Process Social Philosophy: The Continuing Conversation

by George Allan

George Allan is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the Department at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, having been educated at Yale. He is a coordinator of the Society for the Study of Process Philosophies.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 241-243, Vol. 15, Number 4, Winter, 1986. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The articles in Volume 15, Number 1 of Process Studies comprise a special issue devoted to social philosophy. The authors have significant differences between them, but they share a broad concern from a Whiteheadian perspective. They all grapple with two great conundrums: 1. The problem of the one and the many. 2. The problem of justice.

The four articles that follow comprise a special issue of Process Studies devoted to social philosophy. Despite their vast difference in theme, style, and metaphysical commitment, these essays share certain broad concerns that are endemic to doing process philosophy from a Whiteheadian perspective.

The most basic of these is the problem of analogy. Whitehead provided a way of understanding reality that was grounded in ontologically irreducible events, momentary quanta of an order of magnitude appropriate to subatomic physics and the processes by which space-time sequences are constituted. An actual occasion is microcosmic; the durational entities of everyday experience and of history are composed of such microevents. But how are the two orders of reality related? Can a theory of momentary events provide any clue to an understanding of realities that emerge, change, thrive and suffer decline, endure for millennia? Whitehead’s insistence upon the organismic connectedness of things is certainly conducive to answering this question by means of analogy and metaphor, mapping in isomorphic fashion characteristics of the actual occasion onto the macrocosmic objects of human experience. But is it legitimate to treat the actual occasion as a model for interpreting the nature of a human life-course, the structure of an institution, the dynamics of a nation-state?

At the heart of Joseph Bracken’s essay is the insistence that an actual occasion provides no analogue for human social order. To do this, he argues, is to disvalue the unique ontological status of societies, especially human communities, as durational unities achieved through collective effort over time. The attempt to parallel concrescence with historical development ends us up in a totalitarian and static dead-end, whereas attention to the important differences between occasions and societies allows us to emphasize the genuine creativity of the former by displaying the latter as one of its distinctive products.

Randall Morris takes precisely the opposite tack, following a strict analogy between the key elements comprising the concrescence of an actual occasion and those comprising the class structure of human societies. His analogy is functionalist: physical inheritance in prehension functions like the general populace which predominates in a tradition-rooted society; the novelty of the conceptual pole of a prehension plays the same role as the originative activities of the ‘fortunate classes’, the middle class entrepreneurs, who predominate in modern society. For a truly effective social order to exist, statesmen are needed who can provide, in a way similar to what the subjective aim accomplishes for a concrescence, the vision and power required to weave these other two dimensions together into a unity.

The problem of analogy has immediate implications for a second major problem that arises when developing a social theory. This is the matter of ends. What is the relative value of individuals, groups, and the societal totality when it comes to apportioning the sacrifices and benefits that are the condition for temporal and historical achievement? Bracken’s preference for disanalogy is based in part on his worry that the notion of societal concrescence entails the subordination of part to whole, of personal good to social order. Morris argues for analogy because he believes, on the contrary, that social order is the necessary condition for personal good.

Paul Lakeland shares Morris’s interest in social groups as the fundamental constituents of social order, and by giving prominence to Whitehead’s vague notion of ‘world consciousness’ imagines the ideal outcome for history to be a reconciliation of the disharmonies among those constituents into a global political order. But Lakeland would see Morris’s interpretation of Whitehead as illustrating the charge by liberation theologians that Whitehead and process thought in general are counterrevolutionary instruments serving the status quo. To claim that a privileged few should have the power to determine the character of a community is to invert what justice requires. The universal class is not the statesmen but rather, as Marx claimed, the oppressed who comprise the vast majority of the world’s population. Lakeland sketches ways by which process concerns might lead us to solidarity with the world’s oppressed, but he is doubtful that this can be done short of a radical reinterpretation of Whitehead.

Peter Limper pursues some of these same issues, but within the context of technology rather than politics — and to a different conclusion. He seems to agree with Bracken that the creativity of individual occasions is primary and is constitutive both of enduring human persons and of societies, but unlike Lakeland his objections to the existing social order of things are melioristic and reformist rather than fundamental and hence revolutionist. Technology is not an ideology of repression needing to be overcome by the cultivation of a nonimpositional aesthetic style that is studiously anarchic and interiorized. Limper thinks that the nature of things, the uniqueness of each creative moment, is not fundamentally at odds with a drive for self-realization that instrumentalizes nature as part of its basic strategy. Human liberation is a fruit potentially made increasingly possible by the achievements of technological society, an ideal realizable by means of our growing capacity to transform nature so that without violating its transhuman integrity it might serve, genuinely and profoundly, our collective ends.

These four process thinkers thus find themselves grappling with the two great conundrums that inevitably confront every attempt at social philosophy: the problem of the one and the many, and the problem of justice. That they can use Whitehead to such divergent purposes is not to undermine the claim that process philosophy has something important to say on these subjects. The cacophony is not evidence of disarray but rather of fresh vision. It is the Reason of Plato at work, freeing us from old, stale habits of thought in the expectation that out of the resulting conversation, from the very turmoil and confusion of interpretations at war with one another, can emerge in good time a better understanding and a better practice of what it is to become and be within human communities.