The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead

Richard Rummell’s iconic landscape watercolor view of Harvard University, 1906. Courtesy of Arader Galleries.

The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead

By   |  Apr. 14, 2016

Many who are familiar with Pando Populus know of its intellectual roots in the process thought of Alfred North Whitehead. But fewer may be familiar with Whitehead’s place in the history of ideas and the community that has developed in response.

Alfred North Whitehead was a revered teacher at Harvard University from 1924-37. During that period and for some years thereafter he was regarded as one of the leading philosophers in the United States—a good many people would have listed him as the most important. His role in the United States extended beyond the university to a segment of the general public. 

Today there is no interest in his thought at Harvard or, indeed, at the great majority of American universities. Those of us who appraise Whitehead as one of the great philosophers of all time constitute a tiny ghetto with few participants in major academic centers. Why has this change occurred?

The Roles and Fortunes of Whitehead’s Thought

I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the change did not result from the refutation of Whitehead or by improvement on his work. If that were the case, the small ghetto of which I wrote would not exist. The change has been in the nature of philosophy and of the university as a whole.

When Whitehead flourished, universities understood themselves to be places for intellectual reflection and conversation about the issues of concern in the wider culture. Among the most important such issues were those stimulated by developments in biology and physics. In different ways these developments raised questions about the relation of human beings to the rest of the world and the place of values and of religious ideas, including the reality of God. Cartesian dualism, which arose in the seventeenth century under the hallmark of separating mind from body—humans from the natural world—was disrupted by evolutionary theory of the nineteenth century, which emphasized the continuity of things. Immanuel Kant offered an epistemological dualism to replace Rene Descartes’, but many Americans were not satisfied. Other options were considered. Whitehead directly addressed all of these issues in original ways. This conversation seemed relevant to much of the university community, but it had its home in philosophy.

Already there were other philosophers who wanted to redefine their task. Some followed Kant in assuming that “knowledge” is limited to what is empirically known.  This can give us only a phenomenal world of appearances, and it is purely deterministic. That is, it assumes that ultimately everything that happens can be explained by what has happened in the past. The entities of which the world is composed are not the sorts of things that could make choices.

These philosophers disagreed with Kant’s talk of another kind of reflection—one about practical affairs. They were not interested in the inevitably uncertain speculations that played a large role in the discussion in which Whitehead took part. For them, philosophy’s task is largely limited to showing why that kind of talk is useless and meaningless. The growing edge of philosophy limited itself to language analysis—deconstructing what we say, without a constructive attempt to put things back together again. The sort of synthesis that Whitehead sought was no longer considered a proper goal. In the 1940s and ‘50s many philosophy departments were still somewhat open to including those who sought synthesis in understanding the big picture, but by the ‘60s analytic philosophy was clearly dominant and often exclusive, and it remains so today. 

In fact Whitehead made contributions to this kind of analysis as well as to the synthesis of a whole, and a few philosophers, such as his students—Bertrand Russell and Willard Quine—appreciated that. But in general the new school simply ignored or dismissed Whitehead. As philosophy had been newly defined, Whitehead was not even a philosopher.

The victory of this type of philosophy was supported by changes in the university as a whole. The university ceased to be a place for intellectual activity and focused instead on scholarly research. The distinction between the two is very broad. The one aims at a general understanding of life as it is lived, including its values; the other narrowly focuses on specialty concerns, and specifically excludes values from the mix.  Most universities now define themselves as “research universities.” They judge that research is best done when one approaches the task within the confines of a narrowly defined academic discipline and without any judgments of better and worse. So they describe themselves as “value-free.” Since most of the questions raised by the culture cross all such disciplinary boundaries and concern the relation of facts and values, the research contributes only information to the discussion of action or policy or humanistic understanding. Clearly there is no place for traditional philosophy in a value-free research university. Philosophical analysis can have a small claim to a role in the research university by supposedly bringing greater clarity to the issues, but it must do so without the aim of addressing the larger whole. Whereas Whitehead’s type of synthetic philosophy was central to the intellectually-oriented university, it has no place in the research university, where even analytic philosophy is marginal.

That Whitehead survived at all in higher education is because the higher education industry includes professional schools. These have to pay some attention to real world issues. The professional schools did not immediately or wholeheartedly subscribe to value-free research in narrowly defined disciplines. Schools of education—that is, those that prepared teachers—took some interest in ideas excluded from the research university. After all, when one thinks of how to teach children, it is hard to exclude questions of better and worse altogether. Whitehead wrote a book about education that had some influence among educators even after philosophy departments excluded his work.

Theological schools are given the task of preparing people to serve the churches. Here too it was not possible to be completely free from questions of better or worse. Also the sorts of questions that Whitehead dealt with were asked by people in the pew.  Whitehead continued to play a role in a few schools of theology, especially at the University of Chicago Divinity School through the 1960s.

Even in the professional schools, however, most courses came to be taught according to the model of the academic disciplines created for specialized valued free research.  The Divinity School at Chicago now prides itself on the excellence of its work in these disciplines. Whether they serve the needs of pastors is not a major concern. Whitehead has disappeared from the curriculum.

This means that to maintain an interest in Whitehead is to be a critic of higher education, particularly of its abandonment of any effort to provide a comprehensive understanding of human life and its place in the natural world. Those of us influenced by Whitehead believe that the university has structured itself and understood its purpose based on bad philosophical assumptions that it is incapable of discussing. We believe that we must be witness to a different possibility. This requires us to build on a movement that flourished briefly in universities and then was excluded.

When I studied at Chicago, 1947-49, this movement was called neo-naturalism. My faculty in the Divinity School believed that it was clear that since we now knew that human beings are fully natural, as per evolutionary theory, we could not continue to think of nature in purely objective terms. Nature includes subjects (for example, us) as well as objects. In the previously dominant understanding of nature, building on Descartes, nature is exhaustively understood as a material mechanism. We human beings, on the other hand, know ourselves as something more than that. Re-thinking nature so that we could understand ourselves as part of it seemed to be the central intellectual task posed by the new evolutionary understanding. 

The faculty was especially interested in scientists who shared this view and made helpful suggestions. They recognized Whitehead—the mathematician, logician, and physicist—as one who was doing this. They appreciated the work of Charles Hartshorne, who was teaching in the philosophy department at Chicago. Hartshorne had been an assistant of Whitehead and was inspired by him as well as by C.S. Peirce, whose collected writings he co-edited with Paul Weiss. A few of the neo-naturalists became serious Whiteheadians. Most of the followers of Whitehead in my generation were students of this faculty.

One reason that intellectual activity flourished in Chicago during those years was that it was strongly favored by the chancellor, Robert Maynard Hutchins. Hutchins left Chicago a few years later, however, surrendering to the rising tide of scholarly research through self-enclosed academic disciplines. Our professors at Chicago, of course, continued to teach neo-naturalism for some years under the leadership of Bernard Loomer. However, after Hutchins left, the neo-naturalist faculty dispersed and retired, and the University of Chicago ceased to be a center for this kind of thinking. Indeed, the issues with which this faculty had dealt ceased being discussed in North American universities. They did not fit into any of the academic disciplines developed for research purposes. The term “neo-naturalism” has also largely disappeared.

But before the dispersal, Loomer had introduced another label used especially for the neo-naturalist thinking influenced by Whitehead. He called it “process thought,” due to the central idea that to be is to be in process, rather than a static thing. Loomer’s leadership was such that this term was quickly picked up and adopted. The word “process” was already prominent in this community since the title of Whitehead’s magnum opus was “Process and Reality.” 

Those of us who, while studying at Chicago, learned the importance of intellectual life were distressed that Chicago Divinity School faculty was no longer providing the leadership we had appreciated. Whitehead’s own students kept some interest alive quite independently of Chicago, and in their diaspora some of the Chicago neo-naturalists continued to influence students. But these rather isolated influences were barely keeping the memory of Whitehead alive. 

To resist the continuing decline of what some of us considered a crucial dimension of thought, we created a journal, Process Studies, and (in 1973) a Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California. The Whiteheadian process movement has not recovered the status in the United States that it had during Whitehead’s life or for a decade after his death, but it has survived, developed, and achieved some international visibility.

In Europe, interest in Whitehead developed largely independently of what we had done in the United States. Isabelle Stengers, in her work with the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine, became interested in Whitehead’s contribution to science, and she was joined in this regard by Bruno Latour. Stengers’ Thinking with Whitehead is one of the most important studies of his philosophy. The opening of European universities to Whitehead, however, resulted chiefly from his importance being recognized by Gilles Deleuze. 

What is appreciated in European universities is primarily the early, less speculative, and less radical Whitehead. For secular European intellectuals to take Whitehead seriously requires the denial of his theism, whereas Process and Reality gives a major role to what Whitehead calls “God.” The fact that the Center for Process Studies is located at a school of theology makes Whitehead suspect on both sides of the Atlantic. That it does not prevent the Chinese from being uniquely receptive is an ironic twist. 

There has been a third strand of interest among Catholic philosophers, however, who have a center in Leuven. This has been connected closely with the Claremont center.  Leuven has attracted students from around the world and its graduates have taken process theology to Congo, India, and the Philippines.The Catholic strand has been influential in creating some interest in Poland and perhaps also in Romania and Bulgaria. The International Whitehead Network, which grew out of a Center for Process Studies conference, keeps this global reality alive and visible through international conferences every other year.

Some Major Ideas of Whitehead

To deal with questions raised by scientific and intellectual developments of the nineteenth century, Whitehead broke with the dominant Western tradition. He developed a metaphysics and cosmology more similar to classical Buddhism than to any preceding Western thinker. But he developed this vision in dialogue with Western science, philosophy, and religion far beyond what any Buddhist has done.

The great majority of Western thinkers from the Greeks to the present time have thought that our basic relation to the world was mediated through the sense organs, and most have focused on vision. The 18th century philosopher, David Hume, made clear for all time that if we begin with this assumption we are limited to a phenomenal world—the world of immediate appearances, stripped of any history or future, as well as values and purposes. The phenomena we perceive are all given to us as objects. That is, we have no direct relation to the subjects that may underlie these objects, and their existence cannot be “known” in the Kantian sense. All that can be known is a universe of objects. 

Whitehead rejected this starting point. Obviously the senses are very important in giving us clear conscious knowledge, but this is not primitive or the most fundamental kind of knowledge. For instance, the experience of sight begins with the world impinging on our eyes and brain. This is prior to our “seeing” patterns of color. It is true that we are far more clearly conscious of the colors we project than of the primitive experience of being impacted by the world. But that we experience this relationship also, even if only at the largely non-conscious level, is evidenced throughout. We do not really doubt the existence of a world: we “feel” the world’s presence in a more fundamental way than our sense organs can ever tell us. Babies are convinced very early that the world they are impacted by is very real. Indeed, we do not doubt the existence of other subjects. It is foolish to suppose that we arrive at these conclusions by reasoning from sense experience; there is no sense experience we can have that would yield this conclusion. The knowledge that there is a real world  is a more fundamental knowledge than how that world looks and sounds and feels. 

The philosopher William James taught us the idea of radical empiricism—that we should examine experience radically to bring out elements other than the ones sense data provides. For example, we all know that our experience in the present moment is affected by past experience, most of all by immediately preceding experiences. We do not infer that this is the case, however, from sense data. Yet, in each moment we experience the causal efficacy of the past experience—no present experience is somehow “purely” what it is apart from the past leading up to it. Similarly, while we all take for granted that we are “embodied” in some sense, we do not arrive at the idea through examining sense experience. Rather, we experience our bodies as “us” as a kind of deep perception, apart from any sense experience that would necessitate it. 

Whitehead thus analyzes two dimensions of human experience and, in this, makes a unique and highly important (if now overlooked) contribution to the history of thought. There are perceptions in the mode of “causal efficacy”—that is, the “perception” that one moment has of previous moments.  There are also perceptions in the mode of “presentational immediacy”—that is, the perceptions we have of the appearance of the world, the data of the senses. These include touch and vision. Most philosophers have begun with the latter—what we feel and what we see. The conclusion, if they are fully consistent, leads in the direction of the idea that nothing exists other than my singular experience at any given time (solipsism of the present moment). However, if we actually analyze our experience, we will find that perceptions in the mode of causal efficacy ground the perceptions in the mode of presentational immediacy. Whitehead’s contribution goes against much of modern thought and lays a foundation for a deeply ecological view of relations. We begin in a social world, not an individual one.

Whitehead then goes to some trouble to explain how presentational immediacy arises out of causal efficacy. To deal with these in detail he invents a new word, “prehension.” A prehension makes something that’s given a participant in a new instance of becoming. Perception in the mode of causal efficacy makes an aspect of some preceding event a participant in the new becoming. So there are prehensions in the mode of causal efficacy. These are called physical, because their data are already actual and are felt as such. 

But clearly the patches of color presented to us immediately are not objectively there before we see them. Their reality is bestowed on them in the seeing by the new occasion. Therefore, the prehension of these shapes and colors are not physical in this sense. They are felt as potentials for actualization. These potentials are not limited to visual data or even to sensory data as a whole. They may be emotional tones and urges and anticipations. Whereas the potentials actualized in vision are largely determined by what happens physically in the sense organs and the brain, some of the potentials are what we call ideas and ideals that shape our action. Whitehead calls all of these prehensions of potentials “conceptual.” They constitute the mental aspect of each moment of becoming. Every instance of becoming has both a “physical pole” and a “mental pole.” This polarity replaces a dualism of physical and mental substances without minimizing the importance of either physicality or mentality.

Using the term “causal” in naming the most primal perceptions is an indication that Whitehead rejects both the Humean and the Kantian view of causality. We know what a cause is because we experience ourselves as deriving what we become from others.  In a causal feeling the present reenacts what is given in the past or incorporates that past within itself. The simplest feelings are deterministic. The present necessarily prehends and in some part reenacts what it prehends. This is why the world holds together and so much can be predicted with confidence. It is why so much has been accomplished by Cartesian science employing a mechanistic model.

Then, in order to understand causality, Whitehead distinguished subjects from objects in a very different way than modern thought has done. For Whitehead, everything we experience as an object was once a subject or composed of subjects. Every event in the process of its own becoming is in fact subjective. Every experience subjectively takes in (“prehends” was Whitehead’s word) past events. These events were at one time subjects, too, but they have now become data or objects for the new event—as the new subjective event will become an object for future events. Here, too, the dualism of modernity is rejected. There is not one kind of thing that is inherently subjective and another that is inherently objective. In its moment of becoming everything is subjective. As soon as it has become that moment, it is an object for its successors. Whitehead’s point was that we cannot have any understanding of causality if we abstract the world from its moment of subjectivity as science insists that we do.  This emphasis on subjectivity allows us to see  that the world is “fully alive” rather than composed of lumps of “dead matter”—another key reason why Whitehead is an apt philosopher for a more ecological way of thinking.

If the physical feelings that I have described were all there is, then the scientistic model would work for everything. But Whitehead is analyzing subjects rather than objects as primary. The subjects do reenact what they receive. But they also integrate the many things they receive into a new unity. This integration is quite simple for simple occasions but very complex for complex ones such as human experiences. It always involves potentials as well as what is actual. It actualizes some potentials but not others. Whitehead calls this a “decision,” which means a cutting off. Not all potentials can be actualized. This role of potentials constitutes the germ, in even the simplest occasion, of what becomes mentality in complex occasions.

I will take this discussion one step further. Causal feelings are feelings of the physical feelings of antecedent occasions. The causality of the past is mediated through contiguous experience. But there are other influences on the coming to be of an experience that are not as scientists anticipate. The mental aspect of earlier experiences can also be prehended. Whitehead calls this the physical feeling of a feeling of what is potential. The feeling of these past “conceptual feelings” is not limited to contiguous events. There is, therefore, action at a distance at both the quantum level and in animal experience.  At the quantum level physicists call it “entanglement”.  At the human level we are talking about our sense of the feeling tone of a whole group of people or memory of past experiences or telepathic communications.

The issue of God arises in this context. One reason that Whiteheadians have been able to work fairly effectively in inter-religious contexts is that, against the tenor of modernity, Whitehead took the notion of God quite seriously. Rather than eliminating purpose from nature, Whitehead affirms that every event arises out of the aim to become, and to become whatever value is possible in the given situation. This aim is derived from the ordering of potentials relevant to the situation. This is the way God enters the picture. In every moment of our experience, we are called to actualize those potentials that provide the greatest value in the momentary event and in its relevant future. Today, this surely means that God calls us to actualize those potentials that will help to save the Earth. In fact we often fall short, and this leaves us humans with the sense that we often “miss the mark.”

My formulations have assumed some things that need to be made explicit. For Whitehead, the actual world we experience moment by moment consists of a sequence of events rather than of substances or things. This notion is common in Eastern thought, whereas it is rare in Western ways of thinking. In the West, we think of things happening to us or being done by us, with the idea the the “us” in question remains the same. So we think of ourselves as substances underlying the changing experiences. For Whitehead, the experiences are the really real things. At any moment that there is no “me” separate from the experience. There’s no underlying substance; the event is all that is. What we think of as substances are actually snapshots of events. 

This idea is based on careful reflection of a moment of experience, similar to the sort of analysis Gotama Buddha engaged in millennia ago. Whitehead was a mathematical physicist, and his philosophy was also heavily influenced by new developments in physics. The quanta, after all, of which the world is made up are not substances. They happen. Whitehead applies the same notion to human experience. There is no underlying experiencer who remains the same while experience all around her changes. Nor can experiences be viewed as substances. They are events. 

Further, like William James, Whitehead thinks that the flow of our experience is not continuous. Instead it consists in successive experiences, one after another. The descriptions above presuppose this. They talk about the becoming of a single moment of experience. The most important contributor to this event is almost always the previous moment of experience, the one that we identify as “belonging to” the same person. But in each moment we take account of data that were not available in the preceding moment (the visual and auditory data are always changing and the past events felt in causal feelings always include new elements. A person is not absolutely self-identical through time. A person is a process. Whitehead calls this kind of process a macro-process. 

This macro-process can be analyzed into the micro-processes that make it up. It is these micro-processes that are the “atomic” units that ultimately make up the world.  These units are atomic because they cannot be broken up into smaller events. Their analysis is the account of the process through which they came into being as an indivisible whole. For Whitehead, each of these indivisible actualities is an “actual entity” or an “occasion of experience.” 

Whitehead’s thought is remarkably similar to Buddhism. The Buddhist analysis of what we are likely to consider enduring substances is similar. Also, in Nagarjuna we have a clear account of what he calls pratityasamutpada. Every entity is an instance of this, and this is the way all things come together to constitute us in each moment. Whitehead’s formulation is that each actual entity is an instance of creativity, and each moment of creativity is, in that instance, a matter of many data points being factored together to become one event, and then that one event becoming a datum for the next event. “The many become one and are increased by one” is the way that Whitehead put it. Most of what takes part in constituting me now also takes part in constituting other people as well. Again, it’s a profoundly ecological way of thinking—not just about the world, but reality itself.

Of course, we cannot live without discriminating, and we need to identify, with regard to every decision, what is most important. But Whitehead reminds us that discriminating is always also abstracting. In fact, everything is relevant to everything. 

In practice, while this relates to the fact that we cannot avoid ignoring a great deal,it also means that decisions to ignore need to be open to constant revision. This points in exactly the opposite direction from the organization of the university in more or less airtight academic disciplines. Whitehead thus shares this critique of concepts with Buddhists, although he emphasizes the positive role of concepts, with all their limitations, more than most Buddhists.

Whitehead emphasizes, much more than Buddhists, two things. First, every actual entity “decides” just how it will synthesize all the elements that the world contributes to it. While most of what it will be is decided for it, it still participates in its own creation. Second, every entity aims to actualize value. It organizes around that aim. The aim is to achieve the most value possible in itself and in its effect on the future. It may decide accordingly, but it may refuse to fully accord with that aim.  It derives that aim from the divine ordering of potentialities.

In other words, Whitehead’s metaphysics is Buddhist, but his theology is Christian. In Japan, process thought plays its most important role in the Buddhist/Christian dialog—a conversation in which Japanese intellectuals are often interested. This discussion is also increasingly important in the United States.

In the Abrahamic scriptures, clearly, God is an actual entity. However, most philosophers assume that God must be“ultimate.” Thomism has tried to identify God both as Supreme Being and as Being Itself. Whitehead regards creativity as the “ultimate,” that is, what plays the role of Being Itself in the West. But he agrees with the scriptures that God is an actual entity, not creativity as such. Thus whereas Buddhists aim to realize their true nature, called Buddha nature, Christians want to respond fully to the call of God. For a Whiteheadian these goals, oriented respectively to creativity and to God, can be viewed as complementary. 

Relevance to Saving the World

For me and my fellow Whiteheadians, the need to keep this kind of thinking alive was intensified by the global environmental crisis. The victory of value-free research disciplines has rendered universities more part of the problem than part of the solution. With few exceptions, they have not addressed the issues facing humanity or even recognized that they should try to contribute to saving the world. An influential book directed to faculties, is entitled Save the World on Your Own Time. It makes clear that professors are hired to teach and do research on whatever they can get the money to investigate. They are not hired to work for bettering the human condition. 

We in the Whiteheadian community feel the need to muster thinkers to the task of considering how the biosphere can be preserved and how Earth can be kept habitable for humans. These questions are, of course, shaped by our valuing of life. The refusal to acknowledge such values seems to us to be absurd and even demonic. We believe that most people in universities agree, but that their graduate studies have socialized them to prioritize research and through their teaching to socialize the next generation of teachers to avoid allowing their values to influence their academic work. Few can even imagine another way to teach and learn. To some of us it seems quite clear that the dominant Western philosophy has contributed extensively to bad actions and bad policy. It is difficult to have much hope for the needed changes being made while these ideas remain unchallenged. 

The most obvious example is economic theory. Economists are extensively consulted by governments and corporations, and over recent decades their advice has generally supported moves in the wrong direction. There is now much more self-criticism among economists than there has been in the past. Many realize that the extreme gap between the very rich and the poor, to which the policies they have encouraged contributed, is not desirable. But the even more serious problems resulting from their encouragement of increasing market activity have barely been acknowledged. Almost all economists continue to encourage governments to work for economic growth. At best they seek to balance economic considerations, assuming that these focus on growth, with questions of sustainability. 

Around the edges, people who are not part of the guild have proposed that we should seek to develop economies that aim at meeting human needs without increasing the pressure we place on the natural environment. To Whiteheadians this seems to be a question economists should be asking but refuse to ask. If we reflect as to why economists cannot consider changing their discipline to fit the needs of the time, we quickly run into deeply entrenched commitments of a sort historically discussed by philosophers. The economists’ description of the nature of the human being, qua economic actor, fits the individualism and indifference to values that the university as a whole encourages. 

Before 1970, a Whiteheadian economist, Herman Daly, proposed that, given the location of human activity in the context of a larger natural system, growth economics should be replaced by steady-state economics. He is now recognized as the father of ecological economics. He was, of course, excommunicated by the economics guild, and he has not been allowed to teach. But among environmentalists and church people he is widely appreciated and admired. There is, I think, only one university in which ecological economics is taught, but the topic is widely discussed outside the university. 

Let me make it clear that ecological economics could have been developed by someone who knew nothing of Whitehead’s thought. If so, we Whiteheadians would still support it wholeheartedly. We are not sectarian in the sense of only wanting to promote our own work. But I think it is not an accident that Daly was influenced by Whitehead and is part of our circle. This is also true of Mark Anielski, who has published a book on “The Economics of Happiness.” The only country that aims at human happiness rather than enlargement of the market is Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom.

Our habit of critiquing the dominant economic and political practices has led Whiteheadians to be more critical of the increasing takeover of American democracy by corporations, and especially Wall Street, than many. Similarly, we tend to be strongly opposed to American imperialism. On the whole, I believe, we are less taken in by American propaganda than most academics, religious leaders, and political pundits. Our willingness as a school of thought to question fundamental assumptions of thought has created more of an environment for questioning assumptions that the dominant culture ignores. Not a few Whiteheadians have waded into territory others assume to be too hot to handle. Whiteheadians tend to be enormously diverse in their ideas, but unified in their belief that sacred cows tend to be dangerous animals. 

I hardly need to say at this point that a Whiteheadian view of education calls for drastic changes. There are a few liberal arts colleges that have developed the sort of curricula for which a Whiteheadian hopes. There has been some influence of Whitehead’s thought, but our support for such experiments does not depend on that.  In Beijing there is a Whitehead kindergarten—indeed, a group of them that goes by that name. In Korea there is a grade school being developed on Whiteheadian lines. Whiteheadians have developed a few programs in American universities. But we support also many other experiments that are taking place. I keep hoping that the absurdity of value-free education and research in a desperately needy world will soon be widely recognized, by whatever name it goes under. The value of Whitehead’s work is that he laid a systematic, philosophical foundation for doing so and going against the tide.

Agriculture is another area in which many people recognize that we have gone in the wrong direction. There has been very little truly sustainable agriculture in human history, and many regions that once were fertile are no longer productive. Now we are dealing with the whole planet, and the need for sustainability is global and urgent.  But our actual practice is becoming worse as we continue to shift from small farms to industrial agriculture. 

This shift is the result of the influence of economics on agricultural policy and practice. Increasing “productivity” is now the key goal, and this is measured in terms of output divided by labor. Slow loss of soil is not considered a problem because of the habit of economists to discount the future. Social costs are not factored in, nor are the consequences of increasing the dependence on oil products. Since the calculations of economists are favorable to the interests of agricultural corporations, they support one another. The schools of agriculture in the United States teach nothing else. Governmental departments of agriculture at state and national levels join the schools in serving the corporations. 

Outside of these schools, however, there is interesting work being done. Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute, has devoted his career to creating perennial grains that are as productive as annuals. He has had significant success, now recognized even by schools of agriculture. If a polyculture of perennials can succeed the monoculture of annuals, the production of food can be accompanied by the maintenance and even improvement of the soil. We would, of course support such moves regardless of the philosophy of the leaders, but I do not think it an accident that Jackson is a Whiteheadian.

China has been particularly receptive to Whitehead-inspired initiatives. In the area of agriculture, most of China’s professors were educated in the United States, and China was on its way to replacing thousands of villages with industrial agriculture. A few Chinese, mainly those affirming traditional Chinese values, were opposing this and seeking village development instead. We threw ourselves in with these, especially with the Chinese environmentalist Sheri Liao, begging the government not to make the mistakes that have done so much harm in the United States. We have been surprisingly successful. President Xi now supports the development of eco-villages rather than replacing villages with industrial plantations. Of course, the project may yet fail, but it stands a much better chance than once seemed possible. In China this change is associated with the goal of “ecological civilization” that has been written into the Chinese Communist Party constitution. In China, both the goal of eco-villages and that of the broader “ecological civilization” are associated with Whitehead, partly because many Chinese have come to Claremont to the conferences we have held on these topics.

For our contribution to healthy change in American society, the most important development has been eco-feminism. A good many eco-feminists are consciously Whiteheadian. The teaching of the others is so congenial to Whitehead that it matters little to us whether those who teach these ideas are interested in Whitehead’s thought per se. Because of the pressure on universities to include more women, eco-feminists have penetrated universities more successfully than any other representatives of Whitehead-type thinking. They are under enormous pressure to conform to the disciplinary norms, and to a large extent departments of “women’s studies” have done so. One leading feminist, Mary Daly, complained of “methodicide.” But many of the women who do the teaching still constitute a potentially subversive group inside the university walls. In business, government, and churches, the effects of feminism have been enormous, and much of this has included rethinking the relation of human beings to nature.

A relatively bright spot is the status we now have in the old-line Protestant churches.  Of course, they are aging and dying, so that success within them does not mean a great deal. In the first decades of my career, these churches considered continental neo-Reformation theology, especially that of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, to be the norm. Obviously process theology was not then taken seriously. Those theologians who wanted to do philosophical theology, despite the opposition of the dominant school, turned to Paul Tillich, who was also regarded as part of the serious theological dialogue. He was much less uncongenial to Whitehead, but he dealt very little with the issues of neo-naturalism. Those theologians who looked for philosophies as partners in their work usually wanted to relate to philosophies that had prestige in universities. Whitehead was, of course, excluded.

The situation began to change, however, when Black theology and Latin American liberation theology captured North American theological attention. The Whitehead community joined in supporting these movements, but we were treated with suspicion because of our commitment to a philosophy that was seen, with some justification, as responding to the intellectual problems of the North American white bourgeoisie, rather than to the suffering of the oppressed. We gradually overcame the suspicion and now work closely with the heirs of liberation theology in Latin America. We have been helped by the fact that one of the major biblical scholars of the liberation movement, George Pixley, identified with process theology.

Gradually, issues of science and religion and the relation of Christianity to other wisdom traditions reasserted themselves. Feminist critique of patriarchal institutions and culture were typically quite similar to ours. And in ecological theology, we were recognized as leaders. A little book I wrote in 1970, entitled Is It Too Late? is identified as the first book on ecological philosophy and theology. The theologies that once marginalized process theology have faded, and in a sense we are the “last man left standing” in the rather small and largely ignored field of progressive theology. This is not a great achievement, but it puts some responsibility on our shoulders.

I fear that celebrating what success we have had may give the impression that I think we are significantly affecting the fate of the planet. I know all too clearly that we are not. Except in China, I realize that the decision-makers do not know or care about our existence. In the university and in the media the issues central to us are not even posed in a way that makes our contribution relevant.

If there is a real cultural awakening to the need for drastic change, we stand ready to make proposals and enter into the very different discussions that would then take place. I look with hope to the remarkable leadership of Pope Francis. But thus far our efforts, and the more important efforts of many others, have not prepared people even to consider the changes that are needed. American political life is irrelevant or worse—much, much worse. When I get up in the morning, it often seems foolish to continue the effort. But not trying seems worse.

John B. Cobb, Jr. is founding chairperson of Pando Populus and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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