The Mystery of Creativity

1. The Principle of Creativity

Creativity is the ultimate principle in Whitehead’s philosophy. This is clear from the opening chapter of his magnum opus, Process and Reality. Whitehead advances a general dictum concerning all philosophical systems, and then he applies this dictum to the basic concepts in his own system:

In all philosophical theory there is an ultimate which is actual in virtue of its accidents. It is only then capable of characterization through its accidental embodiments, and apart from these accidents is devoid of actuality. In the philosophy of organism this ultimate is termed ‘creativity,’ and God is its primordial, non-temporal accident (PR 7).

Whitehead goes on to say that we cannot claim that the ultimate [creativity] is more real than its “accidents” are, by which he means the “attributes” or particular “instantiations” of creativity, namely, the individual actual entities. Instead, Whitehead holds that actual entities are the basic facts in the universe and that creativity has no actuality of its own in abstraction from the actual entities in which it is embodied. This is what distinguishes Whitehead from an ontological monist such as Spinoza, who grants superior actuality to his ultimate, God or Nature. By contrast, Whitehead is firmly committed to ontological pluralism. Actual entities are his basic particulars, and he recognizes a plurality of these actual entities.

Even when he proclaims creativity to be the ultimate principle in his metaphysics, there is a tension in Whitehead’s thought. If creativity is the ultimate principle, then why does it depend upon actual entities for its actuality? Whitehead is clear about the type of ontological monism he wants to avoid, but he is not as clear about the alternative viewpoint he espouses. More generally, what is the exact relationship between the ultimate principle of creativity and the ultimate units of fact (actual entities) in Whitehead’s thought? This is a question that has vexed many commentators on Whitehead’s metaphysics.

Indeed, there is an element of mystery surrounding Whitehead’s principle of creativity. It is difficult to say positive things about creativity just because of its universality and ultimacy. Whitehead frames this issue as follows:

Creativity is without a character of its own in exactly the same sense in which Aristotelian ‘matter’ is without a character of its own. It is that ultimate notion of the highest generality at the base of actuality. It cannot be characterized, because all characters are more special than itself (PR 31).

The implication is that we cannot make any positive claims about what creativity is in its own right. Creativity is completely formless and indeterminate in itself; in this sense, it is analogous to Plato’s Receptacle in the Timaeus, although Whitehead himself never uses this analogy to illuminate creativity. Furthermore, creativity is not an actual entity, nor indeed any other kind of entity that Whitehead recognizes in his metaphysical system. Instead, Whitehead claims that “creativity,” “one,” and “many” are “the ultimate notions involved in the meaning of the synonymous terms ‘thing,’ ‘being,’ and ‘entity’” (PR 21). This indicates that creativity is the ground behind all specific entities in Whitehead’s system; indeed, he often refers to creativity as his “ultimate principle” (PR 21). Whitehead adds the qualification that creativity is not “an external agency with its own ulterior purposes” (PR 222). It is not an agent in the scene of world history alongside the multitude of actual entities which are constantly coming into being and then perishing into the past. Nonetheless, in another passage in Process and Reality, Whitehead refers to creativity as the “pure notion of the activity” which the actual entities condition and characterize when they come into being (PR 31); here he seems to indicate that there is indeed a positive way to talk about creativity. In some sense it is an agency, as Jan Van der Veken correctly observes; it is an “internal agency” that is intrinsic to each actual entity in which it is embodied (Van der Veken 1990, 182). Moreover, as I will later argue, creativity is not just an “internal” or “immanent” agency but also a “transcendent” agency, although not an “external” one with purposes of its own. Thus, we already see that an air of mystery or paradox surrounds Whitehead’s principle of creativity. In one sense, we cannot say what it is, and in another sense we can.[1]

The situation becomes even more complicated when we consider works other than Process and Reality. It is well recognized that Whitehead makes much stronger claims about the metaphysical status of creativity in Science and the Modern World. There he speaks of creativity as a “substantial activity” which is individualized into a multiplicity of “modes,” each of which is a single actual entity (SMW 177-78). Here Whitehead explicitly invites a comparison of creativity with Spinoza’s infinite substance, Deus sive Natura. Although he does not call his substantial activity “creativity” in this work, it is clear that it has all the functions that creativity assumes in his later writings.

Whitehead first uses the term “creativity” in Religion in the Making; indeed, Lewis Ford reports that Whitehead may have coined this term, which has subsequently been used to refer primarily to human creativeness (Ford 1987, 179). Be that as it may, Whitehead no longer describes creativity as a “substantial activity.” Instead, it now becomes one of the three “formative elements” which account for the existence the actual temporal world, and its main function is to serve as the principle of novelty (RM 90). Whitehead cites creativity as the reason behind the temporal passage in the actual world, but he is careful to emphasize the interdependency between the principle of creativity and the individual actual entities in which it instantiates itself. Whitehead also introduces the notion of “transition” in his account of creativity (RM 92); this will become a crucial aspect of the creative process that he describes in Process and Reality.

When we get to Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead again seems to change his attitude toward the nature of creativity. Here he gives a positive characterization of creativity as the “factor of activity” (AI 179) in the world, although he does not describe it as “substantial” anymore. He also assigns to creativity the function of “driv[ing] the world” (AI 179). Perhaps his best-known description of creativity is as follow:

The creativity of the world is the throbbing emotion of the past hurling itself into a new transcendent fact. It is the flying dart, of which Lucretius speaks, hurled beyond the bounds of the world (AI 177).

There may indeed be a rhetorical flourish to this passage, as Lewis Ford suspects (Ford 1987, 183). Nonetheless, it is clear that Whitehead now grants a stronger role to creativity in explaining the ongoingness of the universe than he does in his more cautious statements from Process and Reality. Furthermore, the passages from Adventures of Ideas emphatically affirm the active and energetic nature of creativity, in contrast with the weaker descriptions of creativity as a “metaphysical principle” in Religion in the Making and Process and Reality. It seems as though Whitehead was not satisfied with the more limited role of creativity in Process and Reality and accordingly decided to add greater “life and motion” to his ultimate principle.

2. Three Interpretations of Creativity

Our next task will be to consider a representative sample of prominent interpretations of creativity in the literature on Whitehead. To organize this survey, I will focus on the “metaphysical description” that Whitehead presents in Chapter III of Religion in the Making. There he makes a significant distinction between the actual temporal world and the formative elements that are presupposed by this world. The actual temporal world consists of the procession of actual entities that come into being and then perish into the past. Whitehead calls these basic units of reality “epochal occasions” in Religion in the Making, but this is simply another term for what he will later call “actual entities.” He also describes these actual entities as the “creatures” of creativity. They are the final facts of which the actual temporal world is composed (RM 91).

The first of the formative elements is creativity. Whitehead claims that creativity is the reason behind the “temporal passage to novelty” (RM 90) that forms such a prominent feature of the actual world. The second formative element is the realm of ideal entities, or forms, “which are in themselves not actual, but are such that they are exemplified in everything that is actual, according to some proportion of relevance” (RM 90). These are the entities that Whitehead will later call “eternal objects.” The third formative element is a non-temporal actual entity that imposes order and harmony on the temporal world; it does this by making certain eternal objects in the realm of possibility relevant to each new actual entity that arises. This non-temporal actual entity is what Whitehead calls God. In Religion in the Making, Whitehead refers exclusively to the primordial nature of God; he has not yet concluded that God must also have a consequent nature that develops along with the unfolding of the actual temporal world.

I have concentrated upon Whitehead’s metaphysical analysis in Religion in the Making in order to establish a framework for situating the most prominent interpretations of creativity. My thesis is that some commentators have sought to interpret creativity as an eternal object, while others have sought to conflate the function of creativity with the function of God. The most common interpretation, however, seeks to treat creativity as merely a generic character of actual entities. Creativity is thought to designate the fact that each actual entity is self-creative or causa sui. Accordingly, these commentators have sought to minimize the role of creativity and to maximize the role of actual entities in Whitehead’s metaphysics. I consider all three interpretations to be deficient in some way and will highlight their deficiencies in the sections that follow.

2.1. Creativity as Eternal Object?

The first interpretation we will consider claims that creativity should be seen as an eternal object that every actual entity must illustrate as it comes into being. What Whitehead calls “eternal objects” are more commonly designated as “forms” or “universals.” Whitehead also describes eternal objects as “Pure Potentials for the Specific Determination of Fact” and as “Forms of Definiteness” (PR 22). Both A.H. Johnson and R.J. Connelly defend the view that creativity should be interpreted as the universal characteristic which every actual entity must exemplify; this is what distinguishes creativity from the other eternal objects.[2] There is textual support for this interpretation in the language Whitehead uses to describe creativity when he places it into the Category of the Ultimate:

‘Creativity’ is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact. It is that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively. It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity (PR 21, emphasis added).

To speak of creativity as the “universal of universals” certainly seems to align it with the eternal objects, which Whitehead at times calls “universals,” even though he dislikes this term. This designation also indicates that creativity occupies a special place in the realm of forms, in that it must always be exhibited by every novel actual entity.

Johnson also provides anecdotal evidence to indicate that Whitehead himself agreed with his interpretation of the relationship between creativity and eternal objects. Johnson came to Harvard in 1936 to talk with Whitehead about various aspects of his metaphysics. Whitehead agreed to meet with him weekly in a tutorial session in his home, and Johnson presented him with a typed “basis for discussion” each week. Johnson provides a partial transcript of his discussion with Whitehead entitled “Some Conversations with Whitehead Concerning God and Creativity” (Johnson 1983, 3-13). Whitehead indicates general agreement with Johnson’s interpretation of creativity in these discussions. Johnson also provides a photostatic reproduction of some marginal notes Whitehead made on the rough draft of a manuscript he showed to Whitehead in 1937. Here again, Whitehead often signals his agreement with Johnson’s interpretation and (more importantly) does not offer many objections to it.

Nonetheless, there are powerful reasons for rejecting the view of Johnson and Connelly that creativity should be seen as an exceptional eternal object. In his Categoreal Scheme in Process and Reality, Whitehead explicitly states that “creativity is the ultimate behind all forms, inexplicable by forms, and conditioned by its creatures [the individual actual entities]” (PR 20). It is difficult to see how creativity can be an eternal object (form) if it is indeed the ultimate behind all forms which resists all explanation by reference to forms (eternal objects). Indeed, throughout Process and Reality, Whitehead consistently places creativity into contrast with both actual entities and eternal objects (see especially PR 212f.). Likewise, in his “metaphysical description” in Religion in the Making, Whitehead distinguishes between the actual temporal world and the formative elements presupposed by this world. Here he explicitly contrasts creativity with what he calls the “realm of ideal entities, or forms” (RM 90), the entities he later calls “eternal objects.”

I conclude that it is a mistake to think of creativity as some sort of exceptional eternal object. Whatever else creativity might be, it is clearly a dynamic activity that stands in opposition to the forms or eternal objects. In fact, creativity drives the universe forward by taking on the character of the actual entities which have come into being and perished into the past. This stands in stark contrast to the passive (or potential) nature of the eternal objects. Of course, it is possible to form a conception, “creativity,” which serves as an abstract representation of this dynamic creative activity. This conception could accurately be described as an eternal object that represents this activity in symbolic fashion. Nonetheless, this is quite different from the much stronger claim that creativity is nothing but an abstract property that characterizes all actual entities.

2.2. Creativity and God

The next view we will consider emphasizes the metaphysical importance of God in Whitehead’s system in contrast with that of creativity. This view has been advanced by Charles Hartshorne and John Cobb. Hartshorne discusses the relationship between God and creativity in his influential essay, “Whitehead’s Idea of God.” There he argues that, despite some of Whitehead’s statements to the contrary, creativity should not be considered as an ultimate metaphysical ground beyond the self-creative decisions made by God and other actual entities. Instead, creativity is merely the “common property” or “generic name” for the various activities of specific actual entities. According to Hartshorne, creativity is merely an abstraction from the creative decisions that all actual entities make, a claim which comes strikingly close to Johnson’s description of creativity as an eternal object. Hartshorne concludes with the robust claim that “all creativity belongs to God.” By this, he means that God is creative both in his primordial valuation of all the eternal objects and in his reception of the outcomes of the activities of all finite actual entities into his consequent nature (Hartshorne 1941, 528). Hartshorne proceeds to exalt God at the same time at which he devalues creativity. Whereas creativity is merely an abstraction, God is the supreme existent which contains all truths within his nature. Hartshorne recognizes that each finite actual entity has its own measure of self-creativity, and in this sense each finite actual entity transcends God. Nonetheless, he claims that God enjoys and possesses the decisions of each finite actual entity in his consequent nature, and in this sense God is the supreme instance of creative activity in the universe.

John Cobb makes an even stronger claim about God’s role in directing the actual course of events in the temporal world. In particular, he points to the decisive role that God plays in providing the initial subjective aim for each new actual entity. Cobb argues that the initial aim is actually the “initiating principle” for the new occasion. Here he contrasts the role of the initial aim and the initial data, which are passive objects that must be appropriated by the activity of the new occasion. Cobb concludes:

For these reasons we may properly think of the initial aim as the originating element in each new occasion. Since Whitehead regards God as the sole ground of the initial aim, he systematically attributes to God the all-decisive role in the creation of each new occasion, although he draws back from so strong a formulation [Cobb 1965, 205].

Cobb does add some qualifications to the role of God as creator. Most importantly, he acknowledges that the initial aim does not determine how a new actual entity responds to its data; instead, the new actuality makes its own creative response to its data, and in doing so it may modify the aim it has received from God. Moreover, God does not create the complex eternal object that he presents to a new actual entity as the ideal for its own process of concrescence.

Cobb goes on to claim that creativity cannot explain why there is anything at all or why process is ongoing in the universe. This is because creativity is merely another expression for the change or the process in the world. The mere acknowledgement of process does not explain why various processes have taken place in the past or why they must continue to do so in the future. To give a reason for these general features of reality, Whitehead must appeal to God’s decisive action in initiating the becoming of each new actual entity in the temporal world. Cobb concludes, “God’s role in creation is more radical and fundamental than Whitehead’s own language usually suggests” (Cobb 1965, 211f.).

Gene Reeves presents some persuasive reasons for rejecting Cobb’s view of the relationship between God and creativity. He agrees with Cobb’s claim that creativity cannot be the decisive reason why new actual entities come into being. Nonetheless, it does not follow from this that God is the decisive reason for the creation of a new actual entity. God is surely an important factor behind the coming-into-being of a new actual entity, since God supplies its initial subjective aim. Nonetheless, past actual entities are also necessary to explain the existence of new actual entities, since they supply the “initial data” to which the new concrescence must conform. Reeves concludes that Cobb claims too much when he asserts that God has an “all-decisive” role in the creation of new actual entities (see Reeves 1983, 242-47).

I should mention that Cobb has modified his view of the relationship between God and creativity since the publication of A Christian Natural Theology. In response to his critics, he has recognized God and creativity as dual ultimates, and at times he has even added the world of finite actual entities as a third ultimate. This view is extensively developed and explained in Deep Religious Pluralism, edited by David Ray Griffin, a book of essays which incorporates a Whitehead-based approach to religious diversity (see especially Griffin 2005, 44-51). Also, Cobb has outlined his view of these three ultimates in a draft which he sent me of a revised version of the section on “Creativity and God” for a new edition of A Christian Natural Theology.

The view that creativity, God, and the actual temporal world are equally ultimate for Whitehead is a much more defensible position. In fact, Whitehead says in one passage that “creativity,” “God,” and the “temporal creatures” are meaningless in abstraction from one another (PR 225). This exemplifies the criterion of coherence that Whitehead thinks should govern metaphysical systems; the fundamental concepts should be meaningful only when viewed in their interrelatedness. However, there are still reasons for questioning Cobb’s discernment of three ultimates. Throughout Process and Reality, Whitehead sets God and the actual temporal world into contrast with creativity. For example, one passage asserts that both God and the temporal world are “in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty” (PR 349). Here Whitehead explicitly uses the term “ultimate” to characterize creativity rather than God and the world of finite actual entities. In other passages he speaks of God (and a fortiori of finite actual entities) as an “accident” of creativity (PR 7) and a “creature” of creativity (PR 31). Cobb’s view that Whitehead really has three ultimates must face the challenge of explaining why we should not take Whitehead’s statements concerning the ultimacy of creativity at face value.

2.3. Creativity and Actual Entities

We will now consider the prevalent view that creativity is merely a generic feature of actual entities. This view is expressed with great clarity by William Christian and Ivor Leclerc. There are numerous passages in Process and Reality that suggest such an interpretation. Although Whitehead calls creativity his “ultimate” principle, he is quick to add that creativity does not have “final” or “eminent” reality in comparison with its “accidents,” which are the individual actual entities (see PR 7, quoted in Section 1 above). Instead, these “accidents” become the “sheer actualities” of the universe, and it is only in virtue of its embodiment in actual entities that creativity has any actuality at all (PR 7). Unlike Spinoza’s God, creativity is not a substance or an “entity” of any kind. Instead, it seems that “creativity” is simply Whitehead’s expression for the most general trait that all actual entities have in common. Because each actual entity is causa sui, each exhibits the same metaphysical character of being a particular instance of creative activity. Accordingly, the ultimacy of creativity seems to coincide with the ultimacy of the act of self-creation by which each actual entity comes into existence.

This is the interpretation that William Christian advances in his book and articles on Whitehead. Christian claims that creativity is a “pre-systematic” term which, for all purposes of “systematic explanation,” is superseded by the “systematic” terms that Whitehead introduces in his categories of existence, explanation, and obligation. By a “systematic” term, Christian means a term Whitehead uses to expound his metaphysical system in Part I of Process and Reality. “Pre-systematic” terms are those that describe the facts of everyday experience that Whitehead wants to interpret and explain in his metaphysical system (see Christian, 1961, 73-86). Christian sees creativity as merely an unanalyzed notion drawn from common sense that we need to elucidate by means of systematic concepts. Thus, he asserts, “all that can be said about creativity can be put into systematic statements about the concrescences of actual entities” (Christian 1964, 183ff.). If Christian’s claim is correct, then in principle we could eliminate the concept of creativity from Whitehead’s metaphysics. “Creativity” could be regarded as merely a shorthand expression for the creative activities of particular actual entities. For example, Christian proposes to replace the statement “Creativity is unending” by the statement “There is an infinite and unending multiplicity of actual entities” (Christian 1961, 80, note 19).

The problem with this proposal is that it does not clearly express the fact that novel actual entities are constantly coming into being. Yet this is certainly a fundamental feature of Whitehead’s doctrine of creativity (e.g., PR 21, 222). We need to be able to talk not just about the concrescences of particular actual entities but also about the transition from the completion of present actual entities to the becoming of future ones. Yet the concept of transition cannot be expressed solely in terms of the concrescences of individual actual entities, as Christian himself points out in discussing Whitehead’s categoreal scheme (see Christian 1963, 94ff.).

In view of these considerations, we must modify Christian’s original rule of translation to read: “Any statement about creativity can be translated without loss of meaning into a statement about the concrescences of actual entities and the transitions between actual entities.” For example, “Creativity is unending” could be replaced by, “There is an infinite multiplicity of actual entities such that each member comes into being through a process of concrescence and then perishes so as to be superseded by and prehended by novel members.” Such a translation would express, however awkwardly, Whitehead’s doctrine of the ongoingness of time.[3]

Yet we may ask whether even this translation captures all that Whitehead intends to express in his doctrine of creativity. Upon analysis, we find that it does tell us that individual actual entities engage in creative functionings. Whitehead refers to the concrescence of an actual entity as an activity of “self-creation” (PR 85). When an actual entity completes its subjective experience and perishes, it passes into its function of “other-formation” or other-creation (see AI 193) in relation to the actual entities which succeed it. Thus, our translation conveys the doctrine that many different creative activities take place in the universe. Yet statements about multiplicities of actual entities cannot express Whitehead’s further claim that self-creation and other-creation are two different exemplifications of one creative process which permeates the universe. This is the point at which Christian’s project of translation must fail.[4]

Ivor Leclerc’s interpretation of creativity is similar to Christian’s and is subject to the same objections. Leclerc sees creativity as an ultimate generic activity that is progressively instantiated in new actual entities. He correctly observes that Whitehead recognizes two kinds of process, which he terms “macroscopic process” (transition) and “microscopic process” (concrescence); however, he goes on to claim that concrescence is fundamental and transition is derivative. Accordingly, he shows how particular acts of concrescence can be seen as instances of the generic creative activity of the universe. Leclerc then claims that his version of creativity can explain how the universe is ongoing because its ultimate character is that of self-creative activity (see Leclerc 1958, 87-90). However, this account of ongoingness is inadequate; the creative activity exemplified in a present actual entity cannot explain why new instances of creative activity must emerge in the future. Therefore, Leclerc’s analysis cannot show why processes of concrescence must be followed by processes of transition, a point which is crucial to Whitehead’s view that the universe is a creative advance into novelty.

3. Creativity: A Monistic Interpretation

I will now present a positive interpretation of creativity that is designed to overcome the inadequacies of the interpretations discussed in the previous sections. This interpretation draws upon my previous articles and discussions in the literature by John Wilcox, Jorge Nobo, Jan Van der Veken, and Michel Weber. I will indicate my indebtedness to particular elements in their interpretations from time to time.

The notion of process or flux is the basic intuition drawn from human experience which Whitehead intends to elucidate in his metaphysical system. His constant aim in his writings is to take time seriously. In his systematic analysis of temporality, Whitehead distinguishes between two different forms of process in the universe (see PR 211ff., 214ff.). One kind of process is concrescence, which signifies the coming-into-being of a new actual entity. During concrescence, the new actual entity constructs a determinate experience for itself out of the data it receives from the past and from God. This is when the new actual entity functions as the cause of its own creative synthesis (causa sui); Whitehead speaks of this as the “subjective immediacy” of the actual entity. The other type of process is transition, which signifies the shift from the completion of old actual entities to the coming-into-being of new ones. By means of transition, the determinate actual entities of the past, which now exist in the mode of “objective immortality,” become the initial data for new processes of concrescence. It is my contention that both concrescence and transition can be seen as the two complementary aspects of creativity, the ultimate principle behind all process. If this is the case, then there is indeed a way in which we can appeal to creativity to explain both the novelty and the interrelatedness in the universe.

Concrescence is the growing together of many entities into a novel unit of experience, which is the new actual entity in its role of subjective immediacy. This is clear from Whitehead’s description of concrescence in the second category of explanation (PR 22). But creativity, as the principle of novelty, serves as the ontological ground of this “production of novel togetherness” (PR 21). Thus one role of creativity is that of an “underlying activity of realisation” (SMW 70) which individualizes itself into many specific instances of creative activity (i.e., the particular actual entities). In this way, Whitehead’s concept of creativity faithfully reflects the sense of the Latin verb creare, which means “to bring forth, beget, produce” (PR 213). The creative energy of the universe is constantly bringing forth new actual entities which synthesize the data they receive from the past and God.

Yet I contend that creativity plays another role in Whitehead’s system. In addition to its role as the principle behind particular acts of concrescence, creativity also serves as the receptacle for the products of these activities. Creativity is not activity alone, but rather “the pure notion of the activity conditioned by the objective immortality of the actual world” (PR 31, emphasis added). Actual entities that have perished subjectively function in their new role as objectively immortal “superjects” which “constitute the shifting character of creativity” (PR 32). Thus, Whitehead’s doctrine that creativity characterizes actuality (PR 21) must be complemented by the further doctrine that actuality characterizes creativity. Michel Weber uses an appropriate term to express Whitehead’s meaning; he says that creativity is “reticulated” by the actual entities of the past (Weber 2005). As each actual entity reaches completion, it impresses its own characteristics onto creativity and adds to the network that has been formed by the products of previous actual entities. These actual entities provide creativity with a “character” that it will have from that time forward, a character that is constantly “shifting” as more and more actual entities perish and contribute to the pattern of reticulation. These past actual entities impose conditions that limit the creativity of each succeeding generation of actual entities; they determine both the possibilities and the limitations for future processes of concrescence.

Creativity can receive the products of past concrescences because it is completely indeterminate or “protean” in itself (RM 92); it has no characteristics of its own that might distort the objectifications of past actual entities. In this sense, creativity is analogous to both Plato’s Receptacle and Aristotle’s prime matter. The main difference is that we cannot think of creativity as a passive receptacle, since activity is always a necessary feature of creativity (PR 31, AI 179). Instead, creativity must be conceived as a universal activity that “passes on” the products of previous concrescences as data to be synthesized by still more processes of concrescence. In this way, creativity serves as the ultimate ground behind the transition from the completion of old actual entities to the becoming of new ones. Transition is the link between the perishing of an actual entity’s “subjective immediacy” and its new role as an “immortal object” for subsequent concrescences. As Whitehead puts this point, “Thus perishing is the initiation of becoming. How the past perishes is how the future becomes” (AI 238).

Passages from Whitehead’s writings indicate that creativity is the principle behind transition as well as the principle behind concrescence. He defines transition as “[t]he creativity in virtue of which any relative complete actual world is, by the nature of things, the datum for a new concrescence” (PR 211). This definition clearly gives transition a role in the creative advance that is distinct from concrescence and complementary to it. Moreover, transition is just as important to the creative process as concrescence, as Jorge Luis Nobo contends in his persuasive account of transition in “Transition in Whitehead: A Creative Process Distinct from Concrescence” (Nobo 1979). By contrast, many other commentators overlook the significance of transition, possibly because Whitehead discusses concrescence much more than he discusses transition. Also, he sometimes uses non-technical terms, such as “passing over” (PR 85) or “passing on” (PR 213), to describe the process of transition. Yet the fact that Whitehead does not discuss transition extensively must not obscure its significance for his theory of temporal ongoingness. Transition processes are necessary to initiate new processes of concrescence, for the past must be transcended in order for the future to arise.

As Donald Sherburne points out, the two-fold nature of the creative advance can be succinctly expressed in terms of “one” and “many,” the two notions that appear in the category of the ultimate along with creativity (Sherburne 1961, 18-21; cf. Sherburne 1966, 32-35). In the concrescent phase of the creative process, the “many” entities in the universe at that moment become “one” through their synthesis in a new actual entity. There is thereby an advance from “disjunctive diversity” to “conjunctive” unity (PR 21). The final product of concrescence is a new actual entity, which adds one more entity to the “many” entities from which this process began. There is thereby a transition from conjunction to disjunction again. Consequently, Whitehead’s description of the creative advance is necessarily a dual one: “The many [entities] become one [entity], and are increased by one [entity]” (PR 21). The first clause of this statement expresses the movement of concrescence from disjunction [the initial data] to conjunction [the satisfaction], whereas the second clause expresses the transition from conjunction [the new actual entity] back to disjunction again [the initial data for a new concrescence]. Since we now have a new disjunction, the stage is set for creativity to produce a new concrescence. It is through this basic structural pattern that creativity drives the universe forward in an endless alternation between processes of concrescence and processes of transition.[5]

The interpretation of creativity I have outlined constitutes what John Wilcox describes as a monistic interpretation. That is, I claim that creativity has a reality of its own apart from the plurality of its instances, i.e., the actual entities in which it is instantiated. By contrast, the interpretations of Christian and Leclerc are pluralistic; they claim that creativity exists only in the plurality of actual entities through which it is actualized (see Wilcox, 1991a and 1991b). I am also in substantial agreement with Jorge Luis Nobo when he speaks of creativity as “an inexhaustible metaphysical energy at the base of all existence” (Nobo 1986, 175). Creativity is an eternal and universal activity that grounds both the concrescences of individual actual entities and the processes of transition that lead from one concrescence to the next. Nobo makes a fruitful distinction between “immanent creativity” (a term Whitehead rarely uses) and “transcendent creativity” (a term we often find in Whitehead: see PR 26, 43, 280). When an actual entity is coming-into-being through its process of concrescence, the universal creativity is immanent within that particular actual entity. This is when the actual entity exists as an experiencing subject with its own “subjective immediacy.” Nonetheless, there is a “principle of unrest” (PR 28, 32) which compels creativity to transcend that particular actual entity and instantiate itself in new processes of concrescence. This is the function of creativity in its transcendent role, when the particular actual entity in question has “perished” as an experiencing subject and become an object for future actual entities. Whitehead expresses this rhythmic process eloquently in a passage from Religion in the Making:

Accordingly, the creativity for a creature becomes the creativity with the creature, and thereby passes into another phase of itself. It is now the creativity for a new creature. Thus there is a transition of the creative action, and this transition exhibits itself, in the physical world, in the guise of routes of temporal succession (RM 92, emphasis added).

Here we see the intricate interplay between the transcendent creativity and the immanent creativity in relation to a particular actual entity, which I shall call A. The creativity for A (mentioned first in this passage) consists of the decisions made for A by all the actual entities in its causal past and God. This creative phase transcends A because it embodies a phase of activity which takes place prior to the concrescence of A. The creativity with A (mentioned next in this passage) consists of A’s self-creative activity in response to the data provided by its causal past and God. This phase of creative action is immanent in A and corresponds to Whitehead’s description of A as causa sui. Yet the creative force of the universe does not cease with the concrescence of A; instead, it “passes into another phase of itself.” Creativity now becomes the creativity for another actual entity (mentioned last in the passage), which I shall call B. This is creativity as it transcends a particular instantiation of itself (A) in its thrust toward the production of still further actual entities (B, C, D, and so forth). The point to be noticed is that creativity has a reality that transcends the existence of any particular actual entity, even though it always instantiates itself in particular actual entities. Jan Van der Veken aptly characterizes creativity as a “universal activity” that provides an explanation for both the ongoingness of time and the connectedness of all actual entities (Van der Veken 1990, 181).

4. Conclusion

I conclude with a brief evaluation of Whitehead’s decision to make creativity the ultimate principle in his metaphysical system, a decision I applaud for the following reasons. First, creativity brings continuity to Whitehead’s metaphysics, especially when we view creativity in relation to actual entities. Actual entities are the basic units of fact in Whitehead’s metaphysics, and each actual entity is a complex individual. Whitehead calls his actual entities “drops of experience” (PR 18) and “acts of becoming” (PR 69) which cannot be divided into components with the same degree of reality. Furthermore, each actual entity exists only briefly as a subjectively immediate unit of experience, although it then becomes an object that influences all subsequent acts of becoming. The problem with Whitehead’s choice of actual entities as his basic particulars is that this slants his metaphysics in favor of atomism over continuity. Whitehead acknowledges this problem when he claims that there is a “creation of continuity” in our present cosmic epoch, although this may be a special condition that does not hold true of other cosmic epochs (PR 35-6). Once we recognize the pivotal role of creativity, however, we can see that Whitehead has incorporated a principle of continuity into his metaphysics that serves as a corrective to his atomism.[6] Each actual entity is internally related to its predecessors, as asserted in Whitehead’s “principle of relativity” (PR 22, 50) because there is but one creative process from which they all arise and to which they all make their final contributions. Each actual entity is internally related to its successors because it anticipates the impact it will have upon creative processes in the future. As Whitehead puts this point, “[T]he fact that each individual occasion is transcended by the creative urge, belongs to the essential constitution of each such occasion. It is not an accident which is irrelevant to the completed constitution of any such occasion” (AI 193).

The principle of creativity also allows Whitehead to acknowledge the presence of chaos and irrationality in the universe as well as order and rationality. This is because the creative advance into novelty is essentially an innovative and unpredictable affair. Here the contrast between creativity as a dynamic activity and the various entities that Whitehead recognizes in his metaphysics is especially instructive. Whitehead recognizes eight different types of entities, which he lists in his Categories of Existence, and he outlines numerous principles that govern these entities in his Categories of Explanation and his Categoreal Obligations. The importance of these entities and principles is that they form the determinate referents of rational thought. They express the various structural features of the universe that enable us to comprehend it rationally. Yet creativity stands over and against all these entities as an inexhaustible metaphysical energy that by its very nature can never be captured in the static net of conceptual definition. Although this energy works through entities to drive the universe forward, it can never be reduced to any set of these entities. Instead, they remain the “creatures” it produces in its never-ending thrust toward novelty together with relatedness. Thus, creativity incorporates the mysterious, process-like features of existence that stand in sharp contrast with the order and rationality exemplified by Whitehead’s various entities and principles. This brings us back to the mystery of creativity. In the final analysis, we cannot explain why the many become one and are thereby increased by one. This is just the way creativity manifest itself in the process of the universe; as Whitehead puts it, “It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity” (PR 21). When all is said and done, the mystery of the creative process remains. Whitehead, I think, would be pleased.


[1] Compare what Jorge Luis Nobo says about the paradoxical nature of Whitehead’s Category of the Ultimate (Nobo 1986, 129-137). Nobo’s interpretation of creativity resembles mine in significant ways, as I acknowledge in Section 3 below. However, I do not share Nobo’s view that the extensive continuum is just as ultimate as creativity is for Whitehead.

[2] See Johnson 1962 and Connelly 1981 for the details of this interpretation of creativity. I should add that this view has been roundly criticized in the literature on Whitehead.

[3] We must add that the concept of perishing does not apply to God. It is clear from the final chapter of Process and Reality that God is an actual entity that never perishes. Nonetheless, God is prehended by finite actual entities in his “superjective nature” and is “superseded” by them in the sense that each finite actual entity transcends God (see PR 88, 222).

[4] My discussion in this section draws heavily upon my previous critique of Christian’s interpretation of creativity in “The Ultimacy of Creativity” (Garland 1983).

[5] My constructive view of the nature of creativity in this section draws extensively upon my previous interpretation in “The Ultimacy of Creativity” (Garland 1983).

[6] Michel Weber gives a perceptive discussion of the way in which Whitehead synthesizes atomism with continuity in his introduction to After Whitehead: Rescher on Process Metaphysics, pp. 62-69 (Weber 2004).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Christian, William. 1961. “Some Uses of Reason,” in The Relevance of Whitehead, edited by Ivor Leclerc (London, Allen and Unwin; New York, Macmillan).

Christian, William. 1963. “Whitehead’s Explanation of the Past,” in Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, edited by George L. Kline (Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall).

Christian, William. 1964. “The Concept of God as a Derivative Notion,” in Process and Divinity: Philosophical Essays presented to Charles Hartshorne, edited by William L. Reese and Eugene Freeman (LaSalle IL, Open Court).

Cobb, John B., Jr. 1965. A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (Philadelphia, Westminster Press; second edition, 2007).

Ford, Lewis S. 1987. “Creativity in a Future Key,” in New Essays in Metaphysics, edited by Robert C. Neville (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Garland, William J. 1983. “The Ultimacy of Creativity” (revised and expanded version), in Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy, edited by Lewis S. Ford and George L. Kline (New York, Fordham University Press).

Griffin, David Ray. 2005. “John Cobb’s Whiteheadian Complementary Pluralism,” in Deep Religious Pluralism, edited by David Ray Griffin (Louisville KY, Westminster John Knox Press).

Hartshorne, Charles. 1941. “Whitehead’s Idea of God,” in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp (LaSalle IL, Open Court).

Johnson, A. H. 1983. “Some Conversations with Whitehead Concerning God and Creativity,” in Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy, edited by Lewis S. Ford and George L. Kline (New York, Fordham University Press).

Leclerc, Ivor. 1958. Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition (London, Allen and Unwin; New York, Macmillan).

Nobo, Jorge Luis. 1979. “Transition in Whitehead: A Creative Process Distinct From Concrescence,” International Philosophical Quarterly, 19, 265-83.

Nobo, Jorge Luis. 1986. Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Extension and Solidarity (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Reeves, Gene. 1983. “God and Creativity,” in Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy, edited by Lewis S. Ford and George L. Kline (New York, Fordham University Press).

Sherburne, Donald W. 1961. A Whiteheadian Aesthetic (New Haven, Yale University Press).

Sherburne, Donald W. 1966. A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality (New York, Macmillan). Reprinted 1982, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Van der Veken, Jan. 1990. “Creativity as Universal Activity,” in Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Creativity, edited by Friedrich Rapp and Reiner Wiehl (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Weber, Michel. 2004. “Introduction: Process Metaphysics in Context,” in After Whitehead: Rescher on Process Metaphysics, edited by Michel Weber (Frankfurt, Ontos).

Weber, Michel. 2005a. La dialectique de l’intuition chez A. N. Whitehead: sensation pure, pancréativité et contiguïsme. Préface de Jean Ladrière (Frankfurt / Paris, ontos verlag).

Author Information

William Jay Garland
Philosophy Department
The University of the South, 735 University Avenue, Sewanee, TN 37383

How to Cite this Article

Garland, William Jay, “The Mystery of Creativity”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.