Relationality As Essence: Prehension and Separation in Whitehead’s Philosophy

“You cannot think without abstractions; accordingly, it is of the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your modes of abstraction.”[1] The entire purpose and means of this essay is to use a variety of provisional abstractions to attempt to avoid mistaking the abstraction of reality for reality itself, or what Alfred North Whitehead refers to as the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.”[2] As stated in the quotation from Whitehead that opens this essay, one cannot think, describe, or write about anything without employing some kind of abstraction of that thing. It is essential to know how one has come to an abstraction so that when the time comes to understand it in its full context the abstraction can be dismantled in exact reversal of how it was built. The proper method of abstraction is like holding the waters of the ocean at bay to better study the shore, while remembering that one’s retaining wall is not actually a part of either the ocean or the shore, and that the ocean and shore create and define each other reciprocally.

This essay will explore Whitehead’s concepts of the separative, prehensive, and modal characters of space and time as put forward in Chapter IV “The Eighteenth Century” in his Science and the Modern World. The study I am undertaking is a nest of abstractions focusing on two pages within a chapter, set within a book, which is itself a written abstraction of the reality first spoken in lectures delivered by Whitehead in 1925, and now explored in an entirely different context eighty-seven years later. To grasp a concept is to feel it as an intuition, in Henri Bergson’s use of the term.[3] To bring it forth into thought or writing is like a layering of multiple images that provide refractions of the full picture but can never entirely represent the initial intuition. We shall proceed with this limitation in mind.

The foundational assumption of eighteenth century science, from Whitehead’s perspective, is the concept of “simple location” used when studying any kind of phenomenon. Whitehead defines simple location as follows:

To say that a bit of matter has simple location means that, in expressing its spatio-temporal relations, it is adequate to state that it is where it is, in a definite finite region of space, and throughout a definite duration of time, apart from any essential reference of the relations of that bit of matter to other regions of space and to other durations of time.[4]

To reconnect simple location with the reality surrounding and composing it, Whitehead draws forth three characters of space-time: the separative character, the prehensive character, and the modal character. These can also be conceived as six characters, three in reference to space and three in reference to time. The more the concepts are divided the easier it is to grasp their definitions but the further we retreat from their actual meaning.

The separative character of space and time is the simplest of the three to comprehend: things can be separated from each other in space, and they can also be separated from each other in time. In space I am physically separate from the person sitting next to me, and all others surrounding me. In time I am also separate from other persons; billions have been born and died before me, and billions more shall live after I have died.

The prehensive character of space and time is the necessary opposite of the separative character; they allow each other to exist. Within space things are not only separated but also together, and the same holds true for time. This togetherness is what creates compounds and allows new things to exist. Hydrogen is together with oxygen and thus water is formed. I am together in time with a glass of water I drink, or with the person next to me with whom I am conversing. Yet this idea of togetherness, the prehensive quality, becomes more complicated yet is also clarified when understood in conjunction with Whitehead’s third quality of space and time: the modal character.

The modal character, as Whitehead initially defines it, is what gives rise to simple location if not understood in relation to the separative and prehensive characters. But as he goes on to explain the modal character further it is also what allows for the overcoming of that particular form of abstraction, simple location. Whitehead’s first definition of the modal relates to the limit of something both in space and in time. All things have a limit in space, limits that define their shape and location. For example a ball is limited by its shape as a sphere, which is also the spherical limit of its location. In time such limitation can be understood as the duration of something; for example I am limited in time by the length of my life as bookmarked by my birth and eventually my death. But again, to describe the modal character in isolation from separative and prehensive characters is to give rise to a false understanding of each of these things. Hence, they must all be conceived in relationship.

Whitehead first uses the example of volume to illustrate how the abstraction of simple location cannot give a full representation of reality. A volume, when measured, is divided into sub-volumes; to visualize such division one must picture not the space itself but rather the lines dividing it. As a result, what is being conceived is not the space at all but rather the divisions. Thus it appears that the volume is only a collection of lines and points. The problem that arises is that in order to add up these divisions to measure a volume either the lines must be added up, or the space between them, but not both. If only the volume is added without the divisions we arrive where we began, with an unmeasured volume. If only the divisions are added we have a collection of lines all put together producing nothing but a single line. We have a number representing the divisions but no longer a space. It is as though the volume has been turned inside out.

An example of how such ways of measuring cannot present reality can be seen in the relation of matter to space in the atom. An atom is composed of ninety-nine percent empty space. Only one percent of an atom is actual matter. This can be visualized by imagining a human being, and then subtracting the empty space from each atom in the human body. The remaining matter would be no bigger than a grain of sand. While the pure matter of a human body has now been measured, what remains is not a representation of what we understand a human being to be.[5]

What is needed is an intuition of space as inclusive of both its separative and prehensive characters. Yet these cannot be understood together without the participation of the third character, the mode. Each part of space, defined by the separative character and unified by the prehensive, is in relation to every other part of space, for it only exists by relation to each of those parts. Whitehead describes it as follows: “The parts form an ordered aggregate, in the sense that each part is something from the standpoint of every other part, and also from the same standpoint every other part is something in relation to it.”[6] An example that can help illustrate this is a technique used in watercolor painting, called negative painting. The technique is used to bring an object, say a leaf, to the foreground (see Figure 1). The leaf, which presumably has been sketched in with pencil, is then painted around. In this way the background is defined by a distinct color whereas the leaf, which is actually the focal subject, is the plain, undefined white of blank paper. The background is defining the subject, while the subject defines the background. They create each other.

Figure 1 – Negative Watercolor Painting

            Whitehead chooses to illustrate the way in which the modal character works with the abstract example of spaces A, B, and C. He writes, “Thus if A and B and C are volumes of space, B has an aspect from the standpoint of A, and so has C, and so has the relationship of B and C. This aspect of B from A is the essence of A.”[7] But B is not the only essence of A. For the aspects from A to C, to D, to E, and so forth are also the essence of A. “The volumes of space have no independent existence. They are only entities as within the totality; you cannot extract them from their environment without destruction of their very essence.”[8] One way to visualize this is with the image of a honeycomb, an example of organic geometry (see Figure 2). The honeycomb is made up of many hexagons, each one creating the others around it. Each of the six walls of one hexagon are simultaneously one of the six walls of each hexagon next to it, and so forth. No single hexagon can be isolated, otherwise all semblance of structure is lost and one is left only with a small globule of wax and honey.

Figure 2 – Honeycomb hexagons

            It is the aspect of B from A, or of the one wall shared between two honeycomb hexagons, that Whitehead calls “the mode in which B enters into the composition of A.” Thus the mode in which hexagon A enters into hexagon B next to it is the wall they share between them. Furthermore, if hexagon C shared a wall with hexagon B, but not hexagon A, then the modal character between A and C would be different than between A and B but they would be in relationship nonetheless. Thus the modal character can best be understood as the relational character. One hexagon cannot exist, it will have no essence, without the presence of all the other hexagons. Unlike the previous example of negative painting, no space is in the background while another in the foreground. All spaces are in the foreground and simultaneously dependent on each other. A better of example of how to visualize this would be the trick image of two facial silhouettes in profile looking at each other (see Figure 3). Viewed one way the faces are apparent. Viewed in another the space between the faces becomes visible, revealing the silhouette of a vase. Both the faces and the vase are present simultaneously and they each define each other, however, they cannot be described except by abstracting one from the other alternatively.

Figure 3 – Vase and two faces

            It almost seems odd that what Whitehead has termed the modal character, what I am calling the relational character, in his initial definition is that which, when isolated from the separative and prehensive characters, is the abstraction known as simple location. Simple location, according to Whitehead’s second definition of the modal, is the concept of relationship without factoring in actual beings or objects into that relationship. It is merely the concept of relationality with no participants. This is not likely how scientists of the 18th century might have defined simple location, which would be more along the lines of the participant without the relationship. It is this paradox that Whitehead’s somewhat contradictory definitions of the modal character appear to reveal.

Applying these three characters of separation, prehension, and mode to time is both simpler and more complex than applying them to space. Simpler because it is easy to understand that a moment in time cannot be separated from the moments on either side of it. Time continues to flow whether someone pauses to think about it or not. Time can never be stopped. (Unless one has entered another realm such as Faërie; but in such a place the laws of physics may not apply in the same way, so the characters of separation, prehension, and mode may not be relevant.) On the other hand, it is more complicated to understand the character of time (back in our realm) because time cannot be visualized; our usual way of imagining something requires the introduction of space. The need for space within time is entirely Whitehead’s point, because ultimately space cannot be understood without the flow of time either. So even the separation of space and time from each other are false abstractions, or misplaced concreteness. “For each volume of space, or each lapse of time, includes in its essence aspects of all volumes of space, or of all lapses of time.”[9]

This tri-part relationality of all things can also be applied to how the thinking mind relates to anything that it contemplates. To study any one object, time, place, being, or anything else is to have the mind in relationship to that thing. The object and the mind are each defining the essence of each other. Whitehead quotes Bishop Berkeley on this point:

When we do our utmost to conceive the existence of external bodies, we are all the while only contemplating our own ideas. But the mind taking no notice of itself, is deluded to think it can and does conceive bodies existing unthought of or without the mind, though at the same time they are apprehended by or exist in itself.[10]

The object and the mind are each defining the essence of each other.

As Whitehead writes more on this concept of interrelationality he begins to use the term prehension, which was initially introduced as one of three characters of space-time, to refer to the entire concept of essence defining essence. He writes, “This unity of a prehension defines itself as a here and a now, and the things so gathered into the grasped unity have essential reference to other places and other times.”[11] The modal becomes the prehensive, the prehensive becomes the separative, the separative becomes the modal. What keeps the leaf separate from its background, or environment, is what brings the leaf together with its environment. The leaf cannot exist as a leaf without its branch, its tree, its forest, its soil and so forth, and they each would not be branch, tree, forest, or soil without the existence of that and all other leaves. As we pull away from viewing reality as an abstraction all abstractive descriptors blend one into the others. Reality, the entire universe, begins to pour in to our experience.

The concept of prehension expands when considering a perceiver in relationship to the universe. The prehensive character is no longer merely a volume defined by all other volumes, it is all the senses in relationship to every stimulus. Yet it is also more than this, for sense is too specific a word for prehension. Prehension occurs without either sense or cognition. Stimulus is too simple a term as well, because what are referred to as stimuli are also each in their own acts of prehension of the universe.

When prehension is brought into the context of human relationships—whether between two or more human beings, between humans and other species, the Earth, or any other part of the cosmos—Whitehead’s concept can provide a grounding for an ethics of relationship and responsibility. If every part of the cosmos is prehending every other part, and they each create the essence of the other, no fundamental separation exists that can justify causing harm to another being without it also affecting oneself in an essential way. As previously quoted, Whitehead writes that all things “are only entities as within a totality; you cannot extract them from their environment without destruction of their very essence.”[12] Such a concept, if brought into other realms of thought, can provide a powerful ethical argument on behalf of human and ecological justice.

This exploration of Whitehead’s philosophy of prehension and separation has moved back and forth between the abstract and the concrete in an attempt to bring clarity to abstract concepts that can ultimately reveal a more concrete form of reality. I believe the best test for the validity of a philosophical concept is an exploration of how that concept can serve the ways we behave in everyday life. Do they make a difference in our habits, thoughts, and personal relationships? Whitehead is providing not only a way to overcome the fallacy of misplaced concreteness but also the fallacy of misplaced separation and independence. I say “misplaced separation” instead of merely “fallacy of separation” because holding a balance between separation and unity is what allows relationship to exist. A relationship cannot be formed within a unity alone, but requires some sense of separation as well. Carrying an understanding of the interdependence and relationality of our own essence to every other aspect of reality, I believe, could make such a difference in how one’s life is lived, not only in relation to our fellow human beings, but in relationship to other species, ecosystems, the planet Earth, and perhaps even the extent and interior of the cosmos.


Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York, NY: The Free Press. 1967.

Bergson, Henri. “Philosophical Intuition.” In Henri Bergson: Key Writings, edited by Keith Ansell Pearson and John Mullarkey, translated by Melissa McMahon, 233-247. New York, NY: Continuum. 2002.

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1967), 59.

[2] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.

[3] Henri Bergson, “Philosophical Intuition,” in Henri Bergson: Key Writings, ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and John Mullarkey, trans. Melissa McMahon (New York, NY: Continuum, 2002),240.

[4] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.

[5] Brian Swimme, personal communication, 2011.

[6] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 65.

[7] Ibid, 65.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 71.

[10] Berkeley, qtd. in Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 67.

[11] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 69.

[12] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 65.

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