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Is Whitehead’s Philosophy Atomistic? – March 2012


Question: Is Whitehead’s Philosophy Atomistic?

Publication Month: March 2012

This is a good question, and like most good questions, the answer is both “yes” and “no,” or “it all depends on what you mean by atomism.”

In the strictest sense of the term, Whitehead affirms atomism and says so. Based on the Greek meaning, to affirm “atomism” is to assert that there are entities that cannot be further divided. Now in one sense, Whitehead is not an atomist even with that definition. His actual occasions can be divided in the sense of analyzed, both into successive phases and into prehensions. However, these phases and these prehensions are actual only in their participation in the actual occasion that they constitute. The possibility of analysis does not entail the possibility of actual division.

An alternative view argues that what were once considered indivisible and, accordingly, called atoms, turned out to be divisible, and the subatomic entities, in some cases at least, also turned out to be divisible. These thinkers sometimes argue that we should never suppose that we have arrived at the end of the line. Division may go on indefinitely.

Whitehead’s philosophy does not commit him to identifying anything about which we now know as indivisible. Perhaps quarks can be divided into something else. But his philosophy does deny that this process can be infinite. In this sense it is atomistic. Quite distinct from the question of what we know and don’t know is the question of whether in fact there are actual entities that cannot be divided into smaller actual entities. Whitehead asserts that this must be the case. And, in any case, in our own experience we have an instance of an entity that cannot be so divided.

This atomism is not affirmed primarily over against the idea that every level of actuality we encounter may turn out to be complex. It is formulated against the notion of the continuum. For Whitehead, space as such constitutes a continuum. But space as a whole, and any region of space, cannot be viewed as actual. Space and all spatial regions belong to the sphere of the potential. This comes out in his disagreement with Einstein, who says that space is differentially curved. Whitehead thought that any space can be analyzed in terms of hyperbolic or elliptical geometry could also be analyzed in terms of Euclidian geometry. To regard the curvature as inherent in the space itself expresses the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. This continuous space is actualized by events that have four dimensions and boundaries with other events. Events do not constitute a continuum. In actualizing the continuum they atomize it. The continuum can be divided infinitely with every part having the same character as the whole. But the actual course of events is not like that. So, Whitehead affirms atomism.

On the other hand, Whitehead’s atomism is very unlike previous forms. The standard forms of atomism are associated with substance thought and based on materialism. Typically, the atoms were conceived as little bits of matter that endured indefinitely through time. Although spatially they divided up space, temporally each constituted a continuum. One could take any temporally extended period of the atom’s existence and divide it indefinitely. At each instant it would be just like it is over an extended period of time.

One could say that Whitehead’s actual occasions are more atomic than the classical atoms. Whitehead thought they atomized time as well as space. Each was a momentary event, act, or occurrence. The classical atom was three dimensional and moved about over time without changing its character. Whitehead’s atoms are four dimensional. They atomize space-time, or what he called the “extensive continuum.” The classical atoms were tiny material substances. For Whitehead both “matter” and “substance” are misleading terms. There is no such thing as “matter.” The closest equivalent of modern physics is “mass,” and mass can be understood best in terms of energy. No substance underlies events.

Long ago Leibniz replaced the material atoms with monads. These were also atoms in the sense of being indivisible. But Leibniz thought monads changed over time. A human person is a monad, but certainly the person changes over time. This change, however, must be inherent in the monad from the outset because Leibniz thought each monad must be “windowless,” that is, it could not be affected in its interior life by anything outside itself. This self-contained character was part of the legacy of the earlier materialist atomism. Atoms could affect other atoms only by bumping into them and causing them to change the direction of their motion. These changes had no effect on what the atoms were in themselves.

As long as the idea of substance held sway, relations had to be “external.” That is, one substance cannot occupy the same space as another. Each substance must remain entirely external to every other substance. Physical contact may affect the external behavior of the substances, but in this world of substances in motion, the motion does not affect what the substance is. It affects only where it is.

Its location is important. The substances may connect spatially to one another and thereby constitute the objects of ordinary experience, such as tables and chairs, dresses and pants, cups and saucers. But the same atom may constitute at one time part of a table and, at another, part of a cup without itself being affected by its different role.

Whitehead’s atomism is entirely different, even radically opposed to this way of thinking. It is for this reason that calling him an “atomist” (which he technically was) misleads most hearers or readers. Our access to one of his atomic events is in and through our own immediate experience. When we analyze that, we immediately see that most of what is present in one moment of our experience is derived from the previous moment but that the new experience is never identical with the previous one. It is affected by many other events as well. Whitehead proposes that it is affected, however trivially, by everything that has ever happened. It is a creative synthesis of aspects of every previous event. Whereas classical atoms and Leibniz’s monads are internally unaffected by other atoms or monads, Whitehead’s atoms are constituted by their relations to others.

The most important relations to others, for many actual occasions, are to earlier members of the route of occasions to which they belong. In human experience that means that the relation of the present moment of experience to past moments of experience of the same person are of special importance. But of course this is only a matter of degree. Some experiences are profoundly affected by events in the body, such as a heart attack, or by events in the environment. Ideas we learn from others play an enormous role in shaping our ways of thinking. The idea that we are self-contained and unaffected by others has no experiential grounding. It is deduced from a metaphysics that Whitehead rejects.

Whitehead accentuates his difference from what is usually understood by atomism by his doctrine of the fallacy of simple location. There is certainly a sense that an event takes place in a particular spatio-temporal location. It happens there and nowhere else. Yet that event is also found internal to all the events in its causal future. It affects subsequent events by being (partially) included within them. Thus its actual location is not limited to the locus in which it occurred. It pervades its future. The past is not simply past. It is also present, largely, but never wholly, constituting the events that are now occurring.

So, should be call Whitehead an atomist? That depends on the nature of the discussion. If the question is whether a person’s experience is continuous or is a succession of distinguishable experiences, the answer should definitely be that Whitehead is an atomist. But if the topic has to do with what is the nature of an experience, then the radically relational character of each experience should be emphasized. Calling it an “atom” can only confuse and mislead. Whitehead’s philosophy is processive over against substantialist. It is organic over against mechanistic. It is relational over against materialist. These terms are more informative, at least as starting points for the discussion.

So, yes, Whitehead is an atomist. But, no, that is a poor classification for his overall thought.