Nicholas Rescher (1928–)

1. Brief Vita

Nicholas Rescher was born in 1928, in Hagen, Germany. In 1938 the family emigrated to the USA. In 1946 Rescher began his undergraduate studies at Queens College (Flushing, New York), and graduated in 1949 with a B.S. in mathematics. Only two years later, setting a departmental record, he completed his Ph.D. degree in philosophy at Princeton University. Between 1954-1957 he worked as research mathematician at the RAND corporation, before he accepted a professorship in philosophy at Lehigh University (1957-1961). In 1961 he joined the philosophy department at the University of Pittsburgh. He founded the Pittsburgh Center for Philosophy of Science, a well-known international research institution, which he also directed for many years, and founded and edited two academic journals. Rescher’s extraordinary achievements as researcher and academic author is reflected in a long list of honors, awards, elected memberships, and prestigious presidencies. To name just a few items of this list, Rescher holds six honorary doctorates from international universities; in 1983 he received the Alexander v. Humboldt Research Prize; in 1989 he was elected President of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association; he is honorary member of Corpus Christi College, Oxford as well as member of the European Academy of Science. Currently he teaches at Pittsburgh.

2. Pragmatic Idealism and Process Metaphysics

Rescher’s oeuvre is unparalleled in twentieth-century philosophy. No other living philosopher has produced a research output as rich in quantity, investigative content, systematic spread and inner cohesion. His over one hundred books deal with a topics from all philosophical disciplines and cover all genres of philosophical writing: from contributions to formal logic (paraconsistent, deontic, modal logic) to scholarly historical research (Leibniz, Kant, Peirce), from in-depth systematic inquiry of traditional problems to creative explorations of new philosophical agenda. The main focus of his work is on issues in epistemology, in particular the theory of scientific knowledge and truth, which he combines with metaphysical, ethical, and metaphilosophical investigations to form an integrated whole. Rescher’s “pragmatic idealism” presents an original stance which takes its cues from the fallibilist, process-geared intuitions of classical American pragmatism, but moderates the pragmatist approach by including structural requirements on truth and knowledge as developed in the idealist tradition. In Rescher’s view the truth of a statement does not derive from the statement’s utility as such, but from the fact that the statement coheres with a set of beliefs whose epistemic reliability has been established by a method with proven utility. Unlike traditional coherentists Rescher offers a precise definition of coherence and describes in detail the procedures by which a coherent set of beliefs is generated and systematized so as to constitute knowledge. Due to its practical usefulness the method of science plays a primary role in the generation of knowledge. But the concept of reality is for Rescher by no means functionally obsolete. The coherentist generation of knowledge is guided by the regulative ideal of “approximation to reality.” Since reality is “cognitively inexhaustible,” the knowledge we generate is bound to remain an ever changing, imperfectible approximation without predictable trajectory. The imperfectibility of knowledge does not allow for any sceptical conclusions, however, since the systems of concepts and values we are able to develop fit our human ends.

Interwoven into this complex tapestry of research strands is a visible sympathy for a process-philosophical approach. At times Rescher’s process-philosophical leaning figure merely as the thin red thread of philosophical temperament running through his oeuvre; at other times they surface more clearly in the research focus on epistemic processes; more recently, they have taken the form of an explicit commitment to a comprehensive “philosophical stance.” In 1949, during his first year at Princeton, Rescher encountered process philosophy in a seminar by W. T. Stace. At that time Rescher was interested in formal logic and Leibniz, writing a dissertation on “Leibniz’ Cosmology: A Study of the Relations Between Leibniz’ Work in Physics and his PHilosophy” (1951), and both of these interest areas provided a natural link to Whitehead. Early in his academic career he drew attention to the “Revolt Against Processes” (1962) that he saw at work in analytical ontology (Quine) and metaphysics (Strawson). Even though Rescher did not return to the topic of process metaphysics per se for about three decades, his writings remain throughout informed by the basic process-philosophical premise that products, including concepts and values, are to be analyzed in terms of the procedures by which we generate-cum-systematize and validate them. Furthermore, the “cognitive inexhaustibility” of physical objects and in general the limitations of human knowledge Rescher attributes throughout to reality’s intrinsic potential for novelty. In 1995 Rescher presents at last a sketch of a comprehensive process-philosophical approach (Process Metaphysics: An Introduction, hereafter PMI). In PMI he explicates and supplements the process-philosophical aspects of his previous work and argues for a process-based approach to ontology, ethics, philosophy of nature and science, epistemology, metaphilosophy, theology, and semantics. His 2001 Process Metaphysics—Basic Issues offers additional historical material supplementing the position in PMI, and his most recent Process Philosophical Deliberations expand on the epistemological and methological motivations for holding a process-philosophical stance.

PMI has the explicit purpose to counteract the narrow identification of process philosophy with the philosophy of A.N. Whitehead. Rescher begins with a short historical survey of process-philosophical positions, from Heraclitus to W. Sheldon, showing process philosophy as a continuous contributory to Western metaphysics and, in particular, a significant part of American philosophy. Process thought, Rescher argues, is a comprehensive philosophical program which has found various and rather different implementations. While alluding to such differences in passing Rescher sketches the basic blueprint of a process-based stance in philosophy, called “processism.”

In his own implementation of processism Rescher follows a common-sensical course without speculative extravagancies. A process is “a coordinated group of changes in the complexion of reality, an organized family of occurrences that are systematically linked to one another either causally or functionally” (PMI 38). The identity and unity of a process derives from its “characteristic program” that determines for each process a certain “ordinary course of development.” The “program” of a process also warrants that “instantiations of a generally identical process [can] be reidentified” (PMI 40), in so far as “the same recipe is followed in either case” (PMI 40). Since the “connection” between the stages of a process may be causal or “established by mental or mathematical operations,” Rescher’s account is not restricted to natural processes. Processes are not only “by their very nature, interrelated and interactive,” but the combinations of processes into complexes are themselves processes, yielding a hierarchy of complexification from micro- to macro- to megaprocesses. Since the “program” of processes is merely “delimiting” possibilities but not necessitating, there is ample room for chance and novelty at each level of combination.

Already with these simple conceptual tools, Rescher argues, we can address successfully a large number of the traditional tasks in philosophy. By conceiving of things as “processual complexes possessing a functional unity instead of substances” we can account quite straightforwardly for the identity and persistence of things. Processes also afford a new account of concrete universals in terms of structures and manners of occurrences. Furthermore, a process-based metaphysics allows us to “harmonize” the categorial interpretation of the world of human agency with the world-picture of natural science, featuring processes at every scale from the quantum physical level upwards. Process philosophy affords a notion of personhood which accommodates our self-experience; and it offers new categorial molds for the articulation of theological contents, such as God’s presence in the world. However, nowhere is processism more called for, Rescher argues, than in the theory of knowledge. A process-based epistemology most easily comes to grip with the dynamic, interactive character of experience and scientific theory formation.

3. Bridging the Gap: Analytical Philosophy and Process Thought

Rescher’s exposition of the promises of process metaphysics fills a genuine lacuna: it is an attempt to introduce process thought—as a general systematic stance, not as Whiteheadian metaphysics—into the arena of main stream analytical philosophy. So far Rescher’s work on process has not received the discussion it deserves. However, the beginnings of a searching debate can be found in Weber 2004, where authors from highly different philosophical “denominations” present critical commentary and supply essential links (largely missing in PMI) to current research on Whiteheadian and non-Whiteheadian process metaphysics within analytical philosophy. Even though Rescher in PMI does not contrast his approach with Whiteheadian process metaphysics in greater detail, a careful comparison of the two schemes could be most enlightening for Whiteheadians and non-Whiteheadians alike. But this is a task yet to be undertaken and the following remarks can only set a few pointers.

First, Rescher’s approach contains many implicit resonances with elements of both Leibnizian and Whiteheadian thought. For example, a passage such as: “A natural process is not a mere collection of sequential presents but inherently exhibits a structure of spatiotemporal continuity. A natural process by its very nature passes on to the future a construction made from the materials of the past” (1995, 39) can be read as an allusion both to Leibnizian vis activa as well as to Whiteheadian creativity and transition. Similarly, by postulating that each process has a “characteristic program” that steers its actual development, Rescher echoes Leibniz’ notion of the conceptus individualis completum of a monad and its history or of an occasion’s subjective form and its concrescence. A third example for the illuminating triangulation is Rescher’s endorsement of a relational conception of space and time and Whitehead’s criticism of “simple location.”

Second, there are explicit interactions with Whitehead’s theses. For example, Rescher endorses Whitehead’s objection to making causal efficiency dependent on presentational immediacy. For Rescher causal efficacy of process is not a matter of inference but “(often, at least) a matter of the feeling-character of our own experience” (1995, 48). But he criticizes Leibniz and Whitehead for taking human experience as “the model or ideal type or the processes that characterize natural reality in general” (1995, 43). He also rejects the idea that every process must have a subject (or superject), i.e., something whose doing it is: many processes (such as “fluctuations of an electromagnetic field” or “erosions of a shoreline”) cannot be understood as the doing of things or, more generally, “agents.”

In places Rescher’s explicit interactions with Whitehead appear problematic from a Whiteheadian point of view. For example, Rescher attributes to Whitehead the position of a “process atomism”: “Whitehead’s approach to process philosophy was somewhat flawed. For he insisted upon irreducibly atomic units of process […] themselves serving as basic units or building blocks out of which all larger processes are then constituted” (PMI 89-90). In Rescher’s view this decision for a “process atomism” forces upon Whitehead the category of a nexus “designed to provide for the combination and integration of his atomic process units” (PMI 55). The notion of a nexus is a “needless complication,” since with the rejection of the “atomistic doctrine” the explanation of combination “becomes simplicity itself […] nothing is more natural than that microprocesses should join and combine into macroprocesses” (PMI 55). This assessment can be criticized in two regards, however.

(1) On the one hand, as M. Weber has pointed out, Rescher does not seem to be aware that Whitehead’s notion of atomicity has nothing to do with postulating discrete “process atoms” as constituents of “larger” processes, but is an infelicitous term for the spontaneity of becoming—it belongs to a functional description of the characteristics of becoming (“genetic division”) whose “dimension” is, as it were, orthogonal to the dimension of description into which Rescher’s contrast between continuity and atomicity belongs (cf. Weber 2004, 60ff ). Perfectly independently of whether we assume that there is a continuous series of process embeddings, i.e., whether it is, as Rescher postulates, “processes all the way down”, any becoming is in Whitehead’s view characterized by that imperviousness to given constraints called “atomicity” that makes novelty possible. Rescher endorses novelty as a feature of becoming but derives it from the merely “delimiting” modus of operation of the “characteristic program” of a process.

(2) On the other hand, in dismissing the category of a nexus as a “needless complication,” Rescher does not seem to appreciate the strict methodological demands that Whitehead is setting for himself. From Whitehead’s methodological point of view (shared, interestingly, by main stream analytical ontology), the basic terms of ontological explanations do have ontological import even if they are not the labels of basic type of entity. One cannot explain the link, unity, or similarity of processes Rescher-style with notions like “program,” “structure” or “shared structural feature” of processes without incurring any ontological commitments. With respect to categorial parsimony it does not make any difference whether one assumes with Whitehead processes and patterns as two distinct categories of being, or uses like Rescher additional categories (“events”, “program”) to describe the make-up of the basic category “process.”

Furthermore, there are profound differences in method. Whitehead in PR aims to put forth a fully worked metaphysical scheme with novel, idiosyncratic, yet axiomatically defined terminology. In contrast, Rescher’s process-metaphysical inquiries are intended as a readable invitation to process philosophy that omits technicalities and hews close to common sense and the vocabulary of traditional metaphysics. While Whitehead operates with a whole-sale replacement of traditional ontological categories, Rescher tries to sketch the theoretical innovations of process metaphysics retaining familiar terms such as “type,” “token,” “instantiation,” “structure,” “feature” etc. Since the technical vocabulary of traditional ontology is not suited for this purpose, Rescher ends up deviating from terminological standards after all, calling for instance a “type-instantiating” (my emphasis) entity both a “particular” and a “universal”: “And so a particular instance of a process is, by its very nature, a concrete universal—any actually occurrent process is at once concrete (context-specific) and universal (type-instantiating)” (1995, 74). Some authors have pointed out that the viability of Rescher’s strategy of conservative revision is difficult to assess on the basis of the informal presentation of the envisaged ontology currently available.

Finally, there are differences in explanatory compass. Rescher seeks direct connections to current research in semantics, cognitive science, and epistemology, but refrains from offering metaphysical explanations at the same level of depth and detail as Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. For example, while in Rescher novelty and being “pregnant with the future” of processes remain general postulates, Whitehead offers a detailed account of how novel outcomes are generated and what kind of import these have for the future. As of yet there are no detailed analogues in Rescher’s process metaphysics to Whitehead’s “eternal objects” nor for his “theory of prehensions,” and little is said about the factors, limits, shapes, or types of development or goings-on. More generally speaking, while Rescher most impressively draws out some broad visionary lines, the finer conceptual machinery of a “theory” proper is still missing. The contrast with the explanatory functions of Whitehead’s categories of ontological description should provide a particularly fruitful heuristics to develop the concrete potentials of Rescher’s approach.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Books by N. Rescher

1973. The Coherence Theory of Truth (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

1977. Methodological Pragmatism (Oxford, Basil Blackwell).

1982a. Empirical Inquiry (Totowa NJ, Rowan & Littlefield).

1982b. Complexity: A Philosophical Overview (New Brunswick NJ, Transition Publishers).

1992. A System of Pragmatic Idealism (Princeton, Princeton University Press).

2001. Cognitive Pragmatism (Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press).

Contributions of N. Rescher to Process Philosophy

1962. “The Revolt Against Process,” The Journal of Philosophy, 59, 410-417.

1992. “The Promise of Process Philosophy” in Frontiers in American Philosophy, edited by R. W. Burch and H. J. Saatkamp, Jr. (College Station TX, Texas A&M University Press). Reprinted in 1996 in Process Studies, 25, 55-71. Also reprinted in 2003 in Process and Analysis, edited by George W. Shields (Albany, SUNY Press), 49-66. Also reprinted in The Edinburgh Campanion to Twentieth-Century Philosophy, edited by C. Boundas.

1995. Process Metaphysics (Albany, SUNY Press).

1997. “Chisholm’s Ontology of Things,” in The Philosophy of Roderick M. Chrisholm, edited by Lewis E. Hahn (Chicago and LaSalle, Open Court), 187-99.

1999. “On Situating Process Philosophy,” Process Studies, 28, 37-42.

2000a. Nature and Understanding: A Study of the Metaphysics of Science (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

2000b. Inquiry Dynamics (New Brunswick NJ, Transition Publishers).

2000c. “Trapped Within History?: A Process Philosophical Refutation of Historicist Relativism,” Process Studies, 29, 66-76.

2001. Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues (Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press).

2003. “Process Philosophy and Monadological Metaphysics,” in Monadisches Denken, edited by Sigmund Bonk (Würzburg, Königshausen & Neumann), 9-17.

2006a. Essais sur les fondements de l’ontologie du procès, ed. and translated into French by M. Weber (Frankfurt /Paris/ Lancaster, ontos verlag).

2006b. Process Philosophical Deliberations (Frankfurt / Paris / Lancaster, ontos verlag).

Books on N. Rescher

Almeder, Robert (ed.). 2008. Essays in the Philosophy of Nicholas Rescher (Frankfurt, Ontos Verlag)

Weber, Michel 2004. After Whitehead. Rescher on Process Metaphysics (Frankfurt, Ontos Verlag).

Author Information

Johanna Seibt
Aarhus Universitet
Institut for Filosofi og Idehistorie, Denmark

How to Cite this Article

Seibt, Johanna, “Nicholas Rescher (1928–)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.