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Process philosophy identifies metaphysical reality with change and dynamism. The majority of metaphysics since the time of Plato, on the other hand, usually posits a "timeless" metaphysical reality of substances, objects, or things, while processes are denied or subordinated to timeless objects. Process philosophy reverses this trend, favoring "Becoming" over "Being" and "Non-being" which logically follows from Being, that is to say, it does not characterize change as illusory but as the cornerstone of metaphysical reality, or ontology. Modern process philosophers include Henri Bergson, Charles Peirce, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, Nicholas Rescher, and Gilles Deleuze, a list to which some add Arthur Schopenhauer and even Friedrich Nietzsche.
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In Ancient Greek thought
The formal development of this theory begins with Heraclitus's fragments in which he posits the noumenon (not to be confused with Kant's "Ding an sich"), the ground of Becoming, as agon or "strife of opposites" as the underlying basis of all reality defined by change. That balance and conflict were the foundations of change and stability in the flux of existence.
Enlightenment and early modern philosophy
Process philosophy was not neglected during The Enlightenment but was often ignored as an attribute or element of more explicit ontology. René Descartes, for instance, proposed that the mind and body were actually connected and unified by a single process, the imagination. This was often discarded or devalued by Descartes' followers and critics who attributed to him (incorrectly) advocating a mind-body dualism.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Very similarly, the law of the excluded middle was raised to ontological status by those of Aristotle's followers, notably those practicing medieval scholasticism, who wished to ignore some of his telling observations about moderation (the very ones that Francis Bacon celebrated) and rhetoric (which Aristotle praised, seemingly foreshadowing Descartes' imagination).
Immanuel Kant noted that either experience made objects possible, or objects made experience possible. He seemed to have missed that processes might make both possible. Gottfried Leibniz's monads were not related to all other occasions of experience that preceded them. Reductionism was in vogue - to reduce processes (say into tasks or events) was more difficult than reducing objects. In the management science of Frederick Taylor however there was emerging a view of infinitely reducible work processes and an ontology limited to "practical" tasks - later to come into bloom with total quality management and the "six sigma" goal.
In the early twentieth century, a philosophy of mathematics was developing that favoured some specific foundations of mathematics that could be specified as a set of axioms. These hopes proved vain, although it remained for Russell and Whitehead to prove that so in 1913 - after which Whitehead elaborated what had been learned from attempts to escape process as the basis of ontology. This resulted in the most famous work of process philosophy — Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality - a work which can be seen as a lighter and more accessible form of describing the basic Hegelian truth, namely that absolute, or "philosophical", truth can only be a logical and /or worldly "movement" in and through determinates, not these determinates as fixed concepts or "things". Hegel is the real (modern) root source of what (clumsily) can be termed dialectical-dynamical-ontology, and of which process philosophy is a branch.
Whitehead's Process and Reality
Whitehead's background was a very unusual one for a speculative metaphysician. Educated as a mathematician, he became, through his coauthorship and 1913 publication of Principia Mathematica' with Bertrand Russell, a major logician. Later he wrote extensively on physics and its philosophy, proposing a theory of relativity rivaling Einstein's - see relativity. He was conversant with the quantum mechanics that emerged in the 1920s. Whitehead did not begin teaching and writing on process and metaphysics until he joined Harvard at 63 years of age.
The process metaphysics elaborated in Process and Reality proposes that the fundamental elements of the universe are occasions of experience. According to this notion, what people commonly think of as concrete objects are actually successions of occasions of experience. Occasions of experience can be collected into groupings; something complex such as a human being is thus a grouping of many smaller occasions of experience. According to Whitehead, everything in the universe is characterized by experience (which is not to be confused with consciousness); there is no mind-body duality under this system, because "mind" is simply seen as a very developed kind of experiencing. However, Whitehead is not an idealist in the strict sense. Whitehead's ideas were a significant development of the idea of panpsychism (also known as panexperientialism, because of Whitehead’s emphasis on experience).
Whitehead's philosophy resembles in some respects the monads of Leibniz. However, unlike Leibniz's monads, Whitehead's occasions of experience are interrelated with every other occasion of experience that precedes it in time. Inherent to Whitehead's conception is the notion of time; all experiences are influenced by prior experiences, and will influence all future experiences. This process of influencing is never deterministic; an occasion of experience consists of a process of prehending other experiences, and then a reaction to it. This is the process in process philosophy. Because no process is ever deterministic, free will is essential and inherent to the universe.
Process philosophy, for some, gives God a special place in the universe of occasions of experience. God encompasses all the other occasions of experience but also transcends them; thus Whitehead embraces panentheism. Since, it is argued, free will is inherent to the nature of the universe, God is not omnipotent in Whitehead's metaphysics. God's role is to offer enhanced occasions of experience. God participates in the evolution of the universe by offering possibilities, which may be accepted or rejected. Whitehead's thinking here has given rise to process theology, whose prominent advocates include Charles Hartshorne, John B. Cobb, Jr., and Hans Jonas, who was also influenced by the non-theological philosopher Martin Heidegger. However, other process philosophers have questioned Whitehead's theology, seeing it as a regressive Platonism.
Whitehead enumerated three essential natures of God. The primordial nature of God consists of all potentialities of existence for actual occasions, which Whitehead dubbed eternal objects. God can offer possibilities by ordering the relevance of eternal objects. The consequent nature of God prehends everything that happens in reality. As such, God experiences all of reality in a sentient manner. The last nature is the superjective. This is the way in which God’s synthesis becomes a sense-datum for other actual entities. In some sense, God is prehended by existing actual entities.
Whitehead's influences were not restricted to philosophers or physicists or mathematicians. He was influenced by the French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927. Process philosophy is also believed to have influenced some 20th century modernists, such as D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner and Charles Olson.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
Process philosophy since Whitehead
Several fields of science and especially medicine seem to make liberal use of ideas in process philosophy, notably the theory of pain and healing of the late 20th century. The philosophy of medicine began to deviate somewhat from scientific method and an emphasis on repeatable results very late 20th century by embracing population thinking, and a more pragmatic approach to issues in public health, environmental health and especially mental health. In this latter field, R. D. Laing, Thomas Szasz and Michel Foucault were instrumental in moving medicine away from emphasis on "cures" and towards concepts of individuals in balance with their society, both of which are changing, and against which no benchmarks or finished "cures" were very likely to be measurable.
In psychology the subject of imagination was again explored more extensively since Whitehead, and the question of feasibility or "eternal objects" of thought became central to the impaired theory of mind explorations that framed postmodern cognitive science. A biological understanding of the most eternal object, that being the emerging of similar but independent cognitive apparatus, led to an obsession with the process "embodiment", that being, the emergence of these cognitions. Like Whitehead's God, especially as elaborated in J. J. Gibson's perceptual psychology emphasizing affordances, by ordering the relevance of eternal objects (especially the cognitions of other such actors), the world becomes. Or, it becomes simple enough for human beings to begin to make choices, and to prehend what happens as a result. These experiences may be summed in some sense but can only approximately be shared, even among very similar cognitions with identical DNA. An early explorer of this view was Alan Turing who sought to prove the limits of expressive complexity of human genes in the late 1940s, to put bounds on the complexity of human intelligence and so assess the feasibility of artificial intelligence emerging.
Somewhat earlier, exploration of mathematical practice and quasi-empiricism in mathematics from the 1950s to 1980s had sought alternatives to metamathematics in social behaviours around mathematics itself: for instance, Paul Erdos' simultaneous belief in Platonism and a single "big book" in which all proofs existed, combined with his personal obsessive need or decision to collaborate with the widest possible number of other mathematicians. The process, rather than the outcomes, seemed to drive his explicit behaviour and odd use of language, e.g. he called God the "Supreme Fascist", echoing the role Whitehead assigned, as if the synthesis of Erdos and collaborators in seeking proofs, creating sense-datum for other mathematicians, was itself the expression of a divine will. Certainly, Erdos behaved as if nothing else in the world mattered, including money or love, as emphasized in his biography The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.
The process philosophy, not the outcomes or ideals balanced to achieve the process, is the ultimate good. The Noble Eightfold Path may be the clearest expression of this principle in any religion before modern times, although the more legalistic process of ijtihad in Islam is likewise an assignment of trust in a process of interpretation, the result of which (Islamic law) is held to be wholly trustworthy to make life-critical decisions. More monastic traditions in both East and West tended to emphasize the process of enlightenment, often interpreted quite literally as leaving the (heavy) body behind, especially among Roman Catholic monks. Historically, however, the Eastern traditions were more forgiving of temporary failures of will as long as they were in fact temporary. Many Buddhist and Taoist stories emphasize the value of quickly returning to one's disciplined state after a breach, and even forgetting it had occurred. Yoga-related disciplines also avoid any explicit goal-setting or measures of success. Eastern traditions almost universally invoke the concept of balance which implies multiple and contradictory pressures in, as Heraclitus suggested, ongoing "strife".
- Center for Process Studies
- International Process Network
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry
- Process and Reality. Part V: Final Interpretation (157 kB) in the homepage of Laszlo Forizs
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