The Development of Process Philosophy
by Charles Hartshorne
The term, “process philosophy” is one way of pointing to a profound change which has come over speculative philosophy or metaphysics in the modern period in Europe and America. I have myself often used the more noncommittal phrase “neoclassical metaphysics” for much the same purpose, since the emphasis upon process or becoming, though essential, is only one feature of this new way of viewing reality. Also characteristic is the emphasis upon relations and relativity. The Buddhistic phrase, “dependent origination,” suggests the connection between the two points. What has an origin is relative to that origin; only what has always been as it is can be “absolute,” wholly independent of other things. In this essay I shall deal chiefly with process, not relativity. It is not hard to translate talk about being and becoming into talk about absoluteness and relativity, but I shall not always attempt the translation in what follows.
Greek philosophy tended to depreciate becoming and exalt mere being, and—as was consistent—to depreciate relativity and exalt independence or absoluteness. Aristotle summed it up when he held that what was altogether immutable and hence immune to influence from others was superior to that which in any way changed or depended upon other things. Medieval natural theology never explicitly deviated from this attitude, though revealed doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation may have almost explicitly done so (Did not the Son depend upon the Father without being inferior to Him?).
However, the harmony of some doctrines of the classical natural theology with the Greek attitude is extremely doubtful. Aristotle had denied God’s knowledge of contingent and changing things, on the straightforward ground that knowing cannot be independent of what is known. Yet Christian and most Jewish and Mohammedan theists felt obliged, for religious reasons, to affirm God’s knowledge of the contingent and changing world. Only a few Mohammedans dared even to hint that this must mean change in God. Christians and Jews would scarcely go so far. The result was a glaring inconsistency which troubled many. For precisely this reason Crescas, and later Spinoza, denied contingency (and by implication change) not only in God but in the world which God knows, for they saw that the known is in the knowing, and if there is contingency and change in the former then there is also in the latter. Thus in Spinoza, the Greek bias came to its last great triumph in Western thought. Not only God, but the world, too, was to be made safe from accident or genuine alteration, and indeed, immutable omniscience, implying the immutability of all truth, consorts ill with the view that becoming is real. If there is novel reality, then to that extent the truth also must be novel. To say of future events that they “are going to be” is to imply that their entire character is a present fact, though a fact which, with our human limitations, we have not yet reached, but there the fact is, waiting for us to reach it, or there it is offstage, waiting to come on. In this view, genuine becoming is missing. The truth, the reality, is eternally there, spread out to the divine gaze, though our present experience, being localized in the eternal panorama, cannot behold most of it. As St. Thomas put it, events in time are like travelers on a road who cannot see those far ahead of them though they can all be seen by one sufficiently high above the road looking down upon its entire length, i.e., by God in eternity. Bergson’s phrase, “spatializing time,” fits this view as a glove a hand. The theory entirely omits the aspect of creation involved in becoming. The entirety of creation cannot be viewed if there is no such totality. How can there be if the actual sum of events receives additions each moment? What is becoming if not such perpetual adding of new realities? Thomas is assuming the falsity of a certain view of time; process philosophy adopts this view, and not without reason.
Since the eternalistic view reached explicit formulation in theological guise, it was fitting that the process doctrine should also emerge in a theological context. Philosophies of being, which treat becoming as secondary, have acquired powerful religious sanctions; it is therefore well that we should realize from the outset that process philosophy, in its origin at least, is a rival religious doctrine rather than an irreligious one. This is true in two important respects. First, the earliest great tradition which espoused a philosophy of becoming was Buddhism. Heraclitus, who said that things are new each moment, was isolated, and in addition obscure, for we have but fragmentary sayings. Only the followers of Buddha produced a great literature expressive of the doctrine that becoming is the universal form of reality. They carried this view through, in some respects, with admirable thoroughness, long before anything like it occurred in the West. Philosophies of being characteristically treat change either as “unreal” or as in principle but the substitution of one set of qualities for another in an abiding “substratum,” “substance,” or “subject of change.” For them, reality consists essentially of beings, not happenings or events. If a being is not of the highest kind, it shows this deficiency by undergoing alterations. If it is of the highest kind, alteration could only be for the worse and hence could have no point. So the highest being is changeless, but the others, poor things, keep changing, apparently in the, in principle, vain effort to make up for their imperfection. This doctrine is Greek through and through, but, alas, the Church Fathers accepted it. True, the doctrine also arose long ago in the Orient, but there Buddhism came to challenge it, with a subtlety and persistence which had no counterpart in classical and medieval Europe. The Buddhists rejected “substance,” including the “soul” as substance. The momentary experiences are the primary realities, and these do not change, they simply become, and what is called change is the successive becoming of events having certain relationships to their predecessors. The “soul” or the self-identical ego is merely the relatedness of experiences to their predecessors through memory and the persistence of various qualities or personality traits. The first great metaphysician in the West to hold this view clearly was Whitehead, in the present century. But we must not get ahead of our story, which is mainly that of the development of process philosophy in the West.
Secondly, the man who first squarely faced the conflict between the religious doctrine of an all-knowing God and Greek eternalism, and decided against the latter, was Fausto Socinus, whose sect was destroyed by persecution and whose bold theorizing has been ignored by historians of philosophy—not to their credit, I must add. Socinus rejected the immutability of God in order to be able consistently to affirm the reality of becoming. He did not quite put it in this way. What he said was that human freedom is incompatible with immutable divine knowledge of our free acts. Our freedom is nothing but that case of becoming which we experience from the inside or by direct intuition, rather than infer from more or less indirect observation. We have to start with events we intimately know. A decision—and we make little ones each moment—is a settling of the otherwise unsettled; it occurs in time, not in eternity. To say that God eternally knows all decisions is to imply that the totality of decisions is a single, all-inclusive eternally complete set of realities, but then there is nothing for decisions to decide. We only imagine we are resolving a real indeterminacy when we make up our minds; in truth the resolution is eternal. But if eternal, it has no genuine becoming. We say that we “make” a decision; but religious philosophies of being tell us that God makes everything by a single eternal act. So then I make my decision now and God eternally makes it, but if God makes it, how is it my decision rather than God’s? Socinus in effect, perhaps without being fully explicit about it, was pointing to the paradox of the double determining of events to which Greek thought in its theological form had led. This brave and honest man had the courage to affirm that we really do make our decisions, and that in so far as we do, God does not make them. We have here the idea of self-creation, which later in Lequier, the French philosopher of a century ago, and still later in William James, Dewey, Whitehead, Sartre, and others has been so often stressed. Note that in Sarte, it was a theological idea before it was an atheistic idea, but if we, and not God, make our decisions, in what fashion can God know these decisions? God cannot decree them in eternity and, by knowing this decree, know what they are, but must perceive them as they occur, and then preserve them in memory. Events—at least those events which are free acts—come into being, are created, at a given time; to know them beforehand—even more, to know them eternally—is a logical absurdity, for it is not beforehand, much less eternally, that they exist to be known. Only as and after they occur are there any such entities to be known. Hence, that God “fails” to know them eternally or is not properly a failure, for success here is mere nonsense, and where success is nonsense, “failure” is inapplicable. Hence, it is quibbling to call God “ignorant” because of things which are not there to be known. This argument was hinted at much earlier (in Cicero, if not before), but the Socinians were the first to make serious theological use of it. They courageously admitted real change in the divine knowledge, the becoming of new knowledge in God to harmonize with the becoming or creation of new things to be known. There is no total creation for God to know in one finally complete act of knowing. Rather, the totality of the real is enriched each moment by as many acts of freedom as occur in the world. With the growth of reality must come a growth of divine knowledge of reality. All this is somewhat further clarified by Lequier three centuries later, followed by Whitehead, who apparently knew little of his predecessors in this way of thinking.
It is notable that the earliest theist of all, Ikhnaton of Egypt, spoke of God’s fashioning himself. Thus, self-creation is an old religious idea. One can find it also in ancient India. Medieval antiprocess theology may eventually be seen as but an interlude, a detour from which religious thought has happily returned to the main highway, and clearly, if Socinus allows us to determine part of the content of the divine knowledge by our self-creation, he can hardly wish to deny self-creation to deity. If God is to change, it surely should be in part voluntarily and not solely as result of our initiative. Besides, our self-creativity, like all of our traits, can only be an imperfect image of what in God must be perfect. So there must be an “Eminent” or divine self-creation, of which ours is but a remote and inferior analogue. If, in making our decisions, we make something of ourselves, then analogously God in making supreme decisions, must in some supreme sense be self-created. Even Lequier seems not to see this implication of the process doctrine. Whitehead is our first great systematic philosopher to see it with any great clarity, but the German psychologist and religious thinker, Fechner, had said something like it in his Zend-Avesta.
One can, to be sure, read a sort of process philosophy into Hegel and Schelling, but in these writers there are so many concessions to, or echoes of, Greek thought that dispute concerning their classification is to my mind rather unrewarding. They are process philosophers perhaps—if they are anything clear and unambiguous. But what a big “if” this is! They doubtless helped to do away with the classical metaphysics of being; but that they constructed a viable alternative is much less clear.
Socinus and Lequier attacked the theological center of the philosophy of being and absoluteness and proposed a definite alternative, but they failed to generalize this alternative. Only human freedom (and God’s knowledge of us) was clearly taken out of the old context; the rest of nature could still be looked upon as unfree, and as subject to immutable divine knowledge. This is where Bergson and Whitehead, preceded at least vaguely by Fechner, come in. Bergson treats all life as to some extent free or creative, and definitely hints, in his later works, that all nature is to some extent free. In Whitehead this implication is made sharply explicit. Not only is each human being a “self-created creature” but every individual is, in some slight degree at least, self-creative, a maker of its own decisions, and so of itself. Divinity is the eminent or supreme form of self-creation, anything else is an inferior form. Whitehead combines this with the Socinian insight that a self-creative creature must also create something in God, for we who make something in ourselves make something in the knowledge of all those who know us, and so make them to a certain extent. We make our friends and enemies just in so far as we are free and they know us. It could not be otherwise, given the essential meanings of “free” and “know.” Since God knows all creatures, and a creature is merely an inferior case of what in God is supreme self-creativity, all creatures whatsoever are in part creators of something in God. Whitehead refers to God as Creature, or to the divine Consequent Nature—God as consequent upon or partly created by the world. This is how deity must be conceived in a consistent metaphysics of process.
Whitehead is not indulging in eccentricity at this point, he is merely following out the logic of the decision to make creative becoming the universal category. So when he tells us that creativity is the “category of the ultimate,” the “universal of universals,” he is summing up and crowning a long development. Freedom is the essence of reality, not a mere special case. To be is to create oneself and thereby to influence the self-creation of those by whom one is known, including God.
Process philosophy, fully thought out, is creationism. Multitudes have talked about God’s “creating” of the world, but they usually had no philosophical category adequate to express this idea. All they could do was to say that God was “cause” and the world the effect. They were unable to show in our ordinary experiences of causation any unambiguously creative aspect. The potter shapes the clay, they said, but the supreme Potter, they also said, had shaped the lesser potter completely, and the only genuine decision was the supreme Potter’s. Thus, free creation as genuine decision is banished from the world. But how, from such a world, could we possibly form the conception of divine creation? I believe that three thousand years of speculation have led to this result, foreshadowed by Ikhnaton at the outset: creativity, if real at all, must be universal, not limited to God alone, and it must be self-creativity as well as creative influencing of others. In the hymns of Ikhnaton there is nothing about mere causality, nothing about inexorable causal relationships, nothing—unless a vague hint or two—about God’s determining the details of the creature’s actions. The suggestion almost throughout is of free creatures responding to divine freedom, influencing God to delight in the spectacle they afford for Deity, while they delight in the divine beneficent influence upon them. It took three millennia to change this purely poetic and intuitive vision into a sharply defined philosophical doctrine. Many formidable obstacles had first to be overcome.
Let us look at some of these obstacles. There is the commonsense view, enshrined in European language that the most concrete realities to which abstractions are to be applied, the real “subjects” which have “predicates” are things, individuals which change from one actual state to another—a person, a tree, a mountain, a star—not happenings. There is something more concrete than an individual, and that is the actual history of the individual, the succession of “states,” for instance, experiences, which constitute the reality of the individual through time. Is it not clear that the entire actuality of the individual is in one’s states, bodily and mental? True, one’s possibilities are not exhaustively realized by these states; we could have had other experiences; but we are not now asking what we potentially are, only what we actually have been up to now. The sole way to distinguish the individual from the happenings making up her or his history is in terms of possibility versus actuality, with the states constituting the entire actuality. Are not the actual and the concrete the same? Only in abstract terms can one speak of possible happenings; concrete happenings, knowable as such, and actual happenings are one and the same. Hence, those who take individuals to be wholly concrete will, if they are clear-headed, be forced, with Leibniz, to identify the individual with the total succession of her or his states, but then we do not know who a person is until he or she is dead; we cannot speak of capability of having done (or experienced) something else; for, as Leibniz said, it would not have been that individual but another who would have done it. The commonsense meaning of individual is destroyed if we simply identify an individual with an actual event-sequence. To save this meaning, and we need it for many purposes, we must admit, with the Buddhists and Whitehead, that individuality is somewhat abstract, compared to an actual event-sequence. It is the person now, the present actual state, that “has” the person as the same individual from birth to death, not the same individual that “has” the present actual state. We speak of someone’s being “in a state,” not of the state as being in the individual. Whitehead can take this literally; substance philosophers cannot. The point is not that individual identity is an illusion, but that it is abstract. Concretely there is a new person each moment, “born anew” in religious language. Of course, in many important personality traits it may be the same person all the time. Each new state fits onto the one series which started with a certain embryo state in a certain mother. It is always, while the person lives, the same series, but the identity of such a series is somewhat abstract. To see the person as always the very same entity, we must abstract from what is new in the individual at each moment. Personal identity through experiences is a property of the experiences, not properties of the identity, or of the ego. If they were, to know an individual would mean knowing all her or his future. We should not really know which individual was John or Joan until John or Joan was dead. This is not how we use the idea of self-identity. It took European philosophy over two thousand years to think through this issue, an issue which Buddhism thought through long ago. Contemporary physics, with its view of reality as consisting in events related in the four dimensions of space-time, helped Whitehead to see the point, but the Buddhists got there without this help.
The argument against the process view has been, “If there is change, something, X, must have changed from state A to state B.” Very well, suppose the weather changes from wet to dry, does this mean there is an entity, the weather, as concrete as the wet and dry states? Are these “in” the weather? Surely the weather is in them. Suppose “public opinion” changes, or “the situation” changes—is it not obvious that the “subjects of change” here are relatively abstract entities? Process philosophy generalizes this insight, treating change as the successive becoming of events related to one another, but also differing from one another in some more or less abstract respects which interest us. Change is the becoming of novelty, and process philosophy is all for that.
Another argument states that memory shows us that we, the very same persons, were there in the past having certain experiences. But again, no one denies personal self-identity, provided its abstractness or partial nature is recognized. In the past that I recall, “I” was there, just in so far as what is important about “my” personal sequence of experiences was already in the earlier experiences, but why is it that we cannot remember our identical selves as small infants? Surely because in those early states what is now most important about us was not yet actual. To abstract from all that we have become since early infancy is more than we can do and still leave anything worth distinctly recalling as ourselves. Even in fairly early childhood important personality traits were already beginning to emerge, and so we can recall childhood experiences as making us already the “same” person we are now. Still, we certainly cannot ever remember that in the past we were concretely and precisely what we are now, for that we were not. The “self-same ego” is an abstraction from concrete realities, not itself a fully concrete reality. To see this is the beginning of wisdom in the theory of selfhood. The Buddhists saw it. Did the Hindus? I am not convinced they did.
One of the many signs of confusion in substance philosophy is the failure to deal with the obvious logical truth that identity is a symmetrical relation: if X is Y, then Y is X. Very well, if identity explains memory of the past, by the same token it does not explain the failure to “remember” the future. If memory is an entity being, or intuiting, that very same entity, then it ought to work equally in both directions. In spite of claims of some students of psychical research, the lack of real symmetry in this respect is too glaring to be ignored. We anticipate trends, extrapolate them into the future, but we remember not trends but particular incidents. Identity is not the logical structure to express this and that substance philosophers rarely even mention this point is proof enough of how far they are from clarity as to the real problems. As Whitehead says, identity is “exactly the wrong answer” if the question is, “how do we explain the creativity of process, its production of novelty?” That it is the same entity does not imply that there are new states of the entity, still less that it is the previous states which are experienced, not the subsequent ones. In general, all attempts to explain becoming as a special case of being, novelty as a special case of permanence, have failed. Becoming is said to be a mixture of being and not-being; this is so incomplete a statement as to be less than a half-truth. Becoming is not simply a mixture of being and not-being, it is a mixture of which a new substance is created every moment, but in this moment by moment creation of new cases of being-not-being is the whole mystery of becoming. A fixed mixture of what is and what is not would still not be becoming but at most only a deficient form of being. The becoming of new, allegedly deficient forms of being is simply becoming, and no light is thrown on the transition to novelty by the talk about being and its negation. We shall see that, by contrast, being can very well be explicated as an aspect of becoming, permanence as an aspect of novelty. The converse procedure has always failed, though people have often refused to take note of the failure. When they noted it, they excused themselves by declaring becoming “unreal.” Its refusal to subordinate itself to being condemned it. This is sheer question-begging. The necessity of the subordination having been assumed, of course it could also be deduced, but the validity of the assumption is not thereby confirmed; rather the resistance of becoming to the attempted subordination disconfirms the theory.
An important obstacle to the process view is the apparent continuity of becoming—for instance, of experiencing. It seems that experiencing is not a succession of distinct acts or happenings but just one perpetually changing act or happening, at least between waking and sleeping. Here some process philosophers have stopped short and never reached full clarity. This applies to Bergson and Dewey, for instance. Here again Whitehead, preceded by the Buddhists, and to his great credit by William James, carried the analysis through. Continuity is an abstract mathematical concept, not a given actuality. Half a continuum is itself a smaller continuum but half a person is not a smaller person, nor is half a molecule just a smaller molecule. If happenings are actualities, and even more concrete than individuals, they must be like molecules or people, not like mathematical schema. If experiencing were continuous, then half of a half of a half . . . of an experience would also be an experience. However, though in a tenth of a second we can have an experience, in half of a half of a half of a tenth, it seems we cannot. Were we experiencing a continuum, indeed, we should have an infinite number of experiences between waking and having breakfast. This seems quite absurd, but the alternative is that we have a finite number of experiences, and no finite number can make a continuum. James said that each “specious present” was a new unit happening which comes into actuality as a whole, not bit by bit. Whitehead accepts this, and generalizes it for other types of experiencing than the human, and ultimately for all happenings whatever. Reality consists of the becoming of unit events, which he calls “actual entities,” “actual occasions,” “drops of experience.” It is only with this doctrine that process philosophy can effectively compete with substance philosophies, for these had the advantage that individuals, at least individual animals, are units such that half a unit is not a unit in the same sense at all. In a room, the number of persons can be definite and finite; but in process philosophies which admit continuity, the number of happenings, even of a given kind, must be infinite in a single second, but then all definiteness is lost, and there are no objective units of reality. Giving up continuity—and here, too, Whitehead was helped by physics, with its quanta, while the Buddhists got there unaided—the difficulty is overcome. True, we cannot perhaps know what corresponds, in other animals and other types of process than human experiencing, to the human specious present of about .1 second. However, in some cases, e.g., birds, we can rather safely posit a greater number of experiences than ten while a clock ticks off one second. In any case this is a question of detail only.
Another difficulty which a process philosopher must deal with is the requirement that his or her view must not mean that literally “everything changes,” or as the Buddhists put it, “everything is impermanent,” passes away, from which they deduced the unimportance of ordinary human concerns. In meditation, in mysterious Nirvana, the Buddhists felt that they somehow transcended even impermanence, but only in nonrational fashion. It is necessary for a philosopher to have also a more theoretical escape. Buddha hinted once that there was something which does not pass away, but this was about as far as he would go. Here Bergson, along with Peirce, and then most explicitly and clearly Whitehead, has a great addition to make to the tradition of process philosophy. How do we even know that things have passed away, if not by preserving in memory at least something of what they have been? In memory, past happenings are still somehow with us. Moreover, in perception also, past happenings in a fashion linger on in present experience. We now hear the explosion which in fact took place some seconds ago; we see a stellar explosion which took place years in the past. Memory and perception both somehow embrace the past and preserve something at least of its character. In human memory and perception this “immortality of the past” is faint and fragmentary; but then all human capacities are imperfect, limited. If we are to raise the question of deity at all, why not consider a perfect or divine memory and a perfect or divine perception of happenings, once they have occurred? In such a perfect memory or perception the past might be literally immortal, adequately preserved in all its quality, all its beauty, forever.
Is this merely introducing God as a trick device to rid us of our difficulties? What can any theory do but explain what otherwise remains inexplicable? It is no simple emotional need that events should be preserved, that our lives should forever have some place or function in reality after they are over, or after, perhaps, all human life is ended. It is also a logical demand that after events have happened, it should always be true that they have. If the Buddhists are right, what can make it true that things have happened just as they have? Truth must be true of reality. If the reality keeps fading out, so must truth, but what then would make it true that it had faded? Thus, the literal immortality of the past, in principle accounted for by memory and perception but adequately only in an adequate memory or perception, is required to explain what “truth” means.
One can justify introducing the idea of God into process philosophy in still other ways. I shall deal only with the following. If self-creativity is the universal principle, if all actualities are partly self-determined or free, what prevents indefinitely great confusion and conflict? Confusion and conflict are indeed real, but they are limited. The cosmos does go on in a reasonably foreseeable way, countless sorts of processes fit together into a varied and beautiful whole and nobody thinks the universe is likely to blow up in universal conflict. The cosmic order can be viewed in one of two ways: first, the many self-created creatures harmonize together sufficiently to constitute a cosmos, not thanks to any controlling influence or guidance, but purely spontaneously. Either by sheer luck or their own unimaginable wisdom and goodness, they cooperate to constitute and maintain a viable cosmos. Secondly, the many self-created creatures harmonize together to constitute a viable cosmos thanks to some controlling influence or guidance. This influence or guidance can, in a process philosophy, consist only in a supreme form of self-creative power, a supreme form of process which, because of its superiority, exerts an attraction upon all the others or, as Whitehead likes to put it, “persuades” or “lures” them to follow its directive. I believe a strong case indeed can be made for the latter, against the former. This is the “argument from design” or from order, as process philosophy conceives it.
You can read the great critics of the theistic proofs—Hume and Kant—but you will not find that they have any clear conception of the argument in this form. For example, they object that the order of the world, as we know it at least, is far from perfect, but process philosophy does not presume that there is an absolute order but only that, whatever disorder there may be in the cosmos, it is a thinkable cosmos, rather than an unthinkable chaos or confusion, and of course the order is not absolute if all creatures are partly self-determined. They respond to the universal lure or directive, but it is they who respond, and just how they respond is in some measure their own decision. Though they can cause one another suffering by unfortunate responses, they cannot really disrupt the universe. Were there no universal directive, there seems no way to understand such an invulnerable integrity of the universe. If it be said that we do not know this integrity to obtain, the reply is, it does not matter whether we know it or merely have faith in it, for to such faith there is no feasible alternative. Life itself is a venture of faith in the orderliness of reality. Only verbally can we renounce this faith, but some of us value, as a precious luxury if nothing more, the possibly of a rational theory of that orderliness. Theism alone can furnish such a theory. The rest is simply a mystery.
I wish to deal now with a central doctrine of Whitehead, that in the creative act which is reality itself “the many become one and are increased by one.” To see what this means one may take one’s own momentary experience as illustration. An experience is a unit happening, and we have new ones about ten times a second, but they fit together so smoothly that we do not distinctly notice the transitions. In such a unit experience there are memories of preceding experiences, especially those in the previous second or less, and there are various perceptions. Whatever is remembered and whatever is perceived also consists, from the most concrete point of view, in unit happenings, analogous to single human experiences. The perceived or remembered happenings are the “many” referred to in the above quotation. That they “become one” is slightly elliptical, for “they are embraced together in a new unit reality,” the experience in question but the multiplicity of events has thereby been “increased by one,” as is obvious. In the next moment this event, too, will be remembered or perceived, and so “become one” with various other events. Thus, the process of experiencing is a perpetual unification of a pluralistic reality which, as fast as it gets unified, becomes pluralistic again, and so can never be finally unified. Process is creative synthesis, the many into a new one producing a new many—and so on forever. The synthesis is creative, for how could a plurality dictate its own increase? Determinism, if carried to the limit, is magic, not rationality. The causal conditions for each free act are previous acts of freedom; creativity feeds upon its own products and upon nothing else. Whitehead’s “eternal objects” may seem to contradict this; if they do, then I should reject them. Because the previous products are retained in the new syntheses, there is, in spite of Buddhism, any amount of permanence in this philosophy. The products of creation are never destroyed by new creation, but always utilized and preserved forever, at least on the divine level.
What Whitehead calls the “principle of relativity” is the principle of creativity looked at in reverse, as it were. Whatever in any sense is, he says, furnishes a “potential” for all subsequent acts of synthesis. “Being” is defined here through becoming. That may be said to be which is available for memory or perception, for integration into ever new acts of synthesis, and in this sense is a potential for all future becoming. To be is to be available for all future actualities. This availability is the very meaning of present “reality.” There are profound ethical and religious implications of this view which Buddhism (though without giving a clear rationale for them) appreciated, and Whitehead also emphasizes. I call the doctrine “contributionism.” Individual existence is nothing more nor less than a contribution to the future world society, the entire life and value of which is destined to be appreciated and enjoyed forever by the Eminent or Divine creativity, this immortality in God being the creatures’ only value in the long run. Egocentric motivations essentially consist in metaphysical confusion. This is why a Buddhist termed the egocentric view “writhing in delusion,” for it involves one in an utterly vain and painful attempt to make reality ultimately a contribution to oneself; whereas the final destiny and value of all nondivine life lies beyond the particular self.
The foregoing doctrine literally defines “being,” or permanent reality, in terms of becoming. Thus, it is a misconception to suppose that process philosophy, siding with becoming, rejects being. Rather, it is a doctrine of being in becoming, permanence in the novel; by contrast, philosophies of being are doctrines of becoming in being, novelty in the permanent. The trouble is that to insinuate anything new into the permanent is to make it a new thing. The old with the least new factor is, as a whole, new. This is inherent in the meaning of “whole,” that its parts contribute to it; and with new parts making new contributions there must to that extent be a new whole. Only abstractly, by disregarding the new, can we say that it is the very same whole, but then it becomes a relative and partly subjective matter how far the new is worthy of being disregarded in this fashion. What is not relative or subjective is the logical necessity that in its concrete entirety the whole reality is always new, however unimportant the novel additions. The only clear alternative to this is Leibniz’s denial that in reality anything new is ever added, since the individual contained all his adventures the moment he was born or created. It is a fine example of how little people want to speak precisely that nearly everyone in philosophy has thought he could reject Leibniz’s proposal without going on to a philosophy of events and without giving up the meaning of individual needed in ordinary speech (that of an entity identifiable in abstraction from many particular facts about it) and do all this without confusion or inconsistency. Leibniz saw with deadly accuracy the real issue—what does the concretely definite include in this definiteness? If the concretely definite is the individual as identical throughout his career, then at all times the individual’s adventures, past and future, are parts of the individual. If the concretely definite is not the individual but the momentary states, then there can be a real distinction between present, past, and future, otherwise not. Leibniz never thought of taking this process view, but he did see once for all the impossibility of having it both ways, that is, taking the enduring individual as the definite or concrete entity and also supposing that the given individual might, as that same individual, take this course or that, make this decision or that, enjoy this experience or that. The common sense meaning of individual as facing real alternatives is incompatible with the metaphysics which takes the most concrete units of reality to be enduring individuals; it is only consistent with a metaphysics which takes momentary states to be the concrete realities. That this is not a commonplace in philosophy is an illustration of cultural lag. Leibniz gave us our chance to be clear about the point; it is time we took advantage of his contribution.
So far from its being true that Whitehead, for instance, is denying our right to talk of persons as self-identical through change, he is rather protecting this right against the threat of a metaphysics which fails to harmonize with it except thanks to vagueness or ambiguity. There is a somewhat abstract identity of persons and enduring objects. This is just the point, that identity through change is abstractly real. Also, persons and things are almost concrete, they are concrete in comparison with obviously abstract entities such as “being human” or “triangle.” Aristotelian substantialism was vaguely and roughly correct; Leibniz was precisely and with the clarity of genius wrong; Whitehead is as clear as Leibniz, but faithful to the indispensable elements of the notion of enduring individuality.
The reader may have been worried about the way in which I have taken human experience as the model of reality. Is this not suspiciously anthropomorphic? The answer is, I have taken human experience only as one end of an analogy which may be stretched as wide as one’s imagination can stretch it. An amoeba can “learn” and make what look like “choices” or exhibit “strategy” toward a “desired” end. Of course its “experiences” or “feelings” are not much like ours, but to say that they are absolutely different, or (the same) that it has none, is merely to say that we cannot have the faintest idea of what it is like to be an amoeba, or that we can only know about an amoeba what it looks like to a human being observing it. Similarly, we can perhaps only know what a molecule is as a humanly perceived phenomenon, but cannot know what it is to be a molecule. We can know it as an element in an event of human experience but not as an event on its own. Whitehead does not deny that one may play safe in this way, but he thinks it is a sheer illusion to suppose that there is some other way to try to conceive what an amoeba or atom is in itself than to try to imagine how it feels. He finds no other way, and neither do I. A fair number of philosophers and scientists, from Leibniz down to our time, have agreed with us. The greatest process philosophers have been universal psychicalists, seeing in mind or experience “the sole self-intelligible thing” (Peirce); in this, agreeing with the last great philosopher of being (Leibniz). They find no reasonable explanation of “matter,” except as a form or manifestation of “mind.” Metaphysics has always tended to reach this result. Northern Buddhism illustrates this, but so does Hinduism and it is only a little below the surface in Plato and Aristotle. The opponents of psychicalistic metaphysics are, whether they know it or not, opponents of all metaphysics, for no clear metaphysical alternative has ever been proposed. Dualism is a problem, not a solution. That experiences do occur cannot be denied; hence, the only open question is, does anything else occur? One may safely defy critics to prove the affirmative. Nonhuman experiences occur, no doubt, but that things constituted by no sort of experience, however different from ours, occur—this no science, no philosophy, can possibly establish. An intelligible world—picture results from so modulating the idea of experience as such that it coincides with that of reality. At no lesser price can such a picture be had.
Neoclassical metaphysics is the fusion of the idealism or psychicalism which is implicit or explicit in all metaphysics with the full realization of the primacy of becoming as self-creativity or creative synthesis, feeding only upon its own products forever. This creativity may be conceived to have an eminent or divine form as well as lesser forms, and it perpetually immortalizes its products, literally so by virtue of the eminent creativity. In no other philosophy, I believe, have so many theoretical and spiritual values been united with so much appearance of consistency and clarity. If this is not so, then I am indeed deluded.
“The Development of Process Philosophy,” Philosophers of Process, ed. Douglas Browning (Random House, 1965).