Plato (427–347 BCE)

Among the great philosophers of the past, perhaps the one who influenced Whitehead most was Plato. Evidence for this claim is found in a handful of Whitehead’s remarks scattered throughout his magnum opus, Process and Reality. Despite the fact that the book is notoriously technical and difficult, most of the remarks on Plato are translucent and revelatory. Consequently, we will here discuss aspects of Plato’s influence on Whitehead through Whitehead’s own words.  Gathering together many of the remarks dispersed through Process and Reality will make it easier to appreciate the deeper significance of each. In this brief article, we can consider only one of those remarks about Plato that occur in Whitehead’s other writings. Finally, since it is controversial how best to interpret Plato’s dialogues, we will take for granted the interpretation that Whitehead himself adopted.

1. Plato, as Footnoted by Whitehead

Let us begin with Whitehead’s famous remark that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (PR 39). Arthur Lovejoy alludes to the comment in his Great Chain of Being: “The most fundamental of the group of ideas of which we are to review the history appears first in Plato; and nearly all that follows might therefore serve as an illustration of a celebrated remark of Professor Whitehead’s that ‘the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’” (1936, 24). Lovejoy’s allusion would be one of the first of many: Whitehead’s comment seems to have become almost proverbial.

This remark by Whitehead, taken out of context, suggests that Process and Reality should be construed as an assemblage of footnotes to Plato’s dialogues. Does this mean that Whitehead was simply a Platonist? Whitehead’s metaphysics was quite original, and diverged considerably from Plato’s. Hence, to interpret the remark properly, we also need to read the sentences that immediately follow it:

I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them. His personal endowments, his wide opportunities for experience at a great period of civilization, his inheritance of an intellectual tradition not yet stiffened by excessive generalization, have made his writings an inexhaustible mine of suggestion (PR 39).

Thus Whitehead did not himself “doubtfully extract” from Plato’s dialogues a system of metaphysics. Instead, scattered through Plato’s dialogues are various general ideas that could have suggested to Whitehead certain concepts that he incorporated in Process and Reality. Therefore, in saying, in the next sentence, that “the train of thought” in Process and Reality is “Platonic,” Whitehead meant that he is “expressing the hope that it falls within the European tradition” (PR 39). “But,” he continues, “I do mean more: I mean that if we had to render Plato’s general point of view with the least changes made necessary by the intervening two thousand years of human experience in social organization, in aesthetic attainments, in science, and in religion, we should have to set about the construction of a philosophy of organism” (PR 39). Since Whitehead called his own metaphysics the philosophy of organism, what he said here may be interpreted as follows: Process and Reality does not express exactly Plato’s general point of view. Instead, it modifies that point of view, in order to take into account the intervening two thousand years of human experience. But those years have included, in particular, the Newtonian, Darwinian, and Einsteinian revolutions in science. We should suspect, then, that even the least changes in Plato’s general point of view made necessary by such revolutionary events could still be quite profound.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead acknowledged the influence of general ideas from Plato’s dialogues. Concerning each of these general ideas, we can ask: was Whitehead primarily influenced directly through his reading of Plato’s dialogues, or was he primarily influenced indirectly through his reading of “footnotes” to Plato in the European philosophical tradition? In this brief article, this difficult question of intellectual biography has to be set aside.

2. Cosmology

In addition to Plato, Whitehead acknowledged the special influence of other great philosophers—for example, Aristotle, Descartes, and Locke (PR xi). “But the philosophy of organism,” he admits, “is apt to emphasize just those elements in the writings of these masters which subsequent systematizers have put aside” (PR xi). It is important to recognize that, in addition to some familiar elements in the writings of Plato (e.g., the Forms), Whitehead emphasized some elements that are less familiar (e.g., the Receptacle of the Timaeus). In particular, Process and Reality displays primarily the influence of the philosophical cosmology in the Timaeus, as opposed to the ethical and political philosophy in the Republic.

The subtitle of Process and Reality is An Essay in Cosmology. In addition to calling his metaphysics the philosophy of organism, Whitehead classified it as a sort of philosophical cosmology, a philosophical study of the universe. The comprehensiveness of his notion of cosmology is evident in the following sentence: “Also, it must be one of the motives of a complete cosmology to construct a system of ideas which brings the aesthetic, moral, and religious interests into relation with those concepts of the world which have their origin in natural science” (PR xii). In previewing his own cosmology, he remarked that

The history of philosophy discloses two cosmologies which at different periods have dominated European thought, Plato’s Timaeus, and the cosmology of the seventeenth century, whose chief authors were Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Locke. In attempting an enterprise of the same kind, it is wise to follow the clue that perhaps the true solution consists in a fusion of the two previous schemes, with modifications demanded by self-consistency and the advance of knowledge (PR xiv).

Indeed, Whitehead’s Process and Reality is a footnote to Plato’s Timaeus, but only in the dialectical sense expressed by the word “fusion.” For it also displays the influence of a scientific cosmology that resulted from the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Noting the word “perhaps,” we should expect announcements of the influence of other cosmologies. “I shall always adopt the relativity view” of time, Whitehead declared, rather than the “classical” view (PR 66). Also pervading Process and Reality is the influence of a space-time cosmology stemming from Einstein’s theory of relativity.

One of the chief authors of the seventeenth-century cosmology was Newton. Concerning “Newton’s famous Scholium to the first eight definitions in his Principia” (PR 70), Whitehead remarked that

the Timaeus of Plato, and the Scholium of Newton […] are the two statements of cosmological theory which have had the chief influence on Western thought. To the modern reader, the Timaeus, considered as a statement of scientific details, is in comparison with the Scholium simply foolish. But what it lacks in specific detail, it makes up for by its philosophic depth. If it be read as an allegory, it conveys profound truth (PR 93).

In addition to the Newtonian and Einsteinian revolutions in science, Plato’s general point of view needs to be modified in light of the Darwinian revolution. Process and Reality is also pervaded by the influence of an evolutionary cosmology obtained by generalizing Darwin’s biological theory of evolution. “The full sweep of the modern doctrine of evolution would have confused the Newton of the Scholium,” Whitehead remarked, “but would have enlightened the Plato of the Timaeus” (PR 93). Indeed, Whitehead might have been, as John Herman Randall, Jr. claimed (1977, 42), “the greatest of the philosophers of emergent evolution as a cosmic faith.”

3. Plato’s Timaeus and Whitehead’s Process and Reality

Whitehead’s cosmology is at root Heraclitean: “That ‘all things flow’ is the first vague generalization which the unsystematized, barely analysed intuition of men has produced” (PR 208). In Process and Reality, he analyzed and systematized this intuition that all things flow: “The elucidation of meaning involved in the phrase ‘all things flow’ is one chief task of metaphysics” (PR 208). He summarized his metaphysics as a system of categories, termed a “categoreal scheme.” According to one of the most fundamental categories, the ontological principle, “actual entities are the only reasons; so that to search for a reason is to search for one or more actual entities” (PR 24). Therefore, he analyzed and systematized the vague generalization that all things flow primarily through his conception of actual entities.

At the heart of Plato’s cosmology is a kind of dualism, a separation of the world of appearances, the visible world, from the intelligible world, the world of Forms. A Heraclitean interpretation of the visible world is evident in the Timaeus. In the following remark, Whitehead indicated how his conception of actual entities was related to the Heracliteanism of the Timaeus: “The conception of an actual entity in the fluent world is little more than an expansion of a sentence in the Timaeus: ‘But that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is’” (PR 82).

Using the translation by Benjamin Jowett (1892), Whitehead quoted from Timaeus 28A. (Hereafter the Timaeus is cited in the text of this article only by means of page numbers—e.g., (28A).) The other Timaeus quotations in this article are from the translation by F. M. Cornford (1935). According to Cornford (1935, ix), “Professor Whitehead has been profoundly influenced by Jowett’s translation.”

In the Timaeus, the vague generalization that all things flow is articulated as a generalization that there is always a process of becoming and perishing. Similarly, in Process and Reality, the vague generalization that all things flow is analyzed and systematized in terms of the idea of a process of becoming and perishing. Another of the categories in Whitehead’s categoreal scheme is (in part) “That the actual world is a process, and that the process is the becoming of actual entities” (PR 22). And the principle of process, yet another category, is (in part) “That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what the actual entity is” (PR 23). Crucial to his cosmology is the idea of a process of becoming of actual entities. The term “becoming” occurs in the primary category, the Category of the Ultimate, as do the related terms “creativity” and “concrescence” (PR 21-22). The term “becoming” also occurs in categories of explanation i, ii, iii, iv, vii, viii, ix, x, xviii, and xxii (PR 22-25). An actual entity comes into being through a process of concrescence. The related term “concrescence” occurs in categories of explanation ii, iv, v, vi, x, xii, xviii, xxv, and xxvii (PR 22-26). And one of the related terms “genesis,” “genetic process,” “creation,” or “self-creation” occurs in categories of explanation xviii, xxii, xxiv, xxv, xxvi, and xxvii (PR 24-26). The nine categoreal obligations analyze and systematize how an actual entity comes into being through a process of concrescence (PR 26-28). Indeed, a Platonic idea of becoming is fundamental to Whitehead’s categoreal scheme.

; This claim is evidenced by Whitehead’s remark that his metaphysics “fully accepts Descartes’ discovery that subjective experiencing is the primary metaphysical situation which is presented to metaphysics for analysis” (PR 160). In particular, in analyzing and systematizing his conception of actual entities, his primary metaphysical standpoint is one of subjectivity. “In Cartesian language,” he writes, “the essence of an actual entity consists solely in the fact that it is a prehending thing” (PR 41). And the thing that is prehending is a “subject”—”namely, the actual entity in which that prehension is a concrete element” (PR 23). The essence of an actual entity consists in its being a prehending subject. The primary metaphysical situation presented for analysis in Whitehead’s metaphysics is an actual entity’s subjective experiencing.

4. Plato’s Forms and Whitehead’s Eternal Objects

In the Timaeus, there are two general perspectives, one from the top down (27C–47E), and the other from the bottom up (48A–92C). This section and the next section are devoted to the former, and the remaining two sections are devoted to the latter. The key transitional passage between the two general points of view is this: “Now our foregoing discourse, save for a few matters, has set forth the works wrought by the craftsmanship of Reason; but we must now set beside them the things that come about of Necessity” (47E).

In addition to the visible world, containing that which is always in a process of becoming and perishing, there is, according to Plato’s Timaeus, a world of Forms, containing “that which is always real and has no becoming” (28A). In other words, “there is, first, the unchanging Form, ungenerated and indestructible” (51E-52A). Similarly, according to Whitehead’s Process and Reality, “the fundamental types of entities are actual entities, and eternal objects” (PR 25). Eternal objects are “forms of definiteness” (PR 22). By the term “eternal object” Whitehead meant approximately what Plato meant by the term “Form.” Eternal objects are, to use a common term in philosophy, universals, and Whitehead’s theory of universals is Platonic. The total multiplicity of eternal objects is, Whitehead remarked, “the total multiplicity of Platonic forms” (PR 43). However, in clarification of this remark, he declared that “the term ‘Platonic form’ has here been used as the briefest way of indicating the entities in question. But these lectures are not an exegesis of Plato’s writings; the entities in question are not necessarily restricted to those he would recognize as ‘forms’” (PR 44).

Concerning Plato’s separation of the world of appearances from the world of forms, Whitehead remarked that “Plato found his permanences in a static, spiritual heaven, and his flux in the entanglement of his forms amid the fluent imperfections of the physical world” (PR 209). In contrast to Plato’s dualism, Whitehead’s cosmology is monistic: actual entities are the “final real things of which the world is made up” (PR 18). Even “God is an actual entity” (PR 18). Instead of existing independently of actual entities, eternal objects are “realized” through their “ingression” into actual entities (PR 23). The total multiplicity of eternal objects is realized through their ingression into God. In other words, “eternal objects, as in God’s primordial nature, constitute the Platonic world of ideas [i.e., forms]” (PR 46).

5. Plato’s Demiurge and Whitehead’s God

Whitehead read the Timaeus as an allegory, and so he presumably read allegorically Plato’s personification of Reason in a divine craftsman, the Demiurge. According to the Timaeus, it was through the agency of this god that the world of appearances came into being from a pre-existent chaos: “the god took over all that is visible—not at rest, but in discordant and unordered motion—and brought it from disorder into order” (30A). This feature of Plato’s cosmology is footnoted in Process and Reality as follows: “There is another point in which the organic philosophy only repeats Plato. In the Timaeus the origin of the present cosmic epoch is traced back to an aboriginal disorder, chaotic according to our ideals. This is the evolutionary doctrine of the philosophy of organism” (PR 95).

According to the Timaeus, the visible world is a living creature with a body and a soul. Therefore, since appearances are copies or likenesses of forms, that world is a copy or likeness of the form of “Living Creature” (30C). In creating the world from a pre-existent chaos, the Demiurge “fashioned reason within soul and soul within body” (29B). Plato’s top-down point of view in this part of the Timaeus is sweepingly macrocosmic, for it describes the creation of the body of the world, the world-soul, time, the planets, the stars, the earth, and so forth. In this way, the Timaeus illustrates archetypally the idea of the “great chain of being,” from the Forms down through a hierarchy of appearances. Obviously, there are many details here that are dated and may be ignored.

In contrast, Whitehead’s account of God’s acts of creation in the process of becoming is microcosmic. In accordance with the ontological principle—that actual entities are the only reasons—God has a separate creative role in the process of becoming of each temporal actual entity. Indeed, each actual entity is “self-creative” (PR 25). But God “is that actual entity from which each temporal concrescence [i.e., actual entity] receives that initial aim from which its self-causation starts” (PR 244). “In this sense,” Whitehead asserted, “God can be termed the creator of each actual entity” (PR 225). From the primary metaphysical situation of an actual entity’s subjective experiencing, God’s creativity is manifested as an act of providing an initial aim. Ignoring technical details in this metaphysical notion of an initial aim stemming from God, a main point is that, whereas Plato’s cosmology is a macrocosmology, Whitehead’s is partly a microcosmology.

6. Plato’s Receptacle and Whitehead’s Extensive Continuum

From Plato’s top-down point of view, there are two elements—Forms and their appearances. However, from his bottom-up point of view, there also is a third element, “the Receptacle” (49A). The Receptacle is “that in which” there is a process of becoming and perishing (49E). In other words, it provides “a situation for all things that come into being” (52B). Thus it also is called (in a nongeometrical sense) “Space” (52B). To be “all-receiving”—to be that in which any form can be copied—it has to be in and of itself “characterless” (51A). Hence it is devoid even of geometrical properties.

In Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead remarked that “The space-time of modern mathematical physics, conceived in abstraction from the particular mathematical formulae which applies to the happenings in it, is almost exactly Plato’s Receptacle” (AI 150). This third Platonic element is developed in Process and Reality as follows: as a supplement to the categoreal scheme, there is a “metaphysical assumption” of an “extensive continuum” that “underlies the whole world, past, present and future” (PR 66). Each temporal actual entity comes into being in its own “basic region” in the extensive continuum (PR 283). As with the Receptacle, the extensive continuum does not have properties of “metrical geometry” (PR 66). However, unlike the Receptacle, it does have nonmetrical properties that stem from the relation of extensive connection. Furthermore, as a consequence of the Einsteinian revolution in science, it is (in a nonmetrical sense) a “space-time continuum” (PR 67).

In the Timaeus, the ontological status of the Receptacle is obscure, for it is neither a form nor an appearance, but it is “apprehended without the senses by a sort of bastard reasoning, and hardly an object of belief” (52B). In Process and Reality, the ontological status of the extensive continuum is delineated, also somewhat obscurely, as follows: it is not actual (it is neither an actual entity nor a nexus of actual entities) and it is not an eternal object, but it is (in a sense) “real” (PR 66). In our cosmic epoch, the extensive continuum is actualized in “the fundamental society,” and a metrical geometry is actualized in “the ‘geometrical’ society” (PR 97).

7. Plato’s Ordered World of Bodies and
Whitehead’s Hierarchy of Societies

Certainly, the remainder of the Timaeus contains numerous anachronistic details that may be safely ignored. Among the topics discussed are the four primary bodies (i.e., fire, air, water, and earth), the varieties of primary bodies (e.g., gold and copper are “fusible varieties of water” (59A-59C)), the compounds of primary bodies, and the bodies and souls of living creatures. In the Receptacle, the most elemental processes of becoming and perishing are the appearings and vanishings of the four primary bodies. Plato’s cosmology is mathematical, in that each primary body has a figure or shape that is “composed of triangles” (53C). At the root of Plato’s great chain of being are copies or likenesses of mathematical forms, which appear and vanish in the Receptacle. “Plato accounted for the sharp-cut differences between the kinds of natural things,” Whitehead remarked, “by assuming an approximation of the molecules of the fundamental kinds respectively to the mathematical forms of the regular solids” (PR 94-95). Whitehead’s cosmology also is mathematical, but with complexities deriving from the intervening two thousand years of mathematical work—for instance, his own definition of geometrical points (PR 299). Concerning the requisite species of eternal objects, Whitehead remarked that they “are the mathematical Platonic forms” (PR 291).

To assess correctly how Plato influenced Whitehead, it is essential to grasp how Whitehead’s metaphysical account of physical objects differs from Plato’s. Whitehead’s cosmology is partly a microcosmology, but it also is partly a macrocosmology, for Process and Reality also contains “a discussion—largely conjectural—of the hierarchy of societies composing our present [cosmic] epoch” (PR 96). Most basically, there is “the fundamental society,” which is defined by the relation “of ‘extensive connection’” (PR 97). Within the fundamental society, there is “the ‘geometrical’ society,” which is defined by one “systematic geometry” (PR 97). Within the geometrical society, there is “an ‘electromagnetic’ society,” which grounds the laws of electromagnetism (PR 98). And within the electromagnetic society, there are the following kinds of societies: “regular trains of waves, individual electrons, protons, individual molecules, societies of molecules such as inorganic bodies, living cells, and societies of cells such as vegetable and animal bodies” (PR 98). Other examples of societies are “crystals, rocks, planets, and suns” (PR 102).

Concerning Plato’s metaphysical account of bodies, Whitehead made a general remark that is difficult to interpret, because it involves the technical notion of societies. Roughly speaking, a society is a nexus that satisfies two conditions. First, a “defining characteristic” (i.e., an eternal object) is “exhibited by all its members” (PR 34). Second, the defining characteristic is “inherited throughout the nexus, each member deriving it from” temporally earlier members (PR 34). With reference to the first condition, Whitehead’s general remark begins: “Plato conceives the notion of definite societies of actual molecular entities, each society with its defining characteristics” (PR 94). In this way, Whitehead’s cosmology resembles Plato’s.

On the other hand, with reference to the second condition, Whitehead’s general remark continues: “He does not conceive this assemblage of societies as causa sui. But he does conceive it as the work of subordinate deities, who are the animating principles of these departments of nature” (PR 94). In this way, Whitehead’s cosmology differs significantly from Plato’s, for Whitehead does conceive of a society of actual entities as (in a sense) causa sui. A society is self-creating, through the process of inheriting its defining characteristic. From the primary metaphysical situation of subjective experiencing, an actual entity becomes a member of a society through its prehensions of the defining characteristic as exhibited in earlier members. Thus Whitehead’s macrocosmology—the hierarchy of societies­—emerges from his microcosmology—the process of becoming of an actual entity.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Brennan, Joseph Gerard. 1971. “Whitehead on Plato’s Cosmology,” Journal of the History of Philosophy, 9, 67-78.

Cornford, Francis MacDonald. 1935. Plato’s Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato (London, Routledge).

Demos, Raphaël. 1939. The Philosophy of Plato (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons).

Emmet, Dorothy. 1932. “Cosmic, Ethical and Aesthetic Order in the ‘Timaeus’ and in Whitehead’s Philosophy,” in Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism (London, Macmillan).

Forsyth, T. M. 1932. “The New Cosmology in its Historical Aspect: Plato, Newton, Whitehead,” Philosophy 7, 54-61.

Hawking, Stephen. 1988. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (London, Bantam Press).

Heinemann, Gottfried. 2006. “Platonism at work,” François Beets, Michel Dupuis et Michel Weber (éditeurs), La science et le monde moderne d’Alfred North Whitehead — Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World. (Frankfurt, ontos verlag).

Jowett, B. 1892. The Dialogues of Plato: Translated into English with Analyses and Introduction, Volume III, Third Edition (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Kann, Christoph. 2001. Fußnoten zu Platon, Philosophiegeschichte bei A. N. Whitehead (Hamburg, Felix Meiner).

Kuhn, Thomas. 1957. The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (Cambridge, Harvard University Press).

Lango, John W. 2007. “Whitehead’s Derivative Notion of Societies,” Process Studies, 36, 89-107.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. 1936. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, Harvard University Press).

Maaßen, Helmut. 2004. “La Conception whitheadienne de Dieu, le Démiurge de Platon et la Conception chrétienne du créateur,” in Alfred North Whitehead. De l’algèbre universelle à la théologie naturelle, edited by François Beets, Michel Dupuis and Michel Weber (Frankfurt, Ontos).

Randall, John Herman, Jr. 1977. Philosophy after Darwin: Chapters for the Career of Philosophy Volume III, and Other Essays (New York, Columbia University Press).

Taylor, Alfred Edward. 1928. A Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

Author Information

John W. Lango
Department of Philosophy
Hunter College of CUNY, New York NY 10021, USA

How to Cite this Article

Lango, John W., “Plato (427–347 BCE)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.