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David Ray Griffin

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David Ray Griffin, "Process Philosophy" [1998]. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  London, 1998.

 Process Philosophy

David Ray Griffin

In the broad sense, the term “process philosophy” refers to all worldviews holding that process or becoming is more fundamental than unchanging being. For example, an anthology titled Philosophers of Process (1965) includes selections from Samuel Alexander, Henri Bergson, John Dewey, William James, Lloyd Morgan, Charles Peirce and Alfred North Whitehead, with an introduction by Charles Hartshorne. Some lists include Hegel and Heraclitus. The term has widely come to refer in particular, however, to the movement inaugurated by Whitehead and extended by Hartshorne. Here, process philosophy is treated in this narrower sense. 


1 Philosophy’s central task

Process philosophy is based on the conviction that the central task of philosophy is to construct a cosmology in which all intuitions well-grounded in human experience can be reconciled. Whereas cosmologies were traditionally based on religious, ethical and aesthetic as well as scientific experiences, cosmology in the modern period has increasingly been based on science alone. Process philosophers find this modern cosmology, which can be called scientific materialism,” inadequate to those human intuitions that are usually called aesthetic, ethical and religious and, more generally, to those “commonsense” beliefs that we cannot help presupposing in practicesuch as the belief that our thoughts and actions are not wholly determined by antecedent causes. Such beliefs, rather than being explained away, should provide the final criterion for philosophical thought. In enunciating this criterion, Whitehead (1929) and Hartshorne (1970) are adopting the pragmatic maxim of Peirce and James that, if an idea cannot be lived in practice, it should not be affirmed in theory. The worldview of scientific materialism is also held to be inadequate for science itself. Although this is most obvious in biology and psychology (see §3 below), it is true even for physics (Whitehead 1925).

Part and parcel of philosophy’s task is its role as “the critic of abstractions”. Because of the tendency for overstatement, the abstractions from the more specialized disciplines usually need to be reformulated before they can be integrated into a self-consistent cosmology (Whitehead 1925). Because the abstractions of the physical sciences have recently been dominant, the primary critical task now is “to challenge the half-truths constituting the scientific first principles” (Whitehead [1929] 1978: 10). At the root of these half-truths is usually the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” in which an abstraction from something, useful for particular purposes, is identified with the concrete thing itself. This fallacy lies behind scientific materialism, according to which everything, including human experience, is to be explained in terms of the locomotion of bits of matter devoid of spontaneity, internal process and intrinsic value (Whitehead 1925). The suggested alternative is to reconceive the basic units of the world as processes (see Whitehead, A.N.).


2 Two kinds of process

Although “process philosophy” (which Whitehead himself did not use) probably became the label for the school of thought he founded primarily because of the title of his main work, Process and Reality (1929), the term is apt: “The reality is the process” and “an actual entity is a process” (Whitehead [1925] 1967: 72; [1929] 1978: 41). Whereas all process philosophies in the broad sense could agree with these statements, it is the particular interpretation given to them that constitutes the distinctiveness of Whiteheadian process philosophy. Central to this distinctiveness is the two-fold idea that the actual units comprising the universe are momentary “occasions of experience” involving two kinds of process.

Partly through the influence of quantum physics, Whitehead conceived of the most fundamental units of the world, the most fully actual entities, not as enduring individuals but as momentary events. Enduring individuals, such as electrons, molecules, and minds, are “temporally ordered societies” of these momentary events. The idea that actual entities are events with both spatial and temporal extensiveness is indicated by calling them “actual occasions” (Whitehead [1929] 1978: 77). Their temporal extensiveness means that they cannot exist at an “instant” (understood as a durationless slice of time). Rather, they constitute, as Bergson had suggested, a more or less brief duration (from perhaps less than a billionth of a second in subatomic events to perhaps a tenth of a second at the level of human experience).

This idea paves the way for recognizing two kinds of process: a process within an actual occasion, called “concrescence” (because it involves moving from potentiality to concreteness), and a process between actual occasions, called “transition”. These two kinds of process involve the two basic kinds of causation: “efficient causation expresses the transition from actual entity to actual entity; and final causation expresses the internal process whereby the actual entity becomes itself”. Through this distinction Whitehead seeks to fulfil a central task of philosophy: “to exhibit final and efficient causes in their proper relation to each other” ([1929] 1978: 150, 84). This proper relation is that every actual occasion begins by receiving efficient causation from prior actual occasions, completes itself by exercising final causation, understood as self-determination, and then exercises efficient causation upon following occasions. The temporal process involves a perpetual oscillation between efficient and final causation.

The two previous paragraphs provide two aspects of Whitehead’s alternative to materialism’s way of overcoming dualism in favour of a cosmology with only one type of actual entity. According to Cartesian dualism, minds were temporal but not spatial, while material bodies were spatially extended but essentially nontemporal (being able to exist at an instant). Whitehead’s idea that all actual entities are spatio-temporal events overcomes that dualism. His idea that these events involve both concrescence and transition overcomes the further dualism between actual entities that can exert only efficient causation and those that can exercise self-determination. The central feature of Cartesianism, however, was the dualism between actual entities with experience and those without. This dualism is overcome through the rejection of “vacuous actualities,” meaning things that are fully actual and yet void of experience. This rejection is expressed positively by considering all actual occasions to be “occasions of experience” (Whitehead [1929] 1978: 29, 167, 189). This doctrine means, with regard to the internal process of concrescence, that “process is the becoming of experience” (Whitehead [1929] 1978: 166). The meaning is not that all actual entities are consciousmost are notbut that they have some degree of feeling.

Although “panpsychism” is the customary name for philosophies of this sort, “panexperientialism” is better for this particular version, partly because the term “psyche,” besides suggesting experience too sophisticated to attribute to atoms or even cells, also suggests that the ultimate units endure through time, rather than being momentary experiences. Another essential feature of process philosophy’s version is that the “pan,” meaning “all,” does not refer to literally all things but only to all genuine individuals. This distinction is central to process philosophy’s solution to the mind–body problem.


3 The mind–body problem

Panexperientialists, like materialists, consider insoluble the problem of dualistic interaction: How could mind and brain cells, understood as actualities of ontologically different types, interact? Materialism seeks to avoid this problem by thinking of the mind as somehow identical with the brain. However, besides still having the problem of how conscious experience could arise out of insentient neurons, materialism is also hard-pressed to explain the apparent unity and freedom of our experience. The move by eliminative materialists, denying that there is any experience, unity or freedom to explain, rejects in theory what is inevitably presupposed in practice. Whiteheadian process philosophy suggests, on the basis of its panexperientialism, a “nondualistic interactionism” meant to avoid the problems of both dualism and materialism. With dualism, it distinguishes (numerically) between mind and brain. The distinct reality of the mind, as a temporally ordered society of very high-level occasions of experience, provides a locus for the unity of our experience and its power to exercise self-determination. But by rejecting dualism’s assumption that the mind is ontologically different from the brain cells, panexperientialism removes the main obstacle to understanding how our experiences could interact with our brain cells. As Hartshorne puts it: “cells can influence our human experiences because they have feelings that we can feel. To deal with the influences of human experiences upon cells, one turns this around. We have feelings that cells can feel” (1962: 229).

The freedom of bodily action has also been a problem for materialists, who may admit that they cannot help presupposing this freedom while claiming that the scientific worldview has no room for it. One of the assumptions behind this claim is that the behaviour of subatomic particles is fully specified by the laws of physics. A second is that all wholes, including human beings, are analogous to rocks and billiard balls, so that all vertical causation must run upward, from the most elementary parts to the whole. In process philosophy’s panexperientialist ontology, by contrast, all actual entities are internally constituted by their relations to other occasions. This view allows for the emergence of higher-level actual occasions, so that spatio-temporal societies of actual entities can be of two basic types: besides aggregational societies, such as rocks, there is what Hartshorne (1972) calls the “compound individual,” in which a society with the requisite complexity gives rise to a “dominant” member, which can then exercise downward causation on the rest of the society. This downward causation is possible, furthermore, because the “laws” of nature are really its most widespread habits, and because atoms and subatomic particles are open to the particular influences of the environment in which they find themselves (Whitehead [1938] 1966: 154–5; [1933] 1967: 41).


4 Perception and prehension

Another distinctive feature of Whiteheadian process philosophy is its challenge to the ‘sensationalist” theory of perception, according to which all knowledge of the world beyond the mind comes through sensory perception (see Perception, epistemic issues in). More fundamental than sensory perception, suggests Whitehead (1925), is a nonsensory mode of perception, called “prehension,” which may or may not be conscious. One example (which we call “memory”) occurs when an occasion of experience directly perceives occasions in its own past. Another instance is the mind’s direct reception of influences from its brain (which sensory perception presupposes). This direct prehension of other actualities, through which we know of the existence of the “external world,” is also called “perception in the mode of causal efficacy,” because it provides the experiential basis, denied by Hume, for our idea of causation as real influence.

This idea of nonsensory prehension is central to process philosophy. It is implicit in the idea of panexperientialism: because sensory perception can be attributed only to organisms with sensory organs, the idea that all actual entities have experience presupposes a more primitive mode of perceptual experience that can be generalized to all individuals whatsoever. This idea is also presupposed in the acceptance of aesthetic, ethical and religious experiences as genuine apprehensions. It is crucial, thereby, to the task through which philosophy “attains its chief importance,” that of fusing science and religion “into one rational scheme of thought” (Whitehead [1929] 1978: 15).


5 Reconciling science and religion

One side of this task of reconciling science and religion involves what has been discussed abovethe replacement of the materialistic worldview, with which science has recently been associated, with panexperientialism, which allows religious and moral experience as well as freedom to be taken seriously. The other side of the task involves overcoming exaggerations from the religious side that conflict with necessary assumptions of science. Here the main exaggeration involves the idea of divine power. Whitehead and Hartshorne do believe that a metaphysical description of reality points to the necessity of a supreme agent to which the name “God” can meaningfully be applied. (Arguments for the existence of God are developed much more fully by Hartshorne (1941, 1962) than by Whitehead.) But they strongly reject the traditional doctrine of divine power, according to which God, having created the world ex nihilo, can interrupt its basic causal processesa doctrine that, besides creating an insuperable problem of evil, also conflicts with the assumption of scientific naturalism that no such interruptions can occur. Their alternative proposal is that the power of God is persuasive, not coercive (Whitehead 1929, 1933; Hartshorne 1984).


6 Developments in the movement

Although Whitehead was one of the first philosophers to be included in “The Library of Living Philosophers” (Schilpp 1941), his philosophy was largely ignored in the decades subsequent to its articulation in the 1920s and 1930s, partly because of the turn to anti-metaphysical forms of philosophy. Another factor was that, even within circles still interested in developing a naturalistic cosmology, Whitehead’s panexperientialism and affirmation of God were felt to exceed the limits of a proper naturalism, which was largely equated with materialism (see Materialism). The most prominent advocate of Whiteheadian process philosophy in the following decades, furthermore, was Hartshorne, whose focus on the idea of God, while creating interest in theological faculties, reinforced suspicions in philosophical circles. Around 1960, however, a spate of books on Whitehead’s philosophy inaugurated a period of greater interest (Lawrence 1956; Leclerc 1958, 1961; Christian 1959; Lowe 1962; Sherburne 1961; Kline 1963). In 1971, a journal, Process Studies, was created for the purpose of furthering the study and development of process thinking. In 1991, a volume devoted to the philosophy of Hartshorne appeared in the “Library of Living Philosophers” (Hahn 1991).

Whiteheadian process philosophy has exerted some influence in a number of branches of philosophy, such as the philosophies of science, education, and art. Its major influence thus far, however, has continued to be in the philosophy of religion (Cobb 1965, 1969; Frankenberry 1987; Griffin 1976, 1991; Ogden 1966), including discussions of the relation between science and religion in particular (Barbour 1966, 1990).


References and further reading

Barbour, I. (1966) Issues in Science and Religion, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. (A widely used text written primarily from the perspective of process philosophy.)

Barbour, I. (1990) Religion in an Age of Science, San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row; London: SCM. (An updated replacement of the previous book, based on Gifford Lectures.)

Browning, D. (1965) Philosophers of Process, New York: Random House. (Readable selection of writings of a number of “process philosophers” in the broad sense.)

Christian, W.A. (1959) An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Focusing on the idea of “transcendence,” this otherwise careful analysis is flawed by a misunderstanding of the “perishing” of actual entities and thereby of the causal efficacy involved in “transition”.)

Cobb, J.B. (1965) A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead, Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. (This book, which has become a standard, provides one of the most precise accounts of Whitehead’s philosophy in the course of showing its relevance to religious issues.)

Cobb, J.B. (1969) God and the World, Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. (The first three chapters of this more popular presentation, based on a series of lectures, are especially recommended.)

Frankenberry, N. (1987) Religion and Radical Empiricism, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. (Places the relevance of Whitehead in the context of the radical empiricism of William James.)

Griffin, D.R. (1976) God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy, Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. (The first book-length treatment of theodicy from the perspective of Whiteheadian-Hartshornean philosophy.)

Griffin, D.R. (1991) Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. (Responses to critiques of previous book.)

Griffin, D.R. (1997) Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem, Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. (A lengthy treatment of the material in §3 above, developing the Whiteheadian position in relation to recent efforts by dualists and especially materialists.)

Griffin, D.R., Cobb, J.B., Ford, M.P., Gunter, P.A.Y. and Ochs, P. (1993) Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Peirce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. (Five original essays plus an introduction discussing the relevance of what these five philosophers have in common, such as panexperientialism, to current discussions.)

Hahn, L.E. (ed.) (1991) The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, The Library of Living Philosophers vol. 20, La Salle, IL: Open Court. (Descriptive and critical essays about Hartshorne’s philosophy with lengthy replies by Hartshorne plus an intellectual autobiography.)

Hartshorne, C. (1937) Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy of Nature, Chicago, IL: Willet, Clark. (Collection of early essays arguing that nature is loveable in its parts and as a whole.)

Hartshorne, C. (1941) Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism, New York: Harper & Row. (Hartshorne’s first attempt to apply the logic he had learned from C.I. Lewis and H. M. Sheffer to the philosophy of religion.)

Hartshorne, C. (1962) The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays in Neoclassical Metaphysics, La Salle, IL: Open Court. (The “other essays” provide a very readable introduction to his philosophy of nature, freedom, and religion.)

Hartshorne, C. (1970) Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, La Salle, IL: Open Court. (The best survey of Hartshorne’s philosophy.)

Hartshorne, C. (1972) Whitehead’s Philosophy: Selected Essays, 1935–1970, Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press. (Essays explaining the respects in which Hartshorne agrees and disagrees with Whitehead’s version of process philosophy.)

Hartshorne, C. (1984) Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. (Dealing entirely with religious issues, this is the easiest of Hartshorne’s books.)

Kline, G.L. (ed.) (1963) Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. (This still-helpful collection both reflected and helped spark the new interest in Whitehead’s philosophy.)

Lawrence, N. (1956) Whitehead’s Philosophical Development: A Critical History of the Background of Process and Reality, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (A careful tracing of the development up to, but not including, Whitehead’s magnum opus.)

Leclerc, I. (1958) Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition, New York: Macmillan. (Comparing the formative elements of Whitehead’s system to Aristotle’s four “causes,” this introduction is helpful except on efficient causation.)

Leclerc, I. (ed.) (1961) The Relevance of Whitehead: Philosophical Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of the Birth of Alfred North Whitehead, New York: Macmillan; London: Allen & Unwin. (A very good collection of essays by major commentators.)

Lowe, V. (1962) Understanding Whitehead, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. (In most respects still the best introduction.)

Ogden, S.M. (1966) The Reality of God and Other Essays, New York: Harper & Row. (A philosophically rigorous but accessible explication and application of Hartshornean theism.)

Schilpp, P.A. (1941) The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, The Library of Living Philosophers vol. 3, New York: Tudor. (Descriptive and critical essays by many philosophers, including Lowe, Quine, R.W. Sellars, Hartshorne, Dewey and C.I. Lewis.)

Sherburne, D.W. (1961) A Whiteheadian Aesthetic: Some Implications of Whitehead’s Metaphysical Speculation, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (A vigorous and in some respects controversial account.)

Whitehead, A.N. (1925) Science and the Modern World, New York: Free Press, 1967. (The first book of Whitehead’s metaphysical period, it is essential for understanding his alternative to scientific materialism.)

Whitehead, A.N. (1926) Religion in the Making, Cleveland, OH: World, 1960. (Whitehead’s first application of his metaphysical vision to the philosophy of religion.)

Whitehead, A.N. (1929) Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, corrected edition, ed. D.R. Griffin and D.W. Sherburne, New York: Free Press, 1978. (His magnum opus, it contains both extremely illuminating and very difficult passages.)

Whitehead, A.N. (1933) Adventures of Ideas, New York: Free Press, 1967. (Besides being one of Whitehead’s most readable books, it provides the best insight into his overall position, including his philosophy of culture.)

Whitehead, A.N. (1938) Modes of Thought, New York: Free Press, 1966. (His last andalong with The Function of Reasonhis least technical book.)

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