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Observations placeholder

North Whitehead, Alfred – 02 ‘Prehensions’ or actual relationships



Type of Spiritual Experience


Why did he use the word ‘prehension’?  It means the action of grasping or seizing something, but his description hardly implies this.

We think that Whitehead was using this word to cover a concept now used in computing to model systems  – actual relationships - and we will use an example to show this. 

Let us take Fifi who is a Dog.  She is a white poodle, fluffy with big brown eyes and a collar with her name.  Now let us analyse thus.

Fifi – actual entity

Fifi IS a Dog
Fifi IS a Poodle
A Poodle IS a Dog

Fifi’s fur – actual entity

Fifi HAS Fur
Fifi’s Fur IS white
Fifi’s Fur IS Fluffy

Eye 1 – actual entity

Eye 2 – actual entity

Fifi HAS Eye 1
Fifi HAS Eye 2
Eye 1 IS Big
Eye 2 IS Big
Eye 1 IS Brown
Eye 2 IS brown

Collar – actual entity

Fifi HAS Collar 1
Collar 1 HAS Name of Fifi


If we show this diagrammatically using lines to represent the relationships [and the verbs ] and blobs for the actual entities, we can see that  there is a difference between actual entities that have some existence in space/time and actual entities that are concepts – classes of things – that are essentially ephemeral.  White, dog, collar, poodle, big, brown are all classes, and we know they are classes because the word IS appears in the relationship.  The word IS does not denote equality, it denotes a set having multiple actual entities in it.  We can see from the class Brown, that two actual eyes are brown.

In computing this is termed data occurrence modelling and is one of the ways in which we can deduce what data in a system exists, in a ‘bottom up way’.  So although Whitehead may call his philosophy process philosophy, it actually covers both process and data.

The classes are an indicator of the existence of system, and for a thing  to belong to a class there have to be processes in place to put it in that class.  Furthermore there have to be processes in place to create the relationships.  Thus there will be a process, for example, to give Fifi her collar.  And a process [a process of nature]  to give her her fur.  This proves there is system implicit in the universe with both data and processes.

Data and process are also inextricably inter-twined and the one reflects the other.

A description of the experience

Part I The Speculative Scheme

Chapter II The Categoreal Scheme

Section I

Each actual entity is analysable in an indefinite number of ways. In some modes of analysis the component elements are more abstract than in other modes of analysis.

The analysis of an actual entity into 'prehensions' is that mode of analysis which exhibits the most concrete elements in the nature of actual entities. This mode of analysis will be termed the 'division' of the actual entity in question. Each actual entity is 'divisible' in an indefinite number of ways, and each way of 'division' yields its definite quota of prehensions.

A prehension reproduces in itself the general characteristics of an actual entitv: it is referent to an external world, and in this sense will be said to have a 'vector character'; it involves emotion, and purpose, and valuation, and causation. In fact, any characteristic of an actual entity is reproduced in a prehension. It might have been a complete actuality; but, by reason of a certain incomplete partiality, a prehension is only a subordinate element in an actual entity. A reference to the complete actuality is required to give the reason why such a prehension is what it is in respect to its subjective form................

Actual entities involve each other by reason of their prehensions of each other. There are thus real individual facts of the togetherness of actual entities, which are real, individual, and particular, in the same sense in which actual entities and the prehensions are real, individual, and particular.

Any such particular fact of togetherness among actual entities is called a nexus  [from Latin nexus "that which ties or binds together," past participle of nectere "to bind], (plural form is written 'nexus'). The ultimate facts of immediate actual experience are actual entities, prehensions, and nexus. All else is, for our experience, derivative abstraction.

The source of the experience

North Whitehead, Alfred

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Data Modelling and Process Modelling using the most popular Methods - Rosemary Rock-Evans