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Whitehead's Use of Chiasmus in PR





Whitehead’s Use of Chiasmus

in Process and Reality


Hyatt Carter



Whitehead found chiasmus so congenial to his way of thinking that it enjoys pervasive expression in his magnum opus, Process and Reality, where there are, according to my count, no fewer than 41 examples. The final chapter of PR, “God and the World,” is a veritable anthem to this rhetorical figure, for there are 21 examples in the ten pages that constitute this short but sublime chapter.


The idea of “contrast” holds high importance in Whitehead’s philosophy—consciousness is understood in terms of contrast . . . possibility, the contrast between what is and what might be, plays a pivotal role in creativity and the coming-to-be of all actualities . . . and in the Final Interpretation, in Part V of Process and Reality, his concern is with contrasts between what he calls the Ideal Opposites. 


And so it seems most natural that the rhetorical figure chiasmus, a linguistic crucible of contrast, would arise ineluctably in Whitehead’s mind from time to time in the process of exposition of his thought.


Many have found Whitehead to be an accomplished writer, as witness this comment by British philosopher Samuel Alexander: “He possessed an admirable literary style, vivid and arresting and pregnant.” I imagine that Whitehead took pleasure in writing, and some insights can be more eloquent, and have more zest, when presented in terms of a contrast, especially the contrast between a contested and an affirmed doctrine. Indeed, that is the purpose of rhetorical figures: to enliven speech and writing. Whitehead once said, “It is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true.”


Also, Whitehead was a dipolar thinker and so he came naturally to the dipolar thinking exemplified, by way of contrasts, in the formal structure of a chiasmus.


In some of the chiasmi, and in virtually all that are used in “God and the World,” rather than contesting one and affirming the other, both sides of the contrast are affirmed. For example:


It is as true to say that God is one and the World many,

as that the World is one and God many.


While both sides are positively affirmed, they are to be understood conversely:


It is as true to say that God is one [as abstract essence] and the World many [the many becoming actualities], as that the World is one [unified in God’s concrete actuality] and God many [the many actual entities as they are initially prehended into God’s concrete actuality].


One of the many surprising adventures of reading Whitehead is to discover what to some may seem an extravagant claim: that much of our received wisdom is not only wrong but that some of our most venerated thinkers got it exactly backwards. Whitehead reminds us that “the doctrines which best repay critical examination are those which for the longest period have remained unquestioned.” In Process and Reality, time and time again he will cite an established idea only to say, “but the converse is true.” 


By my count, Whitehead uses this strategy, or some variation thereof, no fewer than 26 times in Process and Reality. This idea of converse is related, on a formal level, to the idea of reverse that defines a chiasmus. 



Here, then, are two lists . . .


A. Forty-one examples of chiasmus as found in PR.


B. Twenty-six examples, in PR, of how Whitehead makes variations on the theme of “But the converse is true . . .”



Chiasmi in Process and Reality


There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming. 35


In other words, extensiveness becomes, but ‘becoming’ is not itself extensive.  35


The given course of history presupposes his primordial nature, but his primordial nature does not presuppose it. 44


Thus every so-called ‘universal’ is particular in the sense of being just what it is, diverse from everything else; and every so-called ‘particular’ is universal in the sense of entering into the constitutions of other actual entities. 48


The principle that I am adopting is that consciousness presupposes experience, and not experience consciousness. 53


Thus the continuum is present in each actual entity, and each actual entity pervades the continuum. 67


But you cannot approach nothing; for there is nothing to approach. 93


The full sweep of the modern doctrine of evolution would have confused the Newton of the Scholium, but would have enlightened the Plato of the Timaeus.  93


Newton could have accepted a molecular theory as easily as Plato, but there is this difference between them: Newton would have been surprised at the modern quantum theory and at the dissolution of quanta into vibrations; Plato would have expected it. 94


Hume has confused a ‘repetition of impressions’ with an ‘impression of repetitions of impressions.’ 134




Hume by a sleight of hand confuses a ‘habit of feeling blinks after flashes’ with a ‘feeling of the habit of feeling blinks after flashes.’  175


The macroscopic process is the transition from attained actuality to actuality in attainment; while the microscopic process is the conversion of conditions which are merely real into determinate actuality. 214


The former process effects the transition from the ‘actual’ to the ‘merely real’; and the latter process effects the growth from the real to the actual.  214


It is true that there is an abstract qualitative pattern, and an abstract intensive pattern; but in the fused pattern the abstract qualitative pattern lends itself  to the intensities, and the abstract intensive pattern lends itself to the qualities.  233


It can be put shortly by saying, that physical time expresses some features of the growth, but not the growth of the features. 283


The concrescence presupposes its basic region, and not the region its concrescence. 283


The extensiveness of space is really the spatialization of extension; and the extensiveness of time is really the temporalization of extension. 289


It is an extra ‘assumption’—provable or otherwise according to the particular logical development of the subject which may have been adopted—that all ‘even’ loci are ‘flat,’ and that all ‘flat’ loci are ‘even.’  307


Thus the measurement depends on the straightness and not the straightness upon the measurement.  328


The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order. 339




Note—the following are all found in the ten pages of the final chapter of PR: God and the World.


An actual entity in the temporal world is to be conceived as originated by physical experience with its process of completion motivated by consequent, conceptual experience initially derived from God. God is to be conceived as originated by conceptual experience with his process of completion motivated by consequent, physical experience, initially derived from the temporal world.  345


The vicious separation of the flux from the permanence leads to the concept of an entirely static God, with eminent reality, in relation to an entirely fluent world, with deficient reality.  346


Such systems have the common character of starting with a fundamental intuition which we do mean to express, and of entangling themselves in verbal expressions, which carry consequences at variance with the initial intuition of permanence in fluency and of fluency in permanence.  347


There is the double problem: actuality with permanence, requiring fluency as its completion; and actuality with fluency, requiring permanence as its completion. 347


It is as true to say that God is permanent and the World fluent, as that the World is permanent and God is fluent.


It is as true to say that God is one and the World many, as that the World is one and God many.


It is as true to say that, in comparison with the World, God is actual eminently, as that, in comparison with God, the World is actual eminently.


It is as true to say that the World is immanent in God, as that God is immanent in the World.


It is as true to say that God transcends the World, as that the World transcends God.



It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.

348 — previous seven entries




For God the conceptual is prior to the physical, for the World the physical poles are prior to the conceptual poles.  348


A physical pole is in its own nature exclusive, bounded by contradiction: a conceptual pole is in its own nature all-embracing, unbounded by contradiction. 348


Thus each temporal occasion embodies God, and is embodied in God. 348


In God’s nature, permanence is primordial and flux is derivative from the World: in the World’s nature, flux is primordial and permanence is derivative from God.  348


Also the World’s nature is a primordial datum for God; and God’s nature is a primordial datum for the World. 348


God is the infinite ground of all mentality, the unity of vision seeking physical multiplicity. The World is the multiplicity of finites, actualities seeking a perfected unity.



God is primordially one, namely, he is the primordial unity of relevance of the many potential forms; in the process he acquires a consequent multiplicity, which the primordial character absorbs into its own unity. The World is primordially many, namely, the many actual occasions with their physical finitude; in the process it acquires a consequent unity, which is a novel occasion and is absorbed into the multiplicity of the primordial character. 349


Thus God is to be conceived as one and as many in the converse sense in which the World is to be conceived as many and as one.  349


The theme of Cosmology, which is the basis of all religions, is the story of the dynamic effort of the World passing into everlasting unity, and of the static majesty of God’s vision, accomplishing its purpose of completion by absorption of the World’s multiplicity of effort.  349


In this later phase, the many actualities are one actuality, and the one actuality is many actualities.  349




What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world.  351


Total: 41



“Converse” in Process and Reality


The contrary doctrine is that an actual entity never changes, and that it is the outcome of whatever can be ascribed to it in the way of quality or relationship. 79


The organic doctrine is closer to Descartes than to Newton. Also it is close to Spinoza; but Spinoza bases his philosophy upon the monistic substance, of which the actual occasions are inferior modes. The philosophy of organism inverts this point of view. 81


The philosophy of organism is the inversion of Kant’s philosophy. The Critique of Pure Reason describes the process by which subjective data pass into the appearance of an objective world. The philosophy of organism seeks to describe how objective data pass into subjective satisfaction, and how order in the objective data provides intensity in the subjective satisfaction. For Kant, the world emerges from the subject; for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from the world—a ‘superject’ rather than a ‘subject.’ 88


It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body.  119


The ‘classical’ theory of time tacitly assumed that a duration included the directly perceived immediate present of each one of its members. The converse proposition certainly follows from the account given above, that the immediate present of each actual occasion lies in a duration. 125


These various aspects can be summed up in the statement that experience involves a becoming, that becoming means that something becomes, and that what becomes involves repetition transformed into novel immediacy. This statement directly traverses one main presupposition which Descartes and Hume agree in stating explicitly. This presupposition is that of the individual independence of successive temporal occasions.  136-37


This separation asserts Kant’s principle: “Gedanken ohne Inhalt sind leer, Anschauungen ohne Begriffe sind blind.” But Kant’s principle is here applied in exactly the converse way to Kant’s own use of it. Kant is obsessed with the mentality of ‘intuition,’ and hence with its necessary involution in consciousness. His suppressed premise is ‘Intuitions are never blind.’  139


Hume and Locke, with the overintellectualist bias prevalent among philosophers, assume that emotional feelings are necessarily derivative from sensations. This is conspicuously not the case; the correlation between such feelings and sensations is on the whole a secondary effect. Emotions conspicuously brush aside sensations and fasten upon the ‘particular’ objects to which—in Locke’s phrase—certain ‘ideas’ are ‘determined.’ The confinement of our prehension of other actual entities to the mediation of private sensations is pure myth. The converse doctrine is nearer the truth: the more primitive mode of objectification is via emotional tone, and only in exceptional organisms does objectification, via sensation, supervene with any effectiveness. In their doctrine on this point, Locke and Hume were probably only repeating the mediaeval tradition, and they have passed on the tradition to their successors. 141


If we consider the matter physiologically, the emotional tone depends mainly on the condition of the viscera which are peculiarly ineffective in generating sensations. Thus the whole notion of prehension should be inverted. We prehend other actual entities more primitively by direct mediation of emotional tone, and only secondarily and waveringly by direct mediation of sense. 141


Descartes in his own philosophy conceives the thinker as creating the occasional thought. The philosophy of organism inverts the order, and conceives the thought as a constituent operation in the creation of the occasional thinker. The thinker is the final end whereby there is the thought. In this inversion we have the final contrast between a philosophy of substance and a philosophy of organism. The operations of an organism are directed towards the organism as a ‘superject,’ and are not directed from the organism as a ‘subject.’ 151




Thus for Kant the process whereby there is experience is a process from subjectivity to apparent objectivity. The philosophy of organism inverts this analysis, and explains the process as proceeding from objectivity to subjectivity, namely, from the objectivity, whereby the external world is a datum, to the subjectivity, whereby there is one individual experience.  156


This is the famous subjectivist bias which entered into modern philosophy through Descartes. In this doctrine Descartes undoubtedly made the greatest philosophical discovery since the age of Plato and Aristotle. For his doctrine directly traversed the notion that the proposition, ‘This stone is grey,’ expresses a primary form of known fact from which metaphysics can start its generalizations. If we are to go back to the subjective enjoyment of experience, the type of primary starting-point is ‘my perception of this stone as grey.’   159


The discussion of the problem constituted by the connection between causation and perception has been conducted by the various schools of thought derived from Hume and Kant under the misapprehension generated by an inversion of the true constitution of experience. The inversion was explicit in the writings of Hume and of Kant: for both of them presentational immediacy was the primary fact of perception, and any apprehension of causation was, somehow or other, to be elicited from this primary fact. 173


It must be remembered that clearness in consciousness is no evidence for primitiveness in the genetic process: the opposite doctrine is more nearly true. 173


The man himself will have no doubt of it. In fact, it is the feeling of causality which enables the man to distinguish the priority of the flash; and the inversion of the argument, whereby the temporal sequence ‘flash to blink’ is made the premise for the ‘causality’ belief, has its origin in pure theory. 175


It would seem therefore that inhibitions of sensa, given in presentational immediacy, should be accompanied by a corresponding absence of ‘causal feeling’; for the explanation of how there is ‘causal feeling’ presupposes the well-marked familiar sensa, in presentational immediacy. Unfortunately the contrary is the case. An inhibition of familiar sensa is very apt to leave us a prey to vague terrors respecting a circumambient world of causal operations. In the dark there are vague presences, doubtfully feared; in the silence, the irresistible causal efficacy of nature presses itself upon us; in the vagueness of the low hum of insects in an August woodland, the inflow into ourselves of feelings from enveloping nature overwhelms us; in the dim consciousness of half-sleep, the presentations of sense fade away, and we are left with the vague feeling of influences from vague things around us.  176


Our bodily experience is primarily an experience of the dependence of presentational immediacy upon causal efficacy. Hume’s doctrine inverts this relationship by making causal efficacy, as an experience, dependent upon presentational immediacy. This doctrine, whatever be its merits, is not based upon any appeal to experience.  176


One reason for the philosophical difficulties over causation is that Hume, and subsequently Kant, conceived the causal nexus as, in its primary character, derived from the presupposed sequence of immediate presentations. But if we interrogate experience, the exact converse is the case; the perceptive mode of immediate presentation affords information about the percepta in the more aboriginal mode of causal efficacy. 178


But we do not usually think of the things as symbolizing the words correlated to them. This failure to invert our ideas arises from the most useful aspect of symbolism.



In the philosophy of organism, an actual occasion—as has been stated above—is the whole universe in process of attainment of a particular satisfaction. Bradley’s doctrine of actuality is simply inverted. 200




In the philosophy of organism the nexus, which is the basis for such direct apprehension, is provided by the physical feelings. The philosophy of organism here takes the opposite road to that taken alike by Descartes and by Kant. Both of these philosophers accepted (Descartes with hesitations, and Kant without question) the traditional subjectivist sensationalism, and assigned the intuition of ‘things without’ peculiarly to the intelligence.



This genetic passage from phase to phase is not in physical time: the exactly converse point of view expresses the relationship of concrescence to physical time. 283


There is no reason to assimilate the conditions for hybrid prehensions to those for pure physical prehensions. Indeed the contrary hypothesis is the more natural. 308


We diverge from Descartes by holding that what he has described as primary attributes of physical bodies are really the forms of internal relationships between actual occasions, and within actual occasions. Such a change of thought is the shift from materialism to organism, as the basic idea of physical science.  309


Hume’s theory of a complex of such impressions elaborated into a supposition of a common physical world is entirely contrary to naive experience. We find ourselves in the double role of agents and patients in a common world, and the conscious recognition of impressions of sensation is the work of sophisticated elaboration. 315


A young man does not initiate his experience by dancing with impressions of sensation, and then proceed to conjecture a partner. His experience takes the converse route.  315-16


Total: 26



I will end this section with a chiasmus by Samuel Johnson that seems a fitting description of what Whitehead was all about:


The two most engaging powers of an author, are,

to make new things familiar,

and familiar things new.



Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, Edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne.








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