Archetypal Panpsychism: Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman

This upcoming weekend, on January 20 and 21, Matthew Segall and I will be presenting together for the Idaho Friends of Jung in Boise on “Archetypal Panpsychism: Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman.”

Together we will make the case that a Whiteheadian cosmology is not only compatible with archetypal psychology, but provides a metaphysical foundation for key concepts of the latter—such as the collective unconscious, synchronicity, and archetypes—which are otherwise difficult to account for in a materialist view of the cosmos. Whitehead’s cosmology is often described as “panpsychist,” which means that psyche, far from being exclusively human, pervades the cosmos. Those inspired by Jung, we believe, will also find spiritual and intellectual nourishment from Whitehead’s philosophy.

Matt and I will be offering a lecture on Friday evening from 7:00-9:00 pm, and a workshop on Saturday from 10:00 am-1:00 pm. If you are in the Boise area, please see the website of the Idaho Friends of Jung for further details.


For those who are interested, I have several other presentations and events coming up in 2017 and 2018. For information on these engagements please see my Calendar of Events page, which I will continue to keep up to date.

Whitehead and Archetypal Cosmology: A Presentation at Bishop’s Ranch


This presentation, given at Bishop’s Ranch in Sonoma, California, briefly explores the ways in which Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy can provide one possible metaphysical basis for the practice and perspective of archetypal cosmology.

Whitehead and Archetypal Cosmology: Presentation at the “Seizing An Alternative” Conference

The paper from which this presentation was given, also entitled “Whitehead and Archetypal Cosmology,” is available here.

Whitehead and Archetypal Cosmology

This paper was presented at the conference “Seizing an Alternative: Toward An Ecological Civilization,” held in Claremont, California at Pomona College. The section of the conference was titled “Alienation from Nature,” and the track, organized by Matthew Segall, was called “Late Modernity and Its Re-imagining.”

This conference is titled “Seizing an Alternative,” a title that implies the alternative is already here, it is not something new that must be invented. The alternative has been present all along, waiting, urging us even, to open our imaginations to the possibility that this alternative is, in a sense, the very essence—a hidden essence—of our world. At this conference our section has been addressing the alienation from the rest of the cosmos felt by the human being in late modernity. And each talk in our track has been revealing, in its own way, the deep interconnection that has always been present between us and our world. We are our world. The cosmic web has not been cut, although part of our human journey has been to feel as though the threads of our existence have been severed.

In 1983 a conference was held at this same university, organized primarily by Catherine Keller and David Ray Griffin. The conference was called “Archetypal Process,” and sought to bring into dialogue the process philosophy of Whitehead and the archetypal psychology of Carl Gustav Jung and James Hillman. As Griffin pointed out, process philosophy and archetypal psychology are both postmodern movements, but postmodern in a different sense from the “relativistic, nihilistic, deconstructive postmodernism” that might better be called “ultramodernism, or mostmodernism.”[1] Process philosophy and archetypal psychology, in Griffin’s words, are examples of “a constructive, reconstructive, or revisionary postmodernism, in which many of the presuppositions of modernity are challenged and revised.”[2] They are postmodern movements that “both want to return soul and divinity to the world.”[3] In his talk at the conference, James Hillman spoke of the need for a metaphysics that could support archetypal psychology. Hillman had abandoned Jung’s metaphysics in order to save his psychology. Yet this was not enough. Metaphysics is always operative, whether one acknowledges it or not. What Hillman sought was a metaphysics of praxis, a metaphysics that supported the practice of psychology, the practice of soul-making—an alchemical metaphysics. Whitehead can provide such a metaphysics, a cosmology in which soul can do its work.

Hillman spoke in his talk of that word, cosmology: it both “refers to the astronomical order of the heavenly bodies, and it also has a metaphysical meaning, according to Whitehead’s Process and Reality.”[4] As Whitehead says, cosmology is a scheme “of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.”[5] What if we do as Hillman suggested, and “keep together the two meanings, astronomical and metaphysical?”[6] Allow me to quote Hillman, in his ever-eloquent stylings, on what it would mean to maintain the unity of the two meanings of the word cosmology:

Let us say that the astronomical bodies (the planets) offer metaphysical bodies (the Gods [or one might say the archetypes]) by means of whom every element of experience can be interpreted. What is beyond in both meanings are the heavenly bodies. These afford some nouns and adjectives, some processes and some realities. The planetary persons fill the void of the beyond with the myths of their bodies and the bodies of their myths. This cosmology is a psychological field—a field because metaphysics is placed in imaginal locations; psychological because the planets are persons with traits, with behaviors, and in relation with one another.[7]

Hillman is offering us a vision of an archetypal cosmology, an archetypally-patterned, astronomically-grounded cosmology­.

In his work with Stanislav Grof on non-ordinary and expanded states of consciousness, Richard Tarnas came to find, in his words, “a highly significant––indeed a pervasive––correspondence between planetary movements and human affairs.”[8] What is this correspondence? It is perceptible in the position of the planets at one’s birth, as well as in the transiting movement of the planets in relation to the birth chart throughout one’s life, and the ever-changing dynamics of the planets’ relational positions to each other. It is a correspondence of an archetypal character. Archetypal astrology. It is a continuously ongoing, universally visible form of synchronicity, what Jung describes as a meaningful coincidence between an inner event and an outer event. Archetypal astrology is an empirically-based, yet mythopoetically informed, practice—tracking the ongoing archetypal interconnection between psyche and cosmos, microcosm and macrocosm.

While Tarnas and others have put forward substantial evidence for the astrological perspective, demonstrating the multifaceted ways in which astrology works, today I want to explore another question: why does astrology work? What does the recognition of the highly precise, yet poetically subtle, correspondence between planetary movements and events on Earth indicate about the nature of the cosmos? In dialogue with this question Whitehead’s process philosophy can, perhaps, offer us a metaphysical foundation.

Before moving forward, a word on the nature of archetypes. Perhaps this can best be conveyed by Jung himself, the great diviner of the archetypal patterning of the human psyche. To quote Jung:

A kind of fluid interpenetration belongs to the very nature of all archetypes. They can only be roughly circumscribed at best. Their living meaning comes out more from their presentation as a whole than from a single formulation. Every attempt to focus them more sharply is immediately punished by the intangible core of meaning losing its luminosity. No archetype can be reduced to a simple formula. It is a vessel which we can never empty, and never fill. It has a potential existence only, and when it takes shape in matter it is no longer what it was. It persists throughout the ages and requires interpreting ever anew. The archetypes are the imperishable elements of the unconscious, but they change their shape continually.[9]

As this quote from Jung illustrates, it is the very nature of the archetypes to not be fully definable and describable, without misrepresenting and dulling their divine luminosity. Thus, moving forward, I want to acknowledge the impossibility of capturing archetypal presence in a single metaphysical system that explains in totality how they operate in the world.

In his introduction to the book that emerged from the “Archetypal Process” conference, Griffin draws a parallel between Jung’s concept of archetypes and Whitehead’s concept of eternal objects, each being part of an explanation of formal causation. For Whitehead, an eternal object is “any entity whose conceptual recognition does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world.”[10] An eternal object is a potentiality relevant to some actual occasion, a possibility not yet defined by actuality. Eternal objects are like Platonic Forms in that they are real apart from any of their particular expressions, but unlike Plato’s Forms, their reality is “deficient in actuality”[11] according to Whitehead. Because of this deficiency, eternal objects long to enter into actuality, to ingress into actual occasions. All the ways in which we describe this world—the adjectives—these are the eternal objects: the colors, shapes, feelings, smells, tastes, qualities. Archetypes we come to understand through such qualities, but archetypes are the unifying fields or gravitational attractors that draw together a complex array of eternal objects into singular, though always fluid, form.

Grant Maxwell, who spoke yesterday in this track, has written about the relation between Whitehead’s eternal objects and Jung’s archetypes. He posits that planetary archetypes and eternal objects are both examples of formal causation, a mode of causality forbidden by modern materialism. He also suggests they should not be directly equated. I agree. I would speculate that planetary archetypes include both the potentiality of Whitehead’s eternal objects and the incarnate experience of actual occasions. Archetypes are not just eternal objects or potentials, because they would seem to have more agency and autonomy that Whitehead grants to eternal objects. Archetypes are complex personalities, persons even in Hillman’s language, yet there is a metaphorical unity to their complexity. “All ways of speaking of archetypes,” Hillman writes, “are translations from one metaphor to another.”[12]

To explore metaphor more deeply, we can make a slight turn toward Owen Barfield, the anthroposophically-informed philosopher who wrote such works as Saving the Appearances and Poetic Diction. Barfield posits an understanding of the evolution of consciousness in which the physical and psychical, material and spiritual, bodily and ensouled qualities of all entities in the world were once unified in the experience of ancient human consciousness. Only over the slow course of history have these concepts been separated from each other—subjective from objective—so that even now my language describing this to you inherently reflects this split. I must speak of object and subject, body and spirit. To give an example Barfield uses to illustrate this: when we translate the Latin word spiritus into English, spiritus can mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit” depending on the context. Yet for the ancient speakers of the word spiritus it meant all three of these words, and perhaps more, all at once—they were a unified whole in which the physical is utterly indistinguishable from its psychical, ensouled presence.

Yet these words are inherently related to one another at their source. They are examples of “true metaphor” in Barfield’s understanding. The way certain eternal objects complexify and ingress as archetypal beings is an example of such “true metaphor.” As Hillman said, “All ways of speaking of archetypes are translations from one metaphor to another.”[13] The infinite array of eternal objects that express the qualities of Saturn, or Venus, or Neptune, or any of the other planetary archetypes, are metaphorically related to one another, a relation that was much more apparent to ancient consciousness than to modern consciousness. This is how the ancients knew what names to give the planets, which physical planets belonged to which Gods, because the meaning of the celestial bodies was directly apparent to them. The world has changed because we have changed in our participation with it. Yet it still continues to change. The music of the spheres may have been silent for many in late modernity, yet now—at the turn of the tides—we are beginning to relearn the score.

For Whitehead the source of all things is creativity. Creativity is primary. Creativity is the realm of pure potential. Chaos. Griffin has referred to Whitehead’s philosophy as “process theology,” “especially when the chief focus is on God and other questions of ‘ultimate concern’ (Paul Tillich), such as ultimate origin, order, value, and meaning.”[14] In Whitehead’s scheme, God is not the ultimate. Creativity is. God is that which orders the chaos of pure potentiality into the hierarchy of eternal objects—and, I would posit, into the archetypes. God takes chaos and turns it into cosmos, but God is born of that chaos. God is the first concrescence, an everlasting concrescence, the first experiential achievement of chaos becoming cosmos.

An image I find compelling to illustrate this—chaos becoming cosmos—is that of a prism refracting white light into an iridescent rainbow. The white light is that realm of pure potentiality, chaotic creativity. In Whitehead’s scheme the prism itself is God, that which refracts the indefinite into the definite, that differentiates pure light into the colors of the rainbow. Each color is an archetype—red clearly different from blue, yellow distinct from purple. But within the band of light that is each color an infinity of shades is at play. Every shade of green could be seen as every possible eternal object that could ingress as an expression of Venus, or every shade of blue the endless possibilities of Neptune. They are still the same light as the white light, but the prism—which could be identified with God—has ordered them into colors.

What makes a rainbow so spectacular? Why do we stop to take note of them? Because we can see them. A rainbow makes light itself visible. The rainbow is a symbol of divine possibility entering into the world, yearning for our participation in its beauty.

The moment a child takes her first breath can be seen as the first concrescence of that child independently of the mother’s body. The child herself is a society of actual occasions, each of which are also concrescing in this moment, making up the experience of the newborn. This moment, the first inhalation, is when the birth chart of an individual is set. The archetypal energies expressed throughout the rest of an individual’s life reflect the planetary configurations, the archetypal relationships, or eternal potentialities, of this particular moment. At the time of birth all of the actual occasions that have ever been, that have perished into objective immortality to use Whitehead’s term, become one— are prehended by the actual occasion that is the newborn child in that moment—before also perishing. Every archetypal expression that has ever manifested is gifted to the child. Yet the past actual occasions that are most felt by the concrescing actual occasion are those that are immediately prior. Thus the positions of the planets and their correlated archetypal energies, that are being enacted everywhere upon the Earth, are what is most immediately inherited by the child in her first moment of independence. As the child continues to live and grow, her subjectivity—the crest of her concrescing wave—continues to inherit the archetypally ordered actual occasions, as can be seen in the unfolding of astrological transits. Yet the birth chart is still effective, and can still be seen in the progression of the individual’s life. How can this be so? How can a past actual occasion, from the moment of birth, be more archetypally influential than other past actual occasions?

Let us return to the image of God as an eternally concrescing actual occasion, never perishing but continuously feeling the procession of the cosmic community of finite actual occasions. Perhaps in this understanding of God we can glimpse what may be happening in relation to the actual occasion when the individual’s birth chart is set. It is almost like the actual occasion that concresced with the child’s first intake of air is also an everlasting concrescence, one that continues from that moment forward. Each preceding concrescence takes place within the gestalt set by that first concrescence—which is how transits to the birth chart could be experienced by the individual. The birth chart is like the prism of that individual’s life, refracting the archetypal potential into the archetypal particulars of this person. That moment when the birth chart is set concresces onward, even beyond the bodily death of the individual. We see transits to the birth chart still being operative long after the person carrying that chart has died: for instance, when a renaissance of interest in someone’s work occurs after their death. As an example, (and please excuse my more technical astrological language for a moment) as this conference is being held Neptune in the sky is exactly crossing Whitehead’s natal Mercury-Uranus square, bringing a revisioning and reimagining of world view, which relates to Neptune-Uranus, to Whitehead’s ingenious philosophical system, which relates to Mercury-Uranus.

Like the dipolar nature of Whitehead’s God, the archetypes too seem to have a primordial pole and a consequent pole. The primordial pole orders the realm of eternal objects so that they can ingress as relevant possibilities into the actual occasions of the cosmic community, while the consequent pole feels the experiences of this world community and continuously adjusts the ordering of the eternal objects. So too, I believe, it is with the archetypes. For as they ingress into living manifestation, we participate in their becoming, we co-creatively engage their archetypal qualities through our own lives. The archetypes also have a consequent nature, one that feels what we feel, and that forever reshapes the potentialities for the future ingression of the archetypes, in our own lives and in the lives of future generations. Our participation is enacting an evolution in the archetypes themselves.

We are being called upon to seize an alternative. We are being called upon to participate. By consciously engaging with the archetypes as we co-creatively manifest them, we are reshaping the potentialities with which they will manifest in the future. No future is yet set. But the past occasions that will inform it are here now. A rainbow makes white light visible. Let’s look forward with eyes open.


Griffin, David Ray, ed. Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989.

Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1992.

Jung, C.G. “The Psychology of the Child Archetype.” In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious: Collected Works of Carl Gustav Jung. Translated by R. F. C. Hull, Edited by H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, W. McGuire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1940.

Maxwell, Grant. “Archetype and Eternal Object: Jung, Whitehead, and the Return of Formal Causation.” Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology Volume 3 (Winter 2011): 51-71.

Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985.


[1] David Ray Griffin, “Introduction,” in Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman, ed. David Ray Griffin (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989), 6.

[2] Griffin, “Introduction,” 6-7.

[3] David Ray Griffin, “Preface,” in Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman, ed. David Ray Griffin (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989), vii.

[4] James Hillman, “Back to Beyond: On Cosmology,” in Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman, ed. David Ray Griffin (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989), 220.

[5] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985), 3.

[6] Hillman, “Back to Beyond: On Cosmology,” 220.

[7] Hillman, “Back to Beyond: On Cosmology,” 220.

[8] Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006), 68-69.

[9] C.G. Jung, “The Psychology of the Child Archetype” (1940) in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Collected Works of Carl Gustav Jung, trans. R. F. C. Hull, ed. H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, W. McGuire, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 179.

[10] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 44.

[11] Ibid, 34.

[12] James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1992), xix.

[13] Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, xix.

[14] Griffin, “Introduction,” 3.

Crossing the Threshold: The Ecological Road into Mordor

Great stories become symbols as they are encountered again and again by successive generations, as they are read in the context of currently unfolding lives. Stories become a part of the ecology in which they are told, participating in shaping the cultural landscape and being reshaped by it as well. Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare—these are but a few of the authors whose stories have withstood the slow wearing and reshaping of the passing river of time; they are narratives that have become changing symbols for those who have taken them up in their own time. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium, principally his Lord of the Rings epic, has been called by several scholars a myth for our time, a symbol of the age in which we live. As one Tolkien scholar writes, The Lord of the Rings is a tale that “will bear the mind’s handling, and it is a book that acquires an individual patina in each mind that takes it up, like a much-caressed pocket stone or piece of wood.”[1] Such is the gift of a story written not as prescriptive allegory, but rather as what Tolkien preferred to see as “history, true or feigned, with its various applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”[2] It is the flexible applicability of Tolkien’s narrative that allows it to be adapted and molded according to the needs and desires of the generations encountering it, providing a symbolic foil to the world in which it is being retold.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

Tolkien began writing his mythology during a time of rapid transformation in Europe, as he witnessed increasing industrialization overwhelm the rural landscape of his native England. His stories carry much of the melancholy rendered by this loss of ecological beauty, and seem to plant seeds of warning for upcoming generations as more and more of the Earth’s landscapes are being turned to solely human uses. The ecological awareness at the heart of Tolkien’s world may contribute to its particular applicability to the current time period in which we face massive anthropogenic ecological destruction. Methods of engagement with the ecological crisis are innumerably diverse, a reflection of the broad scale of the problems with which the Earth community is challenged. Philosophical approaches to ecology and environmentalism have sought different means of engaging with the very concept of nature, as well as the dualisms created between human and nature, self and other, subject and object, that have contributed to making the Earth crisis what it is. Can Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth provide a symbolic mirror for some of these approaches, from ecofeminism, to dark ecology, to process ethics? By bringing such frameworks into dialogue with narrative, can new concepts be born through their interminglings and diversions?

This study of Middle-Earth as an ecological foil will go in several different directions, although they will all address overlapping issues related to how concepts of unity and difference play significant roles in the human relationship to the Earth. I will be using Tolkien’s narrative in two ways: on the one hand, by looking at it from the outside to see how it might change the engagement of the reader—as a participant in an imaginal world—with the primary world in which she lives; and on the other hand, by diving into the world itself and studying the characters directly as examples of individuals engaging in different ways with their own world. I will first explore the role art plays in shaping the human relationship with the Earth, seeing how art can both cultivate a sense of identity with the natural world, but also how it can give a clearer view of the diversity and inherent difference in that world. Crossing the threshold and entering into Middle-Earth itself we can continue exploring themes of identity and difference, remoteness and entanglement, duality and unity, by bringing such thinkers as Timothy Morton, Val Plumwood, Pierre Hadot, Slavov Zizek, and Alfred North Whitehead into dialogue with Tolkien’s work.

Imaginal worlds and the stories which take place within them can provide what Tolkien calls a “recovery,” a “regaining of a clear view.”[3] He goes on to elaborate what such a clear view can offer, saying:

I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.[4]

Although he mentions not wanting to involve himself with the philosophers, for the purpose of this essay I will be drawing Tolkien’s narratives into philosophical dialogue. The ecophenomenologist Neil Evernden offers a complementary, although somewhat reoriented, view to Tolkien’s on the role that art and the humanities can play in ecology: quoting Northrop Frye to make his point, Evernden says, “the goal of art is to ‘recapture, in full consciousness, that original lost sense of identity with our surroundings, where there is nothing outside the mind of man, or something identical with the mind of man.’”[5] Evernden’s perspective dissolves the boundary between the human and the natural world, whereas Tolkien’s sharpens awareness that there is a surrounding world that cannot be possessed by the human. Both perspectives, however, lead to a reorientation of values in which the natural world cannot become forgotten or taken for granted. They both call forth a sense of wonder.

The French philosopher Pierre Hadot points towards how art can create continuity between humanity and nature, offering another perspective for regaining the clear view of which Tolkien speaks:

If . . . people consider themselves a part of nature because art is already present in it, there will no longer be opposition between nature and art; instead, human art, especially in its aesthetic aspect, will be in a sense the prolongation of nature, and then there will no longer be any relation of dominance between nature and mankind.[6]

Art offers to the spectator the possibility of becoming a participant, to engage at a personal level with the subject as portrayed by the work of art. The human subject can no longer encounter the other in the art as solely objective for, as Evernden writes, “The artist makes the world personal—known, loved, feared, or whatever, but not neutral.”[7] For Tolkien, art is what gives to the creations of the imagination “the inner consistency of reality”[8] that allows both the designer and spectator to enter into the created world. We have the possibility of entering fully into a world such as Tolkien’s and seeing its applicability to our own world, which is what makes it such a potent symbol for our own actions.

Entering into Middle-Earth we find ourselves in the Shire, the quiet, sheltered landscape inhabited by Hobbits. The Shire is insolated from the outside world, its inhabitants peacefully oblivious to the wider world, its borders guarded unbeknownst to the Hobbits by human Rangers of the North. The Lord of the Rings can be seen as a literary example and metaphor of overcoming the dualism between self and other, human and nature, and subject and object. It tells the story of how four Hobbits leave their isolated world—and also world view—of the Shire to journey into the diverse landscapes of Middle-Earth and encounter the many peoples shaped by those lands. They realize they are but one small part of a larger, diverse ecology of beings. As Morton writes in his book Ecology Without Nature,

The strangeness of Middle-Earth, its permeation with others and their worlds, is summed up in the metaphor of the road, which becomes an emblem for narrative. The road comes right up to your front door. To step into it is to cross a threshold between inside and outside.[9]

Morton is quite critical of Tolkien, seeing Middle-Earth as an “elaborate attempt to craft a piece of kitsch,” a closed world where “however strange or threatening our journey, it will always be familiar” because “it has all been planned out in advance.”[10] This criticism is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what Tolkien describes the very aim of fantasy to be, to free things ‘from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.’ Is this an indication that Tolkien has failed in his project, or rather that Morton is misreading what it is that Tolkien is attempting to do? Morton begins his analysis of Middle-Earth by saying,

The Shire . . . depicts the world-bubble as an organic village. Tolkien narrates the victory of the suburbanite, the “little person,” embedded in a tamed yet natural-seeming environment. Nestled into the horizon as they are in their burrows, the wider world of global politics is blissfully unavailable to them.[11]

In many ways this is a true characterization of the Shire at the start of the tale. There is an idyllic pastoralism to the Shire that is cherished by many of Tolkien’s readers, but it is also a realm of sheltered innocence as Morton points out, a Paradise before the Fall. However, by substituting this image of the Shire for the whole of Middle-Earth, Morton misses an essential aspect of the narrative: the Hobbits must depart from the Shire and encounter the strangeness and diversity of the larger world. The Hobbits, who may start out as ‘little suburbanites,’ cannot accomplish the tasks asked of them without first being transformed through the suffering and awakening that comes from walking every step of their journey. To return to Morton’s quote about the Road, once the ‘threshold between inside and outside’ has been crossed, the traveler cannot return to his former innocence. It is a shift in world view. The Hobbits can never return to the solipsistic world that existed prior to that crossing. This is an essential move that is also being asked of the human species in our own time; to cross out of our anthropocentric world view to encounter the great and imperiled diversity of the wider world.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

While the Hobbits’ journey can serve as a metaphor for the journey the human species is being called to take—to awaken to the crisis at hand and leave our anthropocentric world view—The Lord of the Rings can be read symbolically from another perspective in which different characters represent alternative approaches to the natural world that have been taken by humanity over the course of history. These differing approaches have been laid out by Pierre Hadot in his “essay on the history of the idea of nature,” The Veil of Isis. Using mythic terms, these are what Hadot calls the Orphic and Promethean attitudes:

Orpheus thus penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Whereas the Promethean attitude is inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility, the Orphic attitude, by contrast, is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness.[12]

The three primary methods of the Promethean attitude, according to Hadot, are experimentation, mechanics, and magic, each of which seek to manipulate nature for some specific end. In Middle-Earth the Promethean approach is used by the Dark Lord Sauron, and later by the wizard Saruman, as they each seek to employ technology to gain power and dominion over others. Hadot writes of the Promethean attitude: “Man will seek, through technology, to affirm his power, domination, and rights over nature.”[13] As Treebeard says of Saruman, “He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”[14] Saruman’s drive for power is a mere shadow and an echo of Sauron’s: the emblematic symbol of the power of technology in The Lord of the Rings is of course the One Ring itself, a device or machine that takes away the free will of those who use it.

Hadot’s consideration of magic as an aspect of the Promethean attitude is quite similar to Tolkien’s own views on magic, although this might not be expected with a first glance at his works. Tolkien differentiates between magic and enchantment, seeing magic as the technological manipulations of the Enemy, while enchantment is the exquisite creations of peoples such as the Elves. Tolkien writes in one of his letters that “the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference”[15] between magic and enchantment. He goes on to say, “Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete . . . . its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.”[16] Elvish enchantment might be seen as an example of Hadot’s Orphic approach to nature, with its focus on poetry, music, art, holistic science, myth and contemplation.

The Orphic attitude holds the belief that “if nature has hidden certain things, then it had good reasons to hide them.”[17] It is an approach that seeks to come to understanding through contemplating the whole, without reducing it into simplistic parts. This is illustrated by the difference between the two Istari, or wizards, Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White. In his bid for power, Saruman has renounced his rank as White Wizard rather to become Saruman of Many Colors. He mocks the symbol represented by his former color, proclaiming:

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said [Gandalf]. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”[18]

Saruman has moved from being one of the Wise, those who bring an Orphic approach to all they undertake, to a dark Promethean figure seeking domination, power, and control over others.

The attitudes Sauron and Saruman take towards the lands and peoples of Middle-Earth can be better understood through the ecofeminist Val Plumwood’s model of anthropocentrism, which she recognizes as the dominant human culture’s relationship with nature. Her language is particularly appropriate for mapping onto The Lord of the Rings because she refers to the dualism between One and Other as played out in this form of hegemonic centrism. In this symbolic mapping, the One represents the centralized power of the Lord of the One Ring, while the Other represents the diversity of the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth and their multiplicity of cultures and landscapes. Plumwood’s anthropocentric model demonstrates the ways in which the One approaches the Other, particularly through means of homogenization, backgrounding, incorporation or assimilation, and instrumentalism. A breakdown of these terms follows, each of which can be seen in the way Tolkien’s dark powers seek to dominate and control the peoples of Middle-Earth:

• Homogenization – “The model promotes insensitivity to the marvelous diversity of nature, since differences in nature are attended to only if they are likely to contribute in some obvious way to human welfare.”[19]

• Backgrounding – “Nature is represented as inessential and massively denied as the unconsidered background to technological society.”[20]

• Incorporation (Assimilation) – “The intricate order of nature is perceived as disorder, as unreason, to be replaced where possible by human order in development, an assimilating project of colonisation.”[21]

• Instrumentalism – “In anthropocentric culture, nature’s agency and independence of ends are denied, subsumed in or remade to coincide with human interests, which are thought to be the source of all value in the world. Mechanistic worldviews especially deny nature any form of agency of its own.”[22]

Sauron seeks to turn all of Middle-Earth to his own devices, by reducing the great diversity of the land’s peoples to mere tributes and instruments. The power of the One Ring is that it can bring all beings, even the land itself, under its dominion: “One Ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.”[23] Sauron’s darkness is homogenous, erasing all difference, backgrounding all who do not fit his plans, and incorporating and using as instruments those who do.

The key actions to the three great victories accomplished by the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth are carried out by characters or races that have been forgotten or backgrounded in just the way Plumwood describes: Sauron is overthrown by the actions of Frodo and Sam, two small Hobbits of a race he considered too unimportant to account for in his schemes; Saruman is defeated by the Ents whom he dismissed as mere myth; and the Witch-King of Angmar is overthrown by the shieldmaiden Eowyn, whose coming was concealed by the patriarchal language that referred to her entire race as Men—leaving the arrogant Lord of the Nazgûl to be defeated at the hands of a woman. As Elrond says at the Council held in Rivendell that decides the fate of the Ring, “This quest must be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”[24]

There are, of course, flaws with Tolkien’s work that a perspective such as Plumwood’s would be quick to point out. For example, it is a largely androcentric work, with the majority of the characters being male. It also has a Eurocentric focus, as Middle-Earth was intended by Tolkien to be set in Europe, although in an imaginary time: “The theatre of my tale is this earth,” Tolkien wrote in one letter, “the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.”[25] Critics such as Morton point out that “For Tolkien, dwarves, elves, hobbits, and talking eagles are welcome others, but swarthy ‘southern’ or ‘eastern’ men are not.”[26] Although I do not want to discount these valid criticisms, I will point out some subtleties that emerge in the text that complexify Morton’s simple rendering of good and evil in Tolkien’s world.

For example, when Sam witnesses the violent death of a Southron man he finds himself contemplating what the character of this man might have been in life.

He was glad he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.[27]

In this moment I believe Tolkien is asking the reader to contemplate the same: to not take the presentation of the other at face value, but rather to look deeper. He is bringing moral complexity into a story that has often been initially perceived to present a Manichean vision of evil and good. Often the struggle between good and evil takes place within a single person, as can be seen emblematically in Frodo and Sméagol’s internal struggles with their own potential for evil, and even Gandalf and Aragorn’s wrestling with the corrupting influence of power. “Nothing is evil in the beginning,” Elrond says. “Even Sauron was not so.”[28]

One’s actions, and not one’s inherent being, are what turn a person evil in Tolkien’s world. The process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, writes on the nature of evil and its root in inhibiting, either through violence or neglect, the potential for beauty in the world. For Whitehead, the evil of violence “lies in the loss to the social environment.”[29] He also writes,

Evil in itself leads to the world losing forms of attainment in which that evil manifests itself . . . . Thus evil promotes its own elimination by destruction, or degradation, or by elevation. But in its own nature it is unstable.[30]

An example of this can be seen at times throughout The Lord of the Rings when the Orcs, acting as evil minions doing the bidding of Sauron or Saruman, turn on each other during a dispute and often end up killing one another in their anger—often eliminating a danger otherwise needing to be faced by the protagonists. As Brian Henning writes, “Whitehead’s insight is that violence and force tend to be self-defeating in that they undermine the very social structures that make them possible.”[31] Another case is Saruman, who cuts the trees of Fangorn to feed his fires, allowing him to raise an industrial army. Without doing this harm, which is what makes him evil to begin with, he would not have triggered the anger of the Ents, leading to his defeat. Finally, a more abstract illustration of how evil undermines itself can be seen in Sauron. Gandalf says of Sauron that “the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.”[32] Sauron’s desire for power, which is what initially corrupts him and turns him evil, is also that which is his undoing, for it blinds him to the moral will of others, resulting in his utter demise.

One must be careful of the way in which one relates to the actions of evil in the world. Creating a dualism between oneself and what one sees as evil can lead to what Hegel, from the perspective of Morton, called the Beautiful Soul. Morton writes, “The Beautiful Soul suffers from seeing reality as an evil thing ‘over yonder.’ Is this not precisely the attitude of many forms of environmentalism?”[33] He goes on to say,

It’s that the gaze that constitutes the world as a thing ‘over yonder,’ is evil as such. The environmental fundamentalism that sees the world as an essential, living Earth that must be saved from evil, viral humans is the very type of the Beautiful Soul’s evil gaze.[34]

The evil of the Beautiful Soul’s gaze is only evil when one remains at a remove from what one perceives as evil out in the world. So long as it remains a distant gaze, evil can flourish in the world. “How do we truly exit from the Beautiful Soul?” Morton asks. “By taking responsibility for our attitude, for our gaze. On the ground this looks like forgiveness. We are fully responsible for the present environmental catastrophe, simply because we are aware of it.”[35] The burden of the One Ring is that Frodo must take responsibility for it once he is aware that the world is imperiled by it. It is his task to take responsibility for the Ring, and the longer he is in possession of it the more he is corrupted by its power. “The only way is in and down. . .” as Morton says.[36] Frodo and Sam not only go down into the heart of Mordor, they also face the capacity for evil in themselves. Indeed, Frodo must take responsibility for his inability to destroy the Ring, but in doing so he also must forgive himself, for only in his failure was the task actually able to be accomplished.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

The approach of going ‘in and down’ is what Morton has called dark ecology. “Dark ecology is melancholic: melancholy is the Earth’s humour, and the residuum of our unbreakable psychic connection to our mother’s body, which stands metonymically for our connection with all life forms.”[37] There is a melancholy too that is inherent to the heart of The Lord of the Rings. With the destruction of the One Ring, the Three Rings of the Elves are also stripped of their power, and all that was wrought with them in symbiotic harmony with beauty of the Earth begins to fade and pass away. Interconnection is at the heart of this story, the power of good intrinsically interwoven and even dependent on the power of evil, and vice versa. Destroying the One Ring is choosing to lose the great beauty created by the Elves to allow the greater beauty of a free Middle-Earth to flourish. It is a moral decision according to Henning’s kalogenic ethics of creativity, but it is a tragic, a melancholic decision as well. The Lord of the Rings concludes with a sense of bittersweet mourning, the mourning of all that has passed, the mourning of the end of an age.

In reference to the ecological crisis, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes on what hope we have for the future:

We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, the catastrophe will take place, it is our destiny—and, then, on the background of this acceptance, we should mobilize ourselves to perform the act that will change destiny itself by inserting a new possibility into the past.[38]

In many ways the future of Middle-Earth is also doomed, poised on the edge of ruin. Late in the story Pippin asks Gandalf:

“Tell me,” he said, “is there any hope? For Frodo, I mean; or at least mostly for Frodo.”

Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. “There never was much hope,” he answered. “Just a fool’s hope.”[39]

‘On the background of this acceptance,’ as Zizek has said, we must then make our decision, the melancholic choice that leads us ‘in and down’ into the darkness of the world, a darkness mirrored potentially in each of us as well, whose very success leads to mourning. When Frodo first learns that he is in possession of the One Ring, that it is his responsibility to face the darkness head on, he confides to Gandalf:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who come to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”[40]


Works Cited

Evernden, Neil. “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978).

Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Henning, Brian G. The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005.

Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

–––––. “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul.” Collapse 6 (2010): 265-293.

Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. 

–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Religion in the Making. Edited by Judith A. Jones. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Nature and Its Discontents.” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 37-72.


[1] Peter Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), xii.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 5.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.

[4] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 77.

[5] Northrop Frye, qtd. in Neil Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978): 99.

[6] Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 92.

[7] Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” 100.

[8] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 68.

[9] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 98.

[10] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 98.

[11] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 97.

[12] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 96.

[13] Ibid, 92.

[14] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, II, iv, 76.

[15] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 146.

[16] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 146.

[17] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 91.

[18] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 272.

[19] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 107.

[20] Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 108.

[21] Ibid, 109.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 59.

[24] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.

[25] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 239.

[26] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 99.

[27] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, IV, iv, 269.

[28] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 281.

[29] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making, ed. Judith A. Jones, (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996), 97.

[30] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 96.

[31] Brian G. Henning, The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005), 114.

[32] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.

[33] Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” Collapse 6 (2010): 287-288.

[34] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 290.

[35] Ibid, 291.

[36] Ibid, 293.

[37] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 293.

[38] Slavoj Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 68.

[39] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, V, iv, 88.

[40] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 60.

The Ethics of Creativity: Affirming Beauty and Tragedy

Can a system of ethics be based upon beauty? Is a kalocentric world view enough to counter the biocentric, and most often anthropocentric, ethics that are shaping the destruction of Earth’s systems by human beings? Perhaps most importantly, can an ethic that leans on aesthetics produce tangible changes for good in the world? Brian Henning seems to think so, as he argues in The Ethics of Creativity, his book on the moral applicability of Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy.

The ethics of creativity is rooted in Whitehead’s concept of concrescence, in which each actual occasion, each infinitesimal “drop of experience,”[1] moves through a four stage process of datum, satisfaction, process, and decision,[2] in which the occasion feels itself in its subjective immediacy before perishing into objective immortality. Whitehead’s term “concrescence” is from the Latin concrēscere, meaning “to grow together.”[3] Concrescence is the process by which each actual occasion, or event, is constituted by its internal relations to all other events. “Each actual occasion is, in this sense, its relationship to the universe.”[4] For Whitehead, individuality is composed of reference to all others as well as to the whole. Concrescence is the process by which “the many become one, and are increased by one.”[5]

Whitehead’s “category of the ultimate”[6] is Creativity: the harmonizing process of concrescence makes creativity kalogenic—for each event to be actual it must to some degree or other be beautiful. Drawing on Charles Hartshorne, Henning writes, “The zero of aesthetic value is the zero of actuality.”[7] All of reality, therefore, has value. Due to concrescence, by which ‘the many become one, and are increased by one,’ each event has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. Henning writes, “Whitehead’s insistence that every individual has value not only for itself, but for others and for the whole of reality, establishes a rich axiological foundation for the development of an organic moral philosophy.”[8] Henning is trying to formulate an ethical system that mirrors the “creative process of the universe itself.”[9] He asserts that “morality must always aim at achieving the most harmonious, inclusive, and complex whole possible.”[10]

Henning applies the ethics of creativity primarily to the ecological crisis, an issue that urgently calls for a rethinking of ethics and morality. He says,

One of the greatest services that a Whiteheadian moral philosophy can provide to contemporary environmental and moral philosophies is to provide the metaphysical basis for understanding not only the locus and scope of intrinsic value, but also its nature.[11]

When Henning applies the ethics of creativity to real world situations in the latter sections of his book, that is when both the gifts and the flaws of the system become most apparent. He describes the two forms of ugliness and evil possible in a Whiteheadian universe: anesthesia, “which involves the frustration of greater possibilities by the interposition of lesser achievements,”[12] such as the inhibition of a greater form of beauty potentially open to an organism; and violence, “which involves the active destruction and inhibition of past achievements of beauty.”[13] The former refers to the inhibition of future achievements, the latter to the past. The good of the individual and of the whole are kept in balance by affirming the real value of each, and by refusing “to accept a dichotomy between the interests of the one and the many.”[14] As a system applied to hypothetical circumstances Henning’s ethics of creativity often seems to provide a superior course of moral action than other systems of ethics based in, for example, utilitarianism or deep ecology. Yet the ethics of creativity is also subject to the fallibility of individual subjectivity and understanding that upsets the consistency of other ethical systems.

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of the ethics of creativity and its triadic system of value is the affirmation of tragedy when a moral decision is made. Henning offers the example of choosing between killing a malaria-infected mosquito that is about to bite a human infant, and allowing the mosquito to achieve its aim and sacrificing the child. Henning asserts that to save the child and kill the mosquito allows for greater beauty and complexity to be achieved in the world because the potential for beauty in the human child is greater than that of the mosquito. This is, of course, the natural answer that most human beings (including myself) would give when faced with this situation, although it might not align with the moral systems of mosquitoes. There is a degree of anthropocentrism implicit in ascribing the higher potential for beauty (although perhaps not complexity) to the child. This may be seen as a flaw in Henning’s working of Whitehead’s metaphysics. However, Henning writes,

The aim is not merely to give preference to the more complex individual; the aim in our moral decision making is to determine what would achieve the most harmonious and intense whole with regard to the individuals involved.[15]

He goes on to say, “To choose the mosquito over the infant would be to affirm the less beautiful of two options. Thus, the destruction of the mosquito would be tragic but morally justifiable” (emphasis added).[16] The element of tragedy in our moral decision-making, if truly mourned, I feel affirms the loss of beauty that occurs with each decision. The very act of mourning that tragedy increases the beauty in the universe. A system of ethics should not provide easy answers to moral dilemmas; rather it should allow every side of the ethical decision to be felt by the moral agent, just as in Whitehead’s system each actual occasion feels the whole of the universe with each concrescence.



Works Cited

Henning, Brian G. The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985.

[1] Brian G. Henning, The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005), 32.

[2] Henning, The Ethics of Creativity, 33.

[3] Ibid, 32.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985), 21.

[6] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

[7] Henning, The Ethics of Creativity, 103.

[8] Ibid, 5.

[9] Ibid, 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11]Ibid, 2-3.

[12] Henning, The Ethics of Creativity, 113.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 3.

[15] Henning, The Ethics of Creativity, 188.

[16] Ibid.

Prehending The Monster: A Dance With Whiteheadian Dragons

What does it mean to be a monster in a Whiteheadian universe? A world in which “the holy idea of process”[1] pervades, and all beings are defined in relationship to each other. A world in which God is unconscious and yet able to see all Time and Space, who gives limit and also meaning through infinite patience, a God who may indeed even be a dragon. “Seek out gold and sit on it.”[2] Infinitely patient, eternally growing with the accumulation of the experience of all lowly creatures, God becomes a creature himself bound within the immanent sphere of Time. How does one define oneself in such a world? How to know thyself when there is “No thread, no frailest hair between myself and the universal clutter”[3]?


Beowulf is a poetic elegy of heroism, written by an unknown Anglo-Saxon imagination, which we have inherited from Europe’s Dark Ages. “Not that one age is darker than another,”[4] as a post-modern dragon proclaims. The novelist John Gardner has taken this Medieval text and offered it from a new perspective: the man-eating monster Grendel, whom the hero Beowulf defeats in his first battle, tells us his own story of how he came to be who he is. Gardner’s tale is woven of the post-modern philosophies existentialism and nihilism, framing Grendel’s solipsistic view of a disenchanted, mechanistic universe devoid of all meaning. Yet the narrative is also richly saturated with the thought, and even direct quotations of, the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose voice speaks through a worm from the ancient world, as well as an old priest enraptured with his musings on God, but also through each scene of the story’s unfolding.

It may be that Gardner was able to write Grendel’s tale through a Whiteheadian lens because something of Whitehead’s thought was already present in the original poem of Beowulf, although written some ten to thirteen centuries before Whitehead was ever born. Through Grendel one can begin to see glimpses in Beowulf of prehension and concrescence captured in narrative form, long before they were ever named as philosophical concepts. This study of ancient myth, imaginative poetry, and process philosophy is an exploration in which cause and effect are not dependent upon time, in which the hero’s final defeat can illustrate concrescence, Whitehead’s prehension can illuminate Grendel’s monstrosity, and Gardner’s dragon can give metaphor to the contemporary practice of creating concepts without images, and the dangerous bridges we may walk to understand them.

Grendel woke up in a mechanistic universe, to paraphrase John McDermott.[5] He contemplates the indifference of his world, the “cold mechanics of the stars.”[6] All things are inanimate to him, religion is lunatic, he is vastly alone, isolated. “Space hurls outward, falconswift, mounting like an irreversible injustice, a final disease.”[7] Yet, like so many “terrified by the eternal silence of these infinite spaces,”[8] Grendel seeks out meaning, even as he denies its existence: “Stars, spattered out through lifeless night from end to end, like jewels scattered in a dead king’s grave, tease, torment my wits toward meaningful patterns that do not exist.”[9]

It is as this post-modern “meaning-seeking speck of dust”[10] that Grendel has his first crisis of meaning, in which he sees the living values of what he thought of as the inanimate world. While trapped painfully between two trees, Grendel searches the landscape in vain for his mother, and the objects of the world each present themselves to him.

I twisted around as far as I could, hunting wildly for her shape on the cliffs, but there was nothing, or rather, there was everything but my mother. Thing after thing tried, cynical and cruel, to foist itself off as my mama’s shape… each thing trying to detach itself, lift itself out of the general meaningless scramble of objects, but falling back, melting to the blank, infuriating clutter of not-my-mother…. I seemed to see the whole universe, even the sun and sky, leaping forward, then sinking away again, decomposing.[11]

Grendel is having a cruel experience of the full presence of everything, a multiplicity of what Whitehead calls prehensions, in which everything is always present in, and creating the relational essence of, all other things. Whitehead writes,

The actual world is a manifold of prehensions; and a ‘prehension’ is a ‘prehensive occasion;’ and a prehensive occasion is the most concrete finite entity, conceived as what it is in itself and for itself, and not as from its aspect in the essence of another such occasion.[12]

Each entity in Grendel’s experience is actively putting itself forward; the objects and Grendel prehend each other, yet Grendel also prehends the absence of his mother—her very absence is a real entity that is defining the essence of each object in Grendel’s experience. “Every occasion is a synthesis of being and not-being.”[13] “Being,” in this case, refers to Grendel’s prehensions of all that is physically present, whereas “not-being” refers to his prehensions of what is only conceptually there as a desirable possibility—his mother.

In the trauma and pain of being caught in the tree, believing he is dying, Grendel is having an enchanted experience of the world that immensely contradicts his belief in a meaningless, inanimate universe. He has lost the ability for negative prehension, the “definite exclusion of that item from positive contribution to the subject’s own real internal constitution.”[14] He cannot filter out any presence; it is utterly overwhelming, this interconnection of all things.

At last Grendel is rescued, hours later, by his mother. As he lies safe within his subterranean cave he contemplates his experience and can only conclude that it was entirely projection: “‘The world resists me and I resist the world’ I said. “That’s all there is. The mountains are what I define them as….The world is all pointless accident… I exist, nothing else.’”[15] Grendel refuses to be changed by his experience. Yet, as he thinks on himself thinking, he comes to a realization: “I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes!’ I am lack. Alack! No thread, no frailest hair between myself and the universal clutter!”[16] The interconnectivity that is his essence, without which he is lack, sinks in. He experiences a reversal of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am not. Grendel only exists in relation to the entirety of the universal clutter. Who then is he to be?

It is in this state of existential isolation that Grendel first encounters the Shaper. The Shaper is the name Grendel uses to refer to an old minstrel who has come to entertain the thanes of King Hrothgar beneath the golden eaves of Heorot. The Shaper cannot be allegorically exhausted in Gardner’s rendering. On one level the Shaper is clearly the forgotten Beowulf poet himself. His first lines are explicitly the opening lines of the Medieval poem, translated into English:

Hwæt! We Gar-Dena     in gear-dagum, 
þeod-cyninga,     þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelingas     ellen fremedon.[17]

Lo, we have heard the honor of the Speardanes,
nation-kings, in days now gone,
how those battle-lords brought themselves glory.[18]

This puts the Shaper simultaneously inside and outside Grendel’s story. He is composing the tale, yet is also a character within it. Yet Grendel outlives him, so the Shaper writing the entirety of the Beowulf poem is an impossibility, as that poem carries on long past Grendel’s own death. The timing of their deaths contradict each other.

Grendel’s desire to find meaning is met by the song of the Shaper, images woven on the weft of his harp strings. “Even to me,” Grendel says, “incredibly, he had made it all seem true and very fine.”[19] He hears the roaring applause, following the song, of “men gone mad on art.”[20]

What was he? The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way—and so did I.[21]

The Shaper has the ability to create and reshape history with the power of his poetic imagination. J.R.R. Tolkien, arguably the greatest advocate for Beowulf as a work of creative imagination, perceives this ability of the Beowulf poet to make art appear as history. Beowulf was long studied as no more than a historical document, of little artistic or literary significance, until Tolkien shone a new light on its virtues. “The illusion of historical truth and perspective, that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry,” Tolkien writes, “is largely a product of art.”[22] Tolkien tends to use the term art in a highly specific way: Art is what gives an “inner consistency of reality”[23] to a creation of the imagination. Art is what makes the imaginal real, and what gives the Shaper his great powers.

The Shaper of Gardner’s tale has more roles to play than one in Gardner’s Whiteheadian universe, and he may be no mere mortal poet. His ability to reshape history, to imbue it with beauty and meaning, thus inspiring Hrothgar’s people to lead better lives, bears strong resemblance to what Whitehead calls the “consequent nature of God.” Whitehead writes,

God’s role… lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.[24]

This characteristic of the Shaper is what so enchants Grendel, what draws him in with a desire to participate in the poetic image the Shaper weaves. “He takes what he finds,” Grendel says, “And by changing men’s minds he makes the best of it.”[25]

Finally, it is through Whiteheadian scholar Isabelle Stengers’ reading of Grendel that yet another role of the Shaper is revealed: the Shaper may be Whitehead himself in his mode of creating philosophical thought. Stengers writes that Whitehead “conceived philosophical thought as the Shaper himself conceives of history—as fabulation—and who has succeeded in making converge what should have diverged.”[26] Whitehead creates concepts as the Shaper sings his heroic tales: “Whitehead fabricates, composes, constructs—deliberately, technically, artificially—a universe whose facticity and fictional character cannot be denounced, because they are obvious.”[27] The only character in Grendel who can denounce the Shaper is the dragon. He says, “That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality—puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me.”[28] The dragon can make such assured insults because he is granted a greater perspective on all existence; yet he too is limited, for he cannot see his own nature, a topic to which we will return.

Grendel is born into the body of a monster, cursed to be misunderstood in his actions at first sight. Thus he truly becomes a monster, choosing to murder viciously and devour crudely, only after this definition has been projected by others upon him. He sees himself as lack ever since he experienced the world as “not-my-mother,” a lack which awaits definition in relationship to others. But his grotesque physical form can only offer him one relationship. Eavesdropping at Hrothgar’s hall, Grendel hears the Shaper tell of the world’s creation by the greatest of gods, followed by a tale of two brothers: one killed the other, splitting the world into dark and light, and God cursed the murderer. As he listens Grendel realizes he is one of the accursed, doomed to darkness. Throughout Beowulf Grendel is often referred to as of Cain’s descent, an indication of the strange mix of early Christianity and northern mythologies that ignited the poet’s imagination.

þanon woc fela 
geosceaft-gasta;     wæs þæra Grendel sum, 
heoro-wearh hetelic.

And from Cain there sprang,
misbegotten spirits, among them Grendel,
the banished and accursed.[29]

Grendel is enchanted by the Shaper’s words. He believes his tales, even as he wishes for them to be untrue. In a fit of religious conversion Grendel rushes down to Heorot calling “Mercy! Peace!”[30] His presence incites fear in Hrothgar’s thanes and they attack the crying beast they believe to be threatening them. Grendel flees. He is saddled with Cain’s guilt before ever committing Cain’s crime. It is this burden that draws him to the dragon.

Premonitions of the dragon’s presence resound throughout the chapters of Grendel that lead up to the dragon’s introduction; whispers of “something deeper, an impression from another mind, some live thing old and terrible.”[31] Grendel begins to sense the dragon more and more as he sinks further into his own darkness and cravings for violence. “I could feel it all around me,” Grendel recalls, “that invisible presence, chilly as the first intimation of death, the dusty unblinking eyes of a thousand snakes.”[32] Grendel’s prehensions of the dragon seem to shift from non-being ever more toward being until finally he stands within the dragon’s presence. Yet it is never made clear if he ever encounters the dragon in the flesh, or whether the dragon always remains a conceptual prehension. Grendel sits in silence feeling an unknown presence. Then, he says, “I made my mind a blank and fell, sank away like a stone through earth and sea, toward the dragon.”[33]

“I know everything, you see,” the old voice wheedled. “The beginning, the present, the end. Everything. You now, you see the past and the present, like other low creatures: no higher faculties than memory and perception.” He stretched his mouth in a kind of smile, no trace of pleasure in it. But dragons, my boy, have a whole different kind of mind. “We see from the mountaintop: all time, all space. We see in one instant the passionate vision and the blowout. Not that we cause things to fail, you understand…. Dragons don’t mess with your piddling free will.”[34]

“Dragons, real dragons,” Tolkien writes, “are actually rare.”[35] The presence of the dragon in both Grendel and Beowulf is “richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.”[36] Gardner’s dragon hurls philosophy at Grendel with the ferocity of his fiery breath, and Grendel leaves more than a little singed by perplexity. The dragon’s mountaintop view of the universe—all time, all space in one instant—is a view, at least in Whitehead’s cosmology, only God can have. Like Whitehead’s God, the dragon can only know the universe, not alter its outcome. Whitehead’s God can know all the possibilities of the future, but it is the actual occasions themselves that determine the outcome. Creativity thus reigns supreme. “My knowledge of the future does not cause the future,” the dragon says. “It merely sees it, exactly as creatures at your low level recall things past.”[37]

Whitehead’s God, like the dragon, is a creature himself, a creation of ultimate creativity, just as the dragon is a creation of the creative imagination, “incarnate in time, walking in heroic history, and treading the named lands of the North.”[38] There are interesting parallels here with the gods of Norse mythology that was a deep wellspring of inspiration for the Beowulf poet. “In Norse, at any rate, the gods are within Time, doomed with their allies to death.”[39] Gardner’s dragon, like the Norse gods, knows he will eventually die. “A certain man will absurdly kill me.”[40] The man he refers to is, of course, Beowulf, although his name is never once mentioned in the entirety of Grendel. “A terrible pity—loss of a remarkable form of life. Conservationists will howl,”[41] he says with bitter irony. Perhaps it is here that fiction and philosophy diverge, for no such fate seems to await Whitehead’s God, unless we take a deep plunge into Nietzschean post-modern despair.

The dragon and God’s apparent omniscience brings to light the question of fate within Beowulf and Grendel’s stories. God can see all possibilities but not determine the outcome; the dragon seems to be able to see a single outcome but not have the ability to alter it—even his own actions always unfold according to what he has seen. If the dragon is indeed God he seems not to be aware of it, making him unconscious of his full omniscience. Fate certainly plays a prominent role within Beowulf, as we hear of how “one man lay down to his rest, already marked for death;”[42] that “doom abided”[43] in the high, golden gables of Heorot that someday they would burn; or finally, that Beowulf’s “fate hovered near, unknowable but certain”[44] as he went to face the dragon and his own demise.

Sceolde læn-daga 
æþeling ær-god     ende gebidan, 
worulde lifes,     ond se wyrm somod, 
þeah ðe hord-welan     heolde lange. 

After many trials,
he was destined to face the end of his days
in this mortal world; as was the dragon,
for all his long leasehold on the treasure.[45]

The role of fate in Beowulf is a clear sign of what has shifted in our philosophies since the Middle Ages, and what differentiates the Anglo-Saxon poem from Grendel. We have, in many ways, been released from a world in which “the Lord was weaving a victory on His war-loom”[46] into one where God can behold each possible string of the warp and weft but it is up to the tapestry to move the shuttle.

Gardner’s dragon explodes in a tirade against humanity’s inability to create a comprehensive philosophy when it becomes clear his words are not having the desired effect upon Grendel.

“Man” …He snorted fire. “They only think they think. No total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say, spiderwebs. But they rush across chasms on spiderwebs, and sometimes they make it, and that, they think, settles that!”[47]

In the “leap of imagination”[48] it takes to create truly new concepts sometimes one must run forth blindly, balanced on a spider’s thread over a bottomless chasm mired in fog. No images on which to grasp hold. Such is the adventure Stengers embarks on when she undertakes to “think with Whitehead.” In her introduction she warns:

It is a strange tongue that will gradually be elaborated here, a language that challenges all clear distinctions between description and tale-spinning, and induces a singular experience of disorientation in the heart of the most familiar experiences.[49]

Yet the work Whitehead, Stengers, and other process philosophers have taken on is to move away from what the dragon derides: “Simple facts in isolation, and facts to connect—ands and buts—are the sine qua non of all their glorious achievement.”[50] He goes on, succinctly summarizing Whitehead’s project in two simple sentences: “But there are no such facts. Connectedness is the essence of everything.”[51]

Connectedness is the essence of everything. Grendel experienced just this as he searched the landscape of “not-my-mother” and instead encountered the universe rushing in at him with organic attention. But it is more than he can handle. It is more than most mortal beings can handle. The dragon knows this when he says, using direct quotes from Whitehead’s Modes of Thought,

Listen. Listen closely! An angry man does not usually shake his fist at the universe in general. He makes a selection and knocks his neighbor down. A piece of rock, on the other hand, impartially attracts the universe according to the law of gravitation. You grant there’s a difference?[52]

This form of selection is how we handle prehension without being overwhelmed as Grendel was when his ability for negative prehension dissipated. Furthermore, it is the method Grendel chooses from then on so that he can maintain the isolated boundaries of his mechanistic, meaningless world view. He chooses to direct his anger at the universe by brutally murdering and devouring the men of Hrothgar’s kingdom.

Connectedness is the essence of everything. As prehension is defined by Whitehead, nothing has any independent existence. All things “are only entities as within the totality; you cannot extract them from their environment without destruction of their very essence.”[53] If this is the case, by their very existence Grendel needs the humans to be who he is, and the humans need him. But they also are defined by the actions and existence of all the past; Grendel carries Cain’s guilt and the humans can only define him as such. “This unity of a prehension,” writes Whitehead, “defines itself as a here and now, and the things so gathered into the grasped unity have essential reference to other places and other times.”[54] The other places and times in which creatures like Grendel have acted violently toward human beings now weighs on Grendel’s own life, as the dragon mercilessly points out to him.

“Ah Grendel!” he said. He seemed that instant almost to rise to pity. “You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? …You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.”[55]

The unity of prehension seems to have two important effects in this case. In some strange way the deep interconnectedness of everything begins to bear the weight of fate. Grendel cannot escape who he is meant to be in relation to all others. But prehension holds another effect: if the monster is not monstrous without humans, and humans are not human without the monster, their essence is not only defined against the other but as the other. Thus to reject the monster is also to be the monster. There is a monster inside each of us.

Whether or not we wish to interpret the dragon or the Shaper as aspects of Whitehead’s God, we are given a much more direct glimpse of his God in Grendel’s encounter with the old priest Ork. In Beowulf the God of Christian monotheism is unknown to the Danes, although he does seem to be known to Beowulf, who is a Geat, a foreigner.

Metod hie ne cuþon, 
dæda Demend,     ne wiston hie Drihten God, 
ne hie huru heofena Helm     herian ne cuþon, 
wuldres Waldend.

The Almighty Judge
of good deeds and bad, the Lord God,
Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,
was unknown to them.[56]

The God we meet in Ork’s spiritual revelation is, as Stengers points out, first God as principle of limitation from Science and the Modern World, followed by the God of infinite patience in Process and Reality.[57] “The King of the Gods is not concrete, but He is the ground for concrete actuality,”[58] Ork whispers in a trembling fit. “He is the eternal urge of desire establishing the purposes of all creatures. He is an infinite patience, a tender care that nothing in the universe be vain.”[59] Grendel watches in wonder as the priest sobs in the snow, overcome by his vision, by his realization of the nature of God. Whitehead writes, “The power of God is the worship He inspires.”[60] The worship to which Ork is inspired baffles Grendel because he has never encountered a being worthy of such worship. The dragon inspired terror, anger; the Shaper inspired enchantment, confusion, but neither inspired worship. The dragon and the Shaper do not hold the power that the priest, and before him Whitehead, feels emanating from the King of Gods.

“The ultimate evil is that Time is perpetual perishing, and being actual involves elimination,”[61] Ork cries forth. The encounter with death is a strong theme that courses through Beowulf, and subsequently Grendel.

Ure æghwylc sceal     ende gebidan 
worolde lifes;     wyrce se þe mote 
domes ær deaþe.

For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death.[62]

Tolkien describes poignantly the experiences of heroes as they live their lives fighting the long defeat against darkness: “…as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”[63] Perpetual perishing may indeed be the ultimate evil, but it is inevitable. In that inevitability, perhaps, is where the beauty and meaning lies. Every actual occasion, in its process of concrescence, becomes in relation to all other actual occasions. So too the hero becomes a hero in relationship to all the surrounding darkness. When concrescence is complete the actual occasion perishes into objective immortality, and thus participates in the concrescence of all other actual occasions. In his final defeat the hero too perishes, but he also perishes into immortality, the immortality born by the glory he has won. Thus God takes care that nothing in the universe is done in vain.

But what, then, of Grendel? He does not seek to win glory, to attain any form of immortality. What can be the meaning of the actions of one who still sees no meaning in the universe in which he lives? His entire journey has not changed him—he was born into the post-modern, encountered the enchanted pagan-Christianity of the Shaper, the undetermined fatalism of the dragon, the painful onslaught of interconnection between himself and all that was not-his-mother—yet by story’s end he is unchanged, a psychopath to experience. In his fatal encounter with Beowulf he recognizes the dragon within Beowulf, sees flames slip from the corners of his mouth, fiery wings ignite behind him. The words of the dragon are whispering through Beowulf, whether in reality or in Grendel’s hallucinating imagination it matters not, for they are all one: Beowulf, the dragon, Grendel. Each is not without the others.

Yet as Grendel escapes Beowulf’s grasp, leaving his arm and life force behind him, he reverts to his sense of meaningless once again, for the final time. He knows he has encountered another world view, the Whiteheadian philosopher embodied in Beowulf as well, and believes he understands him. “Understand his lunatic theory of matter and mind, the chilly intellect, the hot imagination, blocks and builder, reality as stress.”[64] Yet he defines himself to the last in opposition to this.

“It was an accident,” I bellow back. I will cling to what is true. “Blind, mindless, mechanical. Mere logic of chance.”[65]

He cannot change. He does not evolve through any process. This is not why he must die; death is the inevitable, the meaningful, the beautiful. He cannot change. That is what makes him a monster. And the potential to be that monster resides in each of us.

“Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”[66]



Gardner, John. Grendel. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989.

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Stengers, Isabelle. Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group. 1991.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Monsters and the Critics. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group. 1966.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985.

–––––. Science and the Modern World. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1967.

[1] John Gardner, Grendel (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989), 159.

[2] Gardner, Grendel, 74.

[3] Ibid, 29.

[4] Ibid, 69.

[5] John J. McDermott, qtd. in Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1991), 417.

[6] Gardner, Grendel, 9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Blaise Pascal, in Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 420.

[9] Gardner, Grendel, 11.

[10] Richard Tarnas, “A Brief History of Western Thought,” course taught at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA, October 5, 2012.

[11] Gardner, Grendel, 19.

[12] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1967), 71.

[13] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 163.

[14] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985), 41.

[15] Gardner, Grendel, 28.

[16] Gardner, Grendel, 29.

[17] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), 2.

[18] Gardner, Grendel, 41.

[19] Gardner, Grendel, 43.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 7.

[23] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 68.

[24] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.

[25] Gardner, Grendel, 49.

[26] Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 503-504.

[27] Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 506.

[28] Gardner, Grendel, 65.

[29] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 88-89.

[30] Gardner, Grendel, 51.

[31] Ibid, 48.

[32] Ibid, 50.

[33] Gardner, Grendel, 56.

[34] Gardner, Grendel, 62-63.

[35] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 12.

[36] Ibid, 16.

[37] Gardner, Grendel, 63.

[38] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 17.

[39] Ibid, 25.

[40] Gardner, Grendel, 70.

[41] Gardner, Grendel, 70.

[42] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 87.

[43] Ibid, 7.

[44] Ibid, 165.

[45] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 158-159.

[46] Ibid, 47.

[47] Gardner, Grendel, 64.

[48] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

[49] Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 3.

[50] Gardner, Grendel, 64.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Gardner, Grendel, 69.

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

[54] Ibid, 69.

[55] Gardner, Grendel, 72-73.

[56] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 14-15.

[57] Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 3.

[58] Gardner, Grendel, 131.

[59] Ibid, 132.

[60] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 192.

[61] Gardner, Grendel, 132.

[62] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 96-97.

[63] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 18.

[64] Gardner, Grendel, 172.

[65] Ibid, 173.

[66] Ibid, 174.

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.