Universals and Perspectives

Universals and Perspectives: View of the Sky from an Inner Yard

Whitehead considers that philosophy has a close relationship with religion and science. We could add in this respect that philosophy, like religion, aims at an integration of the individual into the universal. It aims at finding a general scheme of thought that can answer not only to the rational needs of the individual but also to his emotional needs. 

Frequently, the individual feels emotionally overwhelmed by the unpleasant aspects of life. He also spontaneously starts asking himself about the meaning of his life, even if he is not exposed to any such unpleasant situation or his life enjoys the best material conditions. That shows that there is something within the human mind and the human soul that aims at an answer to this question. 

Religion offers emotional support to the individual. It provides him both with an image of the world that encompasses him and a path through which he can reconcile himself with the divinity and thus find a meaning in his life. Of course, because life also contains various events appearing suddenly and which often do not fit into the existing religious framework, religion evolves into theology, that is to say, it develops more or less rational explanations concerning those events.

In ancient Greece, religion transformed into a rational explanation of the world. In the beginning, this explanation took place through tragedies; later rational thought started to develop clear logical and rational views of the world. These explanations were no longer stories originating in the human imagination about the deeds of the divine beings. They were attempts to explain the whole world rationally. 

In this attempt, the beginning of the world lost its religious and anthropomorphic character, being replaced with a material and a formal cause. The four causes of Aristotle – the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient and final causes – were all causes or agents of transformation devoid of any human traits. They were similar to acting hands but devoid of the human being that moved them; it was as if they acted by themselves. 

Plato could explain the concrete, material world through the ideal Forms and the Demiurge, who created material things by copying into the latter those ideal Forms. Later, Aristotle abandoned the idea of a Demiurge and of the ideal Forms and considered that such Forms could not be separated from matter. In fact, he transformed the Platonic Ideas by moving them from the separate realm where they existed into reality. 

Also, he added the idea that there existed an urge of matter to actualize within itself a potential form. Later, in the twentieth century, the German philosopher Max Scheler took over this idea. But unlike Aristotle, Scheler considered matter as the other face of God. Scheler conceived of God as having two sides, the dark side, consisting of a cosmic urge, and the spiritual side, that encompassed all the ideal Forms. 

Whitehead also considers that God is a generality. We could explain this idea through the fact that He is the same everywhere, similarly to formal principles. Also, like the universals, He cannot change. However, He is not reflected by material things, being beyond them. This is why He can know the world; He is non-temporal and changeless. 

Superior beings like humans know the difference between emotions and concepts; that is to say, we can handle our concepts most of the time without associating them with emotions. Concepts and emotions have separate lives. In animals, emotions express themselves through their actions. Unlike animals, humans can separate their emotions from their actions. Animals are much more exposed to dangers than human beings. They must stay alert in order to survive. 

Perhaps due to the fact that the human being possesses a much larger brain than other animals, it has also developed conceptualizing faculties, which animals don’t have. The human being is also endowed with a much more complex imagination. Gradually, and constrained by the demands of reality, imagination gives place to rational, i.e., calculating, thinking. We see this type of thinking in superior animals. They are able to cooperate in order to catch their prey. 

Humans could have cooperated in many areas of life at the beginning: they cooperated in order to defeat stronger animals and to expel them from a region so that they could control that region. Also, they could build common shelters to protect themselves against the weather. Again, they could cooperate with each other against other human beings that wanted to steal their refuge and their food or women. Then people learned how to teach the young generation to do what they themselves had learned and understood. 

Whitehead considers that universals are not immediately detectable (Whitehead 1978, p. 16-17); in fact, they are not detectable at all if we do not abstract from certain individual aspects of the real things. For example, in the case of an illness, if we focus too much on the immediate changes that occurred to a person after the contracting of the disease, we will be unable to correlate them with other aspects that appeared in other persons suffering from the same disease. 

In this respect, we could be focusing too much on fever, overlooking the reddening of a certain part of the body and the appearance of smallpox marks there. The doctor has a general image in his mind in which fever can be associated with many other symptoms so that he will look not only at the high temperature but also at other features to see what the possible disease is from which that person suffers. 

Inevitably when dealing with universals or general concepts, we deal with abstractions. This is easy to see if we compare things that we see for the first time with the same things after we have seen them very often. The second time, we no longer notice the full concreteness of those things, but only their global presence, so to speak, a presence in which we now ignore many of the aspects that earlier had awoken our interest. That thing has become, in a way, more abstract than before; now, it is more related to other things that make up our environment. 

This diminishing of the concreteness of perception allows us to detach our interest from a new thing after a while, and focus on other aspects of our surroundings. While the thing acquires more and more an abstract-like presence, we adopt a different perspective on it, a perspective that is filtered through the sieve made up by our concepts.

For Whitehead, each actual entity is analyzable in an indefinite number of ways (Whitehead 1978, p. 19). At first sight, this statement seems paradoxical. An actual entity is a concrete thing. But if we try to analyze that thing, we will find its components and the structure that sustains them. Thus, it would seem that there is only a single way to analyze it, an analysis that can be carried very far, and not several ways to analyze it. 

The multitude of analytical views is based on the multiplicity of perspectives in which one can approach that thing. The tree in the garden can be studied from a biological point of view. But it can also be considered from an artistic perspective. A painter could try to reflect in his painting the peculiar way the tree allows light to pass through its leaves or the very strange shade of the color of its bark. 

Of course, this is not an analysis in the sense that the painter tries to decompose the tree in its elements. Still, it is an analysis of the interaction of the tree with the light, or rather an analysis of the peculiar aspects occurring as a result of the interaction between the tree and its parts and the light. 

We might think that philosophy aims at knowing everything, without remainder. This is a false belief, states Whitehead, because we will never be able to exhaust all the universals present within concrete things. The latter are not merely packages of universals. Although we could admit of an indefinite number of universals composing a concrete thing, we could never reach all the possible universals into which a thing can be divided. 

And this is simply because in the future there could appear new ways of approaching the thing and thus of integrating it (or features of it) into new universals about which, right now, we have no clue. Therefore, the concrete thing will always have an unknown remainder within itself, a sort of remnant thing-in-itself. 

This remnant is not due to the fact that we lack adequate instruments to research deeply enough to know all the elements composing a concrete thing, but that our knowledge transforms: that our perspectives, our methods, and our principles change. 

This idea had already been grasped by neo-Kantianism. In Kant, the difference between the object that we know and the thing outside of us was due to our intuitions as well as to our categories. But the number of these structures was limited. After Kant, philosophy realized more and more that there is an indefinite number of ways to approach a thing, and each such approach presents us that thing in a different light with a different identity.

Philosophy renders abstractions and not the concrete thing, says Whitehead (Whitehead 1978, p. 20). This is a different way of saying that the object of knowledge is the universal, as Aristotle once said. Even in scientific knowledge, paradoxically, even when we explain a concrete thing, we discover the relationship between universals rather than how concrete material elements interact with other material elements.

Such an empirical statement as ‘water boils at 100 degrees Celsius’ refers to the concrete process only indirectly. In this statement we have general concepts like degrees, measurements, the meaning of the word ‘boiling,’ and so forth. 

Real things are carriers of universals. And we cannot know all the universals and perspectives that are inherent in such things. For example, both present-day people and Aristotle saw the same object that is called the Moon. However, the latter considered it a sphere of aether, whereas the former a large piece of rock. 

Aristotle could never have thought of heavenly stars as being bodies because then he would have considered that such bodies should have fallen to Earth. For him, no dense body could have hovered in the air. In both cases, we deal with different concepts of the same thing, concepts that determine our immediate perception. 

Nowadays, when we look at the Moon, we instantly think of it as a natural satellite of the Earth; we cannot even imagine it as a sphere of fire just hovering in the sky due to its lightness. 


Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality. An Essay in Cosmology, The Free Press, New York, 1978.

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