Pragmatism and Process

1. Overview

This sketch of the relation of Whitehead’s thought to Pragmatism begins by limiting itself to American pragmatism, presuming it to be a single definable position with Josiah Royce, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead as its exemplars, and also presuming that Whitehead’s ideas comprise a single coherent position. Both assumptions are false, of course, but they reflect fairly well standard received opinion and so are a useful place from which to begin. Eventually, a more complex picture will emerge, although never a definitive nor even a clear one. As Whitehead famously remarks about philosophizing, even this meager sketch’s worth of it, and as any pragmatist worthy of the label would agree, “the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly” (PR xiv).

In the Preface to Process and Reality, Whitehead says that he is “greatly indebted to Bergson, William James, and John Dewey,” and that one of his “preoccupations has been to rescue their type of thought from the charge of anti-intellectualism, which rightly or wrongly has been associated with it” (xii). However, there are no other references in the book to Dewey and only two brief ones to James. Elsewhere, Whitehead speaks not of the influence of these and other pragmatists on his own thought but rather of their cultural importance (SMW 143, 147; ESP 128, 129, 132; MT 2, 174; Lowe 1990 Vol. 2, 346; Young 1952, 276).

Whitehead was notoriously generous in his judgments about other philosophers and their influence on him. “He loved to savor, and to express his appreciation of, the many and varied intellectual adventures of his contemporaries” (Lowe 1949, 295). It should be no surprise, therefore, to discover that commentators are hardly sanguine about the degree of similarity between Whitehead and the American pragmatists, either in general or specifically. Section Two discusses some of the general comparisons that have been made. Section Three turns to specific issues and specific philosophers.

2. General Comparisons

2.1. Finding the Right Pigeonhole

Pragmatism can be defined solely as a style of philosophizing, a method for determining truth: “the attitude,” as William James puts it, “of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking toward last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (1907, 29). Such an approach, however, can lead to, or be entailed by, more than one ontology, epistemology, or axiology. Whitehead not being a pragmatist in this limited methodological sense, any comparison has to be made on the basis of a decision regarding how best to categorize pragmatism as a full-blown metaphysical system.

Herbert Schneider includes among the founders of “American realism” the pragmatists Peirce, Dewey, and Mead, along with W. J. E. Woodbridge, C. I. Lewis, Morris R. Cohen, and Whitehead. These men “laid the foundations for a realistic philosophy of logic and natural law, and a realistic social philosophy, including both a theory of social change and a theory of the organization and communication of intelligence” (1963, 517). Realism is here taken to mean an emphasis on scientific method and techniques of empirical verification, with logic, natural law, and moral value all understood as abstractive generalizations from sense experience. Indeed, Schneider notes, most of these thinkers were suspicious of James’s notion of pure experience because it seemed to imply that subjective feelings were “closer to reality” than scientifically established concepts. Although “a few metaphysicians, notably Whitehead,” tried to make scientific use of James’s idea, “the great majority of American realists repudiated it because of its subjective and romantic taint” (1963, 501).

Elizabeth Flower and Murray Murphey turn this taint of the emotional into a central feature of Whitehead’s thought, which they call “organic idealism” (1977, xx) and associate with Royce’s absolute pragmatism. Craig Eisendrath also celebrates the taint, praising the philosophies of James and Whitehead for their “reassertion of romanticism,” the essence of which “is the belief that ideas stir the depths,” that “all existence is emotional in some way” (1971, 234). Victor Lowe chastises those who insist that the only legitimate road to knowledge is the “experimental road of the scientist” (1990 Vol. 2, 168 note), and who therefore favor Dewey’s strategy of “simply applying the scientist’s experimental method of thinking to questions of values” rather than Whitehead’s more profound attempt “to overcome the dualism between science and values by developing a [metaphysical] system” (1985 Vol. 1, 4).

John Smith builds on this line of interpretation, arguing that the classical pragmatists did not have the “standing” to provide an effective critique of the general tendency of Americans to embrace science and technology uncritically. Royce was too much the idealist, James too tender-minded, Dewey too “unwary” of the limits of science. “The situation demanded someone who combined special scientific competence with philosophical depth” and Whitehead was “perfectly fitted” for playing that role, for “explaining the nature of science” and “interpreting its proper place in modern life and thought” (1983, 162). According to Smith, Whitehead was “too much a Platonist” to be comfortable with Dewey’s instrumentalist approach to knowledge. Problem-solving interests may be the stimulus to thought and the practical consequences of thinking may be at the heart of its importance, but “the process of rational support” for a concept “has its own integrity and is not dependent on our interests” (1983, 177). So Smith associates Whitehead with Peirce and Royce, who like him were deeply interested in formal logic and mathematics and insisted on “the universal character of thought” and its “independence of individual plans and purposes” (1983, 189-90).

Other commentators focus on how the pragmatic marriage of science and philosophy has been a benefit for metaphysics. “Whitehead’s categoreal scheme,” says Steve Odin, “is an extension of pragmatism in that it applies the scientific laboratory method to speculative metaphysics so as to be characterized by fallibilism, experimentalism, and nonfoundationalism” (1996, 177). Charles Morris calls this kind of philosophizing “empirical cosmology,” a “non-metaphysical […] equivalent to what has usually been called metaphysics.” It is based on the “method of descriptive generalization” explicitly formulated by Whitehead in Process and Reality (1935, 281). Peirce, James, Dewey, and Mead are said to share this commitment, which is “simply the hypothetical-deductive-observational method of science, generalized in the attempt to get a system applicable to all experienced reality whatsoever” (Morris 1935, 282).

So whereas Lowe and Smith characterize Deweyan pragmatism as too empirical to find a place for Whitehead’s cosmological speculations, Odin and Morris think speculative formalism and empiricism are “complementary phases of the scientific temper” (Morris 1935, 285).

2.2. Developing the Right Schema

George Lucas proposes that any philosophy qualify as a “process philosophy” if it meets three criteria: (1) its primary ontology stresses events or occasions of experience; (2) it employs a pluralistic and organic form of teleological explanation; (3) it finds an “immanent pattern or principle of organization which is generally exhibited in all processes of change” (1983, 10). Lucas groups the philosophies that meet these criteria into four kinds and sketches the historical routes of influence that justify their location in one kind rather than another. “Process rationalism,” in which Whitehead is located, originated in response to relativity and quantum theory in physics and so is “self-consciously rationalistic in the Spinozist (mathematical-deductive) sense.” It emphasizes “the coherence and generality of metaphysical first principles,” but in a way that puts “an uncompromising stress upon metaphysical pluralism and temporalism” (1983, 11). Lucas identifies the three other kinds of process philosophy as “Evolutionary Cosmology,” with Bergson and Teihard as salient members, “Hegelian Idealism,” and “Realism.”

Lucas argues that attempts to link American pragmatism and Whiteheadian process rationalism founder because the alleged metaphysics of pragmatism is “a conglomeration of views drawn either from evolutionary cosmology or from the neo-realist resurgence against idealism” (1983, 143). Pragmatists like James and Dewey are realists metaphysically, others like Peirce are emergent evolutionists. “Reference to pragmatism in the historical development of the process tradition thus masks the contributions of two distinct schools, neither bearing any necessary systematic relationship to pragmatism” (1983, 139). Lucas further expands and deepens this discussion of the fourfold division of process philosophy in The Rehabilitation of Whitehead, Chapters II-IV.

Stephen Pepper in World Hypotheses fashions a set of four kinds of philosophies, each based on a “root metaphor”: Formalism, Mechanism, Organicism, and Contextualism. The root metaphor on which Contextualism is based is that of “the historical event” or “the act in context” (1942, 232); Bergson, Peirce, James, Dewey, and Mead are located among its members (1942, 141). Whitehead is said to be “eclectic,” oscillating among all the kinds but Mechanism. In a later essay on “Whitehead’s ‘Actual Occasion,’” however, Pepper identifies a fifth world hypothesis, Aesthetic Creationism, based on the root metaphor of a “creative purposive act such as that of an artist, inventor or imaginative scientist” (1942, 86), and locates Whitehead as its paradigmatic member. Odin is quick to point to Mead as also properly belonging to this fifth kind of philosophy (1942, 12).

Walter Watson proposes an “archic matrix” of “possible starting points for the constitution of meaning” (1985, 150), which is elaborated by David Dilworth with respect to texts promulgating worldviews (summarized in 1989, 173-74). They identify four “archic variables”—perspective, reality, method, principle—and categorize philosophies by how they instantiate each. Whitehead is said to take a “disciplinary” perspective, i.e., he “presupposes an ideal community of like-minded readers” for whom he writes (Dilworth 1989, 28; see Watson 1985, 111); an “essentialist” view of reality, i.e., he “sees ideal forms and general, continuous, or enduring traits of nature and experience in the form of gradated patterns, functions, and values” (Dilworth 1989, 28-29; see Watson 1985, 67); a “dialectical” method, i.e., “partial, abstract views are subsumed and reconciled […] in an emerging whole” (Dilworth 1989, 29; see Watson 1985, 87); and a “creative” grounding principle governing the development of his subject matter, i.e., he “emphasizes making a difference […] in which the new replaces the old” (Dilworth 1989, 30-31; cf. Watson 1985, 110). Dewey is the pragmatist whose archic elements are closest to Whitehead’s, differing only in having a “problematic” rather than dialectical method. Peirce, Royce, and James share one of Whitehead’s elements, although each a different one: for Peirce, the essentialist view of reality; for Royce, the dialectical method; for James, having a creative grounding principle. Mead is only mentioned in passing, as sharing with Peirce, James, and Dewey the problematic method of philosophizing. For Dilworth, Whitehead has more affinities with Heidegger and with the Biblical worldview (Dilworth 1989, 133; Watson 1985, 111) than with the pragmatists other than Dewey.

Perhaps Robert Neville’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek categorization is as helpful as any. He notes that process philosophers and pragmatists were “tangled with one another in many common causes throughout twentieth-century philosophy,” both theoretical and practical ones (2004, 19). Yet their approaches differ in tone and emphasis because of a difference in social class. Whitehead and Hartshorne were Anglicans associated with Harvard University and the sophistication of an upper-class elite, the “ambiance” of whose thought was that of “high civilization in which religions play defining roles. The ‘adventures of ideas’ relates to civilization, not society” (2004, 20). In contrast, the Pragmatists “flourished in the unpolished Midwest, and in New York with all its immigrants.” They were interested in society not civilization, wanting to “change the world through social reform and education.” Their naturalism meant anti-supernaturalism and hence anti-religion (2004, 20-1). As an aperçu into the nature of their differences, Neville’s interpretation in terms of what William James called “temperaments” seems just right.

2.3. Whitehead and Pragmatism: The Fundamental Chasm

Sandra Rosenthal has cut through this miasma of comparisons and put her finger on the key difference between Whitehead and the American pragmatists. She argues that these two versions of process philosophy are rooted in “divergent intuitions” about the nature of time and therefore “diverse perceptions of the nature and interrelation of continuity, discreteness, and contingency” (1996, 542; see Rosenthal 1999 and Neville 2004, 24-26). Whitehead’s intuition is of time as a “fusing-together-of” elements into “discrete” atoms of actuality, whereas the pragmatist’s intuition is of time as a process of “emerging-elements-within” a dynamic continuum, emerging “quasi-discretes” (1996, 553).

For Whiteheadians, Rosenthal argues, time is therefore discontinuous. Process is understood as the concrescence of diverse past elements, a harmonizing of differences. The resulting actuality must be fully determinate and, as determinate, perish in order for a new process of actualization to begin. The arrow of time is defined by the contrast between “a fully fixed, unchanging past” and the novel occasions that succeed it and add to it. Temporality is therefore not a feature of actual entities but rather “their atomic succession gives rise to time” (1996, 543). Rosenthal finds fault with this view of time because it means that change is not a process but a contrast between settled determinates and novelty is possible only by the infusion into time of something a-temporal, eternal objects made available to nascent actual occasions by prehensions of God. It is an attempt “to deal with what is inextricably temporal in tenseless terms, introducing by the back door what was kicked out of the front” (1996, 546). Whitehead’s atomic theory of time is “an instance of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (1996, 553).

For the pragmatists, Rosenthal argues, “continuity is primary.” “Interacting portions of a processive concrete universe” give rise to never fully determinate persisting individuals and to temporal modes which are also never definitively settled” (1996, 553). Temporal intervals are unbounded although brief durations, open to vague novel possibilities, such that “the movement from one interval to another is not a movement over discrete units but a spreading out of a continuous process of becoming other” (1996, 556). What is concrete is not fully determinate but always in process of adjustment: “every new present brings about a new past oriented toward a new future” (1996, 559). Time’s arrow is not a succession of fixed events, but rather “the directional flow of processive concreteness is the flow of temporality” (1996, 561).

So Rosenthal thinks that despite their shared rejection of substance metaphysics and embrace of a view of reality as organistic and dynamic, Whiteheadians and pragmatists have taken “fundamentally disparate paths” (1996, 561). The pragmatists take time seriously, the Whiteheadians do not.

3. Specific Issues

3.1. The “Pragmatic” in Whitehead

Whitehead’s best known reference to pragmatism is his characterization of it in The Function of Reason as a practical method, associated with the wily Ulysses, that is only interested in short-range results, in the “emphatic clarification” of “current practice.” If “the method works” then “Reason is satisfied” (FR 17). Whitehead deplores the resulting “obscurantism,” its “inertial resistence” to change, its “refusal to speculate freely on the limitations of traditional methods” (FR 43). The antidote lies in speculative Reason, associated with Plato, which in “transcending all method” provides “that touch of infinity which has goaded races onward” toward “the unattainable” (FR 65).

However, Whitehead is as critical of the merely speculative as he is of the merely pragmatic. He advocates instead the “logic of discovery,” the marriage of the two kinds of Reason, each exposing and correcting the limits of the other. Scientific theories and philosophical cosmologies are necessary to progress in understanding the world and improving the human condition, but unless they are tested constantly against the empirical evidence they claim to interpret, they are of little worth. “The supreme verification of the speculative flight is that it issues in the establishment of a practical technique for well-attested ends” (FR 80). Reason as a “pragmatic agent,” engaged in transforming vague notions into workable techniques issuing in useful and enduring results, is “the practical embodiment of the urge to transform mere existence into the good existence, and to transform the good existence into the better existence” (FR 28-29).

Whitehead uses the term “pragmatic” in the opening pages of Process and Reality as a synonym for the adequacy criterion assessing the worth of metaphysical systems. A metaphysics must be of sufficient scope that nothing found in “practice” is excluded. If some practice is not adequately covered, the system needs to be revised to take account of it. “Metaphysics is nothing but the description of the generalities which apply to all the details of practice,” although, Whitehead hastens to add, “no metaphysical system can hope entirely to satisfy these pragmatic tests” (PR 13). Later, while explicating his epistemology of two modes of perception and their correlation through symbolic reference, Whitehead raises the question of how to assess the adequacy of that correlation. To claim that the precise sensa of presentational immediacy provide evidence for the concrete world felt through the vague percepta of causal efficacy is a matter of “conscious judgment.” There is some “direct check” of this judgment by bodily feelings, but otherwise “the appeal is to the pragmatic consequences, involving some future state of bodily feelings which can be checked up” (PR 179). The linguistic and other symbols we use in our correlations are ones that have served us and our ancestors well; we continue to use them because the judgments they guide have proven trustworthy in the past. Our ways of judging have “led to a route of inheritance […] which constitutes a fortunate evolution” (PR 181).

Whitehead’s somewhat Darwinian claim, therefore, is that propositional judgments about what is or is not the case are ultimately justified by whether or not they work pragmatically: “the very meaning of truth is pragmatic” (PR 181). The conceptual airplane of the daily pattern of commonsensical and scientific meanings by which we live, just as the airplane of metaphysical generalization, must come frequently back to its base in concrete immediate experience if it is to guide us fruitfully over the long run. This positive view of the pragmatic should come as no surprise to anyone recalling Whitehead’s criticism of educators who equate learning exclusively with “book-learning.” “The second-handedness of the learned world is the secret of its mediocrity. It is tame because it has never been scared by facts” (AE 51). An education “carries with it the decadence of civilization” if it is not based on the fact that “action and our implication in the transition of events amid the inevitable bond of cause to effect are fundamental” (AE 47).

3.2. Whitehead, Peirce, and the Modes of Being

Charles Hartshorne, as co-editor with Paul Weiss of Peirce’s papers, was always interested in harmonizing Whitehead and Peirce. In one of his last books, Creativity in American Philosophy, he has a chapter on “A Revision of Peirce’s Categories” in which he modifies slightly Peirce’s Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness so that they apply to, and clarify, Whitehead’s ontology. In terms of kinds of relations, Firstness for Peirce involves independence, but Hartshorne argues that nothing actual depends on nothing else. So he amends Firstness to mean independence of some other things. Secondness is then taken as dependence on some other things rather than, according to Peirce, on a single other (1984, 78). Thirdness is then not dependence on two others, but rather both independence regarding some definite particulars and dependence regarding generic structures (1984, 79). Expressed ontologically and in Whiteheadian language, actual occasions are Firsts with respect to their successors because their achieved actuality is not dependent on what follows them. Actual occasions are Seconds with respect to their prehensive relation to the past, on which they are dependent. And actual occasions are Thirds with respect to the future, which outlines the general features of their character through the societal patterns of influence that set limits to what can occur. “With the above revisions,” says Hartshorne, “Peirce’s scheme achieves far greater clarity. His Secondness is then equivalent to Whitehead’s prehension, or feeling of (previous) feeling. His Firstness is any such feeling as bound to be felt by suitable subsequent subjects as feelers. His Thirdness includes “Whitehead’s ‘symbolic reference’ or, more generally ‘mentality,’ propositions and other real possibilities” (1984, 81).

William Reese similarly attempts to bring Peirce and Whitehead together by tinkering with their categories, but he maps the systems on to each other in a slightly different way. Reese interprets Secondness as having to do with the temporal present, which is the mode of actuality. Firstness is the mode of possibility, which is the realm of eternal objects and the temporal future. Thirdness is the mode of process, which refers to the temporal past, to Creativity as the “operative generality” by which the continual emergence of new actualities involving newly realized possibilities is explained (1952, 232). For Reese, Peirce is a through-going realist: present, future, and past are fundamental objective realities, all of which are needed in formulating an adequate ontology. Whitehead’s ontological principle, Reese argues, melds this realism with “the nominalistic principle of common sense” (1952, 237), that “whatever is real other than an actual entity must be an aspect of an actual entity” (1952, 236).

Robert Neville’s work is an interesting and important merging of Peirce and Whitehead. He accomplishes this feat by taking their ideas as stimuli for his own, not attempting to blend their differing metaphysical systems but instead fashioning one that, although it stands on the shoulders of both philosophies, has its own unique identity and therefore its own integrity. Neville is deeply influenced by Whitehead’s account of concrescence and transition, the process by which a new value is created through the harmonizing of inherited contrasting values. Individuals are thus “discursive”: on the one hand, deeply relational, fundamentally dependent on an environment that constrains and shapes what they can become; on the other hand, fundamentally unique, exhibiting essential features that transcend that environment (1989, 193-201, 230-33). Neville’s account of this process of harmonizing essential and relational features involves an extension of Peirce’s theory of signs. Truth is “the carryover of value from object to interpretation” (1989, 164; see 65-67) because the creation of new actualities is the carryover of value from past determinants to present concrescence.

Peirce’s realism is evident in Neville’s theory of time, in which the modalities of past, present, and future are affirmed as ontologically objective. They have the same structure as all other actualities: they are harmonies of essential and conditional features, each mode interrelated with the other modes but none reducible to the others. This objectivity of time is grounded in God as “the act of creation,” which act is primordial and provides “a context of mutual relevance in which the essential features of the present (decision-making, etc.), those of the past (objective fixity, etc.), and those of the future (normativeness, etc.) are together” timelessly (1989, 182).

3.3. Whitehead, James, and Immediate Experience

In his Principles of Psychology, William James interprets conscious experience as a “stream of thought” (1983, 220), not “a string of bead-like sensations and images, all separate” (1983, 570). It is not a “knife-edge, but a saddle-back,” an awareness of “duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were—a rearward- and a forward-looking end” (1983, 574). Experience is a stream of temporally thick interrelated but distinct moments. Appropriately, Whitehead in defense of his epochal theory of time quotes James on how experience grows in “buds or drops of perception” that come as totalities (PR 68). Lowe insists that Whitehead nonetheless did not derive his theory from James. “We have here a case not so much of influence, as of sympathy” (1949, 289). Whitehead addresses a problem that James, “prejudiced by the traditional empiricism in which he had been reared, rejected—the problem of how pulses of experience are formed” (1949, 290). Whitehead did the metaphysical work; “James’s unmatched psychological observations provide the chief outside evidence to show that Whitehead’s theory of prehensions is not a castle in the air” (1949, 290-91).

Craig Eisendrath develops this notion, arguing that the two philosophers complement each other, that they “offer together a single philosophy” (1971, xiii). Whitehead’s highly abstract philosophizing needs the concrete exemplification James provides, and conversely Whitehead provides “the full sweep of general application” James’s observations suggest. “Key to a merging of their philosophies is their shared belief “that the universe is not opaque, that it is all of the same stuff as we are, and so is open to thought” (1971, 229). And from this it follows that “ideas are efficacious in the world.” They are not only “the forms of experienced fact” but also an “incitement for changes in the future” (1971, 230).

A particularly interesting use of James and Whitehead is found in Bernard Meland’s notion of “appreciative consciousness.” Meland argues that nurturing in students an appreciative consciousness should be among the important goals of a liberal arts education. An education limited to teaching the knowledge skills that give people power to control nature for their own benefit is seriously deficient. This knowledge needs to be grounded in the broad sympathy, constructive understanding, and imaginative interpretation that equip a person to deal with “large-scale problems of human destiny” (1953, 29), a “reorientation of the human spirit for a deeper probing of the meaning of existence and for the meaning of man” (1953, 45). Meland suggests that Whitehead and James justify the importance of an appreciative consciousness because they both articulate “a sense of the-more-than-the-mind-can-grasp as well as a sense of expectancy concerning every event, knowing that creativity is occurring, that time is real” (1953, 77). The functional power of scientific knowledge and its technological applications is a great good but it is dangerous unless rooted in a recognition that its findings are “tentative and subject to revision before the great on-going mystery in which our lives are cast—a drama of existence in which wonder, inquiry, and the appreciative mind play the creative roles” (1953, 77).

3.4. Whitehead, Dewey, and the Method of Inquiry

John Dewey interprets Whitehead’s philosophy in a way “deliberately emphasizing” his own approach, and he thinks that in doing so he has captured its “skeleton” or “backbone,” the “general structural condition of his thinking” (1942, 650). This aspect, of course, is the empirical side of “Whitehead’s basic method,” which emphasizes observation leading to generalizations based on “distinctions that arise in and because of inquiry into the subject-matter of experience-nature” (1937, 175). Dewey agrees: “descriptive generalization of experience is the goal of any intelligent empiricism” (1937, 170). It should attempt to provide a “genetic” or “functional” account of experience, “an experimental effort at purification, continuation and extension of those elements of things already experienced that commend themselves to critical judgment” (1942, 659).

According to Dewey, however, two problems arise in how Whitehead effects this basic method. The first problem is about homologies. It makes good sense—indeed it shows “courage of imagination” (1937, 173)—for Whitehead to start from the physical sciences and then, as he does in his earlier philosophy of nature books, to generalize those ideas so that human experience is seen as “a specialization of the traits of nature.” And it makes equally good sense, as Whitehead does in his later metaphysical writings, to use the specialized traits found in human experience to interpret physical occurrences (1942, 656). Unfortunately, Dewey argues, Whitehead treats these homologies as identities in content rather than in function (1942, 653), which leads to “obscurantion of what is philosophically important” (1942, 660). For instance, treating physical quanta and human feelings as similar in content converts “moral idealism, the idealism of action”—by which Dewey means the way in which ideals function in guiding the choices individuals and groups make in their pursuit of fulfillment—into “ontological idealism or ‘spiritualism.’” Dewey thinks these sorts of conversion have been shown to be the “fatal weakness” of Western philosophizing since Plato and Aristotle (1942, 661).

Dewey’s second problem with Whitehead’s approach is that when he affirms the method of descriptive generalization he adds that the aim of it is to frame “a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (PR 4; AI 222). For Dewey, this smells of “traditional Rationalism,” in which primacy is given to “mathematical method” (1937, 173) and philosophy endeavors to identify “the ultimate metaphysical or ontological structure of the universe.” The result, inexorably, is an “assignment of ontological priority to general characters and essences, and subordination to them of the existences actually observed in nature” (1942, 657). “The resulting generalizations” from this way of philosophizing are “necessarily morphological and static” (1937, 175). “Abstract logical connectedness” is substituted for “concrete existential temporal connectedness” (1942, 658).

Dewey picks out one of Whitehead’s basic categories to illustrate his criticism: eternal objects. The relation of eternal objects to actual occasions is that of “ingression,” which suggests their “independent and ready-made subsistence.” They stand apart from concrete temporal things, and so Whitehead needs “some principle” with the capacity to “act selectively in determining what eternal objects ingress in any given immediate occasion” (1937, 176). God is introduced into his system in order to play this role, mediating the gap between the ontologically nontemporal and the ontologically temporal. Dewey suggests that if “the engression [sic] of natures, characters, or universals” were taken as the result of generalizations from immediate experience, made in order to direct an entity’s “further movement and its consequences,” then “intelligence” rather than a God would suffice to accomplish the mediating (1937, 176).

Dewey finds “a certain irony” that Whitehead’s thought should be interpreted as giving primacy to the mathematical and therefore to “the static over process” (1937, 177). And he rejects a balanced approach in which the mathematical and experiential models are “co-ordinate”: “One, I think, must lead and the other follow” (1937, 174). Dewey’s plea is that Whitehead “lean” away from the “dogmatic and imposed systematizations” of the mathematical style of philosophizing, that he lean toward the genetic style with its emphasis on experimental inquiry, “the play of free critical intelligence” (1942, 661). Whitehead declines making such a choice: “The historic process of the world, which requires the genetic-functional interpretation, also requires for its understanding some insight into those ultimate principles of existence which express the necessary connections within the flux” (ESP 94).

William Myers seems typical of most Whiteheadians, arguing that the mathematical-formal aspects of Whitehead’s metaphysics do not undermine the centrality of process, of taking time seriously. Myers notes that Whitehead takes rationalism as a “hope” but “not a metaphysical premise”: “It is the faith which forms the motive for the pursuit of all sciences alike, including metaphysics” (PR 42). So Myers suggests that “Whitehead’s faith is perhaps best described as faith in system,” that the result of any adequate metaphysical inquiry should “reveal reality as exhibiting fundamental orderliness” (2001, 249). Nonetheless, Myers worries that the mathematical method is “at odds” with Whitehead’s empirical starting point, for the method “already assumes that the world exhibits systematic order, coherence, and intrinsic reasonableness” and therefore downplays the “disorder, incoherence and unreasonableness” found in experience (2001, 253). “In the end, Whitehead’s methodology leaves him open to the real possibility of doing injustice to his own starting point, and to the possibility of falling into incoherence” (2001, 254).

Robert Mack suggests a way to avoid this problem, by distinguishing between Whitehead’s earlier and later work. In the philosophy of nature books, Whitehead understands the task of philosophy to be “abstraction,” moving from immediate experience to general concepts that deploy a system of extensive general patterns that are then “read back” into immediate experience as what it instantiates (1968, 48). This is the mathematical-formal method at work, and its problem is its “inability to get away from the immediate experience with which you start” (1968, 48). Mack argues that Whitehead, in his metaphysical books, abandons this approach for a genetic one that is very similar to Dewey’s. Philosophy, functioning genetically, “builds on” immediate experience rather than abstracting from it. The generalizations become not covering laws but “principles of intelligibility.” The categoreal scheme is “to be criticized and verified by immediate experience, not found in it as something simply there to be seen” (1968, 49). For Mack, Whitehead begins in Bradley’s camp but ends up in Dewey’s; his early mistaken scientific Idealism gives way in his later work to a thorough-going Deweyan pragmatism.

One cannot leave a consideration of Dewey and Whitehead without mentioning education, but there is little to be said. Both philosophers are quoted constantly by educators, but when developing educational theories and practical strategies of their own most writers use Dewey or Whitehead but not both, and no one has systematically melded their approaches. George Allan comes close in Higher Education in the Making, developing the notion of a “pragmatic educational canon” based on metaphysical ideas drawn from Whitehead, James, and Dewey. William Doll in A Post-modern Perspective on Curriculum makes vague mention of Whitehead and Dewey along with a number of other thinkers, ranging from Heidegger to Prigogine, in formulating what he calls “transformative transactions” as the core aim of education. Brian Hendley has written an informative book on Dewey’s and Whitehead’s (and Bertrand Russell’s) actual practices as educators and how these were informed—or not—by their theories. Hendley’s conclusion is that testing education theories by their applicability is a useful “model” for stimulating the development of better philosophies of education (1986, 123), but he does not develop such a philosophy himself.

3.5. Whitehead, Mead, and the Social Self

George Herbert Mead accepts most of the key concepts from Whitehead’s Principles of Natural Knowledge concerning the implications of Einstein’s relativity theory in a world composed of event quanta. Motion is an objective fact in nature, but it implies rest and “rest in nature implies co-gredience, i.e., a persistent relation of here and there with reference to some individual” percipient event (1964, 275). These “consentient set[s] of patterns of events that endure” constitute “slabs of nature” (2002, 172). Where the perspective does not preserve an enduring pattern of here and there, it is in motion; and space and time are distinguished by the differences between these two kinds of perspectives. Thus nature is “stratified into perspectives, whose intersections constitute the creative advance of nature” (2002, 172).

In this way Whitehead’s “philosophy of relativism” establishes what Mead calls the “objectivity of perspectives” (2002, 172) or, accepting a coinage of Arthur Murphy, “objective relativism” (1938, 524; see Murphy 1927). If times and distances are functions of some specified reference system, and if any and every standpoint uniquely defines such a system, then there can be no single nonrelative overarching spatio-temporal order, no single objective world, no single metaphysically ultimate reality. Instead, a plurality of objective perspectives exist, and nature as a whole is nothing other than their intersections. Perspectives are not distorted versions of a perspectivally neutral pattern of relationships, but rather the natural objective world itself. “They are in their interrelationship the nature that science knows” (2002, 173). The “seemingly timeless character of our spatial world and its permanent objects” are recurrent characteristics of consentient sets and “we abstract time from this space for the purposes of our conduct” (1964, 277).

Mead goes on to explore the implications of objective relativism for an understanding of self and society. In doing so, he leaves behind the Whitehead he knows. It is unclear whether Whitehead’s ideas about societies of enduring objects could have been helpful as Mead developed his theory of a compound self, an I and a Me, and his theory of the “generalized other.” For a group to come into existence, Mead argues, each member “must in some sense take the attitude of all of them,” which each does by “getting the attitude which each assumes in relation to the common ends which each has” (1938, 612). “Sociality is the capacity of being several things at once” (2002, 75). Thus a society is an organism in the same functional sense that an individual person is: its unity is the adjustment of the various perspectives of its constitutive elements, through the development and recognition of common features such as the ends their actions envision.

Mead is critical of Whitehead’s theory of perspectives because he fails to see how it can be reconciled with “the fixed geometry of space-time” that Whitehead also accepts (2002, 42). It closes “the door to the contingent” and undermines the reality of emergent novelty (2002, 70). Mead also dislikes Whitehead’s notion of Creativity, which he takes to be a “Bergsonian edition of Spinoza’s underlying substance that individuates itself in the structure of events,” nor does he like Whitehead’s “Platonic heaven of eternal objects” (2002, 173). As for Dewey, so also for Mead: Whitehead’s mathematical propensities are thought to undermine rather than strengthen the experiential genetic grounding required of an adequate philosophy.

William Miller suggests that Whitehead is not as far from Mead as Mead thinks, that there is a functional homology such that “the principle of sociality is for Mead what the principle of concrescence is for Whitehead.” Sociality and concrescence have to do with what is present, with a reality “characterized by novel events, which as emergents “must make an adjustment to both a past and a future or later system which their emergence heralds” (1973, 191). Most Mead scholars, however, agree with Richard Burke’s insistence that for Mead “‘metaphysics’ was a dirty word,” an appeal “to a principle beyond any possible experience, a realm of independent being” that offers itself as an alternative to scientific method (1962, 82). It is “misleading” to call Mead a metaphysician and “confusing” to group him with Bergson, Whitehead, and Husserl, as many do, because “in spirit and purpose he belongs with the positivists.” In a “pragmatic-dialectical” and therefore fundamentally anti-metaphysical way, Mead sought “to explain experience without going beyond experience” (1936, 87).

3.6. Whitehead, Pragmatism, and Asian Thought

Brief mention should be made of recent efforts to enlarge the scope of the conversation between pragmatists and Whiteheadians to include Asian philosophers. Neville underscores the reason: the philosophical public is now global and it is embarrassingly parochial to discuss modes of process thinking without including approaches rooted in traditions other than those found in the West (2004, 23). Neville is himself an excellent example of this enlarged scope, especially as he develops it programmatically in Normative Cultures and specifically in Boston Confucianism.

Warren Frisina weaves together the approaches of Whitehead, Dewey, and the sixteenth-century Neo-Confucian Chinese philosopher Wang Yang-ming. Indeed the title of his book, The Unity of Knowledge and Action, is a translation of Wang’s central term chih hsing ho-l. Frisina offers a pragmatic interpretation of Whitehead’s cosmology by likening Dewey’s transactional metaphors to Whitehead’s organismic ones (2002, 127). Wang’s views are similar, Frisina argues, for he also takes concrete things to be “nodes of causal relatedness rather that fixed substances” and understands “cognition as a specific kind of relational activity” (2002, 141). For Wang, metaphysical inquiry is “active, aesthetic, and hypothetical” (2002, 141), a “three-step system of expectation-problem-new expectation” (2002, 134), an activity rooted in “the erotic desire for aesthetic satisfaction” (2002, 138).

Steve Odin relies on an metaphysical framework integrating Mead and Whitehead in developing an interpretation of Zen Buddhism’s understanding of the social self. The objectivity of perspectives yields a world in which each individual should be seen as “a living mirror reflecting its entire universe from a unique perspectival locus in nature” (1996, 225). Odin argues that Nishida Kitaro, a Japanese philosopher who was roughly a contemporary of Whitehead and of Mead, developed such a “perspectivist cosmology” with special emphasis on how the self “reflects its world as an individual microcosm of the social macrocosm” (1996, 347). Odin finds similar themes in the work of Watsuji Tetsuro, Yuasa Yasuo, and Kimura Bin, all of whom emphasize the “symbiotic” character of the “human-nature relationship” (1996, 401).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Burke, Richard. 1962. “G. H. Mead and the Problem of Metaphysics,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 23.1, 81-88.

Dewey, John. 1937. “Whitehead’s Philosophy,” Philosophical Review 46.2, 170-77.

Dewey, John. 1942. “The Philosophy of Whitehead,” in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp (New York, Tudor), 643-61.

Dilworth, David A. 1989. Philosophy in World Perspective: A Comparative Hermeneutic of the Major Theories (New Haven, Yale University Press).

Eisendrath, Craig R. 1971. The Unifying Moment: The Psychological Philosophy of William James and Alfred North Whitehead (Cambridge, Harvard University Press; second edition: New York, toExcel, 1999).

Flower, Elizabeth and Murray G. Murphey. 1977. A History of Philosophy in America, Vols. 1-2 (New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons).

Frisina, Warren G. 2002. The Unity of Knowledge and Action: Toward a Nonrepresentational Theory of Knowledge (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Hartshorne, Charles. 1984. Creativity in American Philosophy (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Hendley, Brian Patrick. 1986. Dewey, Russell, Whitehead: Philosophers as Educators, Forward by George Kimball Plochman; Introduction by Robert S. Brumbaugh (Carbonale IL, Southern Illinois University Press).

James, William. 1981 [1907]. Pragmatism (Indianapolis IN, Hackett).

James, William. 1983 [New York, Henry Holt, 1890]. The Principles of Psychology, introduced by George A. Miller (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press).

Lowe, Victor. 1949. “The Influence of Bergson, James and Alexander on Whitehead,” Journal of the History of Ideas 10.2, 267-96.

Lowe, Victor. 1985, 1990. Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work. Vol. I: 1861-1910; Vol. II: 1910-1947, ed. J. B. Schneewind (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press).

Lucas, George R. Jr. 1983. The Genesis of Modern Process Thought: A Historical Outline with Bibliography (Metuchen NJ, Scarecrow Press).

Mack, Robert D. 1968 [1945]. The Appeal to Immediate Experience: Philosophic Method in Bradley, Whitehead, and Dewey (Freeport NY, Books for Libraries Press).

Mead, George Herbert. (1936). Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century; Edited by Merritt H. Moore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Mead, George Herbert. 1938. The Philosophy of the Act, edited and introduced by Charles W. Morris (Chicago, University of Chicago Press).

Mead, George Herbert. 1964. Selected Writings, edited and introduced by Andrew J. Reck (Indianapolis IN, Bobbs-Merrill Library of Liberal Arts).

Mead, George Herbert. 2002 [Chicago, Open Court, 1932]. The Philosophy of the Present, edited and introduced by Arthur E. Murphy, with Prefatory Remarks by John Dewey (New York, Prometheus Books).

Meland, Bertrand Eugene. 1953. Higher Education and the Human Spirit (Chicago, University of Chicago Press).

Miller, David L. 1973. George Herbert Mead: Self, Language, and the World (Austin TX, University of Texas Press).

Morris, Charles W. 1935. “Philosophy of Science and Science of Philosophy,” Philosophy of Science 2.3, 171-86.

Murphy, Arthur E. 1927. “Objective Relativism in Dewey and Whitehead,” Philosophical Review 36.2, 121-44.

Myers, William T. 2001. “Dewey and Whitehead on the Starting Point and Method,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 37.2, 244-55.

Neville, Robert C. 1989. Recovery of the Measure: Interpretation and Nature (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Neville, Robert C. 2004. “Whitehead and Pragmatism,” in Whitehead’s Philosophy: Points of Connection, edited Janusz A. Polanowski and Donald W. Sherburne (Albany, State University of New York Press Press), 19-39.

Odin, Steve. 1996. The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Pepper, Stephen C. 1942. World Hypotheses (Berkeley CA, University of California).

Reese, William. 1952. “Philosophical Realism: A Study in the Modality of Being in Peirce and Whitehead,” in Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, edited by Philip P. Wiener and Frederic H. Young (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press), 225-37

Rosenthal, Sandra B. 1996. “Continuity, Contingency, and Time: The Divergent Intuitions of Whitehead and Pragmatism,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 32.4, 542-67.

Schneider, Herbert W. 1963. A History of American Philosophy, Second Edition (New York, Columbia University Press).

Smith, John E. 1983. The Spirit of American Philosophy, Revised Edition (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Watson, Walter. 1985. The Architectonics of Meaning: Foundations of the New Pluralism (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Young, Frederic H. 1952. “Charles Sanders Peirce: 1839-1914,” in Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, edited by Philip P. Wiener and Frederic H. Young (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press), 271-76.

Author Information

George Allan
Philosophy Department, Dickinson College, Carlisle PA 17013

How to Cite this Article

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