Samuel Alexander (1859–1938)

1. Brief Vita

Samuel Alexander was born in Sydney, Australia, on 6 January 1859. His father died before Samuel’s birth, but his mother with her family’s support was able to provide quite adequately for her four children both financially and educationally. Alexander studied for two years at the University of Melbourne before transferring to Oxford’s Balliol College, where his tutor was Benjamin Jowett. He graduated with Firsts in both Mathematical Moderations and Classical Honour Moderations and Greats. In 1882, he was appointed a Fellow at Lincoln College, the first Jew ever to attain a fellowship at an Oxford college. Alexander taught at Lincoln and at Oriel College, and in 1887 won a major prize for his dissertation, a study in ethics based on the theory of evolution, applying natural selection to human conduct. He spent the year 1890-1891 studying at Hugo Münsterburg’s experimental psychology laboratory in Freiburg.

Alexander was appointed in 1893 to the philosophy faculty at Owens College, soon to become the University of Manchester. He taught there until his retirement in 1924, and was thought to be an excellent teacher and a somewhat eccentric bicycle-riding bachelor. He was a member of the Aristotelian Society, and published over the next two decades a long series of articles, separating himself from Oxford Idealism and developing a strongly realist epistemology. He was invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures for 1916-18, which were published in 1920 in two volumes under the title Space, Time, and Deity. Alexander died in 1938.

Whitehead, in the introduction to Science and the Modern World, refers to Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity as a “great work” to which he is “especially indebted” (SMW viii). Victor Lowe reports being told by Whitehead that Alexander was “the philosopher of his time from whom he got most,” and that they “conceived the problem of metaphysics in the same way”: as the need to reconcile unity and plurality (1990, 173). According to Dorothy Emmet, although Alexander thought he had “rung the bell” for Whitehead, he “considered that Whitehead had superseded him” (1992, 137). Both Lowe and Emmet agree, however, that the intellectual relation between Whitehead and Alexander was one of “mutual appreciation rather than of influence” (Emmet 1992, 137), “more one of encouragement and sympathy than of indispensable influence” (Lowe 1990, 266).

R. G. Collingwood says Whitehead and Alexander are the two key early twentieth century philosophers, still writing in the “grand manner,” who developed cosmologies in which temporality is predominant (1945, 158). Most Whiteheadian commentators reject this paired preeminence, however, simply listing Alexander along with Bergson, James, and Dewey as other contemporaries who, as Alexander put it, believed in “taking time seriously” (1920 Vol. 1, 44).

George Lucas, in a bibliographic study of process philosophy, organizes it into three kinds—process rationalism (the Whiteheadian School), evolutionary cosmology, and Hegelian Idealism (1983). After some hesitation, he locates Alexander among the second kind and confirms this assignment in a later book when he associates Alexander with Teihard de Chardin because both suggest “evolutionary convergence toward a unified, monistic end-state” (1989, 33). Collingwood, in contrast, locates Alexander in the “empiricist tradition,” noting his affinities to John Stuart Mill and those who ground knowledge in “the fleeting sense-datum,” whereas he locates Whitehead in the “rationalist tradition,” noting that with Plato he asserts “the reality of a world of eternal objects as the presupposition of the cosmic process” (1960, 169). However, Emmet says that Alexander made “a just comment” when he wrote to her saying that he was more a Spinozist, Whitehead more a Leibnizian (1992, 137).

Considerable confusion exists, it would seem, concerning how best to interpret Alexander’s philosophy, and hence how to identify and assess the importance of the similarities and differences between his work and Whitehead’s. The next two sections will attempt to alleviate some of this confusion.

2. Alexander’s Key Metaphysical Views

Alexander argues in Space, Time, and Deity that metaphysics is a science. “Comprehensiveness within its subject-matter is the very essence of every science” (1920 Vol. 1, 2), and so as is true of the special sciences metaphysics also uses empirical methods in ascertaining its data, and then by “reflective description and analysis” it develops “hypotheses” that provide “a reasoned exhibition of such system as can be discovered in these data” (1920 Vol. 1, 4). Metaphysics differs from the special sciences, which presuppose certain features or conditions in order to focus their attention on others, by having “no notions which it leaves unexplained” (1920 Vol. 1, viii). It concerns itself with the “pervasive” rather than the “variable” characters of empirical things—with “the non-empirical or a priori or categorial” features of the experienced world (1920 Vol. 1, 4). Alexander begins his metaphysical explorations with the claim that Space-Time is the fundamental content of things, proceeds to an analysis of its categorial features, and then considers the types of existents that have emerged over time, such as bodies and minds. After discussing the distinctive qualities of these existents and their interrelations, Alexander concludes his two-volume metaphysical system with an explanation of that special quality by which existents are related that he calls deity.

Space-Time is the “stuff” of the world, the concrete totality of which all else are portions. Space or Time, considered by themselves, are abstractions, analytic “slices” of what is actually a plenum, absolutely dense and complete, without stasis or void or terminus. Space-Time “never and nowhere came into existence,” because “infinite becoming cannot begin to become” (1920 Vol. 1, 338). Because time individuates space and space time, however, it is composed of finite albeit continuous portions. The limiting case of these spatio-temporal portions are “point-instants,” which are concrete realities not abstract mathematical entities. They are “elements in a continuum” arrived at by infinitely dividing it conceptually, and so as distinguishable elements they are “ideal” in the sense that they cannot be perceived. They are not physical elements like electrons, but rather metaphysical ones. “Real they are, but, if the apparent contradiction may be pardoned, they are ideal realities” (1920 Vol. 1, 325). The world is thus “a system of motions” (1920 Vol. 1, 61), every empirical existent some complex grouping of point-instants. Alexander’s metaphors are summative: Space-Time is “an infinite given whole” and empirical things are “whirlpools within that ocean”; they are “crystals in that matrix” (1920 Vol. 1, 183), “vortices or eddies in the stuff of Space-Time” (1920 Vol. 1, 226).

A particular grouping of point-instants, a “configuration” of space-time, exhibits a “pattern.” An existent is a specific configuration, a system of point-instants organized in a particular way. When these patterns recur, their repetition having become a “habit” or “disposition,” the result is a stabilized enduring existent with an identifiably distinctive manner of interacting with other existents. “Empirical universals” are “plans of configuration of particulars” in virtue of which each individual existent with its own unique identity is nonetheless also “identical in kind” with some other existents (1920 Vol. 1, 214). Everything is both a particular configuration and an instance of a kind of configuration. “It is itself and it follows a law of structure” (1920 Vol. 1, 151).

Categories are “a priori plans of configuration, “the “key plans of all plans of empirical determination” and hence the “fundamental determinations of any space-time” (1920 Vol. 1, 215). Alexander’s list of categories is very Kantian, but his categories are experiential and pervasive, a priori and universal in the only sense those terms can have in a descriptive metaphysics. They are “the prerogative characters of things which run through all the rest as the warp on which the others are woven” (1920 Vol. 1, 186).

A stable configuration, approximately repeating its defining patterns as the configuration moves through a space-time trajectory, exhibits “qualities.” A quality is an “integration” of the various features of a complicated configuration: the complexity “gathers itself together and is expressed in a new simplicity” (1920 Vol. 2, 70). The “emergence” and then perpetuation of a new simplicity defines a new level of entity, a new kind of systemic organization. Any such emergent kind of quality is not predicable, however. There is “no explanation” for why it should emerge. It is simply a “brute empirical fact,” to be accepted with the “natural piety” appropriate to a metaphysical investigator (1920 Vol. 2, 47). Although Alexander borrows the notion of emergence from Lloyd Morgan, he is insistent that an emergent quality is always “equivalent” to the complexity it integrates, not a “resultant” that replaces that complexity. Each level of integration, once it has emerged, remains expressible without residue in terms of its lower-level complexity, and hence indirectly in terms of all the levels less complex than it.

With respect to temporal sequence, the primordial configurations of space-time were unstable and so unable to support quality. Eventually, stable patterns developed, constituting “physical matter”—electrons, atoms, molecules—exhibiting the “primary qualities” of shape, size, number, and motion. Alexander notes that there may well have been numerous intervening levels between momentary unqualified space-time configurations and physical matter. These two levels are merely the salient ones. The next level is that of “material objects”—stars, stones, raindrops—possessing “secondary qualities” such as color, sound, texture, taste, and odor. “Living organisms” constitute a further level, manifesting the quality of “vitality” in their “plasticity” and their capacity for “self-organization.” The highest level of configural integration is that of “mind” with its distinctive quality of “consciousness.”

One of Alexander’s best known but usually misunderstood assertions is that “Time is the mind of Space, and Space the body of Time” (1920 Vol. 2, 38). He is arguing that, at each emergent level of complexity, its defining quality stands in a relation to the configuration it integrates in a way “analogous” to the relation at the primordial level between Time and Space. The relations at each level are similar, instances of the same “model,” their elements fulfilling the “same function” (1920 Vol. 2, 44). Alexander immediately regrets his assertion, however, because it seems to privilege mind, whereas Time-Space is obviously the fundamental instance of the relation. It would have been better, he says, to assert that “mind is the time of our body” (1920 Vol. 2, 70). Time is the dynamic element, the source of change, the “soul” or “form” by which the particular entity, the Spatial element, is organized and “animated.” So “the course of Time issues in the growth of ever new types of ‘soul,’ and in this way all existence is linked in a chain of affinity” (1920 Vol. 2, 69).

The quality of mind is an activity relating a conscious subject to an object. The two entities, the knowing mind-qualified organism and the object known, are “compresent.” In knowing the object, the mind’s relation to it constitutes one of the object’s possible perspectives, which perspective is simultaneously a feature of the object and of the subject. Knowledge is a real perspective of an object, selected by a observing mind according to its position in space-time relative to the object known. The object of knowledge is a thing of a lesser level than the mind knowing it. Hence “the mind can never be an object to itself” (1920 Vol. 2, 89), although it is immediately aware of itself as engaged in the act of knowing. Alexander calls the intentional activity of knowing a thing “contemplation”; he calls the sense a subject has of this activity “enjoyment.” A mind can enjoy its own activity, but it can contemplate neither that activity nor the activity of another mind. In order to make one’s own or another’s mind an object of knowledge, it must perceive it as the lower-level complex of biological processes of which mind is the integrating quality. Were there an existent of a higher order than mind, it would be able to “contemplate consciousness as consciousness contemplates qualities of a lower order” (1920 Vol. 2, 105).

Mental activity is primarily practical—“conative.” We are aware of the apple as edible, and by that act it provokes us to acquire and eat it. When this practical orientation is suspended, the conation becomes speculative—“cognition.” Cognition focuses on the universal features of the contemplated object, the plan of which the particular determinative pattern is an instantiation, detaching this abstraction from “its particular surroundings as a separate object of attention” (1920 Vol. 2, 132). Cogitating about an object and conatively perceiving it through the senses are not radically different activities of mind. They are “on the same footing,” except that “in sensing it is the particular with its intensity which is salient and the universal in it is not detached” whereas in thinking the inverse is the case. More concrete and primordial than both perception and cognition, however, is “intuition,” of which sensing and thinking are clarifying outgrowths. “Every sensory act contains in itself, and consequently conceals or masks, a simpler act of intuition” (1920 Vol. 2, 148).

Mind is the highest quality the world has so far attained, the functionally effective simplification of the most complex pattern of extant spatio-temporal complexities. Additional levels are possible, indeed they are presumed, but what that quality will be is, as has already been noted, unknowable. Alexander calls this possible future quality “deity.” Deity is not an existent but a possibility, something ideal not actual. The actuality is “God,” which as actual “does not possess the quality of deity but is the universe as tending to that quality” (1920 Vol. 2, 361). Alexander distinguishes God as actual from God as ideal. We can imagine God as an existent with a defining quality, analogous to all the other Space-Time analogues. So conceived, the “body” of God is the whole infinite universe, and as part of that universe we are “the hunger and thirst, the heart-beats and sweat of God” (1920 Vol. 2, 357). Deity is the “soul” of God, the infinite quality integrating that infinite complex, organizing its dynamic pattern in a functionally coherent manner. Such an ideal is unactualizable, however. An actual existent, with respect both to its body and soul, must be finite. God as actual is “the ideal God in embryo,” the actual universe straining toward but never attaining deity (1920 Vol. 2, 365). “Actual God is the forecast and, as it were, divining of the ideal God” (1920 Vol. 1, xxiii).

God as the actual universe is immanent, its deity imminent. When deity is actualized, when the quality it expresses ideally has become an emergent actual quality, it must be a finite higher-level quality of finite higher-level existents. Alexander somewhat puckishly refers to such entities as “angels”—finite gods (1920 Vol. 2, 361). This “higher race of creatures than ourselves” would in their turn inhabit a world tending toward some yet higher emergent quality, some new deity. The temporal dimension of Space-Time imparts a “restless motion” to the world, but the restlessness is not like “the turning of a squirrel in its cage” but is rather a “nisus toward a higher birth” (1920 Vol. 2, 348). This nisus, however, is not God, nor is it God’s deity, for both are creatures, their character changing as Space-Time fashions new existents with their novel plans, patterns, qualities, and possibilities.

It follows that this nisus is not purposeful, neither an expression of a divine agent nor that agency itself. Alexander rejects the argument from design, which illegitimately argues from the fact that “adaptation implies in human products the operation of a designing mind” to the claim that adaptation in the natural world implies a world-designer. Adaptation in nature is “the result of selection operating on variations”; the teleology is internal not external, a matter of “immanent design,” which is only to say that “the world works out so as to produce a plan” (1920 Vol. 2, 344). What deity will be, in other words, is not something preordained. It will be the outcome of a Darwinian adaptive struggle, in which the efforts of human beings have a role to play.

Values—truth, goodness, and beauty—are “tertiary qualities,” features of how minds perceive objects. Values are not human inventions, but “they belong to the object as it is possessed by the mind and not outside that relation” (1920 Vol. 2, 243). Our highest values, those that serve as the standards by which to judge other values, are those that have been shown, through competition and cooperation, to contribute most effectively to the adaptive success of the human race. Deity is not a source of value, therefore, since values are features of human existence, but it is “in the line of value.” That is, “deity represents the conservation of all values and valuable existence whatsoever, and is the outgrowth of them” (1920 Vol. 2, 416). Insofar as we hope for and work on behalf of ideals valuable not merely for ourselves or our group but for humanity, we help shape what deity will become.

We are intuitively aware of the world as a whole, restlessly changing in ways that drift slowly toward the emergence of higher forms of complexity. “The religious sentiment is the feeling for this whole” (1920 Vol. 2, 376). What we sense is a world rife with accomplished good but also riven by suffering and “prodigal loss,” as by trial and error some possibilities for actualization are eliminated and others sustained. That there should be so much disvalue, so much evil, in the world has no explanation, nor do we have any grounds for thinking that it will ever to otherwise. “We can only accept” (1920 Vol. 2, 422). The religious sentiment, rightly understood, is not about heaven and immortality but about the intrinsic value of our efforts and the fact of ‘the continuation of our work by others in a tradition of effort” (1920 Vol. 2, 424). Values are exhibited only in finite perishing individuals, and so necessarily the conservation of value can be attained only through the conservation of an ideal of value. “The persistence of our human effort in tradition”—a collective effort, passed on from each generation of individuals to their successors, the individuals suffering and perishing but their work carried on by others—“is doing the work of preparing deity” (1920 Vol. 2, 425).

3. Alexander and Whitehead

Alexander’s point-instants are similar to Whitehead’s actual occasions. They are the fundamental units of reality, the monads of which all else is constituted or is a feature. Space-Time is a system of these monads, but one in which the relations connecting the monads are internal as well as external. Hence the system is not a structure in which the monads are embedded; they comprise, and indeed they create, that structure. Alexander’s existents are the equivalent of Whitehead’s enduring objects: groupings of point-instants, their unity based on the defining characteristics—the qualities—they exhibit. The major difference between the two accounts is that Whitehead provides a highly complicated, excruciatingly detailed analysis of how an actual occasion comes to be a space-time quantum. Alexander has no equivalent to a theory of concrescence. Neither philosopher offers direct empirical evidence for his monads. They are hypothesized entities, proposed as the least quantum capable of generating the sensible objects of experience and explicating the irreversibility of time’s arrow and its creative fecundity.

Alexander and Whitehead are both “objective relativists.” They understand the way by which one occasion or existent relates to another as an objectification of it from a perspective. Any such perspective is necessarily partial, but it is also real: the objectification is the thing under that perspective and not a different thing of which it is the cause. Both philosophers describe this perspectival realism in terms of human sense perception and then generalize it to all forms of relatedness. Whitehead’s physical prehensions are akin to Alexander’s acts of contemplation; his conceptual prehensions, to Alexander’s acts of enjoyment. They also have similar arguments for the way in which prehensions at the human level are initially intuitive or emotional efficacies from which clarifying and projected sensa are derived.

Alexander’s universe is inherently dynamic, its spatial dimension instantiated in stable groupings that its temporal dimension endlessly unsettles. Nisus is not an additional factor, but merely a way to describe the fact that constant change inevitably results in the emergence of more complex forms of relatedness. In contemporary Darwinian language, the dynamic of Space-Time is a random walk across a fitness landscape which, since it begins with simple forms, cannot but eventually give rise stochastically to more complex ones as well. Alexander explicitly denies that deity is a purposive agency; the nisus is blind. Similarly, Whitehead’s categoreal scheme, apart from the introduction of “derivative notions,” posits no directional agency. Creativity is a nisus toward determinate value, actualized in the achievements of actual occasions. Whitehead notes that the first category of explanation is the claim “that every ultimate actuality embodies in its own essence what Alexander termed ‘a principle of unrest,’ namely, its becoming” (PR 28). The unrest in the universe, expressed in the ultimate notion of Creativity, is that the many become one, that there be a continual production of new space-time quanta. Whitehead then needs to add a teleological agent, God, to make it possible for new kinds of value to emerge, and hence for the emergence of routes of actual occasions sufficiently novel to constitute and sustain a better order of things regionally or cosmically. Whitehead requires intelligent design, and therefore an intelligent designer, to account for the upward trend in the universe; Alexander’s account requires only descent with modification based on an inherent restlessness in things combined with the workings of natural selection.

Interestingly, Whitehead in his last book, Modes of Thought, appropriates Alexander’s notion of deity—and in doing so would seem to undermine his need for God. He says of Alexander that he called attention to the interrelated set of problems that “haunts the serious thought of mankind” (101): those of space, time, and deity, three types of “reflective notions” by which to understand the nature of things. Whitehead associates time with “the transition of process” and space with “consummation.” In addition, there is deity, “the factor in the universe whereby there is importance, value, and ideal beyond the actual” (102). It is the sense we have of “worth beyond ourselves,” an awareness of entities other than ourselves and of the totality of which both we and they are constituent elements. Our experience of deity is an experience of ideals: “of ideals entertained, of ideals aimed at, of ideals achieved, of ideals defaced” (103). Essential to this experience, Whitehead argues, is “the intertwining of success and failure.” By realizing that our aims are sometimes achieved and sometimes thwarted, we glimpse the fact that these ideals are not reducible to our own individual aims, that we are part of a universe which involves ideals that serve as an “external standard” for “measuring ourselves in respect to what we are not” (103).

Whitehead’s explicit reference to Alexander suggests we should interpret deity here as Alexander does: as a transcending ideal. Deity is how our individual endeavors are opened out, becoming part of the efforts of a wider community. Deity is in the line of value, and we are drawn into that line insofar as our aspirations and efforts serve the common good. We find meaning for our lives in being a part of a shared striving for something better, a meaning that sustains us in times of failure, when our aims come to naught or our efforts flag, for we know others will take over from us when we falter, as we have done for those who preceded us. “This ideal” which we share with others, and finally with the totality of things, “is never realized, it is beyond realization, and yet it moulds the form of what is realized” (120). Whitehead concludes that our sense of the unity of the universe, in which each individual achievement has intrinsic worth and an importance for the whole whether or not any consciousness prehends it, is “the intuition of holiness” (120). What is holy is the “unity in the universe,” entities “enjoying value” and “sharing value,” and it is that intuition—not God—which is the creative impetus toward finer achievement. The sense of Peace explicated in the last chapter of Adventures of Ideas makes a very similar point.

Obviously these passages can be interpreted in terms of the notion of God developed in Process and Reality, as indeed they usually are. But interpreting them in an Alexandrian manner, as Whitehead invites us to do, suggests some unexpected—some neglected—similarities between the two philosophers. These similarities, however, as well as the others mentioned earlier, are only similarities. The metaphysical systems each developed are too internally coherent, their perspectives on reality too particularized, to be merged into a single system. The philosophies of Whitehead and Alexander are at best fraternal twins, nurtured in the same intellectual womb of late nineteenth century Western culture. The value of comparing them is the mirror each holds up to the other, revealing weaknesses, confirming strengths, suggesting fresh possibilities. Alexander put this function of neighborly influence well: “It is not always those who teach us most truth from whom we learn most, but those who best point the way to truth” (1920 Vol. 1, 192).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Alexander, Samuel. 1889. Moral Order and Progress: An Analysis of Ethical Conceptions (Boston, Elibron Classics, 2005).

Alexander, Samuel. 1920. Space, Time, and Deity: The Gifford Lectures at Glasgow, Part One/Part Two (Whitefish MT, Kessinger, 2004).

Alexander, Samuel. 1920. Space, Time, and Deity: The Gifford Lectures at Glasgow 1916-18, Two Volumes, reprinted in 1927 with a new Preface (London, Macmillan).

Alexander, Samuel. 1921. “Some Explanations.” Mind 30: 409-28.

Alexander, Samuel. 1933. Beauty and Other Forms of Value (New York, Apollo, 1968).

Alexander, Samuel. 1940. Philosophical and Literary Pieces (Westport CT, Greenwood Press, 1970).

Collingwood, R. G. 1945. The Idea of Nature (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1960).

Emmet, Dorothy. 1992. “Whitehead and Alexander,” Process Studies 23.1, 137-48, translated by Michael Hampe. Originally published as “Whitehead und Alexander,” in Die Gifford Lectures und ibre Deutung: materialien zu Whiteheads Process und Realität, Band 2, edited by M. Hampe and H. Maassen (Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp Verlag, 100-120).

Gare, Arran. 2002. “Process Philosophy and the Emergent Theory of Mind: Whitehead, Lloyd Morgan and Schelling,” Concrescence 3, 1-12.

Lowe, Victor. 1949. “The Influence of Bergson, James and Alexander on Whitehead,” Journal of the History of Ideas 10.2, 267-96.

Lowe, Victor. 1990. Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, Vol. II: 1910-1947, edited by J. B. Schneewind (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press).

Lucas, George R., Jr. 1983. The Genesis of Modern Process Thought: A Historical Outline with Bibliography (Metuchen NJ, Scarecrow Press).

Lucas, George R., Jr. 1989. The Rehabilitation of Whitehead: An Analytic and Historical Assessment of Process Philosophy (Albany, State University of New York Press).

Slater, John (ed.). 2000. Collected Works of Samuel Alexander, five volumes (Bristol, Thoemmes Continuum).

Author Information

George Allan
Philosophy Department
Dickinson College, Carlisle PA 17013

How to Cite this Article

Allan, George, “Samuel Alexander (1859–1938)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.