies each of their actions and defines their attention to the environments with which they deal. But the intensity that it gives to these possibilities makes a difference, marks a novelty. It is as if an absolutely natural and generic function, common to all beings, the sense of the possible, acquired, through language, through the world of the hypothetical, through the imagination detached from any actual anchoring, through the attention paid to the traces that every event leaves, through memory, a proper consistency and became a realm in its own right. Possibilities are everywhere, but the increased attention to their meaning, what we have called in this text, the development of a true “culture”, that is to say, of a consideration of possibilities as such, introduces a novelty in nature. It is this insistence on alternatives sometimes buried in the actions that have taken place and this intensification of the meaning of future actions that defines humans. Whitehead expresses this in a somewhat enigmatic and emphatic passage in Modes of Thought: “Men are the children of the Universe, with foolish enterprises and irrational hopes”. [19]

16 But this “culture” does not grant humans any particular truth, nor does it guarantee any success as such. As Whitehead writes: with this sense of possibility an “outrageous novelty is introduced, sometimes beatified, sometimes damned”. [20] How much destruction, impoverishment of situations and environments, how many collapses have been realized in the name of possibilities that, against all odds, were imposed and thus became figures of devastation? The way in which humans are characterized by this attention does not imply for Whitehead to celebrate blissfully their capacities, to absolve them of the disasters that could mark their relationship to their history, to their environment and to other beings. There is no innocence in this “culture of possibilities”. The greatest tragedies can be done in the name of possibilities imposing themselves against all odds, becoming real powers of destruction of cultures, practices, attachments, for the benefit of a vision supposed to define their destiny and truth. At every moment, questions arise about the possibilities that can never be decided once and for all, questions that imply attention, a certain concern and that demand to be cultivated and problematized: will these possibilities enrich, intensify, give new perspectives, increase the value of the beings and events to which they are linked, or on the contrary will they become real instruments of destruction imposing themselves against all odds? The sense of possibility is the problem that humans inherit and that defines them. It is what characterizes humans, but it is also, according to Whitehead, the danger that never ceases to threaten them.


  • [1]
    A. N. Whitehead. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: The Free Press, 1978, p. 17.
  • [2]
    G. Deleuze. Bersonism. Trans. by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone Books, 1991, p. 28.
  • [3]
    A. N. Whitehead. Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. New York: Macmillan Co., 1927, p. 13-14.
  • [4]
    A. N. Whitehead. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, op. cit., p. 208.
  • [5]
    Ibid., p. 158.
  • [6]
    Ibid., p. 49.
  • [7]
    A. N. Whitehead. Modes of Thought. New York: The Free Press, 1968, p. 26.
  • [8]
    Ibid., p. 27.
  • [9]
    Ibid., p. 26.
  • [10]
  • [11]
    A. N. Whitehead. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Op. cit. p. 226-227.
  • [12]
    A. N. Whitehead. Concept of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964, p. 29.
  • [13]
    A. N. Whitehead. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Op. cit., p. 17.
  • [14]
    A. N. Whitehead. Modes of Thought. Op. cit., p. 122.
  • [15]
    A. N. Whitehead. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Op. cit., p. 185.
  • [16]
    A. N. Whitehead. Modes of Thought. Op. cit., p. 121.
  • [17]
    C. Renouvier. Uchronie. Esquisse historique apocryphe du développement de la civilisation européenne tel qu’il n’a pas été, tel qu’il aurait pu être. Paris: Fayard, 1988.
  • [18]
    A. N. Whitehead. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Op. cit., p. 227.
  • [19]
    A. N. Whitehead. Modes of Thought. Op. cit., p. 30.
  • [20]
    Ibid., p. 26.