Whitehead and Husserl

aut aut, 84, 7-18, 1964
Translated from the Italian by Luigi M Bianchi
© 1998 Luigi M Bianchi

Draft. Not to be copied, distributed, quoted, or otherwise reproduced.


Those who are familiar with Husserl's thought up to The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology and who have dwelled on Husserl's analysis of the Lebenswelt, will have noticed the extraordinary analogy between some of Husserl's positions and those of Whitehead's.(*)

The path leading through Husserl to transcendental phenomenology starts with the precategorical Lebenswelt. The Lebenswelt, the life-world, is "the forgotten meaning-fundament (Sinnersfundament) of natural science," says Husserl, and he adds: "But now we must note something of the highest importance that occurred even as early as Galileo: the surreptitious substitution of the mathematically substructed world of idealities for the only real world, the one that is actually given through perception, that is ever experienced and experienceable-our everyday life-world."1

For Husserl, since 1907, in the Dingvorlesung, the Life-world is the world of experience (Erfahrungswelt).2 The world of experience is given in the first instance in perception. The world of the sciences, taken apart from its foundation, is abstract, while the world of perception is concrete. Error arises when we construct idealizations which later become separate: "a garb of ideas," an Ideenkleid--objectification. It is not constructed concepts which are real, but perception and the life-world which is given in perception. The Lebenswelt is a common, intuitable universe, while the objectified world is a logical abstraction which has forgotten the operations which founded and found it. In other words, the sciences transform their abstract constructs, whose function ought not to be denied, into concrete realities.

This process is presented by Whitehead (and we all know that Whitehead did not know Husserl, just as Husserl did not know Whitehead), as the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. The critique of the separation of scientific objects considered as ideology, as Ideenkleid, is clear in Whitehead already in his writing between 1915 and 1917: Space, Time and Relativity, The Organization of Thought, Anatomy of Some Scientific Ideas. These works were collected in Aims of Education. Particularly in Anatomy, one can find viewpoints very close to those of Husserl's. Whitehead writes: "I insist on the radically untidy, ill-adjusted character of the fields of actual experience from which science starts."3 Actual experience is Husserl's perception, the Lebenswelt. Whitehead argues that science leaves the Lebenswelt in a state of disorder. Precisely for this reason, Husserl will introduce phenomenology as science of the Lebenswelt and as ontology of the Lebenswelt, where obviously ontology is not a theory or an ideology of being, but a science of concrete operations.4 Husserl's ontology differs from traditional ontology, particularly from that of Heidegger's. Husserl refers to such difference particularly in the Cartesian Meditations.5

The ontology of the Lebenswelt is constituted in the subject, in the "living presence" of the subject, who is not just consciousness, but also "real" body, and unity of body and soul. As such he is Erlebnis of perceptions, sentience: it is life which experiences the world, welterfahrende Leben.

The living presence (lebendige Gegenwart) as sentient life of the subject is what Whitehead calls the feeling of actual experience. Whitehead's fragment, already quoted above, continues: "To grasp this fundamental truth is the first step in wisdom, when constructing a philosophy of science. This fact is concealed by the influence of language, moulded by science, which foists on us exact concepts as though they represented the immediate deliverances of experience." That is: situations, facts are concealed by the idealization of exactness. Science, if it isolates such idealization, it conceals the things themselves, the real facts of perception and of the Lebenswelt.

It is clear that Whitehead does not condemn formalized exactness nor its function. But Whitehead the mathematician thinks that it is wrong to believe that perception is mathematical. More precisely: the error lies in the projection of mathematics onto perception, onto the Lebenswelt, while mathematics derives from the Lebenswelt, from feeling. From Einstein's physics Whitehead has received much enlightenment with regard to his own philosophy. He, however, insists on the fact that Einstein's physics too should be connected to perception, even though it is closer to experience than classical physics.

For Whitehead, as for Husserl, it is always a question of linking abstractions to the Lebenswelt or, as Whitehead says, to the "field of life" [check! "'entirely living' nexus ?], to the "simplicity of common sense," [check!] to the world in which we already, always, live, which is always, as Husserl says, vorgegebene Welt. Such world is in a time which is concretely perceived6 or, as Husserl says, in a lived and leibhaft world.

All constructions depend on what Husserl identifies as leibhaft evidence of the lebendige Gegenwart. Whitehead criticizees the pretense that certain theory of science has to free us from experience: "The result is, that we imagine that we have immediate experience of a world of perfectly defined objects implicated in perfectly defined events which, as known to us by the direct deliverance of our senses, happen at exact instants of time, in a space formed by exact points, without parts and without magnitude: the neat, trim, tidy, exact world which is the goal of scientific thought. My contention is, that this world is a world of ideas, and that its internal relations are relations between abstract concepts, and that the elucidation of the precise connection between this world and the feelings of actual experience is the fundamental question of scientific philosophy."7

For both Husserl and Whitehead, philosophy must be grounded on ultimate, actual data. Actual data are not atomic data, but events, perceived in their complex relations which link any event with all the other events. The principle of universal relation must not be intended as if it were valid only on the logical-mathematical plane. Whitehead considers it wrong to apply mathematics to the method of philosophy.8 And Husserl writes that the ideal of mathematicization has been pernicious to philosophy.9 Neither for Husserl nor for Whitehead does this represent a negation of mathematics and formal logic. Logic, as embraced by philosophy, can not be formalized. In philosophical discourse, truth is a function of philosophy's ability of interpreting experience.10 Since philosophy must justify the "inference rules in any branch of mathematics," in turn it can not be mathematicized.11 For this reason, in Philosophie der Arithmetik (1891), Husserl tries to found arithmetic on psychological operations. In the Prolegomena, the first volume of the Logische Untersuchungen (1900), psychologism is criticized, but it would be wrong to believe that Husserl accepted abstract formalism. As it appears in the conclusion of the Prolegomena, he is rather thinking of the idea of a pure logic. Later (1905-1906), Husserl thinks of transcendental subjectivism, which may also be presented as subjectivism of perception and feeling (in this regard, we should not forget that both Husserl and Whitehead are linked to Hume). If, instead of the psychological operations of the Philosophie der Arithmetik we were to posit perception, the concrete subject, the Lebesnwelt, the viewpoint of the Philosophie der Arithmetik could be accepted even by the late Husserl.

Frege's critique of this work saw in Husserl's position an intuitive and "qualitative" character.12 This is equivalent to saying that in Husserl there was already-certainly in the wrong way-the method of the intuition of the essences as applied to multiplicity. For Husserl, multiplicity, even infinite multiplicity, can be found in unitary, qualitative, eidetic intuition. Axiomatization should allow us to grasp infinity, making it intuitable. The function of making infinity graspable, actual, present is a function of Husserlian evidence. It is probably for this reason that Husserl, in the Halle period, exercised a beneficial influence on Cantor.13 Now, it is interesting to note certain analogous positions in Whitehead. Whitehead's position too, like that of Husserl's, can be traced back to Leibniz and Grassman's Ausdehnungslehre: for Husserl this is evident in the way he deals with the Manningfaltigkeitslehre in the Prolegomena and in the Formale und transzendentale Logik (1929). And Whitehead insists on Grassman's ingeniousness and greatness.14 What is striking in Whitehead is certainly his attempt to resolve mathematics in formal logic. From Grassman, through Boole, Hamilton, Frege, Couturat, and Peano, we arrive at Principia Mathematica. But this is not Whitehead's unique position: like Husserl, Whitehead insists on a critique of the quantitative in the name of the qualitative. To the consideration of philosophical critique, mathematics appears not only as a science of quantity, but also as a science of forms, of intuited figures, of moving figures. Hence Whitehead's interest in Leibniz' analysis situs and in topology. The problem of what remains stable in moving figures perhaps suggests to Whitehead the philosophical concept of permanence, necessary for process and for emergent evolution. Husserl will occupy himself of analogous problems in the Zeitvorlesungen, in the first part of Ideen and in the D-group manuscripts devoted to transcendental esthetics.

In the Treatise, Whitehead speaks of forms and models or of possible ideals. Ideal possibilities are intuited as essential.15 Together with possible forms, there appear for the first time the eternal objects, which correspond to Husserl's essences. At first sight both Whitehead and Husserl appear as Platonic philosophers. It is now clear that phenomenology is not Platonism, but it is true that in Husserl there reappear the problems of the great metaphysical dialogs of Plato.

Thus for Whitehead mathematical formalism has its origin in perceptions, in the ultimate realities, in process, in feeling. It is possible, because in process we capture qualitative, permanent forms. In other words, because process is constituted by both events and eternal objects. Mathematics and geometry are formed by abstraction, starting with the real process, with what Husserl calls Lebenswelt. Axioms are constructed from a material world, and that is why they can serve to interpret the concrete, material world. Such world is lived, perceived, in actual perception, in actual Erlebnis, in presence. To use Husserl's language, this is to say that it is subjective, that it is constituted by the transcendental subject as intentional life, as weltfahrende Leben. To the extent that he is interested in the origin of mathematical concepts, Whitehead can speak of the mathematical concepts of the natural world. We never perceive numbers, but forms. Thus we never perceive points, but some non-atomic, non-separable entities. 16 Husserl will say that time never reduces to points and instants, and that time is ausgedehnte Zeit.17 For Whitehead points and instants are abstractions which must not be made concrete, objective. For the same reason, in the name of transcendentalism, Husserl sees in objectification (not in objectivity) the crisis of the sciences. For Husserl, real is the subject as individual, and real are the individual existences. 18 The transcendental subject itself is real insofar as it it coincides with the subject which I am, with the concrete man. 19 Science as phenomenology is possible because each individual existence implies an essence and is given as type, as essential model. Likewise for Whitehead, each event is in relation with others and is in relation with the eternal objects, with those which ingress the event and, negatively, even with those whioch do not ingress the event itself. The objects of the sciences therefore must be related back to the ultimate, actual events as , actually perceived in the process by us who live in the process and experience the process. Process makes formalization possible, but is not itself formalization, because it is constituted by ultimate realities. Philosophy is thus philosophy of the process. For the same reason, in Husserl philosophy is phenomenology of the temporal structure of the Lebenswelt, of the temporal structure of the Lebenswelt, of the essential forms of the Lebenswelt, and as such it is Erste Philosophie.

When Whitehead wrote Principia Mathematica with Russell, he knew that mathematical formalization if founded on a pre-mathematical world and that such pre-mathematical world is the process of the events. In the preface to the second edition of Principia Mathematica Russell recounts how Whitehead persuaded him to abandon spatial points and temporal instants, and to replace them with events. But in fact Russell did not follow Whitehead. Had he followed him, he would have accepted Whitehead's entire philosophy of process and thus the theory that mathematical formalism must be founded on ultimate realities, on perception, on feeling-in Husserl's language, on the Lebenswelt and therefore on the transcendental subject who has a live experience (erlebt) of the Lebenswelt. This is, finally, what for Husserl the transcendental foundation of formal logic consists of. Today, in the polemic against speculative philosophy, there is a habit of referring back to the formalism of Principia Mathematica. Such a habit is a function of the lesser or greater belief that philosophical discourse, if it is not formalized, is devoid of meaning. It is now clear that such a position is untenable. But if this is true, should we not seriously reconsider Whitehead's philosophy? In reality, Principia Mathematica presupposed a philosophy, a philosophical discourse. Despite their differences, both Whitehead and Russell were convinced that "the universe consists of entities which have various qualities and are in various relations with each other." 20 In a general sense, this philosophy is a philosophy of relation: relationsim allows the constitution of symbolic logic as the logic of propositions and as logic of predicates and of classes. But, precisely because it can provide the foundation of symbolic logic, it is a philosophy. For Whitehead, relationsim is the complex philosophy of process. It is very important to notice that phenomenology too is relationsim, because it is founded on the principle of universal relation. 21 What Husserl says of the universale Korrelationsapriori would fit perfectly Whitehead's entire philosophy. Husserl writes: "No matter where we turn, every entity that is valid for me and every conceivable subject as existing in actuality is thus correlatively-and with essential necessity-an index of its systematic multiplicities. Each one indicates an ideal general set of actual and possible experiential manners of givenness, each of which is an appearance of this one entity, such that every actual concrete experience brings about, from this total multiplicity, a harmonious flow of manners of givenness which continuously fulfills the experiencing intention. The total multiplicity of manners of givenness, however, is a horizon of possibly realizable processes, as opposed to the actual process, and as such it belongs to each experience, or rather to the intention which is operative within it. For each subject this intention is the cogito; the manners of givenness (understood in the widest sense) make up its cogitatum according to "what" and the "how," and the manners of givenness in turn bring to "exhibition" the one and the same entity which is their unity." 22

With regard to the page by Husserl quoted above, one can remember some of the most characteristic theories of Whitehead's. Each actual perception is subjective, and "feels" the entire past, present and possible universe around itself. Thus for Husserl, the temporal modalities inhere in the presence of the cogito: retention, protension, Wiedererinnerung, Vorerinnerung. For Whitehead, from one perception we can draw inferences, pathways, forms, possible essences. It is a center surrounded by a halo of forms and relations, forms which it takes and by which it is taken in prehension. 23 The perception of a subject, and each subject is a prehending subject. 24 In actual, subjective perception all the relations which constitute it are present. Likewise for Husserl, in the subject, even in the solipsistic subject, the Weltall is present. 25 Cognitive generalization captures in the present perception the essential relations, namely it sees the present perception as an index of possible relations: this is the method of "extensive abstraction." 26 We can also say that what is perceived in the present and in the spatio-temporal centrality is a clear nucleus surrounded by darkness. I do not now perceive the darkness surrounding the nucleus, but the darkness is in an essential relation with the nucleus. In Husserl, an analogous position is presented in the relation between the Kern and the Abschattungen, and between the Hintergrund and the Vordergrund. "Vordergrund ist nicht ohne Hintergrund," we read in the Zeitvorlesungen, 27 but it is a theory which surfaces here and there throughout the Crisis. For Whitehead, symbolism is possible because language can express the essential relations implied in actual perception. Language can symbolize essential relations. Husserl would say that it has a meaning insofar as it is intentional. For Whitehead, meaning is in any case a a symbol, and each symbolization of relations requires the vision of the essences, of the nexus between events and eternal objects, and must always be referred back to actual perception. Husserl would say: "to the evidence the thing itself, in flesh and bones (leibhaft),[check!] gives us, to the fulfilling (Erfüllung) of evidence." For Whitehead, all that is symbolic and possible depends on the actual-we might say, on the reality of the actual evidence. This, in Whitehead, is the ontological principle. For Whitehead, all philosophy tends to formulate the type of relation among the essents actually perceived: events are possible and perceivable because they take on forms of objects. Objects are essential forms and the entry of objects in the process is their ability to become actual: the essence of relationality is the way in which the eternal object enters and becomes part of the actual occasion. The concrete process is intentional and teleological: in this sense it is creativity. It is teleological in precisely the same way in which, for Husserl, the historical process is teleological. The really perceived world is an actualization of the ideal essences: that is, the ideal essences are the forms implied in any concrete individuation. On this basis Whitehead sets out the great problems of determination, individuation, choice, freedom. These problems are not at all foreign to Husserl, even though they are mainly tackled in the unpublished manuscripts. What seems possible to say with some assuredness is that both in Husserl and in Whitehead philosophy is founded on the universal principle of relation.

The vision of a relational universe occurred quite early in both Husserl and Whitehead. In Whitehead it appears in the very first works, beginning with the Treatise. In Husserl, already at the time he was writing the Logische Untersuchungen. In fact, with regard to the a priori correlation, he writes: "The first discovery of this a priori universal of the correlation between the object of experience and the modes of givenness (during the development of my Logical Research, about 1898), shook me up so deeply that since then my whole life's work was dominated by the task of developing it systematically. The further considerations included in this text-I am referring to the Crisis-will clarify the fact that the insertion of human subjectivity in the problems posed by correlation leads necessarily to a radical change of the sense of such problems, and requires the phenomenological reduction to transcendental subjectivity." 28

Certainly we do not find transcendental reduction in Whitehead. But Whitehead often uses a kind of reduction when, beyond discourse, he wants to reach the things themselves, the facts. "Any human discourse must resort to facts." As Husserl says, the "things themselves" are scattered and concealed. Whitehead goes on to say: "But in the case of philosophy the difficulty arises that the record of the facts is in part dispersed vaguely through the various linguistic expressions of civilized language and of literature." For the same reason, Husserl poses the problem of the sedimentation of language and of literary tradition. Whitehead continues by observing that the things themselves or facts are concealed by the "thought schema which establish the tradition of science and philosophy." 29 Phenomenological epoché must suspend all the schema, particularly the schema of the sciences. With regard to philosophy, according to Descartes' advice, each philosopher must seriously doubt at least once in his life. This doubt leads to the cogito, and the cogito is thought, but in a vast sense by which it also includes feeling. The I's feeling is for Whitehead the actual feeling. Whitehead's feeling is very close to Alexander's enjoyment. Whitehead himself notes it. More precisely, one can recall Husserl's present evidence. Feeling, as certainty and evidence, is a consequence of the methodical doubt. Whitehead is aware of this and, in this regard, he quotes Descartes' second of the Meditations. 30

For Whitehead, actual perceptions are mutually felt. This is what Husserl calls Einfühlung, wherein the ego and the alter ego are distinguished and constituted, and which is a the basis of monadology. In Whitehead, the actual entities form a solidary system because each entity participates in the constitution of the others. We thus have a generative and evolutionary connection with a teleological character. "The actual entity terminates its becoming in one complex feeling involving a completely determined bond with every item voice in the universe, the bond being either a positive or a negative prehension. This termination is the 'satisfaction' of the actual entity. [...] An actual entity is to be conceived both as a subject presiding over its own immediacy of becoming, and as a superject... 31 The superject makes us think of Husserl's teleological intentionality. We must also remember that, concerning the evolutionary process, Husserl speaks of organische Geschichtlichkeit, 32 just as he speaks, in the unpublished group-E manuscripts, of universale Teleologie. 33

The following quotation can be considered one of Husserl's statements closest to Whitehead's thought: we must study "the original, generative historicity, the unity of spiritual life, as the life of a total community of human persons generatively joined, who, in their individual, communized activities, in which the individual persons participate, reshape that surrounding, unitary world which is their world, into a surrounding, cultural world, into a world which has become and continues to become because of their activity." 34 In Husserl, like in Whitehead, the unity, in the complex sense shown here, is unity of the subjects and of their environments or Umwelten: it is Einheit eines Organismus.

In both Husserl and Whitehead, the philosophy of universal correlation is grounded in the philosophy of time and of the modalities of time, on historical teleology of an infinite idea toward which humanity is moving and, for Whitehead, is "concrescent," when it is guided by reason. The correlation inheres in each actual entity in the temporal dimensions. "Thus an actual entity," Whitehead argues, "has a three-fold character: 1) it has the character 'given' for it by the past; 2) it has the subjective character aimed at it in its process of concrescence; 3) it has the superjective character, which is the pragmatic value of its specific satisfaction qualifying the transcendent creativity." 35

In the end we can say that Husserl's and Whitehead's philosophies are analogous, in that both are philosophies of time and of relation.


Enzo Paci


(*) This essay appeared in German in Revue internationale de philosophie, n.56-57, 1961.

  1. See Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences. pp. 48-49. Evanston, 1970
  2. See W. Biemel, Die entscheidenden Phasen in Husserls Philosophie, Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung, XIII, 204-205, 1959.
  3. See Whitehead, Aims of Education. p. 157. New York, 1929.
  4. See Crisis, op. cit., pp 195-200.
  5. Husserl, Cartesian Meditations. p.100 [check!]. Haag, 1950.
  6. See Whitehead, Aims, op.cit., p.158. [??]
  7. See Whitehead, Aims, op.cit., p.158.
  8. See Whitehead, Process and Reality. p. 10. Cambridge, 1929.
  9. See Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, op.cit., p. 101 [check!]
  10. See Whitehead, A Treatise on Universal Algebra, p.vi. Cambridge, 1898.
  11. See Whitehead, A Treatise on Universal Algebra, p.vi. Cambridge, 1898.
  12. See Frege, Recension E. H.s Phil. der Arithmetik, Zeischrift f. Phil. u. phil. Kritik, pp. 313-, 1894; Ueber Sinn und Bedeutung, ibid., pp. 25-50, 1892.
  13. This is Fraenkel's opinion. See Briefwechsel Cantor-Dedekind, Noether and Cavaillés, eds. p. 6. Paris, 1932.
  14. See Whitehead, Essays in Science and Philosophy, p. 12, 19. New York, 1948.
  15. See V. Lowe, The Development of W.s Phil., in P.A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Whitehead. p. 30. New York, 1951.
  16. See Whitehead, On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World, in Phil. Trans. Roy. Society, p. 465-, 1906.
  17. See Husserl, Logische Untersuchungen, p. 259. Halle, 1928.
  18. This viewpoint is clear, for example, in Manuscript D5.
  19. See Manuscript K III, p. 85.
  20. See Whitehead and Russell, Principia Mathematica, p. 43. Cambridge.
  21. See Husserl, Crisis, op. cit., pp. 161-163. [check!]
  22. See Husserl, Crisis, op. cit., pp. 166-167.
  23. See Whitehead, Process, op. cit., p. 256.
  24. See Whitehead, Process, op. cit., pp 302=309.
  25. See Husserl, Manuscript D 8, p. 1.
  26. See Whitehead, Process, op. cit., pp. 420-.
  27. See Husserl, Vorlesungen z. Phänomenologie des inneren Zeithenusstsein, p. 412. Halle, 1908. See also Krisis, op. cit., p. 152.
  28. See Husserl, Crisis, op. cit., p. 292.
  29. See Whitehead, Process, op. cit., p. 52.
  30. See Whitehead, Process, op. cit., pp. 55-56.
  31. See Whitehead, Process, op. cit., p. 59- and 121-123 [check!].
  32. See Husserl, Crisis, op. cit., p. 530.
  33. See for example the unpublished E III 5, published as an appendix to my work Tempo e verità nella fenomenologia. Bari, 1961.
  34. See Husserl, Crisis, op. cit., p. 529.
  35. See Whitehead, Process, op. cit., p. 105.





Last Modification Date: 10 December 1998