In many respects Whitehead’s actual occasions or actual entities are analogous to what I call “objectiles”. I have adopted the term “objectile” for objects to capture the sense in which objects are dynamic and ongoing activities unfolding or producing themselves through time. Thus the word “objectile” is a portmanteau word combining “object” and “projectile”, so as to underline the sense in which objects are not fixed points in a spatial location, but rather spatio-temporal processes over time. Like Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending A Staircase, objectiles are not to be thought as stationary substances composed of fixed qualities or predicates, but rather as this very unfolding and movement through time and space. Objectiles are not the now in which they are, but are this very adventure across space and time.
So too in the case of Whitehead’s actual occasions or actual entities. Actual occasions make up the ultimate building blocks of Whitehead’s universe. As Whitehead puts it in Process and Reality,
‘Actual entities’– also termed ‘actual occasions’ –are the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real. They differ among themselves: God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space… The final facts are, all alike, actual entities; and these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent. (18)
Whitehead’s ontology is thus atomistic in character. The universe, for Whitehead, is not composed of one substance, but of an indefinite number of substances, and, moreover, new substances are always coming into being. However, unlike Lucretian atoms that are eternal and indestructable, such that they never change and such that each one always possesses exactly the same properties for all time (i.e., they are immutable), Whitehead’s atoms or actual occasions are complex multiplicities or manifolds that become. “…[H]ow an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is… It’s ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming’” (23). In his earlier work Whitehead thus referred to actual occasions as events. An objectile, actual occasion, or actual entity is an event. And like all events it is therefore temporally elongated.
When Whitehead calls actual occasions “drops of experience” great care must be taken not to be mislead by his choice of language. Ordinarily we think of experience as something restricted to living and sentient beings. Experience here refers to the way a sentient being receives the world. For Whitehead– and I think this is one of the least meritorious dimensions of his metaphysics –all entities are drops of experience. Whether we are speaking of a rock, a subatomic particle, or a human being, these actual occasions are drops of experience. Objectiles are drops of experience not for us, but for themselves. That is, just as a human being might be said to be the sum of their experiences, a rock is the sum of its experiences. “…[I]n the becoming of an actual entity, the potential unity of many entities in disjunctive diversity… acquires the real unity of the one actual entity; so that the actual entity is the real concrescence of many potentials” (22).
“Disjunctive diversity” refers to a set of existing objectiles or actual occasions independent of one another. Whitehead remarks that
[t]he ultimate metaphysical principle is the advance from disjunction to conjunction, creating a novel entity other than the entities given in disjunction. The novel entity is at once the togetherness of the ‘many’ which it finds, and also it is one among the disjunctive ‘many’ which it leaves; it is a novel entity, disjunctively among the many entities which it synthesizes. The many become one, and are increased by one. In their natures, entities are disjunctively ‘many’ in process of passage into conjunctive unity. (21)
Concrescence refers to the manner in which things grow together to form a unity. Consequently, in the case of a tree, we can see how the manner in which the tree is a conjunctive unity of a disjunctive diversity belonging to the field that it inhabits or in which it becomes. The disjunctive diversity relevant to the becoming of the tree consists of photons of light, water, carbon dioxide, minerals in the soil, etc. These photons of light, molecules of water, carbon dioxide, and minerals are themselves actual occasions. The tree itself is a concrescence or assemblage of these other actual occasions producing a conjunctive unity that is itself a novel entity. The tree is “built” out of these other elements, but is also something new in relation to these elements.
It is here that we get Whitehead’s famous doctrine of “prehensions”. The term “prehension” refers to relations among objectiles or actual occasions or the manner in which one objectile draws on aspects from another actual occasion in its becoming or process. “…[T]wo descriptions are required for an actual entity: (a) one which is analytical of its potentiality for ‘objectification’ in the becoming of other actual entities, and (b) another which is analytical of the process which constitutes its own becoming” (23). When Whitehead speaks of “objectification” he is referring to the manner in which some aspect of another actual occasion is realized or integrated in another actual entity. Thus, for example, the tree becomes or continues its adventure in space-time through a prehension of light, but in prehending photons of light it transforms these prehensions through photosynthesis. Thus Whitehead will say that, “…every prehension consists of three factors: (a) the ‘subject’ which is prehending, namely the actual entity in which that prehension is a concrete element; (b) the ‘datum’ which is prehended; (c) the ‘subjective form’ which is how the subject prehends the datum” (ibid.). The ‘subject’ prehending in my above example is the tree, the datum prehended are the photons of light, and the result of photosynthesis is the ‘subjective form’ this datum takes in the becoming of the tree.
In his marvelous Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality (a highly readable abridged version of Process and Reality with commentary), Donald W. Sherburne provides a helpful diagram for understanding prehensions and concrescence (10). What we have here is a relationship between two objectiles or actual occasions, A and B. Actual occasion A is prehended by actual occasion B. Actual occasion A can either be an occasion in the immediate past of B’s becoming. For example, a prior moment in the becoming of our tree. Or it can be the prehension of an entirely different actual occasion in the disjunctive diversity to which both actual occasions belong. Actual occasion A is composed of prehensions M, N, and O. In prehending actual occasion A, actual occasion B prehends A under the prehension N, excluding M and O. Here actual occasion B is the subject doing the prehending. N is the datum that is prehended. And X, marked out by the vector arrow, is the subjective form the datum takes on in actual occasion B. That is, X is the way in which the datum, N, is objectified in actual occasion B. If I am uncomfortable with Whitehead’s use of the term “experience” in describing this process of concrescence, then this is because we can just as easily describe these relationships as causal relationships among actual occasions.
When Whitehead asserts that actual occasions are the ultimate reasons, that there is no going behind actual occasions to find a deeper reality, he has two things in mind.
…[E]every condition to which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance has its reason either in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concresence, or in the character of the subject which is in the process of that concrescence. This category of explanation is termed the ‘ontological principle.’ It could also be termed the ‘principle of efficient, and final, causation.’ This ontological principle means that actual entities are the only reasons; so that to search for a reason is to search for one or more actual entities. It follows that any condition to be satisfied by one actual entity in its process expresses a fact either about the ‘real internal constitutions’ of some other actual entities, or about the ‘subjective aim’ conditioning that process. (24)
This disjunction is not an exclusive disjunction. To account for an actual entity is both to refer to the other actual entities that entity prehends and the internal constitution of the actual occasion doing the prehending. Thus to account for why our tree is thus and so and not otherwise– perhaps it is anemic –we must refer both to the processes by which the tree metabolizes itself and the photons of light the tree prehends in metabolizing itself. Perhaps the tree is anemic because it exists in a disjunctive diversity with other trees that prevent it from getting more sunlight.
From the foregoing light is shed on what I have called “Latour’s Principle” and the “Principle of Irreduction”. Latour’s Principle states that there is no transportation without translation. The Principle of Irreduction states that nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else. If there is no transportation without translation, then this is because the objectile prehending a datum from another objectile always transforms that datum according to its own internal constitution. Likewise, if nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else, then this is because no objectile is ever simply the sum of its parts– the other objectiles that enter into its constitution –but rather objectiles transform or translate those other objectiles that enter into its concrescence.
There are a few points where I diverge from Whitehead’s account of actual occasions. First, Whitehead holds that every actual occasion shares a perfectly determinate relation with every other actual occasion in the entire universe. I do not believe that this is the case. Within the scope of my ontology, the universe does not form a holistic system in which all objectiles are interrelated. Second, Whitehead attributes a key role to what he calls “eternal objects”, which he treats as potentials and universals (such as the color green and mathematical patterns), to the becoming of actual occasions. For my own part, I cannot see what these eternal objects contribute to the account of the becoming of objectiles. Third, Whitehead retains the notion of final causation in the becoming of actual occasions, arguing that occasions are pursuing “satisfaction” or completion that they accomplish through the integration of prehensions in a novel and aesthetically pleasing unity. Consequently, it is the final cause that accounts for the becoming of an actual occasion in Whitehead. Where Whitehead attributes becoming to final causes, I attribute it to difference or disequilibrium. Objectiles become because they contain disequilibrium within themselves and disequilibriums are introduced into their being through interactions with other actual entities. Becoming is the resolution of these tensions or disequilibriums producing new properties or qualities in the objectile, but this resolution of tensions is not governed by final causality but rather by the mechanics underlying the internal organization of the objectile. The resolution of disequilibriums marks the death or completion of an objectile, though the dead entity can still function in the becoming of other objectiles through being prehended by these objectiles.