William Ernest Hocking (1873–1966)

When Alfred North Whitehead arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1924, Harvard University’s Philosophy program began its second “golden era.” The department by this time had distanced itself from James and Royce, and was turning in the direction of what is now called analytic philosophy. Among its members, however, was a lone remaining metaphysician, William Ernest Hocking, who had studied with both Royce and James. Hocking is often cast as the last representative of American idealism, but one should remember that James was one of Hocking’s mentors, for Hocking always retained James’s sense of the practical importance of philosophy. The Meaning of God in Human Experience, perhaps his most important book, shows how his thought blends idealism and pragmatism. As Hocking himself writes: “Pragmatism has given us back the problems of idealism in our own terms” (Hocking 1941, 16).

Hocking began attending Whitehead’s lectures in the fall of 1924, and their intellectual interaction continued to the end of their careers. In terms of overt influence, ideas flowed more from Whitehead to Hocking than vice versa, and so I will focus on this influence. However, if Peirce is right in claiming that we live in ideas, not they in us, then no doubt some of Hocking’s ideas and inflections made their way into Whitehead’s thinking. Unfortunately, within the scope of this article, one cannot hope to trace all these lines of influence. Let me begin, then, by backtracking.

1. Brief Vita

Hocking was raised in the American Mid-west and was led to philosophy by his reading of the works of Herbert Spencer. Since his father disapproved of such reading as a waste of time, Hocking used to sneak off to the barn with his Spencer text in hand and carry on his philosophical quest in private. His success in technical school and his ability to play organ helped to gain him admittance to Harvard. There he excelled, and as a graduate student in 1902-1903 received a fellowship to study in Germany. While there he made the acquaintance of the young Husserl with whom he later corresponded. Like Husserl and many other contemporaries, Hocking was interested in bringing science into step with philosophy. Thus, his idealistic metaphysics had an empirical orientation. In Whitehead, Hocking found a kindred spirit, a speculative scientist, “the first since Spencer” to propose “a cosmology comparable with that of Hegel in its synthetic range” (Hocking 1959, 289). It is hardly surprising, then, that Hocking’s work would be affected by Whitehead at Harvard. After finishing his doctorate, Hocking began teaching at Yale, but then returned to Harvard in 1914.

2. Interests shared by Hocking and Whitehead

In exploring the relationship between Hocking and Whitehead, one finds two notable arenas in which their work was closely inter-related—philosophical method and metaphysical outlook. With respect to the former, Whitehead and Hocking were both influenced by the development of pragmatism. As Whitehead states in the opening of Process and Reality: “I am also greatly indebted to Bergson, William James, and John Dewey. One of my preoccupations has been to rescue their type of thought from the charge of anti-intellectualism, which rightly or wrongly, has been associated with it” (PR xii). Concerning metaphysical outlook, the two agreed in principle about the general picture of the cosmos but remained divided concerning specific interpretive features of that picture.

3. Description and Assessment of Whitehead’s Influence

As noted, Hocking grew up under the influence of both Royce and James. In his method, he never relinquished the kind of Kantian transcendental argument that seeks a priori metaphysical truths. Here he followed Royce, who, even in his late logical writings, kept a place for a priori certitude. However, Hocking was equally affected by James’s radical empiricism and sought the pragmatic meanings of all concepts in human experience and practice. Thus, he would, on the one hand, argue for God’s necessity in a Roycean transcendental fashion, but then he would seek to articulate the meaning of this God in Jamesian fashion by describing the import of the term “God” for everyday moral, political, and aesthetic concerns. Knowledge of Whitehead’s work enabled Hocking to find new ways for synthesizing these two dimensions of his method.

For Whitehead, “the primary method of philosophy is descriptive generalization” (PR 10). And this must be accomplished by all the means available to us. “John Dewey asks me,” Whitehead wrote, “to decide between the ‘genetic-functional’ interpretation of first principles and the ‘mathematical-formal’ interpretation.” He responded by stating, “I must decline to make this decision. The beauty of philosophy is its many facets” (ESP 123). Hocking recognized these “many facets” in Whitehead’s work and noted a duality similar to that which pervaded his own philosophical approach. Whitehead, he argued, “was working not from one foundation, but from two: the highly technical thought of advanced analysis, and the immediate experience of common humanity” (WI 506).

With his extensive knowledge of mathematics and his background in scientific studies, Whitehead was well attuned to the inductive and experimental nature of scientific inquiry. As with James and Dewey, experimentalism would be an appropriate way to describe Whitehead’s philosophical method. No doubt those who brought him to Harvard expected him to give philosophy a more scientific turn. However, few of them anticipated the way in which he would do this. For Whitehead, science was itself a general feature of experience and often drew upon unstated metaphysical commitments. Thus, he argues in Adventures of Ideas, “No science can be more secure than the unconscious metaphysics which tacitly it presupposes” (AI 197). This requires another facet of philosophical method—a transcendental move to explore this “unconscious metaphysics.” One, Whitehead suggests, must try to “frame a scheme of ideas, the best that one can, and unflinchingly to explore the interpretation of experience in terms of that scheme” (AI 290).

Such an addition would have pleased Hocking, who retained an affinity for both Royce and Kant. However, Whitehead’s transcendental move was significantly different from its traditional counterpart. There could be for him no “deduction” that might lead to “dogmatic finality” (AI 185). This mode of inquiry, too, had to be understood as experimental and creative—or, in a more general way, as speculative. More was needed than good analytic skills. The philosophical inquirer who seeks the foundational categories of science and the cosmos must employ imagination, common sense, and a bit of “the poetic insight of artists” (Hocking 1959, 291). The method is experimental, fallible, and empirical, but it is not positivistic in the sense of trying to reduce philosophy to the doing of science. As Hocking noted on many occasions, Whitehead is ultimately more Platonic than Kantian. The philosopher’s task remains to look for the explanatory categories, but to do so by whatever means are available in order to elucidate and illuminate the ordinary.

For all these reasons, from Hocking’s point of view, Whitehead would have seemed a kindred spirit regarding philosophical method. His own synthesis of Royce and James was paralleled by Whitehead’s dual attention to analysis and experience. When in 1933 they began to teach two joint seminars, their similarities became all the more apparent to Hocking. However, he also recognized how his own method was radically altered by Whitehead. The experimental-poetic method of Whitehead’s transcendental turn provided a way for Hocking to rethink the traditional immediacy of all a priori beliefs. Hocking continued to consider a priori beliefs as possible, and believed they established some certainties. However, he came to discount the immediacy of their certainty. Instead, he suggested that an inquirer might have to search long and hard for her a priori beliefs. Thus, Whitehead seemed to nudge Hocking in the direction of Peirce and Dewey—opening inquiry into “certainties” or “fundamental beliefs” to an ongoing, revisable process. Concerning their 1933-1934 “Seminary in Metaphysics” Hocking wrote: “And I doubt not that my growing sense of the inductive element in metaphysics, involving the judgment that the ‘a priori’, constantly sought, is likely to be the last thing we arrive at, is in part a product of this experience” (1961, 513).

This same seminar marked some nuanced changes in Hocking’s metaphysical outlook that had taken place during his engagement with Whitehead’s thinking. It also served as an occasion for Hocking to document what distinguished his metaphysics from that of Whitehead.

Hocking had grown up in an era bent on accommodating the new science to rationalistic philosophy, and foremost among these attempts was Spencer’s grand synthesis of evolution and systematic philosophy. And, as we noted, it had a significant impact on the thought of Hocking in his youth. The essential difficulty of Spencer’s approach was that it tried to overlay a rationalistic mechanism on Darwin’s evolutionary description of organic development. The tensions this generated quickly became apparent to those familiar with the then current developments in science.

From Spencer, Hocking moved on to the systematic idealism of Royce. Royce was well attuned to the scientific work of his day and his philosophy was better informed than was Spencer’s. Royce also presented a much more sophisticated account of the history of philosophy. His own idealism was not mechanical and it offered more flexibility for cosmological speculation than did Spencer’s. Nevertheless, at least through The World and the Individual, Royce’s system was tightly constructed and still tempted William James to describe it as providing an account of a “box universe.” There was indeed little room for novelty. Hocking, like Dewey, recognized the pressures the new biology placed on idealism. He explored ways to modify his thought to allow room for evolutionary doctrine. It is fair to say, I think, that in Whitehead’s process thought, he found a way to make idealism more fully evolutionary. For Whitehead, Hocking argued, “Substance is, as it were, biologized” (Hocking 1959, 293). Such biologizing appealed to Hocking’s sense of the importance of experience—the world is, after all, not static, but alive and moving forward. Moreover, Whitehead, unlike the positivists and metaphysical mechanists, was willing to couple this biologizing with conceptions of God and primordial creativity in the cosmos.

On a microcosmic scale, Whitehead’s process picture enabled Hocking to rethink his idealist conception of the self. If he was going to retain a substantive version of the self, he would have to do so in a way that answered Whitehead’s concern over the stasis central to most traditional conceptions of substance. In Types of Philosophy Hocking noted how Whitehead’s claim that “the thought creates the thinker” describes the “final contrast between a philosophy of substance and a philosophy of organism” (Hocking 1959, 295). Hocking appreciated Whitehead’s theory of organism as a response to mechanism, but worried a self or thinker that was purely process would have no locus, no center of purpose and action. He looked for ways to ease this tension.

In his 1958 essay “Fact, Field and Destiny: Inductive Elements of Metaphysics,” Hocking explicitly addressed his concerns that Whitehead’s conceptions of “togetherness” and “nexus” must “assume a background” (Hocking 1958, 531). At the same time, following Whitehead’s own practice of turning to contemporary physics for new ideas, Hocking appropriated the metaphor of a “field” to serve as this assumed background. He used “field” precisely in Whitehead’s way as a “category of description” (Hocking 1958, 534). If the self is thought of in terms of a field of fields, one can achieve some of the fluidity and plurality of Whitehead’s process, and at the same time have an organizing principle that allows enough stability for common-sense notions of purpose and agency. Thus, both thinkers influenced each other: Whitehead directly influenced Hocking’s metaphysics of the self, while Hocking, in turn, suggested revisions of Whitehead that would allow him to retain important features of his own pragmatic idealism.

In dealing with the cosmos as a whole, Hocking found tensions similar to those attending a process conception of self. Again, Whitehead’s thought became a critical influence upon his attempt to resolve these tensions systematically. Like Dewey, Whitehead sought to avoid bifurcations such as mind/nature that have been endemic in much modern philosophy. Most significantly, as Hocking saw it, Whitehead sought to show that nothing was “other” to nature. Nature was the creative process that consistently produced novelty. But such a flattened ontology, Hocking believed, created several problems and ran counter to ordinary experience, which for him remained the final test for any metaphysical theory.

First, as he saw it, the flattening ontology forced Whitehead to argue for a thoroughgoing organicism that envisioned nature as a monolithic self-developing organism. Hocking saw Whitehead, in company with Anaxagoras and Margaret Cavendish, as assuming “that every integral unit of physical being has its mental as well as its physical aspect” and that this assumption “errs by excess in animating the world” (Hocking 1959, 156). Whereas for Hocking creativity is a significant feature of the cosmos, Whitehead held that creativity goes all the way down and that there is no occasion that is not creative.

Thus, the same “togetherness” that occasioned Hocking to adopt the “field” metaphor, when taken to its limit seemed to confine the world too severely. “Yet I cannot follow this logic with Whitehead,” Hocking wrote, “to the point of calling the whole an organism. There is more looseness among the parts of the world, more waste, wider flung oceans of emptiness, more relative independence than is compatible with organic unity” (Lachs & Micah Hester 2004, 177). His metaphor of related fields attempted to allow for some of this looseness in the interstices among the fields.

This relative independence was important to Hocking for several reasons. First, it seemed most compatible with our experiences of freedom and contingency, and our instinctive conception of Nature’s objectivity. With traditional German idealism, he held to a two-tier conception of Nature. On the one hand, there is a nature that is constituted by whatever is objective—the “not-I.” On the other hand, there is the nature that embraces the dialectical relationship of the “I” and “not-I,” the subjective and objective. Hocking believed that Whitehead had well described the latter conception of nature, but had much too weak a version of the former. In Spinozistic terms, Whitehead gave an account of natura naturans, but not of natura naturata. Employing a conception of natural law that Whitehead, like Peirce, would reject, Hocking argued that nature is conservative—for example, conservative of matter and energy. In this way he tried to turn Whitehead’s attention to creativity against Whitehead’s own organicism: “Only the creative can be real; and Nature, insofar as it is conservative, is not creative. Here I regretfully part company with Whitehead, just because I agree with him that creativity is the primary mark of that real which we seek” (Hocking 1958, 540).

It is precisely Hocking’s conception of creativity that constitutes the second need for the relative independence of events within the cosmos. For Hocking, creativity requires a relative independence of agents from their aims and the natural means they use to achieve these aims. Without genuine purpose, Hocking maintains, Whitehead’s “creativity” begins to lose its purchase. He argued, therefore, that in not having God “create or decide,” Whitehead makes God, “in his primordial nature, himself an ‘accident’ of the principle of creativity—a view that would seem, for an existent world, to make Accident—or, with Charles Peirce, Chance—the supreme category” (Hocking 1958, 531). Thus, as John Howie aptly writes: “Hocking insists, in opposition to Whitehead, that ‘mind is the only being that is known to create’ and that physical nature is not creative” (Howie 1972, 251). For Hocking, a cosmology of creativity that operates with a flattened ontology thus seems to stand in tension with itself. There must be “togetherness,” but there must also be relative independence or difference between subjective agency and objective nature such that creativity can be a matter of purpose and not accident. There is, for Hocking, a relative difference in the cosmos between persons and nature: “To think of the universe as an organism is to think of it as a body of life rather than as the object of a conscious subject. In my judgment, most of Nature is object and not organic body” (Lachs & Micah Hester 2004, 178).

The marking of these differences between his metaphysical outlook and Whitehead’s, we must remember, was an exercise by which Hocking was showing the influence of Whitehead’s thought on his own, not an attempt to deny such influence. It was precisely the power of Whitehead’s vision and expression that captured Hocking’s attention and forced him to modify his own idealism in the direction of process thought. It was in this spirit that he noted both the importance of Whitehead’s conception of the cosmos as creative process and his own resistance to adopting an unmodified version of it:

What happens to Nature when there are living beings in it is its infinitely varied coloring according to its bearing on our concerns. All those facts which were once mere way-stations or intersections of causal lines become charged with goal-quality, positive and negative. The strength of Whitehead’s view is to show that this goal-quality pervading everything may coexist with the causal scheme: wherever there is consciousness, there purpose rides along with the causal flood, and the movement of events becomes a “creative advance.” The weakness of his view is in his attempt to make everything at once goal and seeker, to conceive all “actual entities” on the mental pattern, and thus to ruin his noble picture of the ingressive goal-qualities which lure and guide the striving of the relatively few foci of purpose (Lachs & Micah Hester 2004, 128).

We see, then, the influence of Whitehead on Hocking’s early Spencerian-Roycean rationalistic and mechanical approach to an evolutionary world. But at the same time we see how the dialectic of Royce’s world and individual precludes Hocking from adopting the process outlook wholesale.

My aim here has not been to show that Hocking’s criticisms of Whitehead are persuasive. Rather, the fact that Hocking made them show just how influential Whitehead’s ideas were. There is no doubt that Whitehead’s presence at Harvard brought important changes in method and metaphysical outlook to Hocking’s pragmatic idealism. In turn, this influence was transferred in a variety of ways to those who were subsequently influenced by Hocking’s teaching and writing, especially by way of his widely used text Types of Philosophy. I am reasonably persuaded that Whitehead’s own ideas bore some marks of his encounters with Hocking’s thought, especially by way of their co-taught seminars, but there are no overt references by which to identify the particulars of this influence. Whitehead did not work in that fashion. To make this case would require an extensive exploration of Whitehead’s texts from 1924 to the end of his career, a project that must be reserved for another occasion.

4. Works Cited and Further Readings

Those interested in the relationships between the thought of Whitehead and that of Hocking should consider a number of Hocking’s original writings. For a general picture of their relationship, see “Whitehead as I Knew Him” from The Journal of Philosophy (1961). In considering Whitehead’s direct philosophical impact on Hocking’s work, two essays are of particular interest. The first, “Theses Establishing an Idealistic Metaphysics by a New Route,” is brief but suggests Whitehead’s influence both epistemologically and metaphysically. The second, “Fact, Field, and Destiny: Inductive Elements of Metaphysics” (1958) reveals a more direct importation of Whiteheadian ideas. Useful secondary sources include John Howie’s two-part essay “Metaphysical Elements of Creativity in the Philosophy of W. E. Hocking” (1978), and A William Ernest Hocking Reader, edited by John Lachs and D. Micah Hester (2004). Many of Hocking’s professional papers are kept at the Houghton Library of Harvard University. There are also a number of resources located at Hocking’s home library in Madison New Hampshire, though access to these is limited.

Works Cited

Hocking, William Ernest. 1941. “Lectures on Recent Trends in American Philosophy,” Scripps College Bulletin XVI, 1, 7-44.

_____. 1958. “Fact, Field and Destiny: Inductive Elements of Metaphysics,” Review of Metaphysics XI, 4, 525-49.

_____. 1959. Types of Philosophy (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons).

_____. 1961. “Whitehead as I Knew Him,” The Journal of Philosophy LVIII, 19, 505-16.

Howie, J. 1972. “Metaphysical Elements of Creativity in the Philosophy of W. E. Hocking, Part I,” Idealistic Studies II, 3, 249-64.

Lachs, J. and Micah Hester, D. (eds.). 2004. A William Ernest Hocking Reader (Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press).

Author Information

Douglas R. Anderson
Philosophy Department
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL 62901

How to Cite this Article

Anderson, Douglas R., “William Ernest Hocking (1873–1966)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/bios/scholarly-legacy/william-ernest-hocking/>.