Theory of Language

Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy explores themes that have increasingly dominated Western philosophy, as well as the broader culture, from the time of Descartes until now—themes such as mind, subjectivity, contingency, finitude, and relativity, as well the role of the subject in constructing our lived worlds. Indeed by exploring these themes with utter seriousness and consistency, Whitehead uncovers their limitations and reveals the vulnerabilities in some of our culture’s most highly valued assumptions. In their place, Whitehead created an alternative vision that may strike many as a strange and counterintuitive system precisely because it revises and challenges so many of our prized assumptions. Once one becomes familiar with the basic outlines of his philosophy, however, it is not particularly difficult; and, in my view at least, it seems in most regards adequate.

Whitehead has a subtle and powerful theory of language. In sharp contrast to much twentieth-century philosophy, however, Whitehead does not view language as the sole or even the primary key to philosophical understanding nor does he believe that attending to this-or-that aspect of language will automatically dissolve philosophical conundrums. Rather he uses his philosophical scheme to give an account of how language functions. Philosophy, like all other reflective disciplines, uses language to state its vision, but philosophy is vastly more than language. Thus it is easy to focus on his larger system and to miss Whitehead’s theory of language. But precisely because language serves as an important test-case for his philosophy, Whitehead works hard to position language within his system and, in the process, creates a fascinating and highly original philosophy of language.

1. Process Philosophy as an Alternative to the Western Bifurcation of Reality

Throughout his philosophical career, Whitehead protests against the “bifurcation” of reality. The term “bifurcation” can have two meanings. In the first, a single entity develops in two directions, such as branch of a tree putting forth two new twigs or a river splitting into two streams. Whitehead has no particular problems with bifurcation in that sense. In the second meaning, a bifurcation means the renting of an organic whole into two distinct parts that do not need each other and do not communicate with each other. The most notorious example of such a vicious bifurcation is Descartes’ theory of two basic substances, mind and matter. Here, material substances do not need minds, and mental substances do not need matter. Each is fully understandable by itself. With mind and matter thus separated, the central task for post-Cartesian philosophy was to find hooks with which to reconnect them. The mental and physical had to be reunited because we live in one connected world, not two isolated worlds. Generations of philosophers did not succeed however. Commenting on this failure, Bertrand Russell once mentioned the wag who distilled the last four hundred years of Western philosophy into four phrases: “No matter? Never mind! No mind? It doesn’t matter!” The debate is still very much with us.

Kant, however, may have provided the more provocative and thorough-going bifurcation when he divided reality into its phenomenal and noumenal sides. We can expand Kant’s insight in the following way.[1] Let phenomenal reality refer to our lived world of perception, thought, consciousness, and intellection—that is, the world as we directly experience it. And let noumenal reality refer to “whatever-it-is” that grounds and makes possible that lived-and-directly-experienced world. According to Kant, human beings create this phenomenal world through the interaction of the noumenal world with the “categories of mind.” Kant searched for “universal” categories with which we are all born and that are the same in every age and culture. In the two hundred years since Kant, scholars have switched their focus from such universal factors to the shaping power of history, culture, psychology, language, and a host of other structures that are relative, localized, and diverse—anything but universal. Our post-modern world has extended this emphasis to the capacity of each human to create an individual identity. And the post-modern world tends not only to dismiss the search for universal categories of the mind, but it often looks askance on the categories of history, gender, culture, religion, and sometimes even ethics as unnecessarily and often unjustly restrictive on the individual’s personal freedom to choose a particular identity.

From a Whiteheadian perspective, however, the key problem with Kant’s philosophy is the mystery of just how the noumenal and the phenomenal worlds communicate or interact.[2] In a Kantian-type philosophy, the only world that we can know is the world as we have shaped it—by the “categories of the mind,” by culture, by language, by history, by gender, by economic position, or whatever. If we focus on the power of culture to shape our lived world, then we can never know the world prior to its shaping by culture. If we focus on this same power in language, then the world as it stands prior to that linguistic shaping never enters into our experience. Whitehead denies such a bifurcation. We do indeed shape our experienced worlds; and language has a prominent role in that shaping. But we also have access to the world prior to its shaping. This dual capacity—to shape our phenomenal world even while keeping contact with our noumenal world—is key to grasping Whitehead’s philosophy of language.

2. Language and the Drive for Intensity of Experience

This is also the context for Whitehead’s repeated claim that language (under the rubric of “propositions”) functions, not just to describe the world, but also to intensify experience.

It is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. This statement is almost a tautology. For the energy of operation of a proposition in an occasion of experience is its interest, and its importance (AI 244).

The interest in logic, dominating overintellectualized philosophers, has obscured the main function of propositions in the nature of things. They are not primarily for belief, but for feeling at the physical level of unconsciousness (PR 186).

At one level, Whitehead is merely stating a commonplace of twentieth-century philosophy. Language has many functions, of which communicating factual information is but one. We use language to tell jokes, to express sorrow, to bless, to curse, to cheer, to make miserable, to proclaim guilty or innocent, and much else. We want to laugh; we need to cry. We humans, in every age and culture, use language to intensify experience in a myriad of ways.

At another level, however, Whitehead’s view of language gains power as it is viewed through his speculative metaphysics. The basic unit in his speculative system is the actual entity. Actual entities underlie stars, rocks, iguanas, human beings, carrots, and even empty space. And every actual entity strives for intensity of experience—or, as Whitehead would more likely say, intensity of feeling. That is not to claim that a rock strives for intensity of experience, but it is to claim that the actual entities that constitute the rock do.[3]

It is, of course, absurd to say that all actual entities strive for intensity of experience, if we take “experience” or “feeling” in its everyday meaning. But Whitehead has turned “experience” into a technical term. As a technical term, it includes ordinary, conscious human experience; but it now has a vastly wider and more generic meaning as well. Whitehead has taken ordinary human experience, stripped it of what is unique to humans or even to animals, and generalized the concept as broadly as possible. As concepts closely connected with experience or feeling, we might point to striving, directedness, intensity, inclusion, or even value. These words also, however, have their home base in ordinary human life, and thus they too must be stripped of those characteristics that are particular to humans, or animals, or any specific kind of things. Only as completely generalized would they truly illumine the notion of feeling or experience in Whitehead’s technical sense.

Whitehead uses the term “concrescence” to describe the drive for intensity of feeling[4] in an actual entity. An actual entity is a concrescence. All concrescences share certain common traits that are relevant to our understanding of language. For example, each concrescence—that is, each actual entity—begins its existence as the inclusion of the past.

3. Whitehead’s Ontology of Events

Here again Whitehead defies the conventions of our Western philosophical tradition, our culture, our Indo-European languages, and perhaps even of our biological nervous system. As we will soon see, Whitehead’s alternative leads either to an “Aha! I get it” moment or to a “This is poppycock and claptrap” moment.

We explain as follows. We are used to thinking in terms of substances such as rocks, trees, fish, stars, and human bodies. And without much good warrant from science itself, we even tend to think of atoms, electrons, photons, etc. as unimaginably tiny substances—things that keep their basic identity as they endure through time even though some of their non-essential characteristics might change. And evolution may have honed our nervous system so that we see the tiger ahead of us and not the plethora of buzzing photons, molecules, and the like. The central unit for our survival is the tiger and not the buzz of atoms, photons, and molecules. A tiger is a substance in Aristotle’s sense, but not a Whiteheadian actual entity.

As Aristotle said, we cannot predicate one (primary) substance of another. That is, one substance cannot include another, except in the trivial sense that a carton includes the eggs or a jar contains the honey. Even less can a substance include the past of some other substance. Considered as a substance, I do not include within myself the computer on which I am writing this essay—neither the computer as it exists in the present nor as it existed in the past.

And yet Whitehead wants to say that as a current actual entity, I definitely and literally include within myself the actual entities that made up the computer a few seconds ago. It is not that I include the past actual entities as they have survived into the present. Rather I include them as they are in, and remain in, the past.

When applied to substances, this is incomprehensible gibberish, as Whitehead fully understood. Therefore, we must conclude that an actual entity cannot be a substance. In looking for a metaphor that would shed light on this way of thinking, Whitehead suggested an “event” or a “process.” One event can include another. World War II was an event. It included within itself other events such as the Battle of Britain, Pearl Habor, D-Day, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Thus the actual entity is a concrescence, and a concrescence is best understood as an event or process. Each actual entity is a vast cosmic event that includes all past events (or, more precisely, portions of all past events) within itself. There is, of course, a contemporary perspective from which it includes that past. For us, in our cosmic epoch, this contemporary perspective is a four-dimensional region (the three dimensions of space plus the dimension of time).[5]

In sum, an actual entity is a process which aims at intensity of experience. This intensity can be profoundly rich in some cases: say the human experience of sailing on a good day with the wind in one’s face and the spray overhead. Or it can be trivial in the extreme, say the “experience” of an actual entity in intergalactic empty space. In every case, however, this process includes its past within itself.

3.1. Ontology of Events and Overcoming of Western Bifurcations

One may wish to question Whitehead’s ontology of events, but it has at least this enormous advantage. It utterly demolishes every bifurcation which has dominated Western thinking in the last four hundred years. The past, which is a kind of noumenal world, is very much present in our current experience.[6] We are not cut off from that reality out of which we emerge. Indeed that reality is included in us, as a part of our real constitution, of who and what we are. It is never lost.

Thus, there are two sides to each concrescence—that is, to each basic event, each fundamental process. On the one hand, there is the foundational past that the new concrescence includes within itself. This is the noumenal reality which is present at the beginning of the concrescence. And, on the other hand, there is the drive towards intensity of experience. This is the phenomenal world we create, and it is the outcome of the concrescence.

That drive towards intensity is the same as the urge to create a new identity. This new identity cannot ignore the past, for the past is part of the real internal constitution of the new event. But that new event can react to that past in new ways, invoke new possibilities, and most certainly occupy a new “perspective” from which it incorporates its past.

Let us restate this. For Whitehead, the past is, according to our heuristic, the noumenal reality from which we emerge and with whose resources we create a new phenomenal experience. On the one hand, contrary to Kant and to much linguistic philosophy, that noumenal reality is never lost, never disappears, and remains, to different degrees, available to us. On the other hand, out of that noumenal reality, we really do create different identities that are influenced by our histories, our cultures, our biological and psychological constitutions, and even our religious traditions.

The key point is this. We can, in some sense, compare the world out of which we come with the identities that we create, for both are co-present in the one event of concrescence. Thus Whitehead can fully acknowledge the powerful roles of our biological construction as well as of sense perception, symbolism, consciousness, intellection, and language in shaping who we are. He fully accepts these motifs of modernity and post-modernity. However, most modern philosophers, dealing only with a substance philosophy and focusing on human consciousness as the touchstone of “experience,” have argued that we are therefore isolated from whatever noumenal reality may lie beneath and prior to the worlds we construct. Whitehead’s ontology of events, in contrast, allows him to include that noumenal world as co-present in the new actual entity. And from that, everything else follows.

4. Language within an Ontology of Events

Language, then, is one among many tools that have evolved in the quest for intensity. As a group, these tools—biological organization, sense perception, and (probably) consciousness—can be found in most higher animals. So far as is known, however, only humans use language in any developed form. Language is a form of symbolism. An actual entity uses symbolism whenever it uses one element in its world to elicit, promote, foster, enhance, identify, or isolate another factor in its experience (S 2-8). In particular, language is a form of symbolism (S 2) that promotes the grasping (that is, the inclusion or prehension) of propositions (PR 264-5).

We may think that, as educated people, we know what a proposition is. And, in the ordinary sense of proposition, perhaps we do. But Whitehead has generalized the term proposition and given it a new context in his philosophy. What, then, is a proposition in Whitehead’s process philosophy, a philosophy that denies the bifurcation of reality into mind and matter or into noumena and phenomena, a philosophy with an ontology of events rather than substances, and a philosophy that recognizes the shaping power of perception and intellection while retaining access to the pre-shaped world? In a Cartesian world, a proposition presumably is an element in a mental substance and, therefore, is itself a mental thing. But as Whitehead noted, Descartes’ mental and physical substances do not communicate with each other, nor do they need each other for their full description. In that case, how does a Cartesian proposition about a physical substance succeed in referring to that physical substance? For that matter, how does the proposition in my mind (one mental substance) succeed in referring to your mind (a separate mental substance).

We can simply assert, as obvious on the face of it, that the proposition does in fact successfully refer to physical objects and to other “substances”—and perhaps challenge anyone to prove that it doesn’t. But we have no explanation of how it does so. In the musical, The King and I, the tensions of Western culture flummox the King of Siam, and he exclaims, “It is a puzzlement!” The working of a proposition in a Cartesian world is truly a “puzzlement.” Likewise, in a Kantian world, how does a proposition as an element in my phenomenal world refer to anything in the noumenal world? That also, if it were in fact possible, would truly be a “puzzlement.” The “puzzlement” stems from our traditional assumption that the proposition exists on one side of the bifurcation (the mental substance, the phenomenal world), while “referring” to something on the other side (the physical substance, the other mind, the noumenal reality). We hide the resulting gap by using the verb “refer.” If there is no communication between the two sides, how does the proposition cross that gap and “refer” to something on the other side?

In contrast with the traditional view, Whitehead’s process philosophy asserts that both the past actual entities and the new proposition are co-present in the same event. Let us assume that the proposition refers to the past.[7] For example, “My dog barked at the paperboy this morning.” According to a philosophy of substance, the barking dog and the paperboy are separate substances that existed in the past and have endured into the present as the self-same substances. But on Whitehead’s philosophy of events, the actual entities that constituted the barking dog, the paperboy, and my own past self are all past events, and they remain past events. But these past events are included in the new actual entity (the new event) which is the current me.

Whitehead therefore suggests that we should think of a “proposition” not as a mental entity that somehow refers to the past paperboy and howling dog. Rather the proposition literally includes the (actual entities in the past of) the paperboy and the yapping dog. A proposition is a composite reality that combines the physical paperboy and dog (to the extent that they were composed of past actual entities) with certain characteristics (such as howling, being boyish and doggish, etc.). Whitehead calls the past actual entities in the boy and dog the “logical subjects” of this proposition. And he calls the characteristics the “predicate.”

Whitehead provides a detailed analysis of just how the past actual entities function as logical subjects in the proposition. Among other things, the past actual entities are reduced within the current actual entity to mere “its.” And he provides an explanation of the predicate in terms of his theory of universals (which he calls “eternal objects”). The point, however, is this. On the one hand, the past actual entities in the dog and boy are included in me, as a part of who I am. One event, it will be recalled, can include other events. And on the other hand, the predicate is also within me as something that can be variously described as a universal, an eternal object, or a pure potential. Thus the proposition is a reality within me that joins together certain actual entities with some predicate. The proposition is not simply “about” the boy and dog; it includes the boy and dog within itself. Thus Whitehead totally overcomes the bifurcations implicit in earlier analyses of a proposition: bifurcations between physical and mental substances, noumena and phenomena, and between inner and outer.

It is almost impossible to overstate the extent to which Whitehead rethought the idea of a proposition within the context of his speculative metaphysics. Propositions are essential, for example, not merely for language and thought, but they are also a key ingredient in sense perception. And the purpose[8] that God gives each new actual entity is, according to Whitehead, a proposition—or, to use Whitehead’s technical vocabulary, a hybrid feeling of a proposition.

Once we get rid of the idea of a proposition as a purely “mental” reality and once we re-conceive it as a composite of concrete actuality with focused potentiality, we should not be surprised that propositions are not just linguistic and intellectual factors but also crucial elements in sense perception. In Whitehead’s drive to overcome the bifurcations of recent Western culture, he also re-thought sense perception. For him sense perception, like language, includes both concrete actuality and focused potentiality. He discusses the concrete physicality under the rubric of “perception in the mode of causal efficacy,” and he described the focused potentiality under the heading of “perception in presentational immediacy.” Whitehead interprets ordinary sense perception as the symbolic interaction between these two types of perception. That is, if we take sense perception in its pre-philosophic and pre-scientific sense as the explicandum, then its interpretation as a symbolic interaction between these two types of perception is the explicans.

Perception in the mode of causal efficacy (which Whitehead often abbreviates to “causal efficacy”) is the inclusion of past events within the new event and therefore the paradigmatic illustration of power, physicality, and coercion. Perception in presentational immediacy (or simply “presentational immediacy”) requires propositions and therefore provides the concrescing entity with an important mechanism for organizing and structuring the world as given in causal efficacy into that concrescing entity’s new self-identity. Presentational immediacy, through its embedded proposition, enhances freedom within sense perception.

Since both sense perception and language are symbolic activities, and since both integrate physicality with focused potentiality, it follows that they should work well together, as in fact they do. Language is more advanced and complex than sense perception. It presupposes sense perception while the reverse is not the case. Thus language can often direct and give depth to our sense experience. It is a common experience to focus on some object after being given directions. Sometimes language even helps us see things we never saw before. As a teenager in the American Canal Zone in Panama, nearly fifty years ago, I used to swim occasionally at a particular Caribbean beach. The sand was gritty, with many different pebbles. My biology teacher mentioned in class that this beach had a small grey-white plant with the shape and size of a silver dollar. The next time I went, I checked, and “sure enough” the beach was loaded with them. Before I had seen a beach with lots of pebbles; but after the lecture, I saw a beach with lots of pebbles strewn with silver dollar plants. That is the power of language to shape our sense perception. It gave me greater freedom and more nuance in how and what I saw.

While Whitehead certainly notes—and provides an explanation for—the connection of language with freedom, potentiality, and mentality, his greater contribution may well be his connection of language with physicality. In most cases, it would be “odd” to say that we “feel” a proposition. But Whitehead repeatedly uses this language. A feeling—also called a prehension, in his technical system—is an act of inclusion or exclusion. To feel a proposition means to include that proposition in the concrescence of the new actual entity. Even an excluded item leaves its traces, like a rejected lover who haunts one’s memories long after disappearing from one’s life.

The primary case of power, coercion, and force is causal efficacy. Perception in the mode of causal efficacy is the inclusion of past actual entities in the new occasion. The new occasion, as an event which includes past events within itself as part of its own identity, must adjust to that past. There is no choice, nor freedom. This is physicality at its rawest. The point to note is that the proposition is not a mental entity about some set of past actual entities. Rather it is a composite entity which includes those actual entities. Within the proposition the past actual entities are “reduced” to mere “its,” to use Whitehead’s phrase, but they are there as part of the proposition. Thus when a concrescence “feels” a proposition, it is feeling something that is physical.

To be more precise, when a concrescence feels a proposition, it feels something that has a physical side, the included actual entities, and that has a mental side, the predicate or set of characteristics. Thus language, as it symbolizes our feelings of propositions, not only adds to our freedom and increases our capacity to shape our own world, but it also links us to the concrete physical world out of which we emerge.

It is hardly a new thought that language connects us to our concrete world. It probably never occurred to anyone but a philosopher to doubt it. But the bifurcations endemic to Western philosophy in the last several centuries had made that connection puzzling, to say the least. Whitehead metaphysics makes the double function of language—its liberating and shaping power and its connection to the concrete, physical world—natural and fully explicable.

5. Language and Truth

It is, says Whitehead, more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. Nonetheless, sometimes we do care about the truth of a proposition. Whitehead has a correspondence theory of truth, or as he sometimes calls it, a “conformal” theory (PR 186). The key to his theory of truth is to remember that the actual entities that function in the proposition are in fact present in the new concrescence in two ways. On the one hand, they have entered as concrete actualities felt in causal efficacy, and they remain present in the new concrescence in this role. On the other hand, the concrescing entity has incorporated them into some proposition as the logical subjects of that proposition and as reduced to mere “its.” In doing so, the concrescing entity retains their location (as events in space and time) and their sense of concreteness, but “strips” them of their characteristics. This means that the concrescing entity can compare (A) the actual entities as they function as the logical subjects in the proposition with (B) the same actual entities as they were originally included in the concrescing entity apart from their role in the proposition. Is the predicate which, in the proposition, applies to the actual entities considered as mere “its,” the same as the characteristics of those actual entities as felt in causal efficacy? If so, the proposition is true. If not, it is false. It is important to note that this is not simply a criterion of truth. Truth is the functioning of the same predicate/characteristic in the proposition and in the past concrete actual entities. And error is the lack of this functioning.

Let us state this more dynamically: the actual-entity-in-the-making, assuming that it is sufficiently complex and adequately endowed with resources from its past, actively creates propositions. And in cases in which the concrescing entity is endowed with even richer capacities, it may actively compare (a) the actual entities in the proposition as reduced to mere “its” with (b) those same actual entities as they originally entered the actual-entity-in-the making. Without actively creating the comparison of these two roles, the proposition will be neither true nor false in that concrescence.[9]

The proposition in itself is indifferent to its own truth or falsity, as Whitehead repeatedly stresses. But sometimes we care very much whether it is true or false. Whitehead does not focus on how much we sometimes care about truth and error, because he wants to balance the typical scholar’s one-sided emphasis on truth and error which often obscures the other roles of a proposition. In any case, it is obvious on that face of it that we sometimes care deeply about truth and error. We are more likely to live if our propositions, both in sensation and language, about the crouching tiger are true, and more likely to die if they are false. The point, however, is that Whitehead has worked out a detailed and powerful theory of truth that overcomes many of the problems that previous philosophers, dominated by theories of substance and working within bifurcated worldviews, had found so puzzling.[10]

In an important sense, Whitehead’s metaphysics of propositions reverts to an older view of truth. Truth connects us with the noumenal world. In a Kantian world, statements can only give us information about the phenomenal world which we have constructed, not the truth about things as they are in themselves. In contrast, Whitehead suggests that propositions can also give us knowledge about the world as it is in itself, because that noumenal world is part of the very identity of the concrescence entertaining the proposition. Language is not caught up in itself, nor is it trapped in an endless cycle of self-reference. In sum: we can know the world as it is prior to its shaping by language because that pre-linguistic world is part of the real internal constitution of the concrescing entity.

Language can be “true” in this classical sense of “factual statements about what is really the case.” But as we have seen, Whitehead is also fully and deeply aware of the capacity of language (and of other symbolic systems such as sense perception as well as of culture, economic interest, and even our nervous system) to shape the concrescence’s search for a self-identity. In other words, Whitehead allows us to affirm both sides of the modern dilemma of language. That is, we can affirm and explain (A) the capacity of language to give us true propositions about noumenal reality as well as (B) the contribution of language to the creation of relativistic self-identities and diverse cultural patterns. In providing an alternative to the bifurcations of Western culture, he also provided a way of reconciling the classical and modern/postmodern views of truth and language. Is it too much to say that Whitehead’s philosophy might provide a route of reconciliation in Western culture between the conservatives and the liberals, between what Americans call the Red States and the Blue States? And if not a reconciliation, perhaps it could at least stimulate a more civil and respectful dialogue between these two groups, because Whitehead’s philosophy recognizes and affirms the key insight of each group into the nature of language and truth.

6. Religious Language

To conclude this essay, we will turn to religious and ethical language. In the West, religious language has traditionally centered on God, although even Western religious language is hardly limited to “God-talk.” All the many traditional Western views of God have this in common: God is not an idol. Anything we can make or control is an idol. Thus God must be associated in some sense with the noumenal world, with the world prior to our creaturely shaping of reality, whether that shaping be caused by the categories of the mind, by cultural or linguistic relativity, by psychological needs, or by anything else. Obviously, we do have our human images of, and ideas about, God. These are deeply shaped by our cultural backgrounds, psychological needs, and our languages. No one doubts that we shape our image of God. But a God that is “only” a product of our culture and psychology, is no God, but an idol.

Whitehead seems to have first introduced God into his system as the source of cosmic novelty. His deep sense of process led him to believe that genuine, radical novelties have emerged in cosmogonic time, in biological evolution, as well as in human history—novelties that are more than the mere rearrangement or recombination of possibilities inherent in the past, that is, inherent in the world. One can dispute Whitehead on that point; but it must be said that in embracing radical novelty, Whitehead has embraced one of the primary motifs of the modern and postmodern world. He needed, therefore, a storehouse of all possibilities—a source of those radical possibilities that were not inherent in the past, nor derivable from a mere rearrangement of the past. This storehouse became the earliest version of “God” in his system. Of course, there must be some mechanism by which these new possibilities from God are introduced into the world. This mechanism was God’s gift of an initial subjective aim to each new concrescence.

We explain as follows. Each new concrescence begins with the incorporation of the past world from which it develops its own way of organizing that world—what we have called the creation of a new self-identity or, alternatively, what we have described as the drive towards an intensity of experience. The degree of novelty can vary from the most trivial to the most radical, and the degree of experienced intensity can range from the most piddling to the most profound. The new concrescence needs, however, a possible self-identity towards which it can work. This is the initial aim, or the initial subjective aim. This initial subjective aim can be modified as the actual entity concresces, and the final identity can be quite different. According to Whitehead, each actual entity feels God at the very start of its concrescence, and that feeling gives the actual entity its initial aim. Thus the felt purpose inherent in each actual entity derives, in major part, from God’s gift of a subjective aim.

Thus God operates so to speak in the noumenal world. This is the world of power, physicality, and purpose. It is prior to all forms of symbolism such as ordinary sensation, consciousness, and language. The dual nature of language becomes profoundly significant at this point. It both enhances the intensity of experience in the concrescence, and it connects us with the concrete world out of which we come. This applies to religious language as well as any other.

Even in the twenty-first century, the capacity of religious language to intensify our experiences can be startling: Christian Pentecostals speaking in tongues, Shiites weeping as they re-tell the story of Ali’s murder, Hindus in ecstasy as hear the myths of Krishna, Japanese Buddhists telling the tale of Nichiren’s exile, and Roman Catholic monks chanting the Kurie. Whatever we may think of these emotions, it would be foolish to deny the power of religious language to produce intensity of experience. And it would be foolish to deny the power of different religious traditions to channel that emotion in very different directions. And to some extent, the truth (if any) of the stories seems quite beside the point. It is their capacity to shape our worlds and to intensify our experience that counts:

Again, consider strong religious emotions—consider a Christian meditating on the sayings in the Gospels. He is not judging ‘true or false’; he is eliciting their value as elements in feeling. In fact, he may ground his judgment of truth upon his realization of value (PR 185).

We should not stop with this insight, however. Nobody questions the power of religious language to sharpen and shape our experience. The question is its truth. For Christians and Jews, and perhaps others, this has two sides. The first is the historical truth of the Exodus or the Resurrection. The second is the ability of religious language to connect us with the noumenal world. We will focus only on the second: the connection of religious language with the noumenal world.

As composite entities, propositions incorporate both predicates and actual entities. It follows that language, because it facilitates the feelings of propositions, gives us access to both the predicates and the actual entities. The past actual entities, as we have said, are present in the new concrescence both as the logical subjects of the proposition and as embedded in feelings of causal efficacy. The past actual entities are the noumenal world. This includes God. God is also an actual entity. God is also felt in causal efficacy. Some aspects of God become parts of the real internal constitution of the new concrescing entity and, thus, become available for inclusion in propositions. By this means, propositions, and so language, give us access to the noumenal world. This includes religious language about God.

Whitehead does not hold that God as a whole is present in each new concrescence. Rather the new entity feels only a small part of God. The key is the initial subjective aim for that new concrescence. God, as the storehouse of all potentiality, creates a suggested identity for that new concrescence. This takes the form of a proposition about the concrescing entity. In Whitehead’s technical vocabulary, this means that God creates a proposition with the new entity itself as the logical subject.

When the new entity feels this proposition about itself, it also feels God as the source of that proposition. As a result, God as a noumenal reality is present in the new entity through that new entity’s feeling of this proposition—which is not to deny that God may be present in other ways as well.

Language elicits the feelings of propositions. Religious language elicits the feeling of the initial aim, which is a proposition. In doing so, religious language elicits God into greater significance and into a finer, but not perfect, clarity within the new concrescence. As Whitehead stresses repeatedly, this can have many purposes besides the theoretical interest in the truth of these propositions. God’s initial subjective aim provides the basic source of our ethical convictions, our aesthetic values, and our sense of an organized world. We can use religious language to enhance any of these functions. It is primarily through religious language that we can elicit God’s purposes into consciousness and, thus, into greater effectiveness, in our lives.

We can also ask the question of the truth of religious and ethical language. Is this really God’s will for me, for my culture? A proposition is true when the same predicate that applies to the actual entity (the logical subject) in that proposition also applies to that actual entity before being reduced to a logical subject. How does this apply to the initial aim? In the sense that the logical subject is the new actual entity itself, there is no particular problem. The new entity surely has access to itself. More importantly, God as the source of the initial aim is also present in the new actual entity, as part of its real internal constitution. Therefore, the truth of religious language—the two-way functioning of the predicate—can be directly established within the concrescing entity itself.

To establish the truth of religious language may not be easy. And because God is first present in the new actual entity at a foundational, pre-sensory, pre-conscious, and pre-linguistic level, propositional awareness of God, even with the help of language, will not normally take the form of clear and distinct ideas, nor of perfectly precise and conscious feelings. But awareness of God can be real because we have direct access to the noumenal world. And thus religious language about God, as a noumenal reality, can be true. Here is an extremely important part of the “cash value” of Whitehead’s overcoming of the philosophical bifurcations of Western culture.

Westerners often associate religion and ethics with the “spiritual,” the “ethereal,” the “abstract,” and the “subjective.” And there can be no doubt that religion can take on these qualities, both in a negative and positive sense. Negatively, many secularized Westerners view religion and, to a far lesser degree, ethics as disconnected from the serious business of life. Surely this disconnect has many sources; but one of them may have been the bifurcations that have haunted our philosophy in the last several centuries. Positively, religion can be pregnant with new possibilities. If science studies the world as it is, religion dreams of the world as it might be. Whitehead has an explanation for this when he posits God as the storehouse of possibilities, which become real potentials in specific historical situations through God’s gift of an initial subjective aim to each new concrescence. The initial subjective aim is a propositional feeling in the new concrescence. Language draws out propositional feelings into greater prominence and effectiveness, and religious language thus draws out these possibilities into the consciousness of prophets, poets, and dreamers who shape the world to come. Whitehead does not, to my knowledge, ever express it this way, but I think it is faithful to the spirit of his work to say that religion is one of the primary mechanisms by which a culture continues and greatly speeds up the changes that occur more randomly in the development of the universe and in biological evolution. And within the sphere of religion—granting, to be sure, the roles for many people of meditation, icons, incense, non-verbal rituals, and much else—it is language that hones this process to its sharpest edge.

Religion is not always good, notes Whitehead, but it always important.

In considering religion, we should not be obsessed by the idea of its necessary goodness. This is a dangerous delusion. The point to notice is its transcendent importance; and the fact of this importance is abundantly made evident by the appeal to history (RM 17).

Where does this sense of importance come from? Religion lives not just in the realm of ideals, new possibilities, and imagination. It also carries within itself overtones of the heaviest physicality and noumenal reality. Propositions, which play such an important role in the sense perception of all animals and which have an enhanced role in human language, are composites that include not just predicates and characteristics (in short, not just universals or, in Whitehead’s language, eternal objects) but that also include the embedded actual entities. To elicit the past actual entities as reduced to mere “its” also makes it far easier to elicit those same past actual entities as they are felt in causal efficacy.

Our previous discussion of power and purpose can be applied directly to religious language. It will be recalled that the new concrescence is an event that, from a particular perspective in the present, includes its past events within itself, as a part of its real internal constitution. The new entity must conform to these past events, at least initially, because they constitute its own identity in the making. Thus, this act of inclusion is power in its purest form. This is perception in the mode of causal efficacy. Whitehead is not saying that the new entity has a perception with “power” as its datum. Rather he is saying that the inclusion of these past entities in the new entity is power in its most basic and physical form. Lastly it must be remembered that these past entities are the noumenal world. This noumenal world includes God and the divine gift of the initial subjective aim. Therefore, in addition to being the realm of power, the noumenal world is also the realm of purpose, value, and the world’s directedness. This connection to the noumenal world of power and purpose gives sense perception, propositions, and language their sense of overwhelming significance and “gravitas.”

Religious language, more than any other single factor, brings this noumenal world into the twilight of semi-consciousness and, very occasionally, into the focal light of full consciousness. Thus, for those people who cultivate religious language in their lives, it not only opens up dreams of a different and alternative world, but it also connects them to that deep noumenal world of power, purpose, significance, and overwhelming weightiness. As Whitehead reminds us, all this can be distorted in the process of concrescence so that religion becomes destructive and even evil, while retaining its transcendent importance. But Whitehead also provides a way of examining the truth of religious language as it connects us to the noumenal world, where that noumenal world has been included, deeply, in our own being. It thus becomes possible to critique, correct, and improve how we talk about God and how we live as human beings.[11]


[1] In this essay, I do not present the technicalities of Kant’s system. Rather, I use one Kantian theme, the division of reality into noumena and phenomena, as a heuristic device to highlight the problem of, to use Whitehead’s vocabulary, the bifurcation of reality—to highlight it both as a narrowly philosophical issue and as a larger cultural issue. As a heuristic device, the distinction between noumena and phenomena allows me to connect Whitehead’s theme of bifurcation with later nineteenth and twentieth Century developments in anthropology, linguistic philosophy, historical relativity, and the like. My goal is to show the significance of Whitehead’s theory of language, as it is embedded in his metaphysics, not only for philosophy but for our larger culture as well.

[2] Whitehead himself would speak of causation (or, to be more specific, of causal efficacy) in this context.

[3] Aristotelian philosophy would classify a rock as a substance. In Whitehead’s philosophy, a rock, tree, or human is actually a collection of actual entities or, as Whitehead would say, a “society.” The actual entities in the society share certain traits that are passed on among themselves. These traits define the society, and the presence of these traits are crucial for the way that our nervous systems, cultures, and languages organize our perception of the world. In this world as perceived, there are many “substances” such as the tigers and trees. A “society” of actual entities can often, upon reflection, be broken down into subordinate societies which Whitehead calls “enduring objects” (PR 35). The key point, however, is this: the metaphysically basic situation is not the society (that is, not the so-called substance, such as a tiger) but the constituent actual entities. Thus our essay, to be brief, will focus on the connection of language with the ingredient actual entities and not on the more abstract notion of a “substance” or a “society.” But a full exposition would have to develop the connection of language with the “substances” of common sense.

[4] This drive for intensity requires the actual entity to have a “subjective aim” which we will discuss later.

[5] In the previous paragraphs, I used the past actual entities in the computer as my example. I said that the present actual entity includes them in itself. This does not mean that those past entities have survived into the present. They always remain in the past. We need to say three things. First, the vast number of patterns that make up the computer and its parts are inherited from one generation of actual entities to the next. Thus the pattern survives into the present, and that is why we think of the computer as a substance that existed in the past and has survived into the present. Second, the new actual entities, as events, are not simply located in the present. As new events they include the past events from a perspective or region in the present. But no actual entity is limited to the present region that serves as its perspective from which it surveys and includes that past. And, finally, the “present region” in this context is never an “instant” but always an “endurance” (my word) with temporal thickness.

[6] Whitehead develops his metaphysics in terms of the presence of the past within the concrescing entity. He also works out the senses in which contemporary and future entities may be said to be present within the concrescence entity. But this is far more complex. And in any case, the presence of the contemporary and future worlds in the new concrescence is derivative from the more direct presence of the past. Therefore, in this essay, we will only deal with the way in which the past is noumenally present in the new concrescing entity.

[7] In this essay, we will discuss, with one exception, only propositions about the past. In his effort to reconceptualize the nature of a proposition, Whitehead focuses primarily on propositions about the past. But this is not an exclusive focus. He also gives some attention to propositions about the contemporary and future worlds. These propositions are, however, more complex, and they are derivative from propositions about the past. The single exception is the initial subjective aim which God gives to each new concrescence. The initial aim always includes a proposition, but in this case the proposition is about the concrescing entity itself and thus about “the present.” We will discuss the initial aim later in this essay.

[8] Whitehead calls this purpose the “initial subjective aim.”

[9] Other actual entities can also create that comparison, even if the concrescence in question does not. Whitehead argues that God includes (prehends) all aspects of each actual entity in the world, without any omissions or exclusions, and thus the world as included in what Whitehead calls the “consequent nature” of God becomes the “standard” of truth. Presumably God makes every possible comparison and thus knows every truth in the world.

[10] Whitehead distinguishes between the truth of a proposition and a judgment about its truth. We may say that he has a correspondence theory of truth, but a coherence theory of judgment. Our focus in this essay, however, is on truth and falsity as such and not on judgments about that truth or falsity.

[11] A detailed and technical survey of the claims in this essay, along with full documentation, may be found in Franklin, 1991.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Franklin, Stephen T. 1991. Speaking from the Depths: Alfred North Whitehead’s Hermeneutical Metaphysics of Propositions, Symbolism, Language, and Religion (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans).

Author Information

Stephen T. Franklin
Former President and Special Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Tokyo Christian University
Director of Graduate Studies for the School of Theology and Christian Ministry and Professor of Theology, Olivet Nazarene University

How to Cite this Article

Franklin, Stephen T., “Theory of Language”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.