Process thought

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Process thought, also known as process philosophy or process theology, is a system of thought with its essential description in Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality (1929). Process thought sees all of reality as one interconnected whole; and Whitehead's background in biology, mathematics and philosophy enabled him to develop a unified worldview in which religion and science are harmonized.

Whitehead argued that reality consists of entities called "units of concresence," by which he meant the coming together of all that preceded an entity to make it what it is at that particular instant in time. He called each instant a unified "drop of experience"[1], which are more primary than the physical entities in which the experience resides (e.g., our brains). Consciousness and subconscious experience exists in all life at different levels, and is pushing the universe forward toward ever higher expressions of creativity and awareness. God, who is the foundation of all experience, "prehends" all existence with perfect knowledge and perfect love[2] and pushes each actual entity forward through persuasion (not coercion).

Charles Hartshorne, an assistant to Whitehead at Harvard University, continued to develop Whitehead's metaphysics at the University of Chicago where he influenced two theologians, John B. Cobb, Jr. and Schubert Ogden who developed process theology to a status with influence comparable to liberation theology.

Process theologians have found extensive common ground with Buddhists in their conception of God as cosmic consciousness, not a physical substance. They have also contributed uniquely to discussions of evolution because they understand reality as an evolution of the universe, not on the basis of "survival of the fittest," but as a goad[3] to a future with ever-higher and more complex modes of expression and experiences of joy and "feeling."


Various forms of process-oriented thought have existed in history in different cultures. While these cultural precedents are not specifically related to the school of thought developed by Whitehead, they contain various efforts to explain reality in terms of change, growth, and flux.

Process-oriented thought was widely discussed and debated by the philosophers of ancient India. Among these philosophers were Buddhists who spoke of worldly existence (samsara) as consisting of an ongoing chain of "interrelated becoming" (Pratitya Samutpada). Meditation was utilized to penetrate the stream of consciousness whereby one became aware of the intrinsic process-oriented fleeting nature of existence, known as anitya, and hence become awakened (nirvana). Later Buddhist philosophical schools, such as Yogacara, developed the view that so-called "Absolute Consciousness" is the ultimate reality, and hence, this school was known as the "Mind-only" school.

Elements of a process philosophy emerged in Western thought with Heraclitus' fragments in which he posits the noumenon, the ground of becoming, as agon or "strife of opposites" as the underlying basis of all reality defined by change.

Much later, Aristotle's concept of moderation, which parallels the concept in Buddhism (the two are almost contemporaries) establishes goodness or value as a function of a process in which extremes are avoided. The process, not the outcome, is the ultimate good. The Noble Eightfold Path may be the clearest expression of this principle in any religion before modern times. 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 Daoist stories emphasize the value of quickly returning to one's disciplined state after a breach, and even forgetting it had occurred. Eastern traditions almost universally invoke the concept of balance, which implies multiple and contradictory pressures in, as Heraclitus suggested, ongoing "strife."

Process philosophy was not totally neglected during the Enlightenment. René Descartes, for instance, proposed that the mind and body were actually connected and unified by a single process, the imagination. This idea was often discarded or devalued by Descartes' followers and critics who incorrectly attributed to him a mind-body dualism. 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).

A number of other key Enlightenment figures, including those instrumental in the scientific method (especially Isaac Newton, and Galileo Galilei, pioneer of diagnostic dialogue) made note of their working processes in terms that suggested change is what they sought to quantify because it is the most fundamental basis on which perception and thus reality proceeds. George Berkeley criticized Newton specifically for straying from this view and holding forth that certain objects existed, as opposed to perception suggesting they did.

By the nineteenth century, these views were coalescing with newer sciences, most notably electromagnetism in physics and theories of harmony in music. John Keely held, in an early version of the Wave-particle duality, that all particles were outcomes of a change, one often analogized to the whitecaps upon a wave on the rolling sea: they are not themselves reasonably characterized as objects, only consequences of a change.

Of other philosophers, more dominant at that time, Immanuel Kant noted that either experience made objects possible, or objects made experience possible. He did not consider 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.

Influences on Whitehead

Whitehead's background was very unusual 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 moved to Harvard at 63 years of age.

In 1905, the theory of general relativity had curtailed exploration of pure process views and made the case for a specific and expanding universe that existed as an objective object of our human perception and cognition. This view was attractive if only for its simplicity. The curiously fixed speed of light provided the basis on which a number or limit, rather than a process, could be said to be defining reality itself, at least as perceivable by beings similar to ourselves. At the same time, a philosophy of mathematics was developing that could be specified as a set of axioms, again, a fixed not process-oriented description.

These hopes proved futile, and in 1913, Whitehead elaborated what had been learned from these failed attempts to escape process as the basis of ontology. This resulted in the most famous work of process philosophy Process and Reality.

Hegel's dialectical thought is said by some to have influenced Whitehead. For both philosophers, the "absolute" is a movement in and through determinates, not the essence of the determinates, which are fixed concepts or "things." However, Hegel proposed an ontology of the relationship between opposites that form the basis for a synthesis which is the new state of reality. The method was a "struggle" of opposites—picked up by Marx as justification for the struggle of workers against capitalists to create a higher form of society. This might fit, to some extent, with Darwin's notion of "survival of the fittest." Hegel nonetheless, failed to make process an absolute when he called the State as a telos—the end-state of the "march of the Absolute through history."

Whitehead, on the other hand, saw experience as a complex unity of all that "ingressed" into a unit of experience. A dialectic between two poles, might be a simple way of employing logic by an observer, but it does not properly represent the wholeness of experience. Furthermore, there is no end-state, there is only ongoing process. For Whitehead, "survival of the fittest" is not the reason for increased complexity of species, but increased complexity develops because it provides the basis for increased richness in feeling. It is human thirst for increased richness of feeling and joy that stimulates creativity and lays at the basis of evolution, not a struggle between two opposites.

Whitehead was also influenced by the French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927.

Whitehead's Process and Reality

In his major work on process philosophy, Process and Reality, Whitehead stated that the entire European philosophical tradition consists of "a series of footnotes to Plato."[4] The writings of Plato and Aristotle contained elements that could have developed into a "philosophy or organism" (see above), in which the temporal and the timeless, the actual and the potential, the eternal and the concrete coexisted. However, Western philosophy has usually excluded the organic nature of reality, while modern philosophy has focused on material substances as the basis of reality. The thoughtworld of the west became a bridgeless chasm between fact and value, between science and religion. Whitehead, as a mathematician, could see how what is often viewed as abstractions from reality can instead be the foundation of reality.

The metaphysics elaborated in Process and Reality proposes that the fundamental elements of the universe are actual entities that exist as the coming together, or "nexus" of a complex string of previous entities into an new occasion, or event. What people commonly think of as concrete objects are actually transient successions of events where entities exist momentarily. This process is guided by a primordial "occasions of experience" present in each actual entity. Occasions of experience can be complex, like the experience of individual human beings, or smaller occasions of experience in tadpoles or plants.

The relationship to other entities is felt as a "prehension," a term similar to what we think of as subconscious awareness. 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" simply relates to a very advanced kind of experiencing. Whitehead's philosophy is a form of panpsychism.

Whitehead's process 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 in Whitehead's philosophy 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; God did not set a machine in motion and leave.

In every occasion of experience there exists a prehending of other experiences, and then a response to them. This is the process in "process philosophy." Because no process is ever deterministic, free will and creativity are essential to and inherent in the universe. Each "prehension" is the basis for a subjective harmony and a valuation that includes a subjective aim at greater intensity of feeling in a future event. This is the basis for novelty and the organic development of all experience.

God, for Whitehead [5] is present in all actual entities via ingression of "eternal objects." While God is the primordial creature, He is not limited to His primordial nature. God derives a "consequent nature" from his "physical prehension of derivative actual entities." God is present in all occasions; thus Whitehead promotes a form of panentheism. Further, God experiences growth and change; God himself is in process.

Since, Whitehead argues, free will is inherent to the nature of the universe, God is not a powerful master that commands us to serve him. Rather, God goads us toward higher forms of experience, with greater intensity of feeling and joy. God participates in the evolution of the universe by offering possibilities, which may be accepted or rejected.

Whitehead enumerated three essential natures of God: 1) The primordial nature of God consists of all potentialities of existence for actual occasions, which Whitehead called eternal objects. God can offer possibilities by ordering the relevance of eternal objects. 2) The consequent nature of God prehends everything that happens in reality. As such, God experiences all of reality in a sentient manner. 3) The last nature is the superjective. This is the way in which God’s synthesis becomes a sense-datum for other actual entities. In this sense, God is prehended or felt by other existing actual entities. In Christian terms, this prehension of God may be through the spiritual senses.

Process Theology

Because Whitehead's philosophy attributed the foundational role to God, he influenced the field of theology most prominently. Process theology was developed by prominent advocates including Charles Hartshorne, John B. Cobb, Jr., Hans Jonas, Schubert Ogden, and David Ray Griffin. These theologians teach that Whitehead's God could overcome problems generated by defining God with the static conceptions prevalent in Western culture, and overcome the apparent dualism of science and religion.

The concepts of process theology include:

  • God is not omnipotent in the sense of being coercive. The divine has a power of persuasion rather than force. Process theologians have often seen the classical doctrine of omnipotence as involving coercion, and themselves claim something more restricted than the classical doctrine. "Persuasion" in the causal sense means that God does not exert unilateral control.
  • Reality is not made up of material substances that endure through time, but serially-ordered events, which are experiential in nature. These events have both a physical and mental aspect. All experience (male, female, atomic, and botanical) is important and contributes to the ongoing and interrelated process of reality.
  • The universe is characterized by process and change carried out by the agents of free will. Self-determination characterizes everything in the universe, not just human beings. God cannot totally control any series of events or any individual, but God influences the exercise of universal free will by offering possibilities. In other words, God has a will in everything, but not everything that occurs is God's will.
  • God contains the universe but is not identical with it (panentheism, not pantheism). Some also call this "theocosmocentrism" to emphasize that God has always been related to some world or another.
  • Because God interacts with the changing universe, God is changeable (that is to say, God is affected by the actions that take place in the universe) over the course of time. However, the abstract elements of God (goodness, wisdom, etc.) remain eternally solid.
  • Charles Hartshorne believes that people do not experience subjective (or personal) immortality, but they do have objective immortality because their experiences live on forever in God, who contains all that is and was. Others believe that people do have subjective experience after bodily death.
  • Dipolar theism, is the idea that God has both a changing aspect (God's existence as a Living God) and an unchanging aspect (God's eternal essence).

Process theology influenced a number of Jewish theologians including Australian philosopher Samuel Alexander (1859-1938), and Rabbis Max Kaddushin, Milton Steinberg and Levi A. Olan, Harry Slominsky and to a lesser degree, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Today some rabbis who advocate some form of process theology include Donald B. Rossoff, William E. Kaufman, Harold Kushner, Anton Laytner, Gilbert S. Rosenthal, Lawrence Troster and Nahum Ward.

Process Thought in Other Areas

Whitehead's influence was not restricted to philosophers, theologians and mathematicians.

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 twentieth century. The philosophy of medicine began to deviate somewhat from the scientific method's emphasis on repeatable results late in the 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 an 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 explored 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 of persons 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.

In the philosophy of mathematics, some of Whitehead's ideas re-emerged in combination with cognitivism as the cognitive science of mathematics and embodied mind theses.


  1. Alfred North Whitehead. Process and Reality. (New York: Free Press, 1978), 18-30.
  2. John B. Cobb, Jr. Process Theology as Political Theology. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 57.
  3. There has been some controversy over changing the term "goal" to "goad" on page 88 of the corrected edition by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. While the authors feel it is more consistent with Whitehead's philosophy, it has been a challenge to those traditional theologians who believe God has a specific telos in mind. However, process theology affirms that God also changes and grows, striving for ever greater joy.
  4. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 39.
  5. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31ff.


  • Cobb, John B., Jr., A Christian Natural Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965. ISBN 0664242286
  • Cobb, John B., Jr., Doubting Thomas. 1990. ISBN 082451033X
  • Cobb, John B., Jr., God and the World. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969. ISBN 0664248608
  • Cobb, John B., Jr., Process Theology and Political Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982. ISBN 0664244173
  • Cobb, John B., Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1976. ISBN 0664247431
  • Cobb, John B., Jr. and W. Widick Schroeder, eds., Process Philosophy and Social Thought. Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1981. ISBN 091334818X
  • Fiddes, Paul S., The Creative Suffering of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Fiddes, Paul S., "Process Theology," in A. E. McGrath, ed., The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993,. 472–476.
  • Hartshorne, Charles. Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. State University of New York Press, 1984. ISBN 0873957717
  • Kaufman, William E., A Question of Faith: An Atheist and a Rabbi Debate the Existence of God. 1994. ISBN 1568210892
  • Kaufman, William E., The Case for God. 1991. ISBN 0827204582
  • Kushner, Harold. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. 1981. ISBN 1400034728
  • Leclerc, Ivor. Whitehead's Metaphysics: And Introductory Exposition. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1975. ISBN 0253201810
  • Lubarsky, Sandra B. and David Ray Griffin. Jewish Theology and Process Thought. 1995. ISBN 0791428109
  • Mesle, C. Robert. Process Theology: A Basic Introduction. 1993, ISBN 0827229453. an introduction to process theology written for the layperson.
  • Ogden, Schubert M. The Reality of God and Other Essays. SMU Press, 1992. ISBN 087074318X
  • Stone, Bryan P. and Thomas Jay Oord. Thy Nature and Thy Name is Love: Wesleyan and Process Theologies in Dialogue. Nashville: Kingswood, 2001. ISBN 0687052203
  • Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt. God Christ Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology. 1989. ISBN 0824509706
  • Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York, Macmillan, 1933.
  • Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality, Corrected edition edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: Free Press, 1978. ISBN 0029345707
  • Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York: Macmillan, 1925.
  • Whitehead, Alfred North. Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. New York: Macmillan, 1959. ISBN 0399502319
  • Whitehead, Alfred North. The Aims of Education and other Essays. New York: Macmillan, 1929.

External links

All links retrieved November 30, 2022.


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