The Idea of Creativity in American Philosophy
by Charles Hartshorne
In the beginning, philosophy in the North American colonies was chiefly religious and political. The religious philosophy was Calvinistic, by which I mean that it was an argument for theological determinism. God’s power and wisdom determine all things, including human choices. Human beings choose nothing except what God in eternity has decreed they shall choose. True, we may choose even to rebel against God, but only if God has decreed that we shall do just that. In spite of this divine responsibility for the rebellion, it was held to be quite appropriate for God to condemn the rebel to eternal damnation.
This strange doctrine was nowhere taken more seriously than in the colonies. Jonathan Edwards is the most famous, but not the sole, exponent of the view. His defense of theological determinism was skillful. Many recent defenders of determinism who do not share the religious faith of Edwards repeat, knowingly or not, some of his arguments. They share his conception of the meaning of freedom, that it is simply the ability to do what one wishes to do, unhindered by other individuals. When sinners rebel against God, God having decreed this rebellion, the sinners do what they really want to do. That God has made them such that they will want to do it makes no difference to the voluntary character of the act. It springs from the sinners’ own will, and this is no less true because their will itself sprang originally from the divine will. Moreover, Edwards insists, we have no right to repudiate the principle of causality, according to which every event is the consequence of antecedent causes, so that, as we are born and as our environment is constituted, so we must act at every moment of life. If we repudiate causality then, it is argued, we cannot claim to know God, the supreme cause of all things. We must use the idea of cause to arrive at knowledge of God, and we cannot have it both ways, we cannot cast away the ladder which takes us to the divine when we come to interpret our own place in the God created universe.
Today many secularists duplicate much of this reasoning without using the idea of God. They merely substitute science for the worship of God. We cannot have science without causality, they say, and we cannot accept causality in science and yet make an exception of ourselves. For there is a science of psychology. Heredity and environment determine actions. However, we are free in that we choose means to ends and act as we see fit, within such limits as are set by our social and political traditions. Free action is voluntary action, without undue interference from others. Many of my fellow philosophers are non-theistic Calvinists. If I find this somewhat amusing, it is doubtless because I am a theistic non Calvinist.
In political philosophy the colonists or some of them, were radical apostles of freedom. They held that political rights come from the people as a whole, not from divinely selected leaders. Calvinists themselves had much to do with this, for they practiced a sort of ecclesiastical democracy. No one knows if he or she is elected to salvation; each of us, for all one knows, is a condemned sinner. So let no one arrogate to self undue power over others. Thus, theological determinism appeared to fit political libertarianism well enough.
The reign of theological determinism was long lasting. Benjamin Franklin, while still a youth, wrote an essay in this vein. He was, however, too practical a man to be satisfied with a metaphysical paradox of this sort, and in his prime he ignored the question. An interesting case is Emerson, a writer who had a great influence upon my own youth. Emerson left the church, and by any normal standards was an unbeliever, or at least a good deal of a heretic. He was influenced by Hindu thought and professed a rather vague monism. But still, the Calvinist influence is readily detectable. Emerson was an explicit believer in determinism, and his conception of deity, which he called the “Oversoul,” was of an all-determining spiritual order or Karma by which exact justice was done to all individuals. He wrote in his journal, “There is no chance, no anarchy. Every God is sitting in his sphere.” What is this but a poetic echo of Calvinism? The world is completely under divine control, nothing happens at random, all is ordered by divine wisdom to the last detail. The proof that Emerson really meant this is found in what he set down in his diary some weeks after his small son died: “I comprehend nothing of this fact except its bitterness. Explanation I have none, consolation none that arises out of the fact itself; only diversion; only oblivion of this, and pursuit of new objects.”
That we have here no mere momentary outpouring of unbearable grief is shown by his writing a year later: “I have had no experiences nor progress to reconcile me to the calamity . . . there should be harmony in facts as well as in truths. Yet these ugly breaks happen . . . which the continuity of theory does not contemplate.”
It does not seem to occur to Emerson that discontinuity might have theoretical status as well as continuity. Why did he have to wait for his son’s death to discover that misfortunes are no respectors of persons or their merits? As though the writer or writers of the book of Job, more than 2,000 years before, had not discussed this very question, not to mention the ancient Greek philosophers.
To be sure Emerson, as he confessed, was not a philosopher, but a poet, moralist, and essayist, who was under the spell of John Calvin, himself under the spell of Saint Augustine, who in turn was under the spell of Greek philosophy. It was the Greek philosophers—the materialist Democritus and the Stoics—who first worked out the deterministic theory for Europeans. Even theological determinism is essentially stoic. Augustine never genuinely freed himself from the fetters of Greek thought, nor did Emerson long afterwards.
The effective break with Calvinism, in the 1880s with Charles Peirce and William James. They were followed by John Dewey and the Anglo-American Alfred North Whitehead. Paul Weiss and many others are in this tradition. At least one of the deists of the revolutionary period, Ethan Allen, who was a military general and a philosopher—one of the rather few people in history who have been both—gave an eloquent defense of theological indeterminism. He thought the Calvinistic doctrine was absurd, even comic.
The last gasp of the Stoic-Calvinist view may be seen in Josiah Royce. Royce is perhaps closer to the Stoics than were Calvin or Augustine, for like his Stoic predecessors he identified God with the soul of the universe of which the human soul was a part or element. The view is still Calvinistic, for our choices are also God’s choices; all the goods and evils in the cosmos, including our most wicked acts, are eternally chosen by the absolute will. Why then the many evils? Royce says the divine wisdom sees them as necessary to the good of the whole, but then wickedness cannot really be wickedness, since the wicked persons do exactly what God wills done. Royce tries to make sense out of this paradox. The wicked ones serve God’s purpose all right, but, unlike the good ones, do not intend to do so. They do the right thing only in spite of themselves, whereas the good ones want to do good. Here Royce overlooks an obvious objection, “Why does it matter that the evil persons do not intend to do good, if they do it?” After all, even bad intentions, like all things else, are divinely chosen and do good. So they too cannot really be bad. Thus, there is no evil at all. All moral choice then must be meaningless since anything that can possibly happen is bound to be exactly what infinite wisdom selects for the perfection of the whole.
I regard Royce as the end of a blind alley, an alley into which the Stoics and Augustine led Western religious thought. Fortunately some of our recent philosophers have presented an alternative, perhaps nowhere else in the world quite so clearly worked out. In the development from William James and Charles Peirce through Dewey to Whitehead, I see one of the longest steps forward ever taken in the philosophy of religion. I shall try to sketch this development.
To William James, as to some European philosophers, especially French, it seemed obvious that the mere absence of external coercion, or even of internal compulsion in the form of ungovernable passion, madness, drunkenness, or other psychological abnormality, is not the whole of our moral freedom. Something has been left out, and this something is the heart of the matter. The essential point is the power to decide or determine the previously undecided or indeterminate. James analyzed this power in various ways. From a religious standpoint the issue is this: does God make our decisions for us by creating us and our world just as we and the world are, or does God decide only some features of the creation, leaving it to us to decide others? Are we or are we not, with God, in however humble a fashion, creators as well as creatures? If God is the sole creator and we mere creatures, then not only are we radically inferior to God; we are simply nothing at all, so far as creativity is concerned. If supreme reality is supreme creativity, what can lesser forms of reality be if not lesser forms of creativity? James felt deeply that we must be creators as well as creatures. The notion that God’s eternal plan settles everything seemed to him to contradict our sense of being agents of decisions. Some things are for us to settle, and it is nonsense to say this and also to say that God in eternity settles everything.
What is it to create? James was clear about this. It is to produce a definite actuality out of antecedent somewhat indefinite possibility. The future, he held, is partly ambiguous or indeterminate, not simply for our knowledge but in itself or objectively as future. Only when no longer future is an event fully defined. The future consists not merely of what will happen but of what may or may not happen, depending upon the choices of creatures. We help to define the world. No deity has given it complete definition once for all. This is the dignity of being human, that we are in our humbler fashion co-creators with deity. One can read a hundred essays by determinists and scarcely find one which shows understanding of this claim. For example, many writers talk as though the objection to determinism were only that causally determined choices could not be voluntary, and hence, for instance it would be absurd to punish criminals. James laughs to scorn the notion that the issue hangs upon how criminals are to be treated. Of course, he says, a determinist can defend punishment if he or she can show that the fear of punishment deters from crime. Who could be so stupid as to be unable to see this. James was thinking in religious and ethical, not in legal, terms. He was perfectly aware of the difference between unconstrained, reasonable, actions, and coerced or half mad ones. This was just not the contrast which primarily concerned him. His question was, “Do we help to create or determine the world, or is it fully determinate already by cause in being before we were born? Did the first dawn of creation write what the last day shall read, or is the world still in the making so that new causal factors, our decisions among them, keep entering the stream of events.”
Charles Peirce, a friend of James, and a great mathematical and logical genius—also an experimental scientist-physicist, astronomer, and even psychologist—decided, when about forty years old, that determinism was a mistaken doctrine, and mistaken from a scientific point of view. His concern was not, as was that of William James, primarily with our moral freedom, or with psychology, but with physics and cosmology. His aim was broader than that of fitting humanity into the scheme of things. He wanted to understand the very meaning of causality and natural law. A radical evolutionist, he applied the notion of development to law itself. Natural laws are the habits of natural things; the most basic laws are the habits of the most fundamental sorts of things, such as atoms or light rays. The lesson of Darwinism, adequately generalized, is that species or natural kinds, and hence their habits, evolve and change slowly through time. Habits, being adaptations, are never absolutely rigid. There are always small deviations, chance variations. For this and other reasons Peirce adopted indeterminism not simply with respect to human beings or moral choices but with respect to all nature. Human freedom was a highly special case and no more. Boutroux in France had already hinted at such a view, but Peirce worked it out more explicitly.
Peirce called his doctrine, Tychism, from the Greek word for chance. Chance is real, in the form of slight deviations from any strict law or natural habit. Like James Clerke Maxwell, the last century’s greatest physicist, Peirce took seriously the introduction into physics of the statistical conception of natural laws. Laws are averages, not absolute rules for the individual case. As a mathematician and physicist, he knew well what this meant, and he knew that no observations could possibly establish absolute or non statistical laws. At most, he pointed out, we can show that deviations from our scientific formulae, our statements of law, are not large, but from the statement, “the deviations are less than a certain small value,” the statement “the deviations are exactly zero,” i.e., nonexistent, does not in the least follow, even with probability. Quite the contrary, since zero is but one of an infinity of possible left open by observation, the probability that the value is strictly zero is as one to infinity. This, I maintain is a powerful argument, and it precedes quantum mechanics by several decades. Quantum mechanics has merely added the additional argument that not only can we not narrow possible deviations down to zero, we cannot even reduce them below a certain finite quantity. As a result determinism, so far from being a result of scientific observations already made, is shown to be in principle forever beyond the reach of observation, since it cannot even be approached asymptotically.
Chance, Peirce remarks, is in itself a negative idea, meaning absence of any necessity or strict law, but there is a positive side. In ourselves we experience deviation from habit as spontaneity, self-determination. Our existence, from the inside or for ourselves, consists of spontaneous feeling more or less illuminated by thought or the use of signs. Wherever habit is absolute or nearly absolute, thought and even feeling tends to lapse. It revives when habit fails to fit and something unhabitual must be done. Nowhere in nature, however, according to Peirce’s doctrine, is habit or law literally absolute, hence nowhere is feeling altogether absent. The atoms in themselves consist of feelings with some slight degree of freedom or, to use Peirce’s word, spontaneity. Nature consists of spontaneous or slightly free processes of feelings, which on higher levels reach the character of conscious thought.
An odd feature of Peirce’s view is that he thought laws, though not holding absolutely, are evolving toward absoluteness. Nature is slowly becoming more habit ridden, and in the infinitely remote future it must fall into complete rigidity. Since this means the lapse of all feeling, and feeling is the very stuff of which reality is composed, it seems that nature is heading toward its own collapse into nothingness. The evolutionary process may then begin over again. Thus, time perhaps is circular in a strange fashion.
John Dewey was largely interested in social and political problems, rather than in individuals taken one by one as was James, or in the physical universe as was Peirce. Dewey agreed with James and Peirce that causal laws are not absolute and especially with the view of James that man is genuinely creative in a partly unfinished universe. The ambiguities of the future are real, objective; and life consists in progressive resolutions of these ambiguities. Dewey has a very sharp sense for a fundamental truth, as I view it, the truth that a human being is not ultimately a spectator of things, past, present, and future, but a maker of new forms of reality. The question is not so much, what is going to happen, that is a mere spectator’s question, but rather, toward what outcome do we decide to bend our efforts. Until we decide there is, insofar, no definite future fact to behold; and after we decide it is the past we are contemplating not the future, so far as that decision is concerned. There is no time to rest in mere contemplation, even in the past, for each moment new decisions must be made. Taken as a whole every experience is decisive, active, rather than contemplative; contemplation is a partial aspect only. How we interpret the facts contemplated is really what use we make of then in the moment to moment process of decision making. There is no escape from deciding, except by lapsing into total unawareness; the idea of pure contemplation is an illusion, an attempted evasion of life’s obligations. We may meet the obligations feebly, but meet them we must. Thinking is a form of living, and living is solving problems as to what to do next. Truth, reality, all basic concepts, must be interpreted in the light of this problem solving character of life.
I sympathize with much of what Dewey says. I quarrel only with what seem to me exaggerations or arbitrary restrictions in his account. First, he seems almost to deny that we can contemplate at all, even with respect to the past, or with respect to eternal characters of reality, which are common to past and future. It is never really clear how far he admits that the past, at least, is quite definite. Second, Dewey refuses to generalize his account of human nature into an account of nature at large. He has a dualistic cosmology, without quite admitting it. Is problem solving restricted to human beings or at least to the higher animals, or is something analogous pervasive of nature? Is experiencing, enjoying, suffering, peculiar to animals, or is something like it found in the very atoms?
Dewey denies this, but his reasons for the denial are quite unclear to me. I even wrote him about it once, but could not understand his answer. Third, Dewey refuses to admit any form of awareness superior to the human. He quarrels with belief in God on the ground that if all possible value is eternally in God then our existence adds nothing and is pointless, but he fails to note that note that some of us who believe in God do not say that all possible value is timelessly possessed by God; on the contrary, we say that God is perfect once for all only in certain abstract respects, and that the concrete values of the divine life are endlessly enriched by the creaturely lives. Dewey’s own colleague at Barnard College of Columbia University, W. P. Montague, held this view, yet Dewey ignores the doctrine, save for one vague and careless remark which might possibly refer to it.
Whitehead agrees with his American predecessors concerning the basic distinction between the settled past and the indeterminate future, and, although without knowing it until near the end of his career, he agrees with Peirce that this distinction expresses a universal character of nature. He agrees also with Peirce that the inner aspect of the process of decision by which the unsettled future turns into the settled past is feeling always more or less tinged with thought or consciousness. In much of nature thought is at a minimum, but feeling is on all levels, atomic, molecular, cellular, animal. The only strictly insentient things are composites, for example swarms of atoms or molecules in a gas, or colonies of cells in a tree. Here Whitehead returns to the great thought of Leibniz: the notion of mere dead matter is due to the grossness of our sense perceptions. If we could see atoms or cells as individuals we should not think of them as mere dead matter, mere lumps of passive stuff, for we should observe their incessant and rhythmical activities.
A tree, said Whitehead once, is a democracy—he meant, a democracy of cells. Of course the tree does not feel, neither does a swarm of bees. It is the bees, not the swarm—it is the cells, not the tree—which feel. Only in animals with nervous systems do we meet with cell colonies that are more than that, each colony also an integrated individual acting and feeling as one. Whitehead has a carefully conceived, though not detailed, theory of how the nervous system makes this possible.
Perhaps Whitehead’s greatest contribution is his analysis of the idea of creativity. To my mind his account is at this point much more penetrating than that of William James, or indeed anyone else before or since. Creativity, according to this account, belongs to the very essence of experiencing as such. To experience is to create, to create is to experience. Consider any momentary experience in its full concreteness, not just the sensory aspects or just the intellectual or emotional ones, but all aspects (e.g., your experience now). In this experience there is memory of what you have just previously experienced less than a second before. There are probably also visual and auditory perceptions, various thoughts, and many other features, yet all this is but one momentary experience. It is not a mosaic but a unitary reality, though with diverse aspects. This unitary reality is a creation. It must be, since it did not exist previously, and it is no mere rearrangement of things previously existent.
Once more, it is not a mosaic, a mere composite of things experienced, but a single experience of these many things. The one subject or momentary experience has many objects, past experiences remembered, parts of the body felt, ideas entertained, but these many things are now held in a new unity. “The many become one and are increased by one.” The experience itself is as unitary as any of its objects—for example, as the just preceding experience which it remembers. since the new unity is not something previously there, and is no mere rearrangement of the things previously there, what can it be but a new creation? Could the previous multitude of things, such as parts of the body, causally dictate their own inclusion into a new thing? A causal law might tell us that some objects would be experienced more prominently than others, or more agreeably than others, and so on, but all this is abstract, and could apply to any number of conceivable experiences, as well as to just this unique one that occurs. We have the antecedent objects plus the law; out of this multiplicity we have to get a new object. A creative fiat is needed to weld the objects in conformity with the law into a new object.
Like Bergson, some of whose writings he had read long before, Whitehead sees that the essential creative art, basic to all others, is the art of experiencing. The most concrete form of beauty is a harmonious experience. In this sense we are all artists in every instant, more or less successfully creating beauty. The basic freedom is just the freedom to experience, to enjoy ever new states of feeling and thought, none with any possible duplicate in all the universe, and each experience has some aspect of beauty, since beauty is unity in contrast, and any experience is such a unity.
Creativity, thus conceived, is self-creation, and what are we concretely but experiencing individuals whose characters are largely the result of past experiences, each of which as a unitary whole was self-determined? “Freedom of Choice” in the practical or moralistic sense of choosing to ‘do’ this instead of that with our bodies and instruments is a secondary aspect or product of the primary freedom to experience a given situation in a fashion not dictated by the situation, even if one’s own past is taken as part of the situation.
If the essential creativity is self-creativity, what becomes of the idea of one individual creating another? It is relativized, rather than simply denied. “The many become one and are increased by one” implies that each new synthesis of the many into one produces an additional item in the many and hence contributes to all subsequent self-creation. Your neighbors, so far as they perceive or know your experiences, will take them into their own experiences. You will thus have created something of their natures as well as something of yours. All creation is first of all self-creation, but since self-creation through perception draws upon antecedent cases of self-creation in others, all self-creation is also creation by others and of others. This is not a creation of others in the absolute sense, which would contradict their being truly self-creative, but only in a relative sense. Absolute creator on one side and absolute or merely passive creature on the other is a formula with no admissible meaning in Whitehead’s philosophy. Calvinism is here refuted in the most radical fashion conceivable. No God could simply ‘make’ our experiences, for an experience has to be self-made, even though out of antecedent materials.
Whitehead has a deeply religious feeling about this matter. God does not coerce, and coercion has no absolute meaning in this philosophy. Coercion in the usual human sense is but an indirect form of power. Human tyrants or coercive agents force me to make a certain decision by threatening or injuring my body, or the bodies of those I care about; they do not directly influence my thought or will by this thought. God, however, has direct power over all creatures, dealing directly with all minds. How can God do this? In the Whiteheadian philosophy, nothing can influence the becoming of any experience save the things already there to be experienced. So God influences our experiencing if, and only if, in some not necessarily conscious way, we experience this thought or feeling. What is given in an experience as datum, conscious or not conscious, influences that experience; nothing else does.
For example, if my body influences my visual experience, this means that the optical system is directly felt. That we do not think of the data of vision as bodily but as things outside our skins is explained by genetic psychology, of which Whitehead worked out his own version. It is interpretation, thoroughly learned in infancy, which turns bodily processes directly experienced into the seeing of objects out there before us, vision apart from interpretation, or as sheer givenness, is, according to Whitehead, as bodily as pain, but as interpreted in adult life it is at the opposite extreme. Only in early infancy is the interpretation minimal or nonexistent, so that the experience is then, perhaps, merely bodily.
That God influences us at all times means that, as we always feel our bodies without necessarily thinking about them, so we always feel God; but here for the most part with still less conscious interpretation. Why, however, do we feel either the body or God? What forces us to do so? Simply that these objects offer us irresistible values. From our bodies we derive sensory qualities without which our experiences must be but empty or abstract outlines; from God we derive a basic guidance without which we would be living in a lawless chaos. The laws of nature are not mere habits of natural things, they are divinely inspired habits. Without this inspiration things could not coexist, for their self-creativity would be without a common direction. They would be like a vast committee with no chairman. Without commonly accepted rules, a world of mutually harmonious but self-determined processes is impossible. How are the rules to be established? Any rules are arbitrary, since there is no one possible world order but innumerable possible orders. There has therefore to be a decision, “let these be the rules.” The decision can only be made by a single decider, whose influence upon the others is uniquely pervasive. This is Whitehead’s theory of natural laws; they are divinely decided and the decision universally accepted since it offers each creature its only chance to belong to a cosmos rather than a chaos.
As Whitehead puts it, God ‘persuades’ the world, but does not coerce it. What God offers is indispensable and hence irresistibly attractive to all.
There are two important qualifications: the divine persuasion furnishes rules for the self-creation of creatures, but no rule can fully specify a single instance of such self-creation. Finally, each momentary experience must determine itself. Thus, though the world is not a chaos, an element of chance (Peirce) or anarchy remains. There is some degree of genuine disorder. That no conflict or evil should result is infinitely unlikely. This is not weakness on God’s part, for the very purpose of the rules is to make freedom, with all its risks, possible. The risks are the price which must be paid for the opportunities which freedom alone can actualize. The further qualification, which is more difficult to explain, is that the more highly conscious creatures, such as ourselves, not only are free to get into conflict with one another in some degree, but are free to rebel in a measure against the divine persuasion, free to sin. Whitehead tries, in one chapter, to show how this possibility arises. It is the old theological problem, not of evil in general, but of moral evil. Mere suffering, aesthetic evil is not especially mysterious in his philosophy, for if there is self-determination everywhere the wonder is not that discord appears here and there, but that there is any harmony at all. The multiplicity of self-determining beings explains natural evil. Only God explains natural good. Moral evil remains somewhat puzzling. Part of the trouble here is perhaps that moral evil is so close to us that we can scarcely think disinterestedly and honestly about it.
A surprising feature of Whitehead’s philosophy is its affinity, in certain aspects, with Buddhism. The Buddhists very early broke with the almost universal concept of individual substance, soul, or ego. For Buddhism, the reality of the individual is in the successive states, mental or bodily. As conscious, the individual is the experience. Strictly speaking, I am a new self each moment. Not only this, but by identification with others through love or compassion I am not simply distinct from other selves. Self-identity through time is not absolute, I both am and am not the one I was yesterday. Nonidentity with other human beings is also only relative, I both am and yet am not my neighbor. In this way, among others, the Buddhist seeks to subdue egoism. There is no point in relating actions to self-interest, rather than altruism, for selves have no absolute sameness through time and no absolute otherness in space.
All this can be translated into Whitehead’s system. Each moment I am a new experience—Whitehead calls it a new “actual entity,” or a new “occasion of experience.” Each actual entity is self-created, a synthesis into which the previous experiences which I call mine enter in the form of conscious or unconscious memories, but many other actualities also enter, among them what I perceive or understand as the experiences of other human beings. Thus, my present reality is made up partly of my past reality and partly of the past realities of many other individuals. My unity with my own past is only relatively different from my unity with the past of my neighbors, friends, enemies, the constituents of my own body, and so on. Quite literally I am now both what I have been and, in lesser degree, what others have been. I am myself, but I also am other selves. There is relative separation from my past, and relative union with your past.
Whitehead draws from this the same conclusion that the Buddhists did from their rather similar doctrine, egoism, self-interest taken as the central motivation, is based upon an illusion, the illusion that each of us is a simply identical entity through time and a simply different entity from the others around us in space. Whitehead once in a lecture expressed this point in a whimsical fashion reminiscent by its very whimsicality of Zen Buddhism. “I sometimes think,” he said, “that all modern immorality is due to Aristotle’s theory of substance.” A Buddhist would be more likely to understand this than anyone else.
The rejection of substance, of an identical entity, distinct for each human individual, simply one with itself, simply not one with any other self, is regarded as depriving selfishness of an illusory metaphysical support. “I love myself,” says the believer in substance, “of course, for I am myself.” If I love you, however, that is very different indeed, for I am not you at all. Thus, self-love is taken as metaphysical self-explanatory and love of others as metaphysically paradoxical. As psychologists tell us, however, self-love and love of others, like self-hate and hatred of others, are akin. There is no absolute or metaphysical gulf between them. According to Whitehead, self-love has essentially the same structure as love of others.
The present actuality is a synthesis of past actualities, some of which belong to the personal history of the particular human body to which the present experience is attached, and some of which do not, but this is a secondary distinction. The primary point is that a novel unit of experience unites in itself previous units. Your past and my past are both in my present on metaphysically the same terms, whatever differences of degree there may be. As for the future, if I take an interest in what I anticipate as my experiences tomorrow and am moved to take steps that they shall be agreeable experiences, I can in much the same way take an interest in what I anticipate as your experiences tomorrow and take steps that they shall be agreeable. There are no absolute but only relative differences in the two cases. I am of the opinion that Whitehead’s doctrine has whatever merit the Buddhist doctrine has, plus considerably greater clarity and consistency, but of course Whitehead had the advantage of more than a thousand years of intellectual progress and the stimulus of Western science and logic.
Did Whitehead learn anything from the Buddhist psychology? The evidence is insufficient to answer this question. He mentions Buddhism a couple of times, but not with reference to their psychology, or their rejection of substance. My guess is that Whitehead reached the Buddhist insights independently, for he was wont to state his indebtedness, but it remains possible that there was an influence of which he happened not to be conscious. Whitehead’s philosophy is the first great speculative system in the West which duplicates, in rather intimate fashion, the Buddhist relativizing of substantial identity and nonidentity of persons and, particularly, the Buddhist conviction that in the rejection, of soul-substance and of substance generally there is positive spiritual value. This is no reluctant abandonment or subordination of the notion of substance on the ground of insufficient evidence. This is rather a joyful rejection of an obstacle to spiritual fulfillment, the transcendence of a specious metaphysical basis of selfishness. It is the overcoming of the false and harmful absolutizing of essentially relative identities and differences. There is nothing like this in previous European thought, but there is something quite a good deal like it in much Asiatic thought originating in India.
“The Idea of Creativity in American Philosophy,” The Journal of Karnatak University (India), Social Sciences Vol.2 (May, 1966).