Didier DEBAISE. Nature as Event: The Lure of the Possible, trans. Michael Halewood.  (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), pp. vii, 101. ISBN 9780822369332 (paper). $22.95.   Reviewed by Joseph A. BRACKEN, S.J. , Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH 45207.


Didier Debaise is editor of the Research Center in Philosophy at the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, and the author of several previous books in philosophy.  His intention in the present book is to give greater coherence to the metaphysics of  Alfred North Whitehead as he presented it and further developed it over the years in a sequence of key books: The Concept of Nature (1920), Process and Reality (1929), and  Modes of Thought (1938). In my judgment, Debaise remarkably succeeded in his careful rethinking of Whitehead’s metaphysics.  But, as a caution to a future reader, he did not write an easy-to-read introduction to Whitehead’s thought.  One already has to be basically familiar with Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme in order to see clearly what Debaise is doing in his rethinking of Whitehead’s philosophy.  A further caution coming from my own reinterpretation of Whitehead’s thought in favor of a systems-oriented approach to reality is that Debaise ends up with the same affirmation of philosophical atomism as Whitehead himself.  That is, like Whitehead he focuses on constituents of societies (actual entities as momentary subjects of experience) rather than on the “societies,” organized systems of these dynamically interrelated subjects of experience).  So for Debaise and Whitehead, this world is constituted by the interrelated activity of momentary feeling-oriented subjects of experience with little or no attention to their conjoint reality as a society, an ontological totality or cosmic organism that is other than the sum of its constituent parts or members.

 Given these reservations, I nevertheless recommend the book to philosophically oriented individuals, if only because it offers  a much needed correction to some serious mistakes about the nature of physical reality that are still current in contemporary natural science and in classical metaphysics. Everyone can profit from reading Chapter One which critiques the implicitly materialistic understanding of physical reality that is still prevalent among natural scientists and many philosophers of science. Chapters Two and Three are much more technical and require prior understanding of Whitehead’s cosmology.  As a result, in the rest of this review I simply offer a brief summary of the contents of Chapter One. 

Many if not most natural scientists still think that the ultimate units of reality, atoms and molecules, are inert bits of matter that are brought together and/or pulled apart by external forces like gravity and electromagnetism.  Whitehead and Debaise counter-argue that atoms and molecules are instead mini-organisms with a feeling-level attraction to or repulsion from one another.  Thus what seems to be unchanging and lifeless matter at lower levels of physical reality is actually alive and slowly undergoing significant change. Furthermore, in thus distinguishing so sharply between allegedly lifeless matter and spirit as pure activity (in line with the philosophy of René Descartes), early modern science and philosophy of science introduced a dualism that is completely foreign to the way that nature actually works. Everything in this world is conditioned by time (what happened before and is likely to happen next as well as what is going on within an entity here and now). Individual things are in the end not fixed or unchanging realities but a succession of events succeeding one another according to a relatively fixed pattern or mode of operation. As a result, everything in this world is conditioned by final causality (where things are headed) as well as efficient causality (how things work). Debaise is thus critiquing the implicit materialism of early modern natural science and philosophy of science.  Instead he provides a philosophical understanding of nature as an evolutionary reality that is not based on either chance or determinism but instead what can be called a non-dual understanding of the relation between matter and spirit in which neither works properly without the influence and conjoined activity of the other.