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]?

Dragon

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]

 

Bibliography

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.

Bibliography

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.