First published in 1929, Whitehead’s Process and Reality was his magnum opus and the product of his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1927-1928. The work itself is a kind of speculative metaphysics which attempts to set forward “a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (p. 3).
In defining metaphysics as a speculative science intended to interpret concrete experience, Whitehead situates his project against a tradition of metaphysics which attempts to understand the universe by a process of abstracting being from existence, the “essential” from the “accidental.” On Whitehead’s account, however, attending to the reality of the world entails that there can be no position above or outside of the process of becoming.
One might over-simplify Whitehead’s metaphysic as a philosophy of existence without essence. To understand reality is to understand an event in its full contingency, and thus in its relation to the totality of all things. The attempt to universalize, abstract or identify any event necessarily levels its particularity. For Whitehead, there is no identity without accidents — indeed, in a sense, there are only accidents. Thus, Whitehead describes his as a “philosophy of organism,” because reality itself is conceived of as a kind of bios, a life in motion.
The nature of Whitehead’s metaphysical account is perhaps most clear where it is most subversive. Christian theology has traditionally conceived of God’s perfection such that God’s eternal, pure actuality entails God’s absolute immutability and inability to change. For Whitehead, however, “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification” (p. 343). Thus, God’s perfection and pure actuality consists precisely in the infinite and unending exchange of potentiality for actuality. In this process, God both gives new life to all things even while Godself becomes new.
If in taking account of the contingency of any event one must account for an infinite set of relations, then surely each event is itself ineffable. And this, in part, is what makes Process and Reality so impossibly alien. Indeed, passages of Process and Reality are so conceptually subversive that they are virtually unintelligible — the reader’s eyes can merely trace the words like hieroglyphs, certain that these signs contain an intelligible thought, but fully incapable of accessing it. One surely cannot fault Whitehead for the full immersion of his thought within this imaginative framework, but its sheer foreignness cannot help but elicit exasperation and hostility. Yet, in a remarkable way, this is what makes Whitehead among the most influential philosophers of the Modern age. Rather than fearing the “inescapable flux” (p. 209), Whitehead’s metaphysics celebrates the beauty of process, and in this way expresses an uncompromising commitment to the particularity of all things.