Prehension and Intentionality

This is a programmatic essay for a comprehensive comparative analysis of phenomenology and process philosophy.1 The central concern of this project is the relationship between the major doctrines of these two philosophies: intentionality and prehension. In his “analytic phenomenology” Stephen A. Erickson has ably established a solid relationship between Heidegger’s version of intentionality and the later Wittgenstein’s (LB 109-11). My purpose is to show that If my efforts are successful, we then have before us the prospect of unifying the major thrusts of twentieth century philosophy (viz., analytic, process, and phenomenological) under the single theme of intentionality.

Central to the present work is the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Herbert Spiegelberg observes that

closer inspection of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophizing reveals perhaps more parallels and possible points of contact with important doctrines of Anglo-American philosophy than the thought of any other phenomenologist. Whitehead’s theory of prehensions, John Dewey’s conception of experience . . . have striking counterparts in the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, who himself seems to be little aware of them. (PM II 524)

In her Knower and the Known Marjorie Grene makes this prediction:

It is Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowing, therefore, I believe, which can start us on the right path, coalescing as it does with the existential-phenomenological approach of Merleau-Ponty, and it may be, in large part at least, something not unlike the philosophy of Process and Reality that will emerge.2

The most fruitful results of this coalescence have been the articles of Hamrick and Gallagher which use the work of Merleau-Ponty as a basis for understanding what Whitehead proposed as psychological physiology.3

Several scholars have already made direct reference to a possible relationship between prehension and intentionality. The most notable is John H. Kultgen, who suggests this fundamental connection between phenomenology and process philosophy in his works (2; 3). My intention is to flesh out these suggestions in the following parallel analysis.


On the face of it, it seems as if I have a difficult case to prove. From all indications it is evident that there is no relationship between phenomenology and Whitehead in terms of direct historical influence. There is no evidence at all that Whitehead read any of the works of the major phenomenologists. If be did read them, or hear of them, there is no reference at all in his works. The same holds of the phenomenologists’ reference to Whitehead. Although most of the phenomenologists did know Bergson, they did not seem to know Whitehead. This mutual exclusion makes a great deal of sense considering the respective emphases of these two philosophies. There seems to be no “phenomenological reduction” in Whitehead, who appears to work from the so-called “natural attitude.” Similarly, there are no cosmological interests in Husserl, mainly because of the phenomenological reduction and his doctrine of transcendental subjectivity.

Some intriguing historical facts bear out this apparent chasm between the interests of phenomenology and Whitehead. Charles Hartshorne, Whitehead’s foremost disciple, spent two years in Germany (1923-25) hearing lectures and participating in seminars with Husserl and Heidegger at Freiburg and Nicolai Hartmann at Marburg. Coming back to Harvard in the fall of 1925, he fell under the spell of Pierce and Whitehead and “Husserl almost dropped out of my mind for years (PCC 90). On the other band, Dorion Cairns, an intimate and translator of Husserl, also spent two years in Germany (1924-26) working directly under Husserl at Freiburg. Cairns was a confirmed adherent of Husserlian phenomenology when he return to Harvard in the fall of 1926. Although he attended all of Whitehead’s lectures and participated in his seminars, he confided in a 1969 interview that “the phenomenological virus had bitten me so deeply that I must say that the philosophical influence of Whitehead on me was minimal” (PCC 8).

It would appear from the reactions of these two highly competent philosophers that Whitehead’s attempt to return to a pre-Kantian, even pre-Cartesian, mode of thought was obviously not compatible with Husserl’s desire to develop a fully consistent transcendental philosophy on the basis of Descartes and Kant. It must be emphasized at the outset that I do not intend to brush over the incontrovertible difference here, viz., the anthropocentrism of phenomenology and the pan-subjectivism of Whitehead and Hartshorne. I will, however, make some important qualifications on this point later on.

The foregoing comments should make the thesis of Ervin Laszlo’s book, Beyond Skepticism and Realism, all the more convincing. Laszlo contends that Whitehead is the best representative of metaphysical realism and Husserl of skepticism or idealism, the latter two being identical for Laszlo’s purposes. The “root axiom” for realism is being, whereas the root axiom for idealism is consciousness. Laszlo concedes that the philosophies of Whitehead and Husserl are not pure expressions of these unequivocal positions, i.e., pure realism versus pure idealism, which he wishes to establish. Laszlo argues that even though these two philosophers express the positions in an exemplary manner, both succumb to reductionism. Whitehead is guilty of “physical reductionism,” i.e., “reinterpreting physical facts as epistemic ones,” and Husserl is indicted for “epistemic reductionism,” of “assessing . . . epistemic events as physical facts” (BSR 24). Laszlo maintains that a pure skepticism must bracket the physical world completely, using the phenomenological reduction in an even more radical manner than Husserl. Pure skepticism must concern itself solely with epistemic data, whereas pure realism must concern itself exclusively with “worldly” data. Laszlo claims that Whitehead compromises his metaphysical realism with his many references to psychological events.

The value of Laszlo’s book is the systematic thinking that goes beyond some of these highly questionable attributions to other philosophers. His characterization of Husserl is truer to form than his description of Whitehead. Husserl diverges from Laszlo’s rather antiseptic standards of a consistent skepticism far less than Whitehead diverges from the criteria for an unadulterated “objectivism,” Laszlo’s other term for realism. (A better pair would have been Hume versus a scientific materialist or a Marxist.) Indeed, Whitehead’s use of psychological data is so pervasive and significant for his metaphysics that Laszlo’s portrayal of Whitehead as his type of realist is very misleading. Unlike a traditional realist, Whitehead cannot conceive of the world apart from prehending subjects and their subjective experiences. On this point, I contend, Whitehead and phenomenologists are in complete agreement.

Laszlo seems to forget that the doctrine of prehension emerges out of an analysis of the theory of perception of a great idealist philosopher, George Berkeley. Whitehead states: “For Berkeley’s mind, I substitute a process of prehensive unification” (SMW 102). Prehension, after all, is a cosmic form of perception extrapolated from the data of human experience and consciousness. Victor Lowe observes that the most obvious example of prehension is the human experience of self-identity (UW 344). Granted, the phenomenologists do not follow Whitehead and Hartshorne in their extension of intentional behavior beyond the human realm. (The single exception is Merleau-Ponty. More on this in section VI.) This difference should not prevent us from a favorable comparison of two types of subjects, viz., (1) the actual occasion as a prehensive unification in a field of objective data and (2) human consciousness as a unification of an intentional field. This correlation of the respective “subjects” of phenomenology and process philosophy must be kept in mind throughout the remainder of this analysis.


It is my contention that Whitehead is much closer to the phenomenological program than many have thought. Laszlo himself refers to some of the most obvious textual citations which show that Whitehead’s philosophical method is grounded in the data of human consciousness. But Laszlo certainly has Whitehead’s methodology reversed when he states that “not even Whitehead could refrain from interpreting his empirical results as furnishing an analysis of epistemic facts” (BSR 23).4 Whitehead does not interpret physical facts as epistemic ones. The references that Laszlo offers surely support my contention here. For example, let us begin with this one: “If you start from the immediate facts of our psychological experience, as surely an empiricist should begin, you are at once led to the organic conception of nature (SMW 107). Whitehead’s metaphysical conclusions are the result of an examination of epistemic data, not the data of the natural world. Charles W. Morris, in Six Theories of Mind, writes: “Whitehead’s course of procedure is to give a comprehensive description of human experience and then to take this description as a key to the nature of reality” (quoted in 1:51).

Further evidence abounds. In Science and the Modern World Whitehead claims that “I have started from our own psychological field, as it stands for our cognition. I take it for what it claims to be: the self-knowledge of our bodily event” (SMW 107). The point that brings Whitehead directly to the concerns of the phenomenological method is his affirmation of the “subjectivist principle”: “The philosophy of organism entirely accepts the subjectivist bias of modern philosophy. It also accepts Hume’s doctrine that nothing is to be received into the philosophical scheme which is not discoverable as an element in subjective experience” (PR 253). Richard M. Zaner describes the “way of phenomenology” as the maintenance of a “critical attitude as regards everything not actually and evidently found in consciousness” (WP 130). Husserlian subjectivism and process pansubjectivism meet at this crucial point. But Whitehead would criticize Husserl’s method as too narrow and arbitrary, in that it makes an unnecessary distinction between the sentient and the insentient. For him phenomenology remains too psychological in its inability to conceive of all entities as intentional subjects.

Another methodological similarity is that Whitehead and the phenomenologists insist on descriptive analysis and reject both deduction and induction as proper philosophical methods (PR 15; PrP 67). John H. Kultgen maintains that Whitehead’s later theory of perception contains “a reflective phenomenological description of perceiving” (3:129). Kultgen notes Whitehead’s phenomenology of perception is compromised by the ontology of prehension. Though Husserl held that intentionality should not have any ontological significance because of the reduction, phenomenologists like Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty clearly ontologized intentionality. (I shall return to this point in section V.) One will recall that for Heidegger phenomenology is ontology, and many phenomenologists have followed Heidegger in this significant divergence from Husserl. Therefore, in both process thought and phenomenology descriptive analysis leads to speculative metaphysics. Indeed, it is evident in Merleau-Ponty that ontology, metaphysics, and even cosmology or a philosophy of nature are not incompatible with a revised phenomenological program.

I submit that the foregoing is sufficient to suggest that Whitehead is the adherent of a phenomenological method. Whitehead does the epoché in his systematic avoidance of the vivid sensa of presentational immediacy and the symbolic reference of the “common-sense” world. By avoiding the immediate sensation of presentational immediacy, Whitehead is able to draw on the insights of a more primordial form of perception: the vague, emotive mode of causal efficacy. This is, however, not similar to the Husserlian Wesenschau. Whitehead’s phenomenological analysis of perception is not as Husserl would have liked; indeed, Husserl would have charged Whitehead with gross indulgence in the natural attitude. But the fact is that Husserl also indicted Heidegger on the same count. The history of the phenomenological movement has shown us that the strict Husserlian method was not accepted by leading phenomenologists. These thinkers believed that the reductions were not possible in a strict sense, and they began to reformulate them in such a way as to preserve the integrity of the Lebenswelt and our perceptions within it. For both Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty pure essences are not discovered behind the veil of immediate sensa; rather, one finds an amorphous world of form and feeling.

Besides the methodological similarities outlined above, there is an indirect historical link between Whitehead and Husserl in the personage of William James. Husserl read the Principles of Psychology with enthusiasm and expressed his indebtedness to James. It is Spiegelberg’s opinion that Husserl owed more to James for the basic insights of intentionality than anyone else. Furthermore, there are scholars such as Bruce Wilshire, Aron Gurwitsch, and Alfred Schuetz who claim that there is a substantial link between Husserl and James.5 On the other side, there are a number of accounts by Whiteheadian scholars of James’s influence on Whitehead. For example, Victor Lowe maintains that Whitehead was influenced by Jamesian psychology: “Whitehead’s ‘nonsensuous perception’ [prehension] is what James later called “the ‘plain conjunctive experience,’ ‘feelings of relation,’ and ‘feelings of tendency”’ (UW 343). It is precisely this area, James’s theory of the “stream of experience,” from which Husserl drew much of his insight about intentionality.

It is my contention that both the existential phenomenologists and Whitehead have gone “beyond skepticism and realism” in a much more satisfactory way than Laszlo with his “complementarity” theory, which, although brilliant, seems contrived and artificial in many respects.6 Laszlo believes that a complete phenomenological reduction can be carried out; he believes that intentional objects are discrete and therefore isolatable as pure essences. Later phenomenologists, especially Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, the latter influenced by Gestalt psychology, firmly deny this. Not unlike Whitehead, these thinkers posit an embodied subject that is inextricably bound up with its data and its world, a world which is not transparent to pure noesis nor comprehensible in any formal way. For Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty there is an attempt to go beyond the “conceptual fixation” of the eidectic reduction to the concrete experience of the world. Existential phenomenology and Whitehead’s process philosophy are most assuredly what Merleau-Ponty called a “metaphysics of the concrete.”


Let us now begin a more detailed analysis with some of the more apparent similarities between the two philosophies. Both Whitehead and the phenomenologists posit subjects in the mode of becoming; in other words, temporality and process are fundamental for them. In this respect phenomenology is certainly a type of process philosophy. For both philosophies the world is a system of temporal relations, not a system of discrete entities which philosophers have always found to be immune to a truly satisfactory temporal explanation.

Each seeks to overcome the epistemological impasse generated by a metaphysics of discrete entities, especially the Cartesian problem of res cogitans inexplicably knowing res extensa. Both prehension and intentionality describe the relationship of a subject and an object in such a way as to overcome this subject-object split. In the same way that intentionality is always “consciousness of an object,” prehension is always “feeling of” some datum. This means that any prehensive unification or intentional act is codetermined by the respective data. Neither prehension nor intentionality describes the exclusive agency of a self-contained subject, nor the exclusive agency of an object as strict realists such as Brentano would have seen it. Intentionality does not mean, as it did for Brentano or the scholastics, the immanence of the object in a passive subject. We shall see, however, that objective immanence does play a role in Whitehead and the existential phenomenologists that it does not play in Husserl.

Intentionality and prehension describe neither the subject alone nor the object alone. To do this would be to commit the fallacy of simple location and fall into a metaphysics of discrete entities externally related. As Emmanuel Levinas states: “Intentionality is not the way in which a subject tries to make contact with an object that exists beside it. Intentionality is what makes up the very subjectivity of subjects” (IHP 41). Both Whitehead and the phenomenologists locate the conditions of experience in subjectivity. Both posit a “monadology” in which the conditions for experience are subjective and radically plural. For example, Heidegger’s Being, which can be best explained in terms of Kant’s transcendental conditions for the possibility of experience, is always the Being of an entity.

Husserl’s use of the term “monadology” and Whitehead’s own radical pluralism immediately bring to mind the philosophy of Leibniz, which I shall now use in a selective way to give a more substantial historical-philosophical basis to the present analysis. I certainly do not intend to establish any direct relationships, since neither Husserl nor Whitehead makes any explicit or extensive use of Leibniz. Indeed, in Process and Reality Whitehead generally has critical remarks about Leibniz, the main objections being Leibniz’s mentalism and doctrinaire rationalism. Despite these criticisms it is obvious that he has been deeply influenced by Leibniz, especially in his monadic view of reality and his pansubjectivism. In addition to the general comparative point of Leibniz’s radical pluralism, four other aspects of Leibniz’s philosophy have direct relevance: (1) Leibniz’s implicit rejection of substance metaphysics, (2) his doctrine of internal relations, (3) his theory of perception, and (4) the monad as an intentional field.

Both process philosophy and phenomenology reject traditional substance metaphysics. Many historians of philosophy, usually locating this significant turn in Hume, Kant, or Hegel, do not realize that Leibniz had already effectively overcome Aristotelian substance in his doctrine of the monad. Leibniz calls the monad a simple substance, but Leibniz means something radically different from his predecessors and contemporaries (Descartes, Spinoza, Locke). The monad is not a substratum, nor is it supported by a mental substance of the Cartesian variety. The monad is its perceptions of the world in the same way that Whitehead’s actual occasion is its prehensions of the world.

The phenomenological method has its prototype in the “First Meditation” of Descartes’ classic work. The “First Meditation” is essentially an examination of the phenomena of human consciousness, an examination repeated and refined by all phenomenologists and, as we have seen in section II, by Whitehead with his subjectivist principle. As Whitehead states: “‘prehensions’ are a generalization from Descartes’ mental ‘cogitations”’ (PR 29). In a highly significant article, Montgomery Furth argues that Leibniz’s monad is also the result of the Cartesian phenomenology of the “First Meditation.”7 Modern phenomenologists, Whitehead, and Leibniz all agree on one essential point: since res cogitans does not appear among the contents of consciousness, it is therefore an illegitimate metaphysical construct. All that appears to us, as Hume was to bring home so forcefully, is a stream of perceptions — not thinking things, extended things, or any other kind of substantive entities.

Criticisms of Leibniz’s monad have become staid cliches, and as a result, many philosophers have failed to see the strong phenomenological reasons behind some of Leibniz’s most eccentric conclusions. One of the most criticized aspects of the monad is that it has no “windows.” On the face of it, this incredible conclusion seemed to be forced upon Leibniz because of his strict allegiance to the Aristotelian definition of substance as something completely self-contained and self-sufficient. But Leibniz does not explicitly give this as a reason for the monads’ lack of “windows.” If Furth’s thesis about the origins of the Monadology is correct, then it is much more plausible to assume that the monads are solipsistic because solipsism, as Husserl held so tenaciously in the Cartesian Meditations, is a phenomenological given. Perception is always perspectival and is always from a specific and unique standpoint: my perceptions of the world are always mine and no one else’s. Since I cannot get outside of my perceptions, my perceptions constitute the world. My world is an intentional field in which I am inextricably bound up.

I contend that these general phenomenological considerations are at the basis of the monadic theories of consciousness and reality that are found in the participants in the present analysis. This is abundantly clear in Husserl, especially the Cartesian Meditations, where he claims that only a serious and thorough investigation of the full implications of solipsism can ever lead to the discovery of transcendental intersubjectivity. Heidegger’s concept of Jemeinigkeit is made more intelligible on this monadic interpretation of Dasein and its “world” (intentional field).

Whitehead is of course much closer to Leibniz because of the pansubjectivism which they share with few other philosophers. Both Whitehead and Leibniz generalize perception beyond the human realm to a noncognitive and unconscious “taking account” which Leibniz calls “perception” and Whitehead terms “prehension.” At this point, most assuredly, both leave the phenomenological method and enter speculative metaphysics.

In his Monadology (section 11) Leibniz states that “the natural changes of the monads must result from an internal principle, since no external cause could influence their interior.” Similarly, Whitehead states that the actual occasion can have no “external adventures . . . only the internal adventure of becoming” (PR 124). Both affirm the doctrine of internal relations, again with a sound phenomenological basis. The monad is a bundle of perceptions, the actual occasion is a prehensive unification, Dasein or Merleau-Ponty’s “existence” is an intentional field. All represent a field of experience internally related.

In both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty the relation between consciousness and things is an internal one. In Merleau-Ponty this relation is described as a dialectic: there is dialectical reciprocation between consciousness and the world. Consciousness is never simply there without content or an object; it is already and always wrapped up in a world. In Heidegger, internal relations are embodied in his theory of the hermeneutical circle. The terms, Dasein and world, are equiprimordial (gleichursprünglich). Dasein is its world. It makes no sense to ask: What came first? Dasein or its world? The question is improper because it is couched in a traditional notion of causality, that of antecedent cause and subsequent effect. The basic premise of all phenomenology is that consciousness is not a thing and that the relationship of consciousness and things is not a causal one.

An internal relation then is one in which the terms are interdependent; term A has no status without term B, and vice versa. An external relation (which really means no relation at all) is one in which term A is independent of term B, and vice versa. In other words, there is no “reason” for the terms to be linked. Contrary to Hume, who thought that the items of experience were all externally related, the participants in the present analysis believe that all experience, by virtue of its internal relations, has an inherent “sense” or “logic.” In Ideas (section 9) Husserl speaks of the “logic of experience” and Merleau-Ponty posits the “logic of the perceived world” (PrP 10).

Bruce Wilshire points out that earlier theorists of intentionality, such as Brentano and the scholastics, missed the “logical force of the concept of intentionality” (WJP 159). Both prehension and intentionality reveal essential and necessary connections in the world. Whitehead affirms that each actual occasion has a “real internal constitution” which, in the words of Locke, may be called its “essence,” i.e. an eidos (PR 37). For Husserl every actuality (Whitehead’s actual Occasion) is an expression of an essence (Whitehead’s eternal object); experience is composed of “individual instances of . . . essences” (Ideas 113). In this respect Whitehead’s philosophy is just as fully eidectic as Husserl’s, but in Whitehead, as in the existential phenomenologists, there is no eidectic reduction in the true Husserlian sense. As was observed in section II, there is no Wesenschau as such in Whitehead, Merleau-Ponty, or Heidegger. Every entity or item of experience is a unique expression of an essence which is nonreducible to any other expression of the same essence (cf. SMW chapter 10). No reduction is possible when confronted with the woolly red of a carpet, the red hue of autumn leaves, or the shiny red of a football uniform. It is clear then that Whitehead and the existential phenomenologists have taken the monadic view of reality more seriously than Husserl. The monad is essentially a perceptual standpoint, a unique “expression” (Leibniz’s own word) of the universe. The same is true for Whitehead’s actual occasion, Heidegger’s Dasein, and Merleau-Ponty’s “existence.”

It must be stressed that the monadic view of reality that Whitehead and the phenomenologists share does not lead to nominalism, but what might be called a moderate realism. In both views a philosophy of substance is replaced by a philosophy of form (eidos)(cf. SB 133f). These forms are not the hypostatized eidé of Plato. Forms (eternal objects or essences) have no ontological status apart from their embodiment in experience. But, unlike conceptualist theory, these forms are inherent in experience itself and not merely conceptual. Phenomenologists maintain that experience is already pregnant with form, and this form is the meaning of things, not the meaning of a conceptual order (cf. PrP 12; PhP 24). I contend that Whitehead and the phenomenologists are in close agreement on this point. Both agree that meaning and form are “objective,” but never in the sense of being apart from an intentional field or the prehensive unification of an actual occasion.

While both philosophies embrace this qualified essentialism, it is Whitehead that provides the necessary corrective on the problem of relations. He serves as a bridge between the doctrinaire acausalism of phenomenology and the hard determinism of classical science. With his doctrine of asymmetry, Whitehead is able to reconcile the traditional dichotomy between internal and external relations. Relations between the contemporary occasion and its past are both internal and external at once. The relation of the prehending subject is internal to its intentional object B, but -the relation of B, which remains stubborn, contingent fact, is external. This means that the cause is external to the effect, but the effect is internal to its cause.8 On the doctrine of asymmetry, White-head resurrects concepts of efficient and final causation which he claims are immune from Humean attack. In this way Whiteheadian metaphysics represents a more adequate solution to the problems of meaning and consciousness, while at the same time providing a strong philosophical basis for the realism and causalism of science. In a personal communication, Lewis S. Ford summarized this achievement beautifully: “Rather than being simply identical with intentionality, prehension generalizes both intentionality and causality, thus unifying both phenomenology and science.”


Prehension and intentionality are also similar in that they both involve adumbration (Husserl’s Abschattung)of the initial data. That which we perceive is what Whitehead calls a “perspective” of the thing-in-itself (PR 353, 361). One of the essential aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception is what he terms “perspectivism” (PhP 67). Without the perspectivism of intentionality/prehension, perception as we know it would not be possible. A nonadumbrated view of the world would be the privilege of an absolute mind.

In Phenomenology and Humanism William A. Luijpen states: To be subject means to be both an affirmation and a nihilation of the world in which we are involved. This affirmation and nihilation is not restricted to the cognitive level; the same phenomena reappear on the affective level. . . To be a subject also means to express the equiprimordial “yes” and “no” on the affective level.10

I believe that this description of the intentional subject is significant for our comparison with Whitehead, because adumbration for him begins at the affective level in terms of negative and positive prehensions and is then transmuted to the level of sense perception in presentational immediacy. Furthermore, it is essential to note that negative prehensions are still feelings in the same way that intentionality still characterizes those aspects of reality which do not appear in any one perspective.

Husserl makes a distinction between the object which is intended (the “natural” object whose being is bracketed in the phenomenological reduction) and the object as it is intended. Let us call the first the real object and the second the intentional object. I propose that there is a similar distinction in Whitehead. The real object (that which is prehended) is the initial datum as it immediately impinges upon the becoming actual occasion. The intentional object (as it is prehended) is what Whitehead calls the objective datum, that which is prehended under the occasion’s subjective aim. The real object may comprise many different prehensions. Let us say that these prehensions are M, N, 0, etc., following the model in Donald W. Sherburne’s A Key to Process and Reality (KPR 15). By virtue of the becoming occasion’s subjective form, prehensions and of the real object may be negatively prehended, and prehension positively prehended. For Whitehead the real object is thereby adumbrated: the intentional object is the real object under the aspect of prehension in accordance with the subjective aim of the becoming occasion.

It is important to note that even if the real object is destroyed, the intentional objects can still be entertained. Indeed, a real object is not necessary for some intentional objects, such as our consciousness of a unicorn or other imaginary entities. Brentano and the scholastics were aware of this phenomenon with their notion of mental objects which did not necessitate a referent in extramental existence. Again there is a Whiteheadian parallel: the object of a propositional feeling may be a proposition which does not necessarily correspond to an actual combination of an actual entity and an eternal object. For Whitehead this is how novelty is introduced into the world and the reason why art and literature are possible and aesthetically valuable.

Therefore both prehension and intentionality involve a creative selection and synthesis of objective data. Spiegelberg observes that one of the essential differences between Brentano and Husserl is that Husserlian consciousness means a “creative achievement” and not the object’s immanence in a passive Aristotelian subject (PM I 115). Now, it is true that objective immanence does play a major role in Whitehead. The first phase of concrescence is the direct immanence of the initial datum in the becoming occasion. Unlike the Aristotelian subject, however, the actual occasion does not simply entertain the datum passively, but feels it with intensity and transforms it into a truly intentional object. Again Whitehead represents a middle position between Husserlian idealism and strict realism. Concrescence is a combination of passive conformation to the past and creative transformation of its initial data.

There is an important difference between Husserl and Whitehead on this notion of subjective aim which they both share. For Husserl intentionality constitutes the meaning of the real object; the intentional object, or noematic object, is meaning. Husserl’s doctrine of hyletic data, that consciousness freely imposes its meaning on a meaningless stuff, is rejected by many latter-day phenomenologists. Whitehead takes sides with the existential phenomenologists in a rejection of this doctrine. The initial datum is already constituted by virtue of its component prehensions. Therefore subjective aim is an unique appropriation of meaning already constituted. In Merleau-Ponty this is called “meaning discovery” rather than Husserl’s “meaning-bestowal” (Sinngebung). In Merleau-Ponty’s dialectic of subject and object there is an appropriation of meaning that is quite similar to Whitehead’s. Remy Kwant phrases this dialectic aptly: “the meaning makes the subject be, and the subject constitutes the meaning” (PPMP 19). Translated into Whitehead’s terminology, this statement becomes: “the inherent meaning of the initial datum is appropriated by the becoming occasion in accordance with its subjective aim.”

Another contrasting point can be drawn from the foregoing. For Husserl intentionality is characterized as being “directed towards” its object. Just as Whitehead maintains that prehension has a fundamental vector quality, Husserl speaks of the “glancing ray” of consciousness “directed upon” objects (Ideas 223). There is, however, a substantial difference between Whitehead and Husserl in this regard, a difference which shows again Whitehead’s implicit sympathy with the existential phenomenologists. For Husserl objective immanence can have no meaning, because, strictly speaking, outside of conscious intentionality there is only hyletic data. Since objective immanence does play the initial role in concrescence, the direction of the vector of prehension is the reverse of that for Husserl. To Whitehead prehension directs the objective data towards the concrescing occasion. In terms of final causation the actual occasion guides its own experience, but at the same time it is being guided by the past in terms of efficient causation. Prehension, therefore, is much more compatible with the concept of fungierende Intentionalität (“operative,” or I prefer “primordial,” intentionality), which is inherent in a Lebenswelt and which is the condition for all subjective experience. Therefore we have two expressions of intentionality which have counterparts in Whitehead: (1) intentionality as a specific and determined act (Akt-Intentionalität)which corresponds to Whitehead’s “subjective aim”; and (2) primordial intentionality, that implicit guide for the formation of experience, which is similar to Whitehead’s prehension.


The rejection of Husserlian hyletics (coupled with a denial of the transcendental ego) leads to a shift of emphasis in the doctrine of intentionality. The spotlight is now focused on the broader notion of intentionality. This notion was already present in Husserl in that he described intentionality as a “universal medium which in the last resort includes within itself all experiences, even those that are not characterized as intentional” (Ideas 226). As Joseph J. Kockelmans states:

Here there is no longer question of the intentionality of a simple and determined act (Akt-Intentionalität)but of the essence itself of consciousness (fun gierende Intentionalität)The development of this idea, however, probably leads beyond Husserl into the thought of Heidegger. (Phn 35)

In essence, “primordial” intentionality refers to a prepredicative experience, an experience before the subject-object split. For Merleau-Ponty it represents that “spontaneous organization” of experience that precedes the subject’s active synthesis (PrP 77). Husserl’s notion of meaningless hyletic data, however, seemed to preclude the idea that there is any sort of preobjective synthesis. As a consequence this meant that the only type of intentionality that Husserl emphasized was “act-intentionality.” In other words, for Husserl each transcendental ego is the sole source of any order in the world, for the transcendental ego fully constitutes its intentional objects. If one rejects hyletic data and the transcendental ego, as Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty do, then consciousness takes on a somewhat different function: it does not constitute the meaning of the world; rather, it “presents” and appropriates a world already filled with meaning.

R. O. Elveton describes the concept of primordial intentionality in this fashion:

Not only do individual intentional acts “intend” their respective objects, but they also co-intend a horizon (ultimately, that of the world), which, although not consciously reflected upon, is nevertheless continually present and operative in all acts of consciousness. The phenomenological analysis of intentionality will remain incomplete as long as this cointended horizon remains outside the scope of phenomenological inquiry. (PhH 5)

The “horizon” of “operative” intentionality is the Lebenswelt, and only in his final work did Husserl take up this subject in earnest. It is the later phenomenologists who use the broad doctrine of intentionality for a phenomenology of the Lebenswelt.

For example, there is a concept of spontaneous constitution in Heidegger’s theory of Being, that Being embodies a logos that Dasein appropriates. For Heidegger Being is intentionality as it is expressed in Dasein’s world of meaning. The later Heidegger phrases this notion poetically as Being “speaking” through Dasein. Stephen Erickson is more prosaic as he makes the same point: “Intentionality precedes man” (LB 157). This means that intentional objects have sense only in the context of a larger world-horizon which is not due to subjective constitution. In a personal communication, Marjorie Grene suggested that prehension seems to be a generalization of Heidegger’s Geworfenheit, i.e., Dasein’s being “thrown” into a prestructured world.

Merleau-Ponty’s use of primordial intentionality is embodied in this quotation from Phenomenology of Perception:

Beneath intelligence as beneath perception, we discover a more fundamental function, “a vector mobile in all directions like a searchlight, one though which we can direct ourselves toward anything, in or outside ourselves, in relation to that object.” (PhP 135f.)

The doctrine of operative intentionality resolves the puzzling fact that continually confronts common sense: that consciousness finds itself always and already directed towards objects before any reflection or explicit instigation by the subject. As for Heidegger above, primordial intentionality is the Vorstruktur of a Lebenswelt; it represents a system of internal relations which is the basis for much human behavior.

Merleau-Ponty speaks freely of the phenomenological reduction, but it takes on quite a different character than Husserl’s strict “bracketing of being.” Sartre and Merleau-Ponty agree on an existentialist conception of the reduction. John D. Scanlon states that Sartre’s “reduction, then, is a deliberate maintaining of a spontaneous, naive attitude, a non-personal, pre-reflective spontaneity” (4:342). Orthodox Husserlians, such as Scanlon, charge that the existential phenomenologists are returning to the natural attitude and thereby precluding any genuine phenomenological reflection. Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty disagree. For them the final goal of phenomenology is not a pure description of essences, but a description of the Lebenswelt, free of scientific and metaphysical preconceptions.” Merleau-Ponty believes that this is far from naive naturalism, since it is a concerted effort to get at those primordial bonds which make up the web of our intentional lives. I contend that we would find Whitehead in essential agreement with these sentiments.

One final point shores up a firm, positive comparison: for the existential phenomenologists intentionality is ontologized. If there is no “bracketing of being,” then phenomenology inevitably leads to an ontology. This was not admissable for Husserl. Merleau-Ponty explicitly states that intentionality is an ontological relation:

The relationship between subject and object is no longer that relationship of knowing postulated by classical idealism, wherein the object always seems the construction of the subject, but a relationship of being in which, paradoxically, the subject is his body, his world, his situation, by a sort of exchange. (SN 72)

This quotation aptly sums up the main thrust of this section. Husserl’s theory of constitution and Sinngebung is still couched in the traditional epistemological terms of strictly cognitive relationships and the form-matter distinction. The existential phenomenologists and Whitehead reverse the modem priority of epistemology over ontology with the doctrine of primordial intentionality and prehension. With them we have “meaning-discovery” rather than Sinngebung; with them there is a world pregnant with form and meaning rather than meaningless hyletic data.

I conclude that the doctrine of primordial intentionality, in which the world as an antepredicative unity is already directing the subject, is equivalent to Whitehead’s doctrine of prehension. It is clear that Husserl’s emphasis on act-intentionality, a concept in which the subject directs, led him to the radical idealism of the transcendental ego and the theory of constitution. It is also evident that the concept of a fully active intentional subject would preclude the idea of objective immanence. Primordial intentionality allows objective immanence while at the same time insuring the spontaneity and freedom of individual subjects in a Lebenswelt.


One point of disagreement should be discussed: Whitehead’s pansubjectivism. In Heidegger it is clear that only a human Dasein and only a Dasein-worldcan be the locus of intentional acts. For Heidegger there are no animal-Daseins, plant-Daseins, or atom-Daseins. Sartre follows suit on this point, but Merleau-Ponty does not. In the Structure of Behavior Merleau-Ponty uses the term “existence” as synonymous with intentionality. “Existence” applies not only to human behavior but to animal behavior as well (SB 126). This constitutes a definite and significant break with the strict anthropocentrism of previous phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty’s primordial intentionality is that system of relations that allows any intentional being to find its place in the world.

There are some strong indications that Merleau-Ponty may be willing to go beyond this. There is one passage in Phenomenology of Perception which speaks of primordial intentionality and its scope. Merleau-Ponty discusses the “horizon,” the principal expression of primordial intentionality, as that which “guarantees the identity of the object through the exploration” (PhP 68). It has nothing to do with subjective constitution, or “distinct memory or explicit conjecture.” And then comes this crucial passage:

To see is to enter a universe of beings which display themselves every object is the mirror of all others. When I look at the lamp on my table, I attribute to it not only the qualities visible from where I am, but also those which the chimney, the walls, the table can “see”; the back of my lamp is nothing but the face which it “shows” to the chimney. I can therefore see an object in so far as objects form a system or a world, and in so far as each one treats the others round it as spectators of its hidden aspects which guarantee the permanence of those aspects by their presence. (PhP 68)

It is difficult to say how literally Merleau-Ponty intends for us to take this example, one in which he is explicitly attributing a noncognitive perception (i.e., prehension) among things. A literal interpretation is supported by statements in The Structure of Behavior such as the one in which things are described as “dynamically knowing” each other (SB 143). There is also a significant programmatic statement, similar in intent with the analogy of organism, which proposes that matter, life, and mind are the “dominant characteristics” of the universe and each has universal applicability (SB 131). Here is the cosmological emphasis that is so predominant in process philosophy; furthermore, here is a philosophy of mind in which — unlike Husserl and very much like Whitehead — the conscious ego is not the initial datum, but just a higher unity of more basic intentional acts.

In summing up, we have seen that there are substantial parallels between Whitehead and existential phenomenology. Methodologically, both begin with descriptive analyses that lead to a metaphysics of the concrete. Both begin with the data of human consciousness and both perform phenomenological reductions, at least a version of the epoche in the case of Whitehead. As a result, Whitehead’s philosophy is a phenomenology as Merleau-Ponty defines it: “philosophy . . . becomes a phenomenology, that is, an inventory of consciousness as milieu of the universe (SB 199). In section III, I have argued that this use of the Cartesian starting point has many points in common with Leibniz’s interpretation of the “First Meditation,” chief among them being a rejection of substance metaphysics, a doctrine of internal relations, and a monadic view of reality and consciousness.

I have also noted some differences, specifically the matter of relations and causality and the problem of Whitehead’s pansubjectivism. This latter difference is mitigated substantially if some form of sentience and intentionality is attributed to nonhuman entities, as it seems to be done in The Structure of Behavior. In the balance of the essay, I have proposed an equivalence between prehension and primordial intentionality on the one hand, and subjective aim and act intentionality on the other Finally, I have suggested that, if we are to take the proposals in The Structure of Behavior seriously, Merleau-Ponty — along with the process philosophers — has refused to bifurcate nature and is willing to make intentionality, like prehension, a truly “universal medium.”


BSR — Ervin Laszlo. Beyond Scepticism and Realism. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1966.

Ideas — Edmund Husserl. Ideas, trans. W. R. Gibson. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

IHP — Emmanuel Levinas. The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology, trans. Andre Orianne. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

KPR — Donald W. Sherburne. A Key to Whitehead’s PROCESS AND REALITY. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

LB — Stephen A. Erickson. Language and Being. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.

PCC — F. Kersten and R. Zaner, ed. Phenomenology: Continuation and Criticism. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1973.

PhH — R. O. Elveton, ed. The Phenomenology of Husserl. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970.

Phn — Joseph J. Kockelmans, ed. Phenomenology. New York: Anchor Books, 1967.

PhP — Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith. New York: The Humanities Press, 1962.

PM — Herbert Spiegelberg. The Phenomenological Movement. Two Vol-umes. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1969.

PPMP — Remy C. Kwant. The Phenomenological Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1963.

PrP — Merleau-Ponty. The Primacy of Perception, trans. John Wild. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

SB. — Merleau-Ponty. The Structure of Behavior, trans. A. L. Fisher. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

SN — Merleau-Ponty. Sense and Non-sense, trans. H. L. and P. A. Dreyfus. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967.

UW — Victor Lowe. Understanding Whitehead. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962.

WJP — Bruce Wilshire. William James and Phenomenology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

WP — Richard M. Zaner. The Way of Phenomenology. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

1. A. H. Johnson. “The Intelligibility of Whitehead’s Philosophy,” Philosophy of Science 10/1 (January, 1943), 47-55.

2. John H. Kultgen. “Intentionality and the Publicity of the Perceptual World,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 33/4 (June, 1973), 503-13.

3. John H. Kultgen. “An Early Whiteheadian View of Perception,” PS 2:126-36.

.John D. Scanlon. “Consciousness, the Streetcar, and the Ego: Pro Husserl, Contra Sartre.” The Philosophical Forum 2/3 (Spring, 1971), 332-54.


1 Specific articles on this subject have been offered by Charles Hartshorne, “Husserl and Whitehead on the Concrete,” FCC 90-104; F. David Martin, “Heidegger’s Thinking Being and Whitehead’s Theory of Perception,” Bucknell Review 17 (May, 1969). 79-102; Thomas Hanna, “The Living Body: Nexus of Process Philosophy and Existential Phenomenology,” Soundings 52 (Fall, 1969), 323-33; Calvin Schrag, “Whitehead and Heidegger: Process Philosophy and Existential Philosophy,” Dialectica 13 (1959), 42-56; also in Philosophy Today 4 (1960), 26-35; David R. Mason, “Time in Whitehead and Heidegger: Some Comparisons,” PS 5:83-105.

2 Marjorie Grene, The Knower and the Known (New York: Basic Books, 1966), 244. In a letter to me, Professor Grene retracted her point about Polanyi’s tacit knowing, but still affirmed the connection between Merleau-Ponty and Whitehead.

3 William Gallagher, “Whitehead’s Philosophical Psychology: Another View,” PS 4:263-74; William S. Hamrick, “Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty: Some Moral Implications,” PS 4:235-51; see also Hamrick, “Body, Space and Time in the Philosophies of Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty,” Vanderbilt University Ph.Ddissertation, 1971.

4 Here is a crucial quote which shows conclusively that Whitehead goes from psychology to physics, not vice versa: “If we substitute the term ‘energy’ for the concept of a quantitative emotional intensity, and the term ‘form of energy’ for the concept of a specific form of feeling,’. . . we see that this metaphysical description of the simplest elements in the constitution of actual entities agrees absolutely with the general principles according to which the notions of modern physics are framed” (PR 177). In other words, a metaphysics derived from a description of human emotional states is compatible with modem physics. Furthermore, feeling and emotional energy is basic; the energy of physics is an abstraction or derivation from this.

5 Bruce Wilshire, William James and Phenomenology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968); Gurwitsch, Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1966); A. Schuetz, “William James’ Concept of the Stream of Thought Phenomenologically Interpreted,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 1 (1941), 442-52.

6 For example, Laszlo maintains a strict, and I believe, artificial distinction between clear, non-emotive sense data and vague, emotive ones. Whitehead and existential phenomenologists such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty hold contrarily that all sense data are intrinsically emotive. Merleau-Ponty draws extensively on experimental psychology to make this point.

7 Montgomery Furth, “Monadology” in Leibniz, ed. Harry G. Frankfurt (N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1972), 99-136. Originally published in Philosophical Review 76 (1967). See also L. E. Scott’s article comparing the monad and Dasein in Heidegger in Europe and America, ed. E. C. Ballard and Scott (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973).

8 In contrast to the “strong” analytic of the classical rationalists, Whitehead’s logic exhibits “weak” analycity. An example of a weak analytic statement is “a hungry man eats an apple.” The hungry man internally related to the apple, the apple being a member of a class of edibles. There is a “reason” for this relation. But the apple is unaffected by the hungry man; it remains external, contingent, stubborn fact. This shows the asymmetry of Whiteheadian relations. I am indebted to one of my graduate students, Madeleine Keys, for this example.

9 It is important to note that for both philosophies this “perspective” is not a representation, but a direct apprehension of an aspect of the real object. Roth views attack the representationalism of earlier epistemology. As Merleau-Ponty states:”It is the thing itself which I reach in perception (SB 199).

10 William A. Luijpon, Phenomenology and Humanism (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1966), 105. See also Merleau-Ponty, PrP 1416. Here he states that the “appearance” of something requires both a presence and an absence.

11 It is doubtful whether the existential phenomenologists would have approved Whitehead’s extensive use of the conceptual models of modem physics. Even with the existentialist view of the phenomenological reduction, such influences should he p urged from a description of the lived world. On this point it is instructive to note that Merleau-Ponty refuses to accept Einstein’s denial of contemporaneity which Whitehead applies to the conscrescence of actual occasions. Merleau-Ponty claims that our incontrovertible experience of contemporaneity must take precedence over any scientific theory of time. I regret that I have lost this particular reference in Merleau-Ponty’s works.

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