Intensity and Subjectivity

“Subjective intensity” is Whitehead’s description of the felt aesthetic self-organization which occurs in the concrescence of any actual entity. As an emerging unity of what Whitehead calls “prehensions,” an entity achieves some degree and form of “subjective intensity” of feeling in its arrangement of the array of prehensions “growing together” (the meaning of the Latin-derived “concrescing”) under the aegis or lure of “subjective aim.” Introduced as a Categoreal Obligation in the laying out of the basic systemic notions in Part I of Process and Reality, “The Category of Subjective Intensity” is in fact the categoreal demand in which subjective aim is introduced in the organic cosmology Whitehead builds in that text. Thus the centrality of subjective intensity to our understanding of Whitehead’s metaphysics cannot be underestimated. As the rubric for subjective aim, subjective intensity expresses the centrally creative dimension of actuality in the universe of discrete atomic occasions that Whitehead terms “actual entities”. This essay on “subjective intensity” will address some matters of “subjective aim,” but will leave a more detailed treatment of that notion for other entries.

1. Background

The technical term “intensity” is not used extensively in Whitehead’s work until Process and Reality. It subsequently drops out to some degree, as in later works Whitehead moves away from technical systematic vocabulary in an effort to generalize from the system in various topical areas. However, the relative absence of the term from texts prior to and after PR does not betoken an absence of the experiential reality betokened by the term, nor the centrality of aesthetic integration as the main commitment in thinking behind those texts.

Oddly, the first instance of Whitehead’s use of “intensity” was in his very early Universal Algebra (UA), where he remarked that an element in a manifold may exist in varying degrees of intensity, and is absent at an intensity of zero.[1] This tying of existence to a concept of “degrees” expressed by “intensities” is both unusual for a work in Universal Algebra, and a foreshadowing of the uniquely experiential and aesthetic characterization of existence in Whitehead’s mature metaphysical works. By the time of Religion in the Making, where Whitehead was evolving the somewhat monistic “substantial activity” of Science and the Modern World into the avowedly pluralistic scheme of creative individual becoming that would characterize Process and Reality,[2] this notion of “degrees” of presence came to inform Whitehead’s central thinking about how entities affect and include one another. Religion in the Making (RM) introduces expressly axiological language in speaking about the “values” that entities achieve in themselves and that they provide for one another, and does so in pursuit of a notion of “depth of value” (RM 152) in creative processes of becoming (note the implied sense of “degrees” in the reference to “depth”).

In RM, the term “intensity” emerges mainly in a discussion that is more or less a metaphysical and axiological application of its role in UA. In RM, Whitehead ties “value” to the “comparability” of feelings to one another as an entity merges novel possibilities with actualized fact. The possibility of this comparison hinges, according to him, on God’s “primordial envisagement” of the relevance of all forms of value to one another. Every concrescence is the creation of a specific degree of value woven from the comparison of values of those elements integrated in the concretion:

This comparability grades the various occasions with respect to the intensiveness of value. The zero of intensiveness means the collapse of actuality. All intensive quantity is merely the contribution of some one element in the synthesis to this one intensiveness of value.

Various occasions are thus comparable in respect to their relative depths of actuality. Occasions differ in importance of actuality. Thus the purpose of God in the attainment of value is in a sense a creative purpose (RM 103-104, emphasis added).

We see here in the highlighted phrase the crucial association of actuality per se with “intensiveness.” Prior to its systemic role in Process and Reality (PR), then, we see intensity being identified in RM with the immediate actuality or experience of each occasion as such. We also see the connection between the way in which Whitehead is thinking about intensive aesthetic order, and the logico-mathematical concept of “intensive quantity” which remains through PR as a focus of Whitehead’s critique of the logic of substantialist, classificatory thinking from Aristotle down through Kant.[3]

“Immediate experience” in any given occasion, as constructed in RM, is a function of the ordering of values present in its “ground” (the basis in actual, achieved fact from which an entity emerges) in relation to the novel “consequent” (the new arrangement of forms of possibility/value that is achievable in that occasion) (RM 113-116). Whitehead refers to this relation of ground and consequent as the means of realization of “aesthetic experience” arising under conditions of “contrast under identity” (RM 115). This language of “contrast” merges in Process and Reality with the language of “intensity,” whereby intensity just is the felt arrangement of contrastive patterns of actual and possible forms of definiteness in concrescence. The notion of an ideal “consequent” of novel forms importantly foreshadows “subjective aim” as the ideal or “lure” for creative becoming in the mature system of PR. In fact, the ideal consequent is a main locus for Whitehead’s introduction of God as the “primordial envisagement” of the domain of possible forms of value, which primordial activity is the basis for subjective aims in the later text. In both texts, God’s role in process is to evoke the possibility of creative achievement via comparison and contrast of values that might be integrated in (or as) a given concrescent subject, given what the orders of nature have achieved up to that point. We might say that “God” names just that element in the universe where there is, precisely, a calling forth into actuality just what the comparability of values among the possible and the actual makes a real potentiality at a given point in field of organic becoming.

2. Intensity in the Cosmology of Process and Reality

The intimacy of subjective aim and intensity is, as indicated earlier, evident in the manner in which intensity is introduced into the line-up of Categoreal Obligations which appear as part of the “Categoreal Scheme” outlined in part One of Process and Reality.

(viii) The Category of Subjective Intensity. The subjective aim, whereby there is origination of conceptual feeling, is at intensity of feeling (a) in the immediate subject, and (b) in the relevant future. This double aim—at the immediate present and the relevant future—is less divided than appears on the surface. For the determination of the relevant future, and the anticipatory feeling respecting provision for its grade of intensity, are elements affecting the immediate complex of feeling. The greater part of morality hinges on the determination of relevance in the future. The relevant future consists of those elements in the anticipated future which are felt with effective intensity by the present subject by reason of the real potentiality for them to be derived from itself (PR 27).

In this categoreal statement emerge many of the more puzzling elements in the ontology Whitehead presents in PR. It is noted here that present subjects enjoy “anticipatory feelings” of certain dimensions of the future; that the “relevant future” is for any present construed as a scene of relative “grades of intensity;” that morality is basically an affair of intensity considerations; that morality and ontology in general include the notion that the future is present in the immediate complex of intensive feeling of any subject. This latter notion especially points to the seemingly paradoxical notion that an entity that is in the process of becoming (and thus is not yet a fully determinate subject) nonetheless has a relevant future felt with effective intensity in the present becoming of the entity despite its incompletion. While we cannot here unravel all the mysteries of the relations of past, present and future in Whitehead’s ontology, I will in what follows spell out how this array of unusual notions helps us unfold the systematic roles intensity plays in Whitehead’s metaphysics.

First, however, it would be helpful to make explicit exactly what “intensity” means as a main descriptor of the complex of feeling that is the concrescent subject. “Intensity of feeling” is the main objective shaping the processive coming-to-be of an entity, and describes the entity in two fundamental, connected ways. First, it names the force or emotional impact of the qualitatively complex and aesthetically organized array of feelings in an entity. Second, it names the ontological status of an entity in temporal processes of becoming transcendent of its own—in other words it names an entity’s place in the flow or “transmission of feelings” that is the changing texture of reality. Let us take each of these dimensions of intensity in turn, but resist the temptation to conceive of them as in any way separate. It would be intellectually simple, and consistent with certain mental habits born of the substance traditions in metaphysics, to say that a subject has feelings of the entities in its actual world, and of conceptual forms that might be married to its feelings of these entities, and then to treat the degrees of emotional impact of these feelings separately, as if the nature of feelings (substance) could somehow be distinguished from their emotional force (accident). But it seems to me that the construction of intensity by Whitehead, and the departure from substance metaphysics that it intends, demands that we precisely not perform this separation of something’s “nature” from the emotional forms of its appropriation in and by something else’s “nature.” In what follows I will spell out how the notion of intensity demands our apprehension of the fact that what an entity is is nothing but how it feels other entities and is felt by and in other entities. Indeed, I take this to be the meaning of Whitehead’s blunt announcement that his philosophy seeks precisely to describe what it means for entities to be in other entities—his insistence that being cease to be considered an affair of ontologically separate existences as was typical in the substance traditions he is transforming.

3. Intensity as Aesthetic Complexity

The consideration of intensity as the way to understand the aesthetic complexity of feeling in subjective becoming requires that we first introduce a few more key systematic notions. We have already mentioned the idea of “contrast” when exploring the origins of intensive concepts in the crucial introduction of the “comparative” dimension of all value in RM. “Contrast” is the term used systematically (indeed, “contrasts” stand as one of the categories of existence in the Categoreal Scheme in PR) in the mature vocabulary of PR to designate the manner in which two or more qualitatively diverse feelings are felt in tandem—in some manner together—by an entity in concrescence. A contrast is different from an additive sum or a mere temporally coincident manifold: if prior actualities A and B are being felt by entity C, and the intensive aims of C allow/demand that A and B find mutual resolution in the individuated determinacy of C, then the feeling of A by C is modified by C’s feeling of B, and C’s feeling of B is modified by C’s feeling of A. “Contrast” is an affair of identity-in-difference in the concrescent unification process that is an actual entity. The degree and form of intensity achieved in any entity is a function of the array of contrastive unifications effected by and in—as—that subject; greater effective contrast means a higher degree of intensiveness. A successful “contrast” marks the achievement of positive inclusion of the entities and forms of definiteness thus felt, and is the alternative to dismissal of data offered for feeling from inclusion in concrescence. Dismissal (through what Whitehead calls “negative prehensions,” or determinate rejection of a potential for feeling) means that an entity has not effectively situated itself in regard to the actualities and possibilities constituting its creative scene of becoming; “contrast,” on the other hand, is how feeling includes diverse elements in a mutually enhancing rather than mutually exclusionary manner. The difference between successful contrast and mere dismissal will determine an entity’s relative role in the transmission of feelings constituting the broader field of processes transcendent to the entity. An entity that achieves effective contrasts, and hence greater intensive integration of its world, will be more fully situated and influential in the world that emerges subsequent to that entity and inclusive of that entity as “the many become one and are increased by one,” expressing the ultimately creative character of reality that Whitehead captures in the statement, “It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity” (PR 21).

Thus it is critical to understand the texture of feeling characterizing how diverse entities “enter into complex unity” or contrastive unification. Whitehead outlines four basic conditions of contrastive feeling, which I have elsewhere labelled “structual conditions” of intensity, because they describe a sense of background and foreground arrangement of elements for integration in the concrescence.[4] The full array of contrastive feelings issuing in an intensive complex of feeling is called the “satisfaction” of an entity. “Satisfaction” marks the “closing up” of an entity as its capacities for contrastive/intensive unification are exhausted. While I will return later to the ontological status of satisfactions in terms of intensity issues, here I will quickly sketch the four structural conditions of intensive feeling outlined in Whitehead’s discussion in PR of how satisfactions may be “classified,” or more generally, characterized. The four conditions affecting intensity of contrast are triviality, vagueness, narrowness, and width. Collectively these four notions describe the degree of “depth of feeling” achieved in a concrescence. Later I will argue that the notion of “depth of feeling” is a critical verbal clue to the necessity of not divorcing the force of feeling from the ontological nature of feelings as existences.

Triviality and vagueness are complementary descriptions of how and to what extent data for concrescence are differentiated from one another. Triviality names the degree of excess of differentiation among the data to be integrated, and Whitehead notes that it “arises from lack of coordination in the factors of the datum, so that no feeling arising from one factor is reinforced by any feeling arising from another factor” (PR 111). This is, more simply, a naming of the degree of failure to contrast elements in the actual world of the entity. Rather than contrastive enhancement, the elements stand as mere diversities with no mutually reinforcing effect. C just feels A, C just feels B, but neither A nor B nor their common occurrence in C is enhanced by the mere coincidence of feeling. “Vagueness,” on the other hand, refers to the degree of non-differentiation among data for concrescence. Like triviality, it marks a failure of contrast, but for opposite reasons: “In the datum the objectifications of various actual entities are replicas with faint coordination of perspective contrast. Under these conditions the contrasts between the various objectifications are faint, and there is deficiency in the supplementary feeling discriminating the objects from each other” (PR 111). Vagueness blurs differentia in items for feeling, while triviality differentiates to an extreme. Thus, the right balance of vagueness and triviality will betoken a balancing of available elements in the complex of feeling being pursued as “subjective aim at intensity.” This balance will affect the appropriate complexity internal to the concrescence by including as much genuine diversity as possible without trivialization of mere difference, and by allowing a vague blurring of relatively irrelevant background detail against which a focal center of value-novelty may emerge.

Narrowness and width refer to the overall arrangement or balance of the factors included vaguely, trivially, or in any combination thereof, but in addition to referring to arrangement they also mark the content of the feelings that are included. Narrowness expresses something of a condition of “elegance,” a simplification in a common unity of a range of detailed content. With the bold claim that “Intensity is the reward of narrowness,” Whitehead drives home the idea of aesthetic unification of complex diversity as the basic goal of process. Just what is narrowly/intensively arranged? A great “width” of genuinely diverse content. While triviality might be said to measure the degree of diversity, width may be said to describe the actual content-diversity thus measured. While vagueness may betoken a dismissal of excess variety, narrowness expresses how variety is felt as a coherent diversity under some ideal of simplicity of integration. Much as a narrow beam of light focuses a wide array of light trajectories as one, a narrow satisfaction has balanced the feelings that have been positively and diversely included in the aesthetic unity of the subject.

One way of understanding the concerted roles of triviality, vagueness, narrowness and width is to imagine them as the factors that determine the focal foreground in the subjective becoming-determinate of an entity, against a background of relative degrees of differentiated context. In this manner, we can see in PR the continuation of the ground/consequent model developed in RM, where an entity emerges as a significant novelty against a background of conditions that made the foreground of that entity possible and appropriate just there. With this “perspective” model of the accomplishment of novel becoming in mind, we can turn to the ontological consideration of “intensity” in Whitehead’s mature scheme.

4. Intensity and Whitehead’s Ontology

I mentioned earlier that there were peculiarities evident in the categoreal statement about “subjective intensity” in as much the statement forwards “the seemingly paradoxical notion that an entity that is in the process of becoming (and thus is not yet a fully determinate subject) nonetheless has a relevant future felt with effective intensity in the present becoming of the entity despite its incompletion.” How exactly can something that is not strictly a fully determinate being nonetheless have a future that is capable of being felt as part of the becoming-determinate of that very entity from which that future is to be derived? This is either howlingly bad logic on Whitehead’s part, or a sign that we have left the realm of thinking about “individual existence” that has typified our logic and ontology for centuries. I believe we have a fairly clear statement that the cosmology of PR evidences the latter:

It is fundamental to the metaphysical doctrine of the philosophy of organism, that the notion of an actual entity as the unchanging subject of change is completely abandoned. An actual entity is at once the subject experiencing and the superject of its experiences. It is subject-superject, and neither half of this description can for a moment be lost sight of (PR 29, emphasis added).

In other words, the idea that an entity has to be a finished and subsequently unchanging individuality in order to be the kind of thing whose transcendent future is meaningful to it, or to be the kind of thing that is meaningful to the transcendent future (a superject), is rejected. While I suspect that this thinking is not without problems, it does demand that we eschew any sharp ontological distinctions between present becoming and past/future resonances of that becoming. The conceptual scheme built around the notion of “intensity” is Whitehead’s route of abandoning an ontology of unchanging finished facts once and for all.

To understand this strange transformation in ontological conception, it is once again important for our discussion to recur to some fundamental notions. In its most basic sense, a concrescence is the intensive appropriation in a present entity (subject) of the intensive satisfactions (superjects) achieved by/in/as prior actualities (which are only to be understood as the subjects whose transcendent future the present actualities belong to). It is tempting to think that the avowedly atomic model of becoming in PR entails a view that the properly “actual” entities in the strictest ontological sense are those that are present subjects in process of becoming, and only that; and, correspondingly, to think that the present appropriation of an “object” (past actuality or superject) is a fundamentally different thing than the pastness of the actualities so appropriated. In fact, such a view is demanded by some scholars in order to render Whitehead’s ontological atomism consistent with itself.[5] To such critics, the description of “past” entities as in any way enjoying the “activity” or “agency” of present becoming is simply a mistake on Whitehead’s part, to be rejected in favor of a fully consistent atomism which restricts agency to the present subjectivity of present entities in process of concrescence, while denying agency of the “concreta” of becoming, or past entities.

However, this version of a “consistent atomism” is contrary to the expressed intentions of the kind of atomism the philosophy of organism is designed to embrace, as we have met it briefly in some of Whitehead’s statements quoted above. If an entity is always to be considered “subject-superject,” and if present becoming is intrinsically affected by anticipatory feelings of a future to be derived from that becoming, then the sharp ontological distinction between present and past, or present and future, must be rejected in favor of a conceptuality that can blend these perspectives without reducing them to one another in some kind of monism in which time and space are merely phenomenal. Conceiving entities in terms of their “intensities” is the solution, if there is one, to this problem.

A concrescence is a complex contrastive unification of feelings—an aesthetic unification of diverse elements in light of an integrating ideal (subjective aim) of how those diverse elements might be brought together just here and now in the continuum of processes constituting reality. The ultimate aesthetic union of the elements of feeling—both those obtained through the physical feeling of entities (superjects) in the actual world of the subject entity, and those conceptual feelings enlisted to effect the integration of possibilities emerging as the creative subject in question—is an intensity, a balanced complexity of contrasts. We must bear in mind that those entities being felt by the present subject are also nothing but intensities—organized agencies of feeling having achieved “satisfaction” or the balancing of considerations of triviality, vagueness, narrowness and width. To be a superject is to be a subject-superject, an intensive ordering of aesthetic, intensive elements which impose themselves on and in subsequent actualities which were, in the subjective process of those superjects initiation as intensities, the “relevant future” of those actualities. This notion captures a fundamental commitment that was in place as early as Science and the Modern World, where Whitehead wrote:

The endurance of things has its significance in the self-retention of that which imposes itself as a definite attainment for its own sake. That which endures is limited, obstructive, intolerant, infecting the environment with its own aspects. But it is not self-sufficient. The aspects of all things enter into its very nature. It is only itself as drawing together into its own limitation the larger whole in which it finds itself. Conversely it is only itself by lending its aspects to this same environment in which it finds itself. The problem of evolution is the development of enduring harmonies of enduring shapes of value, which merge into higher attainments of things beyond themselves. Aesthetic attainment is interwoven into the texture of realization (SMW 94).

It is my contention that a proper understanding of the version of ontological atomism or pluralism espoused by the philosophy of organism requires a non-metaphorical understanding of this passage; that is, it requires that the claim that “aesthetic attainment is interwoven into the texture of realization” really means that the intensities achieved (attained) in each subjective process actually do infect their environments, partially constituting the internal features of other entities in those environments. Agentive intensities become features of other agentive intensities, and are not merely externally referenced by them. The interweaving is actual, not phenomenal, in each entity and in all of them communally. The demand that an entity can only be itself as it is appropriated by and in other entities is a rejection of ontological discreteness in what is nonetheless self-conscious atomism. Thus, processive atomism does not preclude the lending and borrowing—the mutual penetration or interweaving, in other words—of felt harmonies. It does preclude notions of exclusive individuality of existence inherited from substantialist metaphysics.

Intensity helps us cash out this notion of the subjective-superjective interweaving of aesthetic achievement by framing our conception in terms of the immediate texture of aesthetic contrast, rather than the abstractions about individuality that lead surreptitiously to the presumption of separated individuality more appropriate to a substance model than a processive one. If we bear in mind that the satisfied entity that is superjectively (objectively) available to subsequent actualities is nothing but an intensive harmony of feelings, we are free to say that that entity per se is present wherever and whenever that intensity manifests itself in its relevant future. Likewise, we see the emergence of that entity by looking at the prior actualities out of which it emerges and whose intensities have woven themselves into/as its aesthetic fabric.

Two additional observations will help underscore the way in which intensity helps us understand the peculiar ontological properties of an emergent aesthetic harmony. First, we can hearken to claims made about entities as transcendent creators in Adventures of Ideas, the text immediately following Process and Reality in Whitehead’s development of his system. In Adventures of Ideas (AI), Whitehead describes actual entities as “provoking” features of their subsequent worlds (AI 176), and describes creativity as “the throbbing emotion of the past hurling itself into a new transcendent fact” (AI 177). In AI, the entire subject-object relation as it is enfolded into the processive description of actuality is cashed out in terms of the active provocation of the future by the past: “The subject-object relation can be conceived as Recipient and Provoker, where the fact provoked is an affective tone about the status of the provoker in the provoked experience. Also the total provoked occasion is a totality involving many such examples of provocation” (AI 176). Construing these claims in intensive terms allows us to understand how subjects can be in other subjects and yet remain themselves: if an entity as Provoker is essentially an intensity of contrasts, we can say that that entity is itself present in the Recipient agentively, so as to be Provoker of that new subject. Being an object is a mode of being a subject, if we understand the aesthetic texture of entities in exclusively intensive language. To be an object is to be an operative intensity constituting a dimension of the operative intensities of a novel subject; it is not ontologically separate from being the subject of the intensity that is being thus incorporated in a subsequent actuality. In this way we can better absorb the sense in which an entity is simultaneously subject/superject—the distinction between these is phasic, and not existential. The subject/superject distinction is the difference between an intensity and a repetition of an intensity in the aesthetic realization of a subsequent entity.

This leads us to the second consideration that helps to drive home the shape of this internally-relational atomism as intensively construed. Concrescence describes the emergence of the subject in the strongest possible sense of emergence: the subject emerges from the concrescence and does not in any way “underlie” it except in terms of the ideal of subjective aim energizing possibilities towards realization of the subject as superject. Whitehead writes,

The operations of an organism are directed towards the organism as a ‘superject,’ and are not directed from the organism as a ‘subject.’ The operations are directed from antecedent organisms and to the immediate organism. They are ‘vectors,’ in that they convey the many things into the constitution of the single superject. The creative process is rhythmic: it swings from the publicity of many things to the individual privacy; and it swings back from the private individual to the publicity of the objectified individual. The former swing is dominated by the final cause, which is the ideal; and the latter swing is dominated by the efficient cause, which is actual (PR 151).

Here I think it fair to think of the “operations of an organism” as the agentive, active dimension of their actuality per se. We are being instructed to think of these operations as aiming at the superject rather than their being the activities of the subject. In other words, the subject just is what it will be as appropriated by subsequent actualities. We should note, too, that this model should be extended to describe how the emergent entity emerged from its past, which is part of how it is emerging into its future. Intensively construed, again, this makes more sense than if we use the abstractions of individuality handed down in the substance tradition. A thing’s nature is nothing but an aesthetic mode of organization; that mode is present wherever that organization—the “operations of some organism”—are at work. An entity is an intensity that can be traced through all three of the temporal modes into which our conceptuality carves itself: past, present, future. We would have no entity to identify as an individual atom of any kind in the absence of this traceable trajectory of intensive contrast, emerging from an array of actualities and possibilities into further arrays of actualities and possibilities which its emergence helps to explain.

Thus, it seems to be the case that the concept of “intensity” puts us on our guard against a substantializing of the present at the expense of the ontological status of past and future. Despite much talk of the intersection of the temporal modes in Whitehead’s model of internally related occasions, there is nonetheless a marked tendency in process literature to lionize the present as the definitive scene of actuality. But this lionizing undermines the “vibratory” character of existence qua intensity that Whitehead is building in a model where a subject only comes to be as aiming at its superjective status in the transcendent future. To be this present subject will be to be that future superjective influence in the world, and will have been to be the provocations that call forth these additional modes of provocation. I have elsewhere called this model an “ecstatic” characterization of existence, helpfully underscored by reading nothing into the ontology of an entity except the intensity of contrast that is the fully clothed feeling-complex of the emerging satisfaction.[6] An entity qua atomic occasion of contrast is present wherever and whenever the identifiable thread of intensive order is recognized such that we have occasion to postulate a subject or actuality in the first place. Intensive actuality might best be construed as “ecstatic” in order to break down the conceptual habits associated with individuality in substantialist thinking.

5. Intensity and Morality

We noted that the categoreal introduction of intensity in PR included a reference to morality, which is notable given the relative scarcity of explicit claims about morality in Whitehead’s work. Despite the unremittingly axiological focus in his philosophy, Whitehead never developed an explicit ethics to go along with the metaphysical vision of the philosophy of organism. It is fitting to end the present essay by unfolding the intensive dimensions of moral reflection as Whitehead presents them. It is important to bear in mind, however, that the intensive discussion of morality is not a moral theory of any kind, as much as a description of some crucial dimensions of moral experience per se. We might work toward developing an ethical theory based on the concept of intensity, but such a philosophical application is not accomplished by Whitehead himself.

In the Category of Subjective Intensity, and in our subsequent discussion, we have seen the importance of the relevant future in the characterization of the present intensive experience of a subject in concrescence. In the Categoreal statement we saw Whitehead observe that “The greater part of morality hinges on the determination of relevance in the future.” Morality is, in other words, a question about the intensive significance of present becoming in the future that will be derived from that present and which presently impinges on the felt contours of becoming. This does not in and of itself settle questions about the good, or normativity, or evil, but it does suggest a direction for our consideration of our actions in light of their internal intensive connection to the past (any future has a past in the present) and to the future. Indeed, Whitehead points out that moral experience is perhaps richly indicative of the kind of internal connectivity outlined above between entities and their transcendent future, when explaining what he means in saying that the feelings “aim at the feeler” rather than being aimed from the feeler: “In our own relatively high grade human existence, this doctrine of feelings and their subject is best illustrated by our notion of moral responsibility. The subject is responsible for being what it is in virtue of its feelings. It is also derivatively responsible for the consequences of its existence because they flow from its feelings” (PR 222).

Intensity and responsibility are, thus, correlative notions. The integration of feelings effected as intensity of satisfaction for any given entity is simultaneously a determination of that entity’s existential role in future intensive satisfactions. An entity is agent/responsible wherever its intensity is realized. Again, this does not specifically norm our agentive actions, but it does suggest that the mere experience of responsibility is evidence of the capacity to be normed, to some extent at least, by the sheer fact of ecstatic intensive significance. That I experience the insinuation of my own intensities of satisfaction in situations transcendent of myself, is already an indication of realities beyond my mundane conception of myself as an alleged “individual” in which I am morally implicated. This begins to break down the binary opposition of “individual self” and “other” which has typified moral discourse at least since the advent of modernity.

Notions of normativity enter into Whitehead’s discussion of the transcendent creative dimension of process in the form of a demand for “importance” in Modes of Thought. “Morality consists in the control of process so as to maximize importance. It is the aim at greatness of experience in the various dimensions belonging to it.… Morality is always the aim at that union of harmony, intensity and vividness which involves the perfection of importance for that occasion” (MT 13-14), though general notions of “control of process” also enters the discussion of the moral contours of experience in PR and AI. As early as RM, morality is fashioned as a concern to preserve finer intensities at the expense of lesser, narrower values that might be achieved in those creative actions over which we have some determinate control. Thus, Whitehead’s appeal to “greatness of experience” in MT marks a fairly persistent interest in the enrichment of experience as a primary goal of moral consideration. The role of the concepts associated with “intensity” in shaping our judgments about what might constitute maximum importance, or realization of value, is clear here: our capacity to direct intensive achievement towards maximal inclusiveness of value through the right balance of triviality, vagueness, narrowness and width, oriented towards eliciting “depth” of satisfaction, will determine the shape and scope of our transcendent creation of the future.[7] By themselves these considerations will not tell us what we should do in the strictly normative sense, but they will outline a good deal about what it means in the way of value achievement that we do one thing or another.

6. Conclusion

Subjective intensity is simultaneously a technical systematic notion, and an extrapolation from ordinary experience—especially moral experience—for the purpose of elaborating a metaphysical vision that is both coherent in its detail and applicable to the human domain in which it emerges. It expresses the aesthetic unity of feeling constituting reality as process, as well as the ontological connectivity of the actualities emerging in process.


[1] A Treatise on Universal Algebra, With Applications (New York: Hafner, 1960).

[2] See Lewis S. Ford, The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New York: SUNY, 1984).

[3] See Process and Reality, Part IV, 332-333.

[4] See my Intensity: An Essay in Whiteheadian Ontology, “Chapter One: Intensity of Satisfaction” (Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 1998).

[5] See for example the excellent summary discussion of these issues by George Kline in the essay, “Form, Concrescence, Concretum,” in Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy, edited by Lewis S. Ford and George L. Kline, 104-108 (New York: Fordham University Press, 1986).

[6] Jones, 1998.

[7] Some of the best discussion of the moral applications (as well as epistemic and metaphysical applications) of these “structural conditions” of intensity are to be found in the work of Robert Neville. See his Reconstruction of Thinking, Recovery of the Measure, and The Puritan Smile.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Ford, Lewis S. 1984. The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics 1925-1929 (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Jones, Judith A. 1998. Intensity: An Essay in Whiteheadian Ontology. (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press).

Kline, George L. 1983. “Form, Concrescence, Concretum.” In Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy, edited by Lewis S. Ford and George L. Kline, 104-108. (New York: Fordham University Press).

Neville, Robert C. 1981. Reconstruction of Thinking. (Albany: State University of New York Press).

Neville, Robert C. 1987. The Puritan Smile. (Albany: State University of New York Press).

Neville, Robert C. 1989. Recovery of the Measure: Interpretation and Nature (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Author Information

Judith Jones
Society for the Study of Process Philosophy and Fordham University

How to Cite this Article

Jones, Judith, “Intensity and Subjectivity”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.