Whitehead says that in every philosophical theory, there is an ultimate that is endowed with accidents (Whitehead, 1978, p. 7). In Whitehead, this ultimate is creativity.
Accidents are necessary in order to characterize things. The logical meaning of accidents is predicates that are enounced about a logical subject. You do not know anything about something until you put that knowledge into a proposition about it, and when you do this you transform that thing into a logical subject.
Starting from this logical necessity, Aristotle introduced the idea of substances that support their accidents, and accidents that are in substances. He also says that everything is predicated about primary substances, whereas the latter cannot be predicated about anything. However, secondary substances can be predicated.
When I say about Socrates that he is a man, man is a secondary substance. The secondary substance is the so-called universal, and it is a class that contains the individual about which I predicate something. This statement does not work in the case of God, because I cannot find a universal for Him that could be larger than Him and He is everything.
Neither can I find parts in Him, because He is infinite, and parts would limit Him, which cannot happen. Thus when, elsewhere, Aristotle says that happiness consists of contemplation, he means that he concedes that there is some accident that defines the ultimate, which is the Unmoved mover.
However, on the other hand, accidents limit the ultimate. When I say, for example, that God, the ‘ultimate,’ is good, by using the word good with respect to God, I create a multitude within him.
You cannot define the substance. Substance, as Descartes rightly says, is the cause of itself. You cannot say that thought is caused by something. What you can say is that there are brain processes that can be associated with certain mental contents. But here we have an association of events – one happening in the brain and the other happening in thought – and not a proper causal relationship, that happens between entities of the same kind.
On the other hand, neither can I associate any attribute to thought. I can associate only subjective feelings to our thoughts. In this sense, I can say that my thought is intense, or that it is very penetrating. But these descriptions need to already be situated within the substance that is the thought.
Thus, thought cannot be defined. It is an ultimate substance. What we can do is only to make a phenomenological explanation: that is to say, we can describe different things from within this substance. You cannot say that thought is big or that it is yellow or that it is sour or sweet. The latter are attributes that only apply to extended things.
With respect to thought, we must say that we cannot say anything about its nature. You cannot take a thought and analyze it concerning its substance. Of course, you can analyze it logically, but you cannot take it and say that it has a weight and that it can be divided into material components. Neither is it able to act upon material things.
When Whitehead says that the ultimate in his philosophy needs accidents as embodiments, this means that he assumes the existence of an ultimate entity that he calls creativity. However, for him, this creativity is nothing in itself. In order to be something, it must be embodied somehow; through embodiment, it acquires attributes.
Creativity is the ultimate substance in Whitehead’s philosophy. Creativity means, first of all, change and then increase in complexity. We can then observe this creativity both in the material and the intellectual world. On the other hand, the increase of complexity in the intellectual world is noticeable only through the bearers of the concepts. We cannot say that one idea is more complex than another if there is no material description to which the idea refers.
For example, in antiquity, human beings were defined as rational animals. Later, they were defined as being similar to God, and more recently as animals again, but animals distinguished by their ability of creating symbols. However, all these descriptions refer to certain features of humans that were already assumed in the initial definitions.
In a certain way, Whitehead’s philosophical conception is similar to that of the German philosopher Max Scheler, although it seems that Whitehead rejects dualism. He says that the whole reality of God consists of material reality. Only in this material reality, is there action and force. Beyond this reality, there is no entity capable of acting upon the material world.
When I stand up from the place where I sit, this is the result of the whole history lying behind me but also of the whole universe that acts upon all of its contents and all of the interactions present in it. From this point of view, orthodox Christian speculation assumes uncreated energies. Energy is more than simple thought or concept; it is a sort of active matter through which God can act upon the world, both materially and spiritually.
It seems that Whitehead also has a different understanding of the philosophical procedure. Indeed, he admits that this procedure has to start with a general scheme. However, this scheme must not be built as a certain logical construction; it must not be grounded in self-evident principles, to which we could apply the logical criteria of truth and falsity.
What is important, in his view, is the explanatory success of the scheme. In this respect, his approach resembles that of Hegel, who also said that the initial philosophical principles could not be adequately formulated at the beginning of the philosophical work, but would be completely both understood and developed at the end of the philosophical work.
Whitehead says that we must trust our instincts with respect to the applicability of the categorical scheme (Whitehead 1978, p. 8-9), meaning that we cannot foretell what domains could be derived or not from the scheme.
Rather, the application of the scheme resembles an artistic procedure, in which a sort of instinct guides the artist towards the achievement of his work of art. He does not know in advance how the artwork will look or what it will contain, but he feels attracted to follow a certain direction where the accomplished work seems to wait.
The same metaphor was expressed in the past as the marble block that contains within it the future statue and awaits the sculptor to remove the unwanted parts of the stone. Stephen King, on the other hand, compared the work of a writer with the activity of an archeologist who brings to light the remnants of animals who lived in a remote past.
A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality. An Essay in Cosmology, New York, The Free Press, 1978.