Process Interpretations of History

1. The Presuppositions of Whitehead’s Philosophy of History

1.1. Ontological Foundations

The cosmology of Process and Reality provides the metaphysical framework for an objective understanding of history. The key elements of that framework, discussed elsewhere in this Encyclopedia, are briefly summarized here in a manner echoing Aristotle’s four conditions for understanding any entity.

Material condition. The basic units of reality have spatio-temporal thickness. The outcome of an actual occasion’s concrescence is a determinate whole analyzable into elements some of which are earlier than others. What is holistically presented has duration, and therefore temporal transition is directly experienced rather than inferred. The materials an historian investigates are composed of events that have objective origins and endings; that is, they actually come to be and perish.

Efficient condition. An actual occasion bears the marks of its past and prefigures its future. It begins by prehending past realities that constrain the manner and content of its development, and it concludes by effecting a result that serves as a constraint on what and how subsequent actual occasions become. The spatio-temporal units of reality are linked by causal lines of influence. An historian can use what is currently experienced as a resource from which to detect the prior events that explain it and to suggest likely features of what will happen next. These claims about trajectories of influence are not arbitrarily imposed; they have an objective basis.

Final condition. An actual occasion is not reducible to what has influenced it. A concrescence makes from its inheritance a fresh determination involving at least some minimum of novel adjustment. Thus, each spatio-temporal event is a unique individual greater than the sum of its contributed parts. Scientific determinism is an inadequate interpretation of how things happen, the more so when the relevant events involve more than minimal elements of novelty. The intentions, understandings, purposes, and choices central to an historian’s account of the actions of human beings are objective features of the world.

Formal condition. The ways in which actual occasions influence their successors include the emergence of features replicated throughout a temporal sequence of occasions. The replicated features become the defining characteristic of the group composed of those occasions and, where these features are replicated because they have been inherited from earlier members of the group, the group is called a nexus. These stable patterns of relatedness rescue the cosmos from relative or actual anarchy, transforming the microcosm of momentary events into the enduring objects of macrocosmic experience. History is not a whirl of meaningless comings and goings, nor are the stories an historian tells mere fictions. Historical accounts of the temporal dynamics of meaningful forms of human interaction and organization interpret the world’s objective structures.

1.2. Historical Objects

Historical objects are the various nexūs comprising the subject matter of historical inquiry. They include human actions, not only overt behaviors but also memories, feelings, beliefs, aspirations, intentions, dispositions, aims, judgments, interpretations, regrets. Humans never act in isolation: what they do affects others, who respond to their actions negatively or positively, agreeing or disagreeing, cooperating or resisting. From these interactions, habitual ways of acting develop: social practices and the institutional rules and structures by which those practices are enforced, extended, and passed on to subsequent generations. Historical objects thus range from individual human actions to the dynamics of human groups, from one person’s incisive choice to the democratic election of a nation’s government.

In considering such entities, we are a long way from actual occasions. An electron is a nexus of actual occasions, a molecule a nexus of electrons, an organic cell a nexus of molecules, a living organism a nexus of cells, a tribe a nexus of human organisms, a nation a nexus of tribes, a civilization a nexus of nations. So in considering a civilization, we rise up a hierarchy of levels of complexity that in this very crude account is seven levels of remove from the basic temporal units of actuality. Describing an historical object in terms of the coming to be and perishing of the actual occasions that comprise it is the metaphysical equivalent of describing the physics involved in two people shaking hands. The complexity of the details obscures the action; it also leaves out the meaning. Very little insight into the nature of the Roman Empire is achieved by describing it, as a Whiteheadian morphology would, as a “nonliving socially-ordered structured nexus” (for these definitions, see PR 34-36, 96-109; AI 201-208).

In short, the cosmology of Process and Reality is of little direct use in understanding human history. Its categoreal generalities have little of interest to say about the life and death of the kinds of enduring object that are of interest to historians. Whitehead, it would seem, offers us a Naturwissenschaft, whereas what we need is a Geisteswissenschaft. Yet this is the sort of bifurcation Whitehead’s metaphysics repudiates, the body-mind dichotomy that reappears also as a science-history dichotomy. The chasm can be bridged, however. There are grounds in Whitehead for developing an analogy between actual occasions and historical objects. He argues that any of the units resulting from the coordinate division of an actual entity can be “conceived as an actual occasion with its own actual world forming its initial datum.” The part of what, genetically understood, is an indivisible whole, can be taken as “the hypothetical satisfaction of a hypothetical process of concrescence” (PR 286). And inversely, a nexus of actual occasions can be taken as “a super-actuality in respect to which the true actualities play the part of coordinate subdivisions” (PR 286-87).

The motive for these analogical moves is functional: it is a matter of one’s aims. “Just as for some purposes, one atomic actuality can be treated as though it were many coordinate actualities, in the same way, for other purposes, a nexus of many actualities can be treated as though it were one actuality” (PR 287). The justification is ontological: because the multiplicity of space-time events comprise an extensive continuum, a single whole that is the defining characteristic of the current cosmic epoch, their genetic division and their coordinate division have similar features that can be exploited for certain purposes. We are not being arbitrary when we treat the span of a human life as though it were the concrescence of an actual occasion or the phases of an actual occasion as though they were stages in the emergence and collapse of an empire. The fallacy of misplaced concreteness cannot be violated, however. A human life is not a concrescence, although we can treat it is as though it were.

Whitehead has quite a bit to say about historical objects in most of his books. Even when his focus is elsewhere—on education, religion, epistemology, modern science, the soul, consciousness—he discusses their historical context and worries constantly about the disastrous consequences that are likely to follow, or that have followed, from misunderstanding what they are and how they should function. The use of analogy as a method for mapping these historical processes onto the process of an actual occasion’s concrescence allows us to interpret Whitehead’s statements as extensions of his metaphysics and not merely as unmetaphysical musings, obiter dicta that uncritically reflect the biases of a late Victorian Englishman.

2. The Rise and Fall of Civilizations

Arnold Toynbee argues that civilizations are the proper units of study for a philosophy of history, just as for Darwin organisms are the proper units of natural selection in a theory of evolution. In Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead identifies Truth, Beauty, Adventure, Art, and Peace as “those essential qualities, whose joint realization in social life constitutes civilization” (AI 284). The features of an actual occasion to which these qualities are analogous are, respectively, its physical prehensions, conceptual prehensions, subjective aim, subjective forms, and objective immortality.

2.1. Emergence of a Civilization

A process of concrescence is inaugurated when a set of initial data comprising the given past are objectified by a subject in terms of its aim at some ideal mode of synthesis. “Beauty,” a possible aesthetic harmonization of contrasting elements, is Whitehead’s general term for such an ideal, whereas “Truth” refers to the given state of affairs, the brute fact of the determinate world. The subjective aim of an occasion is thus to attain the Beauty it envisions, to achieve a new given state of affairs in which what will have then become Truth is what now is the ideal. Its aim is at “Truthful Beauty.”

According to Whitehead, the keystone of a civilization, indeed of any human institution, is the social vision its members share. By embracing a shared goal, diverse elements of a population gain a specific unity, setting them apart from the wider group. Their common “transcendent aim” (AI 85), their shared “ideal of the good life” (ESP 235), need never be fully articulated. It may hover in the dimly discerned background, coloring the attitudes of a people and finding expression in more particular ideals and special ends, without ever rising into conscious formation. Yet without this shared ideal, there would be no coordinated endeavor to move away from the given state of affairs in the direction of a social order different from the present one.

The caretakers of a society’s transcendent aim are those elements within it peculiarly responsible for shaping the mentality of the age, either by articulating its vision or by guiding the actions of its members in conformity with that vision. For example, Whitehead suggests that the importance of Rome to the emergence of Western civilization lies in the fact that it played exactly this role. The West inherited from the ancient world a diverse set of mutually incompatible characteristics, especially those exhibited in the polarizing conflict between Greek and Hebrew worldviews. Rome had sought in its own day to mute these disruptive tensions and to mold them into a rich social unity. Even though Rome failed in this endeavor, its goal survived. “The vision of Rome is the vision of the unity of civilization” (AE 75). The power of that vision is reflected in the attempts of the major unifying forces in Western civilization—the Carolingians, the Roman Catholic Church, Napoleonic France—to justify their universal claims by advertising themselves as the true successors of Rome. The Holy Roman Empire may have been neither holy, Roman, nor an empire, but it represented a vision haunting Western self-understanding for a millennium and which has continued to exert its influence in such notions as the Third Rome and the Third Reich, the Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana.

The realization of an ideal, albeit only partially, is not enough. The new achievement needs to be solidified, its novel ways routinized. “Unless society is permeated, through and through, with routine, civilization vanishes […]. Society requires stability […], and stability is the product of routine” (AI 90). The self-sufficient individualism of the solitary desert wanderer needs to be replaced by the cooperative pooling of specialized skills and achievements. These cooperative practices are not innate. They must be learned and are difficult to master, so a society is always in danger of slipping back into more familiar and simpler ways unless they can be routinized, becoming part of the unexpressed background of daily life, no longer noticed but “giving a tonality to all that happens” (ESP 34).

Whitehead calls this routinization “Instinct”: “the mode of experience directly arising out of the urge of inheritance, individual and environmental” (AI 46), the commonplace attitudes and methods bequeathed the present by its past and acted on without special thought or explicit consideration. For example, the faith in reason underlying modern science can be considered instinctive. The reasonableness of the universe was accepted by seventeenth-century Westerners as a truth needing no argument, an “instinctive tone of thought and not a mere creed of words” (SMW 12). They were unaware of this debt to the medieval monastics because “they had no idea that men could think in any other terms, or for lack of penetration could fail to think at all” (FR 47). Both the ability to think and to think rationally were achievements that routine had made instinctual.

A society’s transcendent ideals are its keystone, and so their preservation is especially important. A system of symbols needs to be developed capable of eliciting in anyone who experiences them those meanings constitutive of its fundamental ideas. The very possibility of national existence, for instance, “depends on commonly diffused symbols evoking commonly diffused ideas, and at the same time indicating commonly understood actions” (S 76). The language of a national literature, its patriotic flags and songs, its unique geographic features, and “the habitual phrases of early life” are all symbols that “foster this diffused feelings of the common possession of a treasure infinitely precious” (S 68).

The more discordant the initial data, the less likely a concrescing subject will be able to achieve a satisfaction of high intensity. A subject that cannot prehend its initial data under conformal subjective forms will find itself confronted by discordant elements that offer no clear pathway to their successful harmonization. It will have to accept trivialization in order to achieve satisfaction. Similarly, a culture not grounded in instinctual patterns of civilized behavior and thought will find itself unable to preserve attained levels of social order. To sustain their way of life, the members of a society must presuppose certain achievements that, although once the product of innovative methods of contrast and integration, are capable of being transmitted without the recipient having to exert a creativity proportionate to that manifested in the original act of achievement. Past creative accomplishment must be transmitted as today’s commonplace if a civilization is to endure.

2.2. Development of a Civilization

Stability is not enough, however, for to live is to grow and the failure to grow is the ominous signal of approaching death. Today’s commonplace ways must be constantly transcended, and for this to happen more is needed than a stable base of Truth and a guiding standard of Beauty. Adventure must also be involved, the element of appetition. Adventure is that element in a social order that prevents a people from remaining content with any given level of achievement. The subjective aim of occasions, and by analogy the transcendent aim of societies, cannot be satisfied with any given quality of life; its aim must be at living well and living better (FR 8). “To sustain a civilization with the intensity of its first ardour requires more than learning. Adventure is essential, namely, the search for new perfections” (AI 258). Adventure is dangerous, however. “It is the first step in sociological wisdom to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur” (S 88). Civilization is often defended in the name of security, but the two are not synonymous. The challenge is to achieve progress without destroying social order, to forsake the stability of a given civilized regime in order to fashion a better regime, but to do so without collapsing into barbarism. “On the whole, the great ages have been unstable ages” (SMW 208). A growing civilization is not simply one that provides security for its members. What it provides above all else is the possibility for value-fulfillment. But this means the pursuit of new attainments, and novelty requires for its actualization a disruption of the old order. A dynamic civilization is one which understands itself as embarking on “a concrete passage into an unknown future” (ESP 214), as undertaking an “adventure beyond the safeties of the past. Without adventure civilization is in full decay” (AI 279).

If the adventure along the borders of chaos is to bear fruit, however, if the contrast of a new ideal with the actual is to issue in Truthful Beauty, then Art is also required. “Art is purposeful adaptation of Appearance [Beauty] to Reality [Truth]” (AI 267). The difference between Adventure and Art is the difference between commitment to the pursuit of an ideal and development of a method for attaining it, between subjective aim and subjective form. Art is the tool by which the energy of adventuresomeness is channeled into effective outcomes. The synonym for Art is Reason. Reason is “a factor in experience which directs and criticizes the urge toward the attainment of an end realized in imagination but not in fact” (FR 8). It is how the appetition toward the better and the best can become a force in history rather than an ineffective merely restless urge. “The function of Reason is to promote the art of life” (FR 4).

Whitehead distinguishes two aspects of Reason: the Reason of Plato and the Reason of Ulysses, speculative reason and practical reason (FR 11). Speculative reasoning is akin to the process of conceptual valuation and to the types of propositional feelings that evoke and focus the ideal elements in concrescence. Practical reasoning is akin to the comparative feelings that synthesize ideality with the original physical data for the purpose of attaining some new determinate satisfaction. The function of Art, in other words, is analogous to the function of the supplementary phases of an actual occasion’s concrescence. Thus there are “two levels of ideas which are required for successful civilization, namely, particularized ideas of low generality, and philosophic ideas of high generality (AI viii).

Foresight is the element in technique that blends the lower with the higher, the practical with the speculative. Speculation continually infuses practice with the broader possibilities that prevent it from slipping into hardened routine; practice continually confronts the speculative with the realities that keep it relevant. “This interplay of thought and practice is the supreme authority. It is the test by which the charlatanism of speculation is restrained” (FR 81), and the test by which the routine of practice is leavened. Scientific technology is an obvious example of the mating of practice with speculation in the modern world, but it is only one example. Social institutions in general are products of the Art of civilization. They embody the envisagements of a civilization in some particularized practical form and foster instruments for its attainment. Churches fuse vaguely felt religious insight with specific ritual patterns of belief and practice; commercial organizations translate a faith in the free market into methods of trade and production for generating wealth; universities shape curricula for imparting established knowledge and the methods for its acquisition, and create research opportunities and incentives to encourage the search for new knowledge. The arts of civilization are therefore the means by which a society actualizes the ideals speculative reason elucidates and adventure desires; they are the means by which it routinizes such actualizations as stepping stones in the drive toward realizing better harmonies. “Thus, in its broadest sense, art is civilization. For civilization is nothing other than the unremitting aim at the major perfections of harmony” (AI 271).

2.3. Flourishing of a Civilization

There remains the element of Peace, which is that quality in activity that transcends the immediate aim at value. An actual occasion entertains a subjective aim at intensity and molds its data in ways conducive to its attainment. But this essentially selfish end is tempered by the influence of the future, by the realization that momentary achievements must find their place as elements in further achievements beyond the present occasion. Similarly, Peace is “essential for civilization. It is the barrier against narrowness” (AI 286), involving that aspect in life “where the ‘self’ has been lost, and interest has been transferred to coordinations wider than personality” (AI 285). Finding one’s own good in a common good, as an act not of enlightened self-interest but of love or compassion or loyalty, is a necessary condition for a community to flourish.

The meaning of Peace involves the notion of tragedy. The adventure toward the attainment of Truthful Beauty is a tragic one in the sense that the intensity of harmony sought is never fully realized. The disparity between the ideal that might have been and the reality that is indicates an irreparable failure, a tragedy of broken dreams. And even what is in fact achieved eventually perishes. No matter how intense the satisfaction, the subsequent objective immortality always involves loss. The reaction could be despair: why seek value if the only true commentary on historical achievements is that they too shall pass away? “Amid the passing of so much beauty, so much heroism, so much daring, Peace is then the intuition of permanence. It keeps vivid the sensitiveness to the tragedy; and it sees the tragedy as a living agent persuading the world to aim at fineness beyond the faded level of surrounding fact” (AI 286). Social life is possible because its agents are motivated in at least some vague and unformulated way by a belief in the intrinsic worth of the values they inherit, achieve, and transmit.

2.4. Collapse of a Civilization

The analogy to an actual occasion fails us at a key point. A concrescence develops until it attains its apotheosis in a determinate satisfaction, and then is gone. The event occurs and is immediately succeeded by another event. Human societies, even if they achieve some sort of golden age, do not at that moment cease to exist. They are enduring objects, not occasional ones, struggling to sustain their accomplishments, to perpetuate their defining characteristics. Hence, their efforts not only meet with mixed success but sooner or later are overwhelmed. Genesis and development find their converse in decay and dissolution. A civilization is a route of attainments, and its decline and fall is due to the gradual or sudden trivialization of those attainments. It begins to decline with the loss or even the weakening of any or all of the five elements making for growth: Beauty, Truth, Adventure, Art, Peace.

The loss of Beauty. If a common social aim is indispensable to societal growth, the fragmentation of that vision can be disastrous. A conflict internal to the generally accepted ideas and ideals of a civilization is as dangerous to it as an armed conflict, and in the long run often more so. It enfeebles thought by blurring the meaning and purpose toward which that thought is directed. Whitehead is critical of the presuppositions of the modern Western worldview because he finds them incoherent. For instance, a belief in scientific mechanism is conjoined with a belief in the uniqueness and freedom of human agents, but the two beliefs are contradictory. Consequently, those who have been shaped by these beliefs are at odds with themselves over ultimate ends and meanings (SMW 76). Loss of a common vision stifles a society by separating contemporaries from one another, turning the community into a cacophony of sects. Or it stifles the society by bifurcating the individual psyche so that it compartmentalizes its experience, for instance into weekend religious ideals and weekday business practices.

The loss of Truth. When a society’s creativity becomes excessive, its novel achievements can impel an irreparable break in social continuity. Revolution typically involves a repudiation of the old regime and the cultural tradition of which it is caretaker. To the degree that it destroys the shared symbols of a nation in the name of some new order of the ages, a revolution destroys the unexpressed and never fully conscious agreements in habit and outlook that supply the social stability a people need to exist. A sufficient dissolution of old symbols plunges the revolution into a reign of terror: only force is left as an effective means for cohesion (S 76). Revolutionaries are rarely as radical as they might think, but to the degree they successfully break a civilization’s continuity they sow the seeds of its demise.

The loss of Adventure and Art. The converse of revolution is even more dangerous to social survival, if only because more prevalent. A civilization can suffer fatigue—a weakening of Adventure and Art. “Fatigue means the operation of excluding the impulse toward novelty” (FR 23). Once-successful methods may petrify into an orthodoxy that insures its hold by repressing novel tendencies. But stasis in a world of change spells inevitable decline. “When the species refuses adventure, there is relapse into the well-attested habits of mere life. The original method now enters upon a prolonged old age in which well-being has sunk into mere being” (FR 19). The attempt to preserve order at any cost forces a retreat to levels of lesser but safer complexity. Religion, for example, which can be a source of creative adventure, can also be its enemy when it becomes a matter of “satisfactory ritual and satisfied belief without impulse toward higher things” (RM 28).

The growth of professionalism has similar stultifying consequences, for it tends to develop “minds in a groove,” men and women whose knowledge is severely restricted and whose thoughts are chained within the boundaries marked out by the set of abstractions favored by a particular discipline. This “celibacy of the intellect” (SMW 197), if widespread, dooms the society to sterility. The “spiritual blindness” of a society’s leaders, involving their “dull materialism,” uncreative attachment to “petty formulae,” and inability to “meet the new age with new methods,” is a sign of a nation’s failure to foster or sustain the qualities of Art and Adventure among its citizens (AE 41).

The loss of Peace. Peace is an expression of civilized culture at its best, providing the sense of transcendent worth that makes cooperation and persuasion possible and that prevents cynicism and despair. Whitehead argues that the absence of such a virtue threatens the social order with a resurgence of the modern barbarisms that are signs of the end of an age. This sense of one’s aims and actions as part of an ongoing and all-encompassing effort is a foundational source of individual and communal meaning, a sense of meaning that gives strength to creative endeavor and sustenance through the trials and frustrations that inevitably accompany its pursuit. The loss of this meaning vitiates that strength and undermines that perseverance, destroying creativity, fossilizing the ability to adjust to new situations, weakening the will to overcome adversity, leaving the individual or society at the mercy of new and more vital internal and external forces.

3. Historical Progress

We have seen that Whitehead understands historical change as an oscillation between periods of growth in the complexity of social attainment and periods when that complexity is in decay. Growth is destabilizing, and so the effort to consolidate the new levels of value achieved in a period of creative advance works against the qualities requisite for growth. Too much stability stifles the adaptive flexibility needed to create regions of cultural value amid the dangers posed by a changing environment, but too much flexibility shatters the collaborative concentration of power needed to protect that value from those dangers. Whitehead’s vision of human history is therefore deeply tragic. Human beings are always hoisted on their own petard, caught on the horns of an impossible dilemma, victims of the hubris that infects inescapably their creative powers.

And yet Whitehead believes in historical progress. This progressivist side of his thinking is the central theme of Adventures of Ideas. One of the intellectual agencies involved in historical change is a society’s general conception of the status of its individual members. For Western civilization, this conception is the intrinsic worth of the individual. It appears in the classical period as “speculative suggestions,” first made by Plato and then by the Stoics, that “human nature has essential rights” and that a social system can be criticized for repudiating them (AI 15, 14). Christianity adds persuasive power to this notion, through the emotional intensity of its “impracticable moral ideals” of an ethic suited for the Kingdom of God (AI 15). Impractical ideals can have historical power, however: they can become “a program for reform” (AI 42). Slowly over the subsequent centuries this ideal of the intrinsic value of the human soul found expression in various specialized arenas and limited forms, blossoming in the eighteenth century with the belief in universal human dignity that inspired the abolition of slavery and the emergence of democratic governments. “Like a phantom ocean beating upon the shores of human life in successive waves of specialization,” these various versions of the idea of the unique worth of every individual slowly did “their work of sapping the base of some cliff of habit: but the seventh wave is a revolution” (AI 19).

A vague idea about “the intrinsic possibilities of human nature” (AI 42) haunted Western civilization and was eventually given effective institutional form. But why so slowly? Why is it that “centuries, sometimes thousands of years, have to lapse before thought can capture action” (AI 55)? The reason is not merely that those in positions of privilege resist change and those harmed by the current arrangements lack the power to force change. The problem is that the character of individuals, the structure of their communities, and the patterns of their cultural habits are exceedingly complex. Official blueprints for how to change the social order are “not worth even the price of the defaced paper. Successful progress creeps from point to point, testing each step” (AI 20). The “communal customs,” the background assumptions shared by the members of a community, must change sufficiently for them to “sustain the load” of a new idea’s concrete exemplification (AI 22). Fortunately, “the general world of occurrent fact” is neutral to such ideas and societal organizations have sufficient “plasticity” to make room for them. “The story of Plato’s idea is the story of its energizing within a local plastic environment. It has a creative power, making possible its own approach to realization” (AI 42).

Though slow, this realization is progressive, its partial attainments forming emergent and irreversibly progressive stages of development. Civilized conduct at a certain level of “favourable order” is “protected from relapse into brutalization by the increasing agency of ideas consciously entertained” (AI 25). The senseless agencies of historical stasis and change are always present; the brute facticities can never be denied. Nonetheless, the intellectual agencies are also genuinely present, and patient persuasion is as powerful as coercive force. Humankind is “nerved” in its quest for the better and the best by “the supreme insight” that there exists an “indwelling persuasion towards the harmony which is the height of existence” (AI 68). This growth in “reverence for that power in virtue of which nature harbours ideal ends, and produces individual beings capable of conscious discrimination of such ends […] is the foundation of the respect for man as man. It thereby secures that liberty of thought and action, required for the upward adventure of life on this Earth” (AI 86). We know that in aligning ourselves with Beauty, with a power able to transform Truth, we have aligned ourselves with a power indwelling in the course of human history and of the whole cosmos.

Whitehead’s understanding of human history is apparently inconsistent. On the one hand, as discussed in the prior section, he seems to be a meliorist, insisting that all historical objects are contingent achievements. We are always struggling for an optimal solution to the insoluble problem that plagues all attempts to wrest a determinate harmony from an incommensurable heritage. Humans may be motivated by the lure of ideals to fashion social structures more conducive to their individual and collective well-being, but these achievements are flawed and eventually dissolve. We can hope for the better, finding strength in a sense of Tragic Beauty or in a sense to renew our struggle toward the better. But meliorism is only a hope, and hope is not prophecy. It is “the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest […], a flight after the unattainable” (SMW 192).

On the other hand, as this section has indicted, Whitehead detects a progressively upward path toward more inclusive and more intense harmonies, a trend that is crooked rather than straight, stumbling rather than steady, “vacillating, vague, and dim. But it is there” (FR 90). This progressive notion is best validated by appealing to what Whitehead says at the end of Process and Reality about the role of God in the evolving cosmos and in human history. God directly provides the best possible initial aim for each actual occasion relative to its situation, and the reconciliation of each resulting satisfaction in God’s ongoing life further influences the character of the initial aims provided to subsequent actual occasions. Moreover, actual occasions are internally related to their predecessors and successors, and those relationships typically comprise structural nexūs. In this way, God not only seeks the greatest good for each occasion but also seeks through the coordination of those goods the good of the many enduring objects and cosmic orders. If ultimate perfection is an ideal that cannot be actualized in history, nevertheless it is in principle asymptotically approachable and is finally transcended in the “Apotheosis of the World,” the reconciliation of its permanence and its flux in God’s “everlastingness” (PR 348), the transformation of “our immediate actions, which perish and yet live for evermore” (PR 351).

4. Assessing Whitehead’s Philosophy of History

4.1. Secondary Sources

Process theists typically support a meliorist view of history, whatever progress they find being based on hope not certainty. David Griffin, for instance, argues that in order for creatures to exist with the power to create and enjoy values that are intrinsically good, they must be free to create and enjoy values that are intrinsically evil. That the power to create both good and evil “is correlative with the capacities for self-determination and intrinsic value means that humanlike beings could not have been created so as to be less dangerous than we are” (Griffin 2001, 229; italics removed). The risk that great evils would occur was the metaphysically necessary price God was willing to take so that the quality of the values humans are able to create would be possible. As Delwin Brown points out, this view of human nature does not mean we need be pessimistic about the possibility for progress in history. He finds evidence in the “circuitous path” taken by evolution that God is at work in the world, luring his creatures toward the good. A process theist is a utopian in the sense of being someone “who believes that progress from the given to the significantly better is possible, and that the expectation of such progress is reasonable” (Brown 1975, 13). Similar explications of theistic hope are found in the writings of Christian theologians associated with the so-called Chicago School and are nicely epitomized in these words by Daniel Day Williams: “Christian hope which gathers up all particular human hopes and yet is deeper than they is founded upon the fact of the present creative and redemptive working of God in human life” (Williams 1971, 463).

Other process thinkers reject Whitehead’s optimism about history. Richard Hocking, for instance, finds Whitehead’s views weakened by his claim that ideas are primary agencies and harmony the primary value. “Such an aesthetic interpretation of history […] falls short, both materially and categorially, of what is required for the comprehension of the historical process.” What is needed is “a less elegant, but more empirical” approach, one more dialectical, involving “polar opposition,” alienation, loss, irony (Hocking 1967, 182). Howard Parsons, however, finds that Whitehead and the dialectical Marx have more in common than Hocking allows. Whitehead emphasizes nature, Marx history; but both agree that “man comes out of nature and in turn shapes his environment” (Parsons 1967, 284). Nonetheless, Parsons thinks Whitehead is both too optimistic and too passive about progress in history. A. H. Johnson defends Whitehead against the charge of optimism. Good and evil are unavoidable aspects of history and so aspects even of God’s consequent nature. Yet because human beings are free agents, they are not “caught in the flow of history like chips in a whirlpool. The stream of history can be directed by the efforts of men” and so improvement is possible. “The gates of the future are not wide open, but the future can be better than the past” and that is enough (Johnson 1946, 248).

I agree that there are important similarities between dialectical philosophies of history and Whitehead’s, but I think that both Hegel and Whitehead should be criticized for denying the primacy of the historical by making it merely a means to divine realization. “Their dread of time and of history” is disclosed in “the need each has to secure human accomplishment in some reality immune to the ravagings of time.” But “history can only be grasped for what it truly is if the notion of God as hidden savior is repudiated as a false concept” (Allan 1986, 321). Lewis Feuer is equally dismissive: philosophies of history like those of Whitehead, Marx, and Toynbee are “defensive measures against historical anxiety” (Feuer 1952, 331). They are “projective propositions” in which “the underlying reality of history is found to coincide with the philosopher’s values, which forecasts the outcome of history as a fulfillment of these values, and suggests to others that they would do well to enroll themselves among the triumphant forces of history” (Feuer 1952, 336). Robert Creegan thinks the problem with Whitehead and other interpreters of history is their attempt to “postulate unreduced historical units” and then interpret the complexity of historical events in terms of them. Any adequate “theory concerning process units must remain multi-valent to the end, on any empirical grounds” (Creegan 1942, 270). Creegan then sketches a method of interpretation that, although studiously non-reductive, does not, he argues, contradict Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.

Marie Collins Swabey rejects Kant’s and Hegel’s approaches to history because they claim that “a teleological process [exists] operating through nature as unconscious reason, an evolutionary development tending toward the realization of a particular institution” (Swabey 1954, 205). In contrast to this passive sense of human agency, this view of humans as pawns of “the mole-like burrowing of the unconscious reason of dialectical philosophies” (Swabey 1954, 208), she applauds Whitehead and Toynbee for understanding humans as active historical agents. They discover ideas that “reveal antecedent patterns in the universe,” and these ideas “through being grasped by men’s reason acquire application, effectiveness, agency in the human scene. They are brought down to earth, so to speak, incorporated in inventions and social institutions, and open up fresh paths of unprecedented fruitfulness” (Swabey 1954, 206). Suffering and loss are not relative evils, justified as “stepping-stones to the better” (Swabey 1954, 212). They are objectively evil, tragic and irredeemable, but cathartic. For Whitehead, Swabey argues, “the development of civilization means learning through suffering, it means being weaned from ourselves through a sense of being more than ourselves, a sense of being part of a harmony as both participant and spectator […] glimpsing spirit as eternally triumphant over the complex tangles of the world” (Swabey 1954, 211). She quotes Adventures of Ideas about “the force of grandeur” of ideas that drive forward “the human soul in its journey toward the source of all harmony” (Swabey 1954, 213; quoting AI 22).

Although he makes no mention of Whitehead, Eric Voegelin in his monumental Order and History develops an approach to history similar to Swabey’s proposed interpretation of Whitehead’s approach. Voegelin argues that human beings, in their struggle to survive and to make sense of that struggle, create forms of social order that over time have moved “from compact to differentiated order” (1957-87, 2.5), from barbarism to increasingly complex and pluralistic answers to how their lives can reflect “the order of being that has its origin in world-transcendent divine Being” (1957-87, 2.4). But these efforts are irremediably partial. Voegelin rejects all “gnostic” attempts to eliminate the mystery of being and of historical meaning by developing philosophies that find an unfolding progressive pattern in history in which the human spirit is subjugated to some finite good. Instead, Voegelin advocates “respect for every order, and every truth about order; for every society, on whatever level of compactness or differentiation its experiences and symbols of order move” in their striving “for attunement with the order of being” (1957-87, 2.23). For this striving to have become reflexive, however, for philosophies of history to have arisen in which persons “become historical” because conscious of their endless quest, a “leap of being” was required, in which their existence was grasped as “in the present under God.” This has happened only in “the Judaeo-Christian response to revelation” (1957-87, 2.22) and in the rational expression of that revelation in Hellenic culture, most completely in the thought of Plato. “History is made wherever men live, but its philosophy is a Western symbolism” (1957-87, 2.23).

And so we come full circle, for Voegelin’s God is akin to the God of process theism, a divine presence in history, one that nurtures rather than controls its development. Those who applaud Whitehead’s philosophy of history do so because they reject reductive materialism. Purposive agencies, ideas, and ideals are at work in history, making a difference in the shape and the meaning of things. Those who reject Whitehead’s approach find only senseless agencies at work, whether the resulting historical process is fundamentally entropic and meaningless, or whether as with Darwinism it has a negentropic evolutionary direction but no telos. In a crucial sense, therefore, how we assess Whitehead’s philosophy of history depends on how we understand his speculative metaphysics.

A fairly detailed bibliography of books, journal articles, dissertations, and unpublished essays on “Process Thought, the Past, and History” can be found at the website of the Center for Process Studies (

4.2. Comparisons to Other Philosophies of History

The antimetaphysical philosophies spawned by Vienna Circle positivism and Husserlian phenomenology reduce philosophy of history to a question of the character of historical explanation. Since the covering laws crucial to scientific explanations cannot be used legitimately in explaining historical events, historians must be understood as using an alternative mode of explanation, either a mode better than the scientific because better suited to its subject matter or a mode that is fundamentally illegitimate. Both approaches bifurcate reality in a Cartesian or Kantian manner, and so are at odds with the holism defended by a philosophy of organism. Dale Porter has sketched an understanding of historical explanation based on Whiteheadian notions, but he has had no followers in this endeavor. Whitehead’s approach is more akin to the so-called “speculative philosophies of history” that are as old as those developed by Augustine or Joachim but that are usually associated with the work of Hegel, Spengler, and Toynbee. A brief comparison of Whitehead and these philosophers may be helpful.

Hegel arranges civilizations in a linear, even if also dialectical, fashion—a developmental sequence of increasingly concrete realizations of Spirit. The essence of Spirit is Freedom, so that human history is an account of the pathway by which the ideal of freedom has come to characterize actual human relationships, an account that occurs, ironically, within a closed system of possibilities. Hegel’s metaphors are all deterministic. The process by which Freedom becomes historically concrete is like the turning of the Earth on its axis: a “great Day’s work of Spirit,” a progression begun at the dawn of civilization and culminating in the noontime brilliance of present attainment. Geographically expressed, “the History of the World travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of History, Asia the beginning” (Hegel 2004, 103-104). The history of the world is said to be like a person’s development, from the childhood of Freedom’s incarnation in China through its adolescence in the Classical world, and coming to maturity in modern Western civilization, most fully in the self-legislating, rule-governed states of the Germanic world. “The eastern nations knew only that one is free; the Greek and Roman world only that some are free; while we know that all men absolutely (man as man) are free” (Hegel 2004, 19).

In contrast, Whitehead’s account is open ended. He sounds like Hegel when he calls the idea of human freedom “a hidden driving force, haunting humanity, and ever appearing in specialized guise as compulsory on action” (AI 16). But this idea is compulsory only “by reason of its appeal to the uneasy conscience of the age” (AI 16). It is a lure: “such ideas are at once gadflies irritating, and beacons luring” (AI 18), but they do not coerce, and even though they beckon persistently, they can be ignored or their partial attainments undercut. The aim upward is an urge, a disposition in the nature of things, but it is not an inexorable force. The dawn may promise the noontime sun but it does not guarantee it.

For Spengler, history is “the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms”: the budding, blooming, and withering of worlds that “grow with the same superb aimlessness as the flowers of the field” (Spengler 1965, 18, 17). Each world is unique and has no connection to the other worlds, but they all follow the same pattern. Each originates as a creative vital “Culture” struggling to actualize “the full sum of its possibilities;” then as this aim is attained, it “suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down and it becomes Civilization” (1965, 73, 74), entering into a decline leading inexorably to its destruction. Although every new world exhibits this same formal pattern, each does so uniquely. This uniqueness is the “soul” of a Culture, the common “world-feeling” focused through a “primary symbol” that is then expressed in all the various forms of a society’s life, from its art and philosophy to its economics and governance. For instance, Classical Culture is “Apollinian,” its primary symbol “the sensually-present individual body” exhibited in the balanced finite proportionality of its sculptures and temples. Western Culture, in contrast, is “Faustian,” its primary symbol the “pure and limitless space” expressed in the soaring spires of Gothic cathedrals pointing toward the infinite (1965, 97, 117). Freedom is “the freedom to do the necessary or to do nothing” (1965, 414), because it functions always within doubly closed parameters: the limits set by the formal pattern of rise and fall by which all worlds are bound, and the limits set by each world’s unique soul.

Spengler liberates us from Hegel’s totalizing progressivism, finding no overarching structure to history, reveling in each new world’s creative and unpredictable uniqueness. The price of this liberation, however, is to impose a necessity at the civilizational level more constraining that Hegel’s. Whitehead like Spengler identifies general standards of civilized order—Truth, Beauty, Adventure, Art, and Peace—that are ideal features not only of Western civilization but of any civilization. Yet these are only criteria; they are regulative not constitutive principles. Whitehead is closer to Spengler in his description of how a new scheme of interpretation becomes obscurantist, how a vital “Culture” becomes a stultifying “Civilization.” For Whitehead, however, recovery, and even transformation, is always possible, even if it becomes less so as obscurantists consolidate their hegemony. The invention of a logic of discovery offers a way through the cycle of the rise and fall of civilizations to a more steadily progressive alternative. But the way need not be taken.

Toynbee claims to offer a nondeterministic philosophy of history, even though the twenty-one civilizations he identifies all follow homologous trajectories. They emerge in response to some challenge threatening the ongoing routine course of things and are led by a “creative minority,” an elite from whom the majority take their cue, vesting it with authority to set the norms to which by “mimesis” the majority then conforms. Eventually, however, the creative minority is unable to respond effectively, due to the increased complexity of the challenges it faces or because it has become blinded by it own success. This “nemesis of creativity” can be overcome by a shift to a new creative leadership. Social “breakdown” occurs when this transition goes awry, when the old minority refuses to relinquish its authority, continuing to exercise its control by force instead of mimesis. The creative minority degenerates into a “dominant minority,” but the challenge still goes unanswered. Losing confidence in their leaders and their cohesiveness, the members of the civilization become increasingly desperate to solve their problems and increasingly inept at doing so. The society falls into a “time of troubles,” rallies temporarily by forming an imperial “universal state,” and then finally collapses.

With the exception of the Egyptiac and Andean, Toynbee’s civilizations are related to each other in various ways: some by “affiliation,” others as “offshoots,” a few “apparented” to a successor civilization, and many influenced by “encounters” with their contemporaries. These relationships would seem to generate no progressive direction, however—until Toynbee notices the role of “universal churches” in the transition from the second to the third generation in apparented civilizations. He proposes that the relation between civilizations and churches be inverted, that we understand civilizations in their disintegration as serving as vehicles for the development of spirituality and its religious embodiments. From this new perspective, a progressive movement can be traced across these civilizations, leading to the emergence of the four higher religions: Christianity, Islam, Mahayana Buddhism, and Hinduism. The turning “chariot wheel” of the civilizations carries humanity forward toward a higher form of social order in which “Man catches in History a glimpse of the operation of the One True God,” in which mimesis of a creative God will replace mimesis of the creative minority in guiding human thought and action, a mimesis “immune against the tragedy inherent in any mimesis that is directed toward unregenerate human personalities” (1957, 2.106, 108).

Toynbee claims to have reached his conclusions about the pattern to human history by a process of empirical generalization, and so struggles constantly to square his identifications with the concrete data upon which they rest, conveying nicely their tentative character as abstract hypotheses. To this degree, his understanding of history as lived and written is akin to Whitehead’s. Toynbee’s God is more traditionally Christian than Whitehead’s, but both need a divine power influencing human choices for history to be meaningful. And both come close to subordinating history to religion, Toynbee in his emphasis on the transfiguring power of God’s love, Whitehead by the everlasting significance given human achievement by its inclusion in God’s consequent nature.

For Whiteheadians, however, the problem with Toynbee’s philosophy of history is that his civilizations are akin to instances of an Aristotelian natural kind. Toynbee avoids the deterministic trajectories of Hegel and Spengler, for any one of his civilizations might fail to fulfill its potential: aborted before it can mature, swallowed inopportunely by another civilization, stultified by an overwhelmingly hostile environment. Insofar as they fulfill their promise, however, they follow the same abstract trajectory from origin to end. The acorn need not sprout nor develop properly, but should it do so an oak is the only thing it can become. Human history for Whitehead is not without iterative patterns, but in contrast to the other philosophies of history these patterns lack predictive power because there is no necessity to their form, nor any generalizable reason for why they might be repeated. Every actual occasion traverses the same formal phases from initial aim to satisfaction, and I have argued that this structure can be applied analogically to civilizations—but not literally. The categoreal conditions describing our cosmic epoch determine no direction to its movement, provide no governing telos. History, as Whitehead understands it, can be interpreted in terms of threads of continuity but it has no overall shape or kind of shape. There are stories to be told but no overall story, journeys undertaken but no final destination to be reached.

If Hegel, Spengler, and Toynbee are exemplars of what a philosophy of history entails, then we must conclude that Whitehead does not offer us a philosophy of history at all, even though we can find in his writings weak echoes and pale shadows of such a philosophy. Fittingly, on one of the few occasions when Whitehead discusses the work of an actual historian—Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—he writes that it “demonstrates a twofold tale” (AI 5). On the one hand, it traces in concrete detail the thousand-year decline of a civilization, showing the “greatness of that Empire” and the slow slippage from that greatness toward “the horrors” of its final collapse. On the other hand, however, Gibbon’s book is about “the dominant spirit of his own times,” eighteenth-century Western Civilization, “the silver age of the modern European Renaissance.” Like its Roman counterpart, Gibbon’s silver age was a period “oblivious of its own imminent destruction” by novel forces, senseless and intellectual, beginning to emerge at the fringes of a social order presumed inviolable. “Thus Gibbon narrates the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and exemplifies the prelude of the Decline and Fall of his own type of culture” (AI 5). There are enough strands of influence and patterns of repetition in history to justify the parallels, but they are functions of a specific historian’s standpoint and so shed as much light on where that historian stands as on the vista toward which it points us.

Philosophies of history, so understood, are among the many schemata of interpretation by which in endlessly changing circumstances Truthful Beauty is endlessly sought by finite human beings, but never adequately attained.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Allan, George. 1986a. The Importances of the Past: A Meditation on the Authority of Tradition (Albany: State University of New York Press).

Allan, George. 1986b. “The ‘Conning’ of History,” in Hegel and Whitehead: Contemporary Perspectives on Systematic Philosophy, edited by George R. Lucas, Jr. (Albany, State University of New York Press Press), 313-22.

Brown, Delwin. 1975. “Hope for the Human Future: Neibuhr, Whitehead and Utopian Expectation,” Iliff Review 32. 3, 3-18.

Creegan, Robert F. 1942. “The Actual Occasion and Actual History,” Journal of Philosophy 39. 10, 268-73.

Feuer, Lewis S. 1952. “What is Philosophy of History?” Journal of Philosophy 49. 10, 329-40.

Gibbon, Edward. 2000. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, abridged by David Womersley (New York, Penguin). Originally published in three volumes, 1776, 1781, 1788.

Griffin, David. 2001. Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, Cornell University Press).

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 2004. The Philosophy of History, translated by J. Sibree, introduced by C. J. Friedrich. Preface by Charles Hegel (New York, Dover). Originally published as Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, 1837.

Hocking, Richard. 1967. “The Polarity of Dialectical History and Process Cosmology,” The Christian Scholar 50. 3, 177-83.

Johnson, A. H. 1946. “Whitehead’s Philosophy of History,” Journal of the History of Ideas 7. 2, 234-49.

Johnson, A. H. 1962. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Civilization (New York: Dover).

Parsons, Howard. 1967. “History as Viewed by Marx and Whitehead,” The Christian Scholar 50. 3, 273-89.

Porter, Dale. H. 1981. The Emergence of the Past: A Theory of Historical Explanation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Spengler, Oswald. 1965. The Decline of the West, abridged by Arthur Helps, translated by Charles Francis Atkinson (New York, Random House). Originally published in two volumes as Der Untergang des Abendlandes (Munich, C. H. Becksche), 1918, 1922; one-volume abridgement by Helmut Werner.

Swabey, Marie Collins. 1954. The Judgment of History (New York, Philosophical Library).

Toynbee, Arnold J. 1947, 1957. A Study of History, abridged in two volumes by D. C. Somervell (New York and London, Oxford University Press). Originally published in twelve volumes 1934-1961.

Vögelin, Erich Hermann Wilhelm [Voegelin, Eric]. 1957-1987. Order and History, Five Volumes (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press).

Williams, Daniel Day. 1949. God’s Grace and Man’s Hope (New York: Harper).

Williams, Daniel Day. 1971. “Time, Progress, and the Kingdom of God,” in Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, edited by Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James, Jr., and Gene Reeves (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill), 441-63.

Author Information

George Allan
Philosophy Department, Dickinson College, Carlisle PA 17013

How to Cite this Article

Allan, George, “Process Interpretations of History”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.