John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
This essay was presented at a conference at St. Andrews University, Scotland, June 24-26, 2003. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Dr. Cobb uses process thought both broadly and narrowly, discussing it in terms of speculative metaphysics, as assumption criticism in general and as assumption criticism in physics, along with alternative assumptions in economics and theology.
1. What is process thought?
There is, of course, no true or false answer to this question. A better question would be: “How shall we use the term, process thought?” We need not all agree, but it is helpful for each to know how others use it.
I use it broadly and narrowly. Broadly, I use it to mean any style of thought that sees events and processes as more fundamental than self-contained entities such as the physical objects we see and touch. We can then, presumably, claim Heraclitus in the West and Buddhism in the East as ancient exemplars. Much Chinese thought has, at least, strong tendencies toward process. Some indigenous people have languages that are more conducive to process thinking than are the Indo-European languages. In the modern West, Hegel may be the first great process thinker.
In the narrow sense, I view these as precursors of process thought. To say that is to identify process thought somewhat arbitrarily with a twentieth century movement that can be traced primarily to Henri Bergson and William James and has its greatest systematic exposition in Alfred North Whitehead. This movement is distinctive by virtue of the seriousness with which it takes, and criticizes, modern science.
2. Process Thought as Speculative Metaphysics
A movement does not have sharp boundaries. Many thinkers reject the most obvious alternatives to process thought without wholeheartedly embracing it. The general intellectual climate of the twentieth century favored analytic to synthetic thought, whereas the movement I name as process thought seeks a fresh synthesis. This can be easily dismissed by such now pejorative terms as “metaphysics” or “speculation.” Accordingly, those who have deconstructed alternatives to process thought, from Berkeley and Hume to Wittgenstein and Derida, usually decline to take the positive step of constructing a system based on a process view.
Actually, this disinclination toward constructive work with process thought is very ancient. Heraclitus was probably not much of a constructive thinker. Although Buddhism did produce impressive systems, the emphasis on the emptiness of concepts works against this process. And few Buddhists have brought their process perspective to bear on the reconstruction of modern sciences. They tend to be satisfied when they can liberate us from the hypostatization of concepts. Even among those who have found process categories helpful in one field or another, there is often resistance to generalization and systematization. This, of course, is today largely an expression of the intellectual culture. But it also gains support from the processive way of viewing matters itself. At best any system can only be a stage in the ongoing process of thought. The claim to finality, to have finally gotten it right, is excluded.
Nevertheless, the school of thought I identify as process thought is metaphysically grounded. The idea that process is more fundamental than substance is a metaphysical notion. Because events and processes are seen, at least in this school as in Buddhism, as inextricably interconnected, one is drawn to explore these relationships. A measure of systematic thinking seems almost inescapable.
Whitehead provides the most thorough account of the reasons for developing a speculative system. It is required, he thinks, for the advance of thought, at least today. He points out that the modern world, far from being the age of reason, has intentionally narrowed its horizons. It did so, originally, for good practical reasons. It had a simple model of reality that proved extremely fruitful, and it did not want to spend time discussing it. It could get on with the business of learning about nature by use of that model. Analogous models worked well in the social sciences.
The model was reductionistic, and primarily analytic, from the start. The complex is analyzed into simpler parts for study. The simpler parts are thought of as self-contained, so that internal relationships need not be considered. Research based on this model has amassed huge quantities of information. Even more impressively, it has made possible an enormous amount of manipulation and control on the part of human beings.
On the other hand, efforts to make conceptual sense of the world based on this model were unsuccessful. The common sense proposals that were offered collapsed under analysis. The notions of substance and efficient causality on the basis of which the model was constructed collapsed under analysis. Many thought the model had to be affirmed because it was so brilliantly successful. But it could not be regarded philosophically as metaphysically true. The response was to reject metaphysics. Kant made this move, and he has been the most influential philosopher of the past two centuries. He proposed that the categories of thought ingredient in this model are the only ones of which the mind is capable, but he recognized that there is no basis for asserting that they actually characterize a world other than our experience.
3. Assumption Criticism
Now there is another kind of intellectual activity that has been excluded in this whole modern adventure. It is critical reflection about assumptions. If the basic model of modern thought collapses under examination and cannot be thought of as actually characterizing an objective world, then perhaps a better model could be developed. From my point of view, the failure to consider this possibility has been astounding. Better, it seems to be assumed, to limit the capacity of the mind to analysis or deconstruction than to consider alternate ways of understanding reality! As we all know, in philosophy departments the company of speculative metaphysicians is a small one.
Now we might say, or at least think, What difference does that make? It is a reasonable question. Philosophy, especially in the English-speaking world, has so limited its topics that the results of its work make little difference. Few scientists look to philosophers for help in solving their problems. Few governments turn to philosophers for advice. Religious and ethical life in the public world proceeds with only a little attention to professional philosophers. Of course, there are exceptions, but for the purposes of this paper I must limit myself to generalizations.
If this commitment to avoid reflection about alternative basic assumptions is limited to professional philosophers, then, it may not matter much. But then we must ask, what sections of our intellectual life do make a different to what happens in the world. Perhaps physics is of some importance. Do we find that physicists are open to imagining different models of reality?
4. Alternative assumptions in physics
The answer here is that the situation in physics has been much the same as in philosophy, although I have more hope for the future. Whereas Kant preserved the basic modern model intact because he assumed that it fit the scientific facts, physicists discovered that it did not fit all of them. Below the atomic level, they could not incorporate the new data into the old model. One might wish that they had sought a fundamentally new model. Instead they tinkered with the old. The old model allowed them to think of both waves and particles. They found that in some respects subatomic behavior could be understood in terms of particles, in other respects, waves. Since it is not possible to think of one entity as simultaneously a wave and a particle, we must give up the attempt to order the world even at the phenomenal level where Kant thought it possible. But we can still make predictions and control events. All we require is still more intellectual modesty. The mind should be recognized as capable only of manipulating data and symbols. It is not adapted to explaining or understanding.
I said I have more hope here. This is because there are more influential physicists seeking an alternative today than there are philosophers. Also, they do not lose status when they make these efforts in the same way as philosophers do.
I find the example of David Bohm instructive. He devoted many years to developing a process model to replace the substantive ones that are still in use. He sometimes called his new model holographic since it was based on a radical doctrine of internal relations. In this respect it is highly congenial to process thought. Each entity, instead of being self-enclosed, is seen as fragmentarily containing all the others. Bohm could make sense of many quantum phenomena in this way. Before he died, he completed, together with Hiley, a comprehensive theory that can account for all the known facts in a far less paradoxical fashion than had been thought possible.
Physicists have, on the whole, been respectful of Bohm’s work, but very few have adopted his model. Why? They answer that it makes no predictions that they cannot make on the basis of their received models. The fact that it provides a better way of understanding reality does not count in its favor so far as physics is concerned. Physicists once understood their task as being the explanation of natural phenomena. By that measure, Bohm’s work counts as a great advance. But in the twentieth century, physics has redefined itself. It is a system of prediction, testing, and control. Bohm does not advance that process. Therefore his theory is not physics.
We may ask, then, what is it? Clearly it is not philosophy as that academic discipline is now defined. Understanding the world is even more remote from philosophy than from physics. It turns out that as we now understand knowledge, a theory such as Bohm’s that gives us an intelligible account of the natural world and its relation to the human one makes no contribution to knowledge. So far we have reduced the use of the mind!
Why, then, do I have more hope for physics than for philosophy? Physicists have greater assurance of the acceptance of their discipline. They do not have to prove that they are tough-minded and disciplined. They are the great speculators of our time. Some of their speculations seem to me wild and irresponsible, but that is not the point. Even in their most speculative work, most of them now seek the basis for new predictions more than more coherent understanding. Nevertheless, in that context, alternative models can be considered. And a considerable number of physicists are open to such models, including process ones.
But if you share the modern anti-intellectual mindset, you may still ask, what difference does this make. Are not the majority of physicists correct that only prediction, testing, and control matter? How does understanding benefit us?
That it is possible to ask such questions shows how far we have come on the modern trajectory. There was a time when understanding was an obvious and inherent good. I continue to believe that it is. I also believe that when people are not able to have any inclusive way of understanding the various dimensions of their lives, there is a psychological price to pay. When people learn that intellectuals deny that any such understanding of the world is possible, they are more likely to accept quite irrational ideas and join dangerous cults. As a theologian I know that the intellectual arguments against the capacity of reason are widely used in support of fideism. If reason is no guide to understanding, why not adopt whatever beliefs appeal to you?
However, I will not follow this line of thinking further. If we think that physics can get along and perform its function without understanding the world, then why indeed should it rethink its models? But there are other disciplines in which the results of unquestioned commitment to modern models are quite dramatic in ways that all must acknowledge to be important. Since neoliberal economic theory is now the world’s ruling ideology, let us consider that.
5. Alternative assumptions in economics
Basic models are important in all the social sciences, but economics follows with special rigor from its model of homo economicus. That model is unquestionably modern. Homo economicus is a self-contained individual with no internal relations to others. Indeed, he relates to others only through contracts. His two activities are to work and to acquire, mostly to consume. He works as little as possible and acquires as much as possible.
These assumptions determine much of the outcome of economic theory. Strictly speaking we would need a few other assumptions in order to turn economics into a fully axiomatic system. For example, we would need to note that natural resources are, for practical purposes, infinite. But for my purposes it is enough to say that the assumptions I have listed have many practical consequences when governments adopt policies oriented to economic growth on the basis of advice from neoliberal economists, or, indeed, many other economists who share this model.
The practical consequences are most easily identified in terms of what is omitted from the model. It contains, for example, no notion of justice. The goals of the economy are satisfied just as fully when distribution of income is highly skewed as when it is more widely shared. Of course, many individual economists do care about how income is distributed on the basis of ideas about human beings derived from sources other than their discipline. But today it is economic theory, not political theory, that rules political action. Distribution takes a back seat. The world’s wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and those to whom we turn for advice in these matters tell us it is none of their business.
Consider another omission: community. Since human beings are self-contained, their relations to one another, other than those of exchange, are ignored. Human community is in fact much more than contractual relationships. Those socialized into economic thinking tend to view these other relationships negatively when they inhibit economic growth. Leaders in “development” in the early decades after World War II often noted the importance of rationalizing the thinking or culture of traditional peoples. They meant that the tendency of people to evaluate proposals according to effects on their extended families and larger communities inhibited growth. That growth required that people move from their traditional villages to industrial centers. Too many people cared more about the quality of life based on human relationships than about the hoped for increase in income. This resistance had to be overcome.
Lester Thurow, one of the most liberal of America’s leading economists, has written that the one great success story since World War II has been in agriculture. He means that in that area labor has become more productive. If labor is bad and production is good, this is just the result to be desired. Hence the enthusiasm of the economist. Sociologists who have studied the changes in rural communities, the consequences of farm bankruptcies and of former farm labor moving into cities tell a different story. But it is the economists’ account that continues to shape agricultural policy globally.
Another thing absent from the economists’ model is the natural world. Originally land was included as a factor of production, but it is now treated as a commodity or as capital. Natural resources can be ignored because they are infinite as long as capital is available to exploit them. This may be the assumption that has been most frequently challenged, and there is more tendency to make concessions on this than on community. However, the model has not been changed, and most economic practice continues to follow from the model rather than from the concerns of others about the environment. It is not surprising that in a world ruled by such a theory, nature continues to be degraded and we head toward ecological catastrophes.
At one level one would expect that a discipline of such influence whose effects are so grave would reflect about its assumptions. But that is to misunderstand the canalization of thought so successfully achieved in the modern world. Economics is defined as the discipline that works with this model. By doing this it can claim to be a science, and its claim is widely recognized. To raise questions about its model would upset all that. In any case it would not be economics and so would not be an appropriate activity for an economist. Actually economists call the discussion of such questions “theology,” and for them that is a pejorative word. I, on; the other hand, as a theologian agree that it is a proper, and now even necessary, activity for theologians.
This is, of course, but one more case of defining a discipline in such a way as to exclude reflection about its assumptions. That it is effective can be illustrated from the biography of Herman Daly, my co-author in writing For the Common Good. Daly studied economics at Vanderbilt, and also had a keen sense of the limits of the natural world and the need to respect them as well as a strong sense of justice. He concluded at an early stage of his career that the ordering of the economy toward growth, conceived simply as any kind of increase of economic activity, was a mistake. Yet growth of this kind follows as the desired aim from the model of Homo economicus.
Daly, of course, was not opposed to all growth. Some forms of growth do no hard to the environment and are fully compatible with justice. Some parts of the world and some people in other parts need more goods and services than they now have. But the concern to meet real needs in socially and responsible ways is very different from the economists’ commitment to growth as the overarching goal. If this is not the correct goal then economic theory as it now stands requires extensive revision. It would be very difficult to put forward the new theory in the mathematical form of which economists can now be so proud.
Accordingly, although Daly was widely read by the public, there was no discussion of his ideas among mainstream economists. Indeed, in their writings it is difficult to find any reference to him. There are occasional, dismissive references to the ideal of a stationary state society, which obviously have Daly in view, but typically his name does not appear, and no reference is cited.
Meanwhile Daly taught economics at Louisiana State University. Because of his wide reputation he attracted maverick would-be economists to study with him. However, the other economists there did not want their department characterized in such a heretical fashion and began systematically failing his students. Clearly they were not learning to be economists, as the profession defined itself.
At that time there was pressure on the World Bank to do environmental impact studies on its projects. To satisfy the environmentalists that the Bank was serious in making this move, the Bank hired Daly. Daly accepted because the Bank, unlike academic economists, had to pay some attention to the consequences of their policies. Because Daly had lived in Brazil and spoke Portuguese, he was put on the Brazil desk. This did not please the Brazilians, and Daly was “kicked upstairs” to a general research unit where he could not disturb the actual flow of loans.
Years later a friend was organizing an institute for policy studies at the University of Maryland. The friend had strong environmental interests and wanted Daly as his economist. However, the university would not appoint Daly in that role without the approval of its economic department. As one would expect, the department vetoed the appointment.
The story has a happy ending. Outside the community of economists Daly has received many honors. Their ostracism of him has not prevented him from getting his word out. For many years he has been in great demand as a speaker. He holds an honored place in the Society for Ecological Economics, which is quite large, even if few leading members of the economics profession belong. And finally his friend raised special funds to bring Daly to a chair so defined that it did not require the approval of the local economists. I tell the story not so that you will feel sorry for him but that you will see the strength of the resistance to consideration of alternative assumptions. Perhaps the economists are right, and the only place where this can take place is in schools of theology.
6. Alternative assumptions in theology
The chances of reconsideration of assumptions increases if the members of a discipline study its history. This is because historical study tends to relativize everything it studies. We see that the assumptions of physics developed in the effort to exclude teleology from nature, not because there was empirical evidence that purposes played not rules in the natural world but because the medieval preoccupation with teleology was an obstacle to progress. One might then judge that the exclusion of animal purposes from the study of animal behavior today is an obstacle to progress that requires a changed model. But those who do not know their history assume that “science” eternally requires mechanism. That there are courses in the history of a number of disciplines, taught as part of the study of those disciplines, holds promise. But in general these courses are too marginalized to have been effective.
Perhaps the topic in which the study of history and the development of conclusions are most closely intertwined is theology. Work is not theological if it is not intentionally and explicitly rooted in a tradition. The study of the tradition is not theological if it does not raise questions about fundamental assumptions. Everyone must select from the tradition what parts to employ and study. But there must be some acknowledgment of the reasons for that choice and the way one will now relate to that particular past. What authority does it have? How will that be related to other authorities? What assumptions underlie those choices?
Obviously not all theologians pursue these questions with equal vigor. At one extreme, some state that they accept the Bible as the infallible word of God and see their task as expounding its content. Even so, they cannot avoid some further reflection about assumptions. On what basis do they accept this extreme version of biblical authority? Which now available texts do they accept as most likely to accord with the original inspired ones? Why? How will they deal with the innumerable, and apparently conflicting, differences within the Bible. To what extent will they take the historical context into account when trying to understand the meanings of Hebrew or Greek words?
Of course, most theologians make no such extreme claim about any one authoritative text. Their grounds for concluding as they do on the topics they treat are far more complex. They must become conscious of a wider range of assumptions if they are to think responsibly. If they think about their own tradition in the light of religious pluralism, the need to consider the basic assumptions of diverse traditions becomes even more important. All assumptions are relativized still further.
This theological situation has made it easier to get a hearing for process thought in theology than in most other disciplines. Process theologians can share with other critics in pointing out that classical theism developed its doctrines on assumptions derived from Greek rather that biblical thought. This does not make them wrong, but it opens the door to their reexamination. The Greeks considered apatheia a virtue. Most Greek schools sought an inner state that was not vulnerable to hurt by the words or opinions of others. Accordingly they attributed to God a complete transcendence of the suffering of the world. God was eternally, totally blessed, unaffected by anything that happened to creatures. Christian theologians officially adopted this view. God is supposed to be immutable and impassible.
It is rather obvious that the biblical authors did not think in this way. In the Bible God is very much involved in interaction with the world. God has purposes for the world and seems to care a great deal whether they work out. Ordinary ;piety also included prayers with the hope that God heard them and would even be influenced by them. As long as all this could simply be dismissed as naïve anthropocentrism, sophisticated Christians continued to believe that the deeper truth was quite otherwise. Even so, on biblical and pious grounds, some Christians challenged the doctrine of divine impassibility.
Process thought made its own contribution. Previously it had been assumed that in so far as the church followed philosophic reason it would end up with the Greeks. Only by appealing to revelation against reason could Christians believe that God really interacted with them. But process thought argued philosophically for the interaction between God and the world. Once the possibility that reason can support the Bible on this point was recognized, it was easier for Christians to abandon the Greek ideal for God. Most did not become process theologians, but many were freed to adopt a more biblical view that supported a common form of popular piety.
The issue of God’s power is an important one for Christians. Process thought leads one to take the view that God is really active in the world. For it, talk of God’s power is meaningful and realistic, but God is far from all-controlling. What happens is influenced by God, but no event is determined by God. From this point of view, the doctrine of divine omnipotence must either be drastically redefined or, I prefer, rejected. There is much popular piety that in fact operates in ways that are congruent with this understanding, but it is surprising how rarely it has come to explicit formulation in the tradition.
There are many Christians today who regard talk of God’s power in general as unrealistic. They do not in fact look for God to do anything in particular. They may think of “God” as a symbol that does not point to an agent of any sort. Some might affirm Tillich’s view of God as the Ground of Being, so that we receive our being from God from moment to moment. God’s power has no further effect or influence on the occurrences of history. On the whole, however, those who think in this way are likely to let the traditional language stand, including the doctrine of omnipotence. Omnipotence can be redefined as the power to give being to all that has being.
On the other side are those who do believe that when evil strikes, God must have had some reason to inflict it. They may also express gratitude when good things befall them. They do believe that God causes events to occur as they do. They affirm divine omnipotence quite straightforwardly. They suppose that this is a biblical doctrine that is also supported by philosophical reflection.
From the point of view of process thought, the first position has given up too much of the doctrine of God’s graciousness and liberating empowerment. Also, by leaving the doctrine of omnipotence alone, it encourages a kind of thought it does not share. This belief that God is responsible for all that happens in the world and especially in history has done great harm in Western history. It is incompatible with human freedom and responsibility, and it renders insoluble the traditional problem of evil. It is furthermore philosophically nonsensical. Yet the term “the almighty” is the most common substitute for “God” and almightiness is the most common attribute used to describe God in church liturgy and common parlance. “Almighty God” has become almost a proper name.
Given these strong objections, process theologians, more that most others, are motivated to test the widespread assumption that whether one likes it or not, one must recognize omnipotence as a characteristic of the biblical God. As a process theologian, of course, the fact that a doctrine is strongly supported in the Bible is not determinative of whether I accept it. But as a church theologian, criticizing central biblical ideas is a major challenge. Convinced that in any case almighty controlling power is not what is revealed about God in the life and teachings of Jesus, I turn to the larger topic.
What I find is another example of how unexamined assumptions operate – this time in theology itself, where I have claimed there is the greatest openness to examining assumptions.` I checked to see where the word “almighty” appeared in the Old Testament. What I found in my concordance is that the word appears frequently in Genesis and Job, and is rare elsewhere. I will not bore you with details. But what I found in every case is that “almighty” is used as a substitute for the proper name “Shaddai.”
The explanation is that in the Jewish scriptures there are two proper names for God, Yahweh and Shaddai. Originally, no doubt, they were understood as distinct deities, but as the Jews became firmly monotheistic, they could not accept that view. Further, the use of any proper name for God was questionable. They solved the problem with respect to Yahweh by substituting Lord. In the Septuagint translation of the Jewish scriptures into Greek, they substituted “pantocrator” for Shaddai. Of course, they would not have done this if, at the time they were working, many Jews had not come to emphasize God’s universal rule. Nevertheless, the choice was fateful.
Equally fateful was the choice of the Latin translators to use “omnipotentia” as the equivalent of the Greek “pantocrator.” Pantocrator refers to ruling over all. It does not exclude the fact that those ruled over also have some power. Some theologians have argued that this is also the meaning of the English “almighty,” that is, “mighty over all.” Sadly, most people more in the word as the Latin translators did. Strictly omnipotence means having all the power. It is this notion that has done such damage.
In the New Testament, the English word “Almighty” appears once in Paul in a quote from the Old Testament and a number of times in Revelation. The Greek is “pantocrator” in all cases.
That “almighty” is a substitute for Shaddai is noted in my New Revised Standard Version every time it appears in the text. At least the scholars are being honest with us, even if they are not willing to challenge the tradition by returning to their sources in the text itself. That is good, but most readers do not look at the notes. What disappointed me more was what I found in the “Dictionary/concordance ” in the back of my Bible. I looked up “the Almighty”. I found two examples given of its use in the Old Testament and one from Revelation. Here was a chance for the scholars to explain the situation. But No! We are simply told that “the Almighty ” means “God who is all powerful.” There is no hint that the Hebrew original has no such meaning or that this exaggerates the Greek..
I have inquired whether the proper name “Shaddai” has any connotations or probable original meaning. The only answer I have received is that it may have originally meant the “Breasted One.” I do not insist that today’s translators acknowledge that possibility, but it certainly works against insistence that faithfulness to the Bible supports a strict doctrine of divine determinism.
This too-long account of a superficial journey into biblical scholarship is intended to make only one point. When one has a coherent view that differs from the traditional understanding, one explores questions that have been long neglected. Process thought provides such an alternative in many fields, including my own field of theology. It can raise questions and encourage thought on the part of people who come from other perspectives as well. It will, of course, arouse opposition from those who do not want inherited assumptions examined.
I have limited myself to very simple examples. In theology more complex examples are also present in the understanding of the church, of other religious traditions, of the end or goal of history, and of the self or soul. Let me quickly illustrate with respect to the last of these.
Traditionally the soul has sometimes been regarded as quite separate from the body in a way usually derived from one side of Plato’s thought or, in recent times, from Descartes. On the other side, we have been reminded that the orthodox eschatological teaching is the resurrection of the body, so that we should understand psyche and soma as two aspects of one human person. The choice is between dualism and monism.
Process thought has a different position. There is no substantial soul and no substantial body. There is a vast matrix of occasions that are complexly organized into societies. One of these is the flow of human experience through time. We call that the person or soul. Others are organized into societies that are in turn organized into larger societies. One of these would be the body without the soul, another, the body with the soul.
All of these occasions are complexly related to all the others. The most interesting and most complex relations are between occasions in the soul’s life and others in the body. The soul occasions are largely constituted by their inclusion of body occasions, but that does not erase their differences. There is an element of self-determination and uniqueness in each occasion as well, and this is especially manifest in the soul occasions. Also the individual occasions constituting body and soul also include occasions occurring outside the body, as parts of other souls, for example.
This makes sense of the Pauline idea that we are members of one another, that we are in Christ and that Christ is in us. It helps us also to appreciate the Buddhist doctrine of no-self and the deconstruction of the self in much modern literature and philosophy. It does not settle the question of what happens to individual occasions or persons beyond their moment of occurrence, but it sets a different context for this eschatological discussion. It also provides a distinctive context for considering the relative importance of gender in constituting human persons.
7. What has this to do with the establishment of a new institute here?
I will answer in terms of why I am enthusiastic about what is happening. In my opinion the world is in serious trouble and is heading for catastrophe. Most fields of thought as presently functioning contribute more to the problem than to its solution. The changes that are required are not minor. They need to be such as to bring the various fields into fruitful relation with one another, so that a holistic approach to responding to problems can replace the current fragmented one. Process thought offers promise both for reformulating the diverse fields individually and for relating them to one another. If there is another equally hopeful option, I am not aware of it.
Although a little work has been done at the periphery of many fields, and a good deal of work in a few, process thought is still marginalized everywhere. It has its best chance of greater acceptance in East Asia, but I do not mean to exaggerate that. The Japanese and the Chinese have hosted international meetings, and next May I expect there will be a larger one in Korea. The success of process thought in East Asia depends partly on its flourishing in the West as well. Its appeal there comes chiefly from its usefulness in integrating Eastern and Western modes of thought.
From the process perspective, the separation of thought and practice is itself a problem. Yet the academic study of the founding philosophers tends to leave matters at a highly theoretical level. The next step is to bring people together to read papers and discuss. Some of those papers have practical bearing. And I consider the efforts to integrate Western and Eastern thought to have such real relevance to the course of events.
We can thus work from the side of theory to establish relevance to practice. I have written critiques of orthodox teaching in biology and in economics in the hope of moving toward practical change. But success has been modest.
Fortunately, there has been some work in education and in psychotherapy that moves in both directions. That work certainly needs expansion and encouragement. Thus far, it has been sporadic. There has been some influence also in management studies, and I rejoice that this institute is located in a school of management. That thinkers in this field have found the value of process thought is an encouraging alternative to attempts by process philosophers and theologians to bring their insights to a field they do not know from within.
I am a strong believer in institutionalization. The existence of a center of some kind gives stability to a program and allows for cumulative achievement. We need more study of institutions from a process perspective, and I hope that some of that will take place here. In any case this can be a context for exploring the practical usefulness of process thinking from the side of practitioners.
I am pleased also that this is happening in Great Britain. As a disciple of Whitehead, I think of Great Britain as the home of the greatest exponent of process thought. But clearly the development of thought here, especially in philosophy and theology, has been in very different directions. Those directions have been influential in the United States as well, but our situation there is more pluralistic; so process thought could survive at the margins, growing on some fronts and losing ground on others. In Australia there is a lively group, and we have established the office of the International Process Network there.
Process thought has also gained a marginal existence on the European continent. Its main problem there is the hegemony of Kant, but Europeans are able to work with and around that to some extent. The greatest possibility of serious influence in Europe is in the East where the aftermath of the long experience with Communism leaves questions that more traditional forms of intellectual reflection do not answer.
I have sketched the present status of process thought. I am happy that it has become in some way a global movement, but it is still peripheral to the mainstream of theoretical and practical life everywhere. We had to laugh when David Griffin challenged us, at the Third International Whitehead Conference, to make the twenty-first century a Whiteheadian one. Nevertheless, it is a serious hope, and what small steps can be taken, I want to take.
One step is to develop and make visible contributions to a wide variety of fields. Currently I am particularly interested in physics, since there is considerable activity on that front. I have read a dissertation that analyzes quantum events in terms of Whitehead’s description of the phases of concrescence. It seems to work quite well, and should contribute to growing interest in bringing process thought into that discussion. If process thought should catch on at the frontiers of physics, it might receive more serious attention in other sciences. This in turn would give it new status globally. I do not predict anything of this kind, but it would be one way of taking a real step toward realizing our dream.
Equally important would be to display the value of engaging in practical thought from a process perspective. If management thought broadly should decide that this is the way forward, that would give valuable stimulus to the application of process thought in education and counseling. If we could develop a really fruitful study of institutions in process terms, that could also make a major difference.
At the moment, the place for which I have the most hope for philosophical appropriation and development of process thought is in Hungary. There is a truly brilliant young philosopher there who has translated Process and Reality into Hungarian and organized a group of philosophers around this interest. I look for his personal intellectual leadership and consider the possibility that the Hungarians might develop a philosophy that would be recognized as truly cutting edge throughout the European continent.
For a national development, I look to China. China is now committed to modernization, but thoughtful Chinese already know this is not an adequate vision for the future. It is proving ecologically devastating and socially disruptive. It also cuts China off from its roots in the greatest of world cultures. Process thought has the potential of responding to these needs without turning its back on the best of modernity. At present it is being seriously considered by influential people. Its adoption as the next ideology of a now intellectually bankrupt, but still officially Marxist, party is not inconceivable. Of course, I do not predict this. I will be astounded if it actually happens and will have some mixed feelings about it as well. It may well be that it is already too late to avoid terrible catastrophes in China, and I do not look forward to having process thought identified with that outcome. But it is not impossible.
At an institutional level I think about the university. In my view, the American university is today a disaster. On the one side is the fragmentation of the disciplines and the refusal to engage in assumption criticism. On the other side is the sell-out to the market. There are many great people on university campuses, but as institutions, they have ceased to be places of thought and true learning. I can fantasize that, given the number of ethically sensitive and intellectually acute people still teaching on university campuses, serious interest in reform could emerge across the United States. If by that time process thinkers have produced enough proposals for reform within fields and across them and in the understanding of what educations should be, their voices might be heard. There can be no Whiteheadian century without process-informed higher education.
At a global level, the decline of confidence on the part of the establishment about its economic policies may open the door to hearing from the World Social Forum. In the United States the ideas of the International Forum on Globalization may move from the extreme periphery into the center of the discussion. Process thought, especially that of Herman Daly, has already had some influence there. Certainly the need to critique the assumptions of current economic theory is recognized. A change in the direction favored by process thought is a real possibility.
I hope you do not think I am simply silly to fantasize about so much change. I am hoping that as crises become more acute, more people will become open to deeper changes. But it may not work that way. Crises can lead to cries for law and order, perhaps imposed imperially by the United States. The freedom of thought we now enjoy may evaporate. Assumption criticism will have little chance to develop. The deity of wealth may be unchallenged.
What the response will be when the crises become worse depends in part on the availability of attractive alternatives. This is a matter both of theory and of examples. For the present, developing alternative and making them visible is what process thinkers can contribute. The chances anything we do will make a real difference in world history are small indeed. But they are well worth pursuing.