Milič Čapek (1909–1997)

1. Brief Vita

Milič Čapek was born on January 26, 1909 in the village of Trebechovice, Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy at Charles University in 1935. In March 1939 Čapek fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and became a student at the Sorbonne in Paris, only to flee again days before the Nazi armies marched down the Champs-Elysées. Making his way to the U.S. via a Vichy concentration camp in Morocco, Čapek taught physics in the Army Specialized Training Program at the University of Iowa, the Navy V12 program at Doan College and at the University of Nebraska. Čapek returned to Czechoslovakia for a couple of years after the war but returned to America before the communist takeover in February 1948. Here he became a member of the Carleton College faculty, and a permanent resident and citizen. In 1962, after fourteen years at Carleton College, he moved to Boston University, where he remained until he retired in 1974. During his time at Boston University he lectured at numerous universities, including UC Davis, Emory University, North Texas University, Yale, and Carleton, which awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 1983. Čapek died November 17, 1997, in Little Rock, Arkansas at the age of eighty eight.

Čapek is the author of numerous books and articles in scholarly journals. Among his most well-known publications are: The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics (1961), Bergson and Modern Physics (1971), The Concepts of Space and Time (1976), and The New Aspects of Time: Its Continuity and Novelties (1991).

2. Categories Relevant to Whiteheadian Scholarship

Most of Čapek’s scholarship is devoted to the history and philosophy of modern physics: he was the foremost Bergson scholar of his generation, and he was heavily engaged in the interpretation and criticism of work of thinkers such as Spencer, Piaget, Masaryk, Zawirski, Leibniz, Mach, Reichenbach, Russell, Whitehead, Einstein, Meyerson, Louis de Broglie, James, and Peirce. Though he did not do much in the form of Whitehead scholarship, all of his work was deeply inspired by Whitehead’s process metaphysics. His philosophy focuses on the temporal character of experience and the problems of continuity, causality, contingency, and time. I shall here focus on two categories of Čapek’s work which I think are especially relevant to Whiteheadian scholarship.

2.1. Events

One main aspect of Čapek’s work is his critical approach to mechanistic metaphysics and classical rationalism. Mechanistic metaphysics and classical rationalism agree on the essential homogeneity of nature, though on different epistemological grounds. Essential to mechanistic metaphysics is the view that matter consists of non-divisible particles. It was only with the development of relativity theory, and the discoveries of the wave nature of matter, that the basic inadequacies of the concept of particle became evident.

In a number of papers, as well as in his book of 1961, Čapek criticizes the basic tenets of Newtonian-Euclidian modes of thought. One of the concepts to which Čapek repeatedly returns is that of material particle. His query is two-fold: first, why do scientists still try to make the corpuscular-kinetic models fit the new theories about the submicroscopic level? Secondly, is the notion of “event” perhaps a better description of the entities at the microscopic level? The answer to the first question is partly historical and partly based on explanations of the limitation of the human mind. The human mind is limited by macroscopic experience, and in thinking about the microscopic levels of reality we are easily misguided by false macroscopic analogies.

Čapek suggests a radically different approach to submicroscopic reality. Rather than operating with two models, that of particles and that of waves, submicroscopic entities should be considered a succession of exceedingly short events or vibrations. This is not always a view welcomed among scientists; for if the sub-microscopic level is treated in terms of events, no fundamental entity can ever be observed twice; for events do not endure through time.

According to Čapek, since so-called vibrations are not vibrations of something, the term “event” is more adequate than any other term. In The New Aspects of Time, he writes:

As long as the particles are viewed as substantial entities, persisting continuously through time, their interference and diffraction patterns remain unintelligible; highly artificial assumptions must be made to explain why they are scattered only in certain specific directions to simulate the wave-like behavior. On the other hand, if the electrons and micro-particles in general are intermittent “entities” or events, their interference becomes in principle possible (1991b, 213).

Events have the advantage that they can be superposed or coincide; that is, they can be in the same place at the same time. Strictly speaking, two particles cannot coincide because the coincidence or superposition of two particles requires their expiration or cancellation. Likewise, two particles cannot merge together or cancel each other without ceasing to exist because endurance and simple location are in the very nature of what it is to be a particle. Within the submicroscopic realm of observation, however, it is often seen that two electrons cancel each other out.

Čapek thus suggests that electrons do not consist of waves or vibrations but have intrinsic vibratory or periodical structure. To treat the concept of particle in terms of the concept of event is not straightforward, however. First, if electrons are strings of events, how can they be observed to collide at higher levels of observation? It is in the nature of events that there can be no collision between them. Hence, if electrons are treated as events, the collision of electrons at the microscopic level calls for an explanation. According to Čapek, the event structure of electrons provides a basis for the conception of them as particles at a higher level of reality. He is not claiming that there are no observable particles or observable objects within the world of middle-sized things. What he claims is that events are ontologically prior to particles. Higher-level particles are in a sense constructed out of submicroscopic events. They are explications of vibrational entities and thus ultimately reducible to these.

2.2. Causal Indeterminism

The view defended by Čapek, for instance in his papers of 1951 and 1959, as well as in his book The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics (Chapter 17), is that of causal indeterminism. According to this view, the future is determined in its general character, but not in all its detail. This means that there is not just one possible continuation of the current state of the world but a field of genuine possibilities. This view, of course, has a number of interesting consequences, for instance, that we cannot make absolutely certain predictions. For if there are genuine possibilities, then every event that actually occurs might not have occurred. Similarly, every event that did not occur, but is physically possible, might have occurred. No event is fully determined by a past event, but occurs with a certain probability. In Čapek’s words, “the concept of objective possibility, which was always looked upon as legitimate by the contingentists, comes into the field of science in the form of the concept of objective probability” (1991b).

It is often believed that the rejection of classical determinism excludes the possibility of causation. From Čapek’s standpoint, it is true that physical indeterminacy is incompatible with rigorous Laplacean causality, but it is not incompatible with a widened notion of “causality,” a notion which preserves some continuity or connection between successive events.

Čapek supports the view that the apparent macroscopic determinism is due to (1) our macrochronic perspective and (2) the fact that microphysical events are not instantaneous but extended in time. In fact, since our mnemic span is wider than the temporal span of the elementary physical events, our specious present is coextensive with several events some of which belong to the future and some of which belong to the past. Thus, one single moment of consciousness is coextensive with innumerable instants of objective time. Because one single moment of consciousness is temporally extended, we actually perceive physical events as if they were fully determined by their antecedents. Or in other words: because the temporal span of the specious present is considerably wider than that of physical events, the duration of physical events is negligible at a macroscopic level. As Čapek puts it:

with a reduced temporal span “the average influence of the immediate past” dominates, and the element of novelty which constitutes the specificity of each event becomes negligible at the macroscopic level (1973, 98).

At the macroscopic level present physical events appear extensionless and fully determined by past events. But at a submicroscopic level, physical events are neither extensionless nor fully dermined by past occurrences. When physical events have duration, however feeble and short-lived, the average influence of the immediate past, or future, ceases to dominate exclusively (1973, 97). The reason is the following: if the strict present is taken to be a knife-edged border between the past and the future, then a physical event that endures, say, a nanosecond or less is both past, present and future at one and the same time; that is, it includes parts of events that will take place and events that already took place. In fact, such short-lived events have a rudimentary form of memory (and forethought) in that they are what they are only because they partake in both past and future events. Whitehead calls this rudimentary form of memory “prehension.” In his book on Whitehead’s ontology, Lango describes Whitehead’s prehension as follows:

Just as one actual entity comes into being from the many entities in its actual world, a prehension not in the initial phase comes into being from prehensions in earlier phases […] the coming into being of the prehension is the creation of a “novel” entity (i.e. an entity in addition to the prehensions in the earlier phases). Hence, before the prehension comes into being, it is not in being, and does not “have being for” any prehension in an earlier phase (1972, 69)

Therefore, if creation of novelty consists in the creation of prehension, strictly instantaneous events can contain no novelty, for they have no prehension.

Having presented the argument for why physical events must have temporal span, let us consider a further argument for why the specious present has a wider temporal span than that of physical events. First, as already mentioned, the wider temporal span of the specious present explains why events appear to be determined at a macroscopic level. Secondly, the difference in a breadth between the two temporal spans can explain why human choice is possible. Living beings are determined by the mnemic span of their consciousness, “which in turn determines the width of their choice and the extent of both their sensory field and their possible action on their surroundings” (1971, 289). Without the mnemic span our action upon our surroundings would lose its macroscopic efficacy; it would, Čapek argues, “be on a par with other short-lived, random, microphysical events” (1971, 361). Our macroscopic perspective creates the useful appearance of independent objects such as the table at which I am now writing; that is, the writing act requires that I make a conscious choice. But how can I consciously choose to act without the appearance of motionless and solid bodies upon which my chosen action is supposed to be an action? If mental events and qualities do not have a certain existential minimum, they simply vanish.

It is almost paradoxical that the deterministic perspective in perception is required in order for an action to transcend determinism. Yet, as Čapek points out, our perception contracts physical events in this way such that our actions can dominate them. The compulsion inherent in matter is such that at each of its moments it can be forced, but only within extremely restricted limits; that is, each physical event is nearly fully determined by a preceding event, but only nearly. Although physical events occur with an almost negligible indetermination, the indetermination is not negligible when it is added up. Thus, if an action carried out by consciousness in one of its moments is distributed over a large number of moments of matter, it can add up within it the almost infinitesimal indetermination that each of these moments allows.

2.3. Whiteheadian Influence

Most of Čapek’s work is directly or indirectly inspired by Whitehead’s philosophy, and especially by Whitehead’s focus on events rather than particles. Čapek’s philosophy is as broad and inclusive as mainstream philosophy is narrow and conventionalist. Čapek contributes interestingly to modern process philosophy, not only by rejecting rigorous determinism and the classical concept of particle, but also by analyzing the philosophical consequences of construing reality in terms of events.[1]


[1] I am grateful to the Transactions of the Charles Peirce Society, and especially to Peter Hare, for permission to use here the relevant parts of my essay “The Coup de Grace for Mechanistic Metaphysics: Čapek’s New Philosophy of Nature,” Transactions of the Charles Peirce Society XXXVI (2000), 75-108.

Works Cited and Further Readings

For a full list see Berit Brogaard. 2000. “The Coup de Grace for Mechanistic Metaphysics: Čapek’s New Philosophy of Nature,” Transactions of the Charles Peirce Society XXXVI, 75-108.

1951. “The Doctrine of Necessity Re-examined,” Review of Metaphysics V, 11-44.

1955. “Relativity and the Status of Space,” Review of Metaphysics IX, 169-99.

1957. The Development of Reichenbach’s Epistemology,” Review of Metaphysics

11, 42-67.

1959. “Towards a Widening of the Notion of Causality,” Diogenes 28, 63-90.

1960. “The Theory of Eternal Recurrence in Modern Philosophy of Science, with Special Reference to C.S. Peirce,” in Journal of Philosophy LVII, 289-96.

1961. The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics (Princeton, Van Norstrand).

1965. “The Myth of Frozen Passage: The Status of Becoming in the Physical World,” Boston Studies of the Philosophy of Science 2, 441-63.

1967. “Eternal Return,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. III, 61-63.

1970. “Freedom and Causality,” Religious Humanism 14, 70-72.

1971. Bergson and Modern Physics—A Reinterpretation and Reevaluation, Boston

Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. VII (Dordrecht, Reidel).

1973. “Leibniz on Matter and Memory,” in The Philosophy of Leibniz and the Modern World, edited by I. Leclerc(Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press), 78-113.

1975. “Relativity and the Status of Becoming,” Foundations of Physics 5, 607-618.

1976 (ed.). The Concepts of Space and Time, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science XXII (Dordrecht, Reidel).

1991a. “On an Alleged Inconsistency in Whitehead,” Process Studies 20, 175-78.

1991b. The New Aspects of Time—Its Continuity and Novelties (Dordrecht, Kluwer).

Other work cited

Lango, J.W. 1972. Whitehead’s Ontology (Albany, SUNY Press).

Author Information

Berit Brogaard
Philosophy Program, RSSS, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia
Department of Philosophy, University of Missouri, St. Louis, Missouri 63121, USA

How to Cite this Article

Brogaard, Berit, “Milič Čapek (1909–1997)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.