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Evolutionist Theories and Whitehead’s Philosophy

by George R. Lucas, Jr.

Mr. Lucas is research associate at the Peace Institute, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 287-300, Vol. 14, Number 4, Winter, 1985. 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.


It is often tacitly assumed without much debate that Whitehead’s metaphysics constitutes a species of process philosophy compatible in the main with older varieties of process metaphysics inspired by various evolutionist theories. The influence of these older evolutionary cosmologies on Whitehead’s thought, moreover, is never carefully examined so much as it is presupposed.1 Against such presuppositions, I shall argue here that evolution and evolutionist theories play no significant role in Whitehead’s metaphysics, and that there is no evidence in his major works of any significant influence from earlier process-oriented "evolutionary cosmologies." This suggests that Whiteheadian metaphysics and evolutionary cosmology are two relatively independent and largely unrelated types of process philosophy, and exonerates Whitehead and Whiteheadians of "guilt by association" in the sorts of analytic, scientific, and historical criticisms often leveled at evolutionary cosmologies.

I.

A comprehensive cosmological theory, whether philosophical or theological, qualifies as an "evolutionary cosmology" if the theory is elaborated principally in terms of some generalized paradigm of evolutionary development. "Emergent" evolutionism (a term first popularized by C. Lloyd Morgan) is a special case of the former, in which it is asserted that evolutionary progress is, on occasion, discontinuous -- exhibiting entirely novel features whose appearance on Nature’s stage cannot be explained merely in terms of some novel rearrangement of previously-existing natural components. 2

Maupertuis, Diderot, Lamarck, and Goethe were among the first intellectuals to develop speculative cosmologies centrally grounded in what tended at the time to consist of highly fanciful, romantic, and largely undocumented theories of evolutionary development. Subsequent figures in this history of "evolutionary cosmologies" include the ponderous English syncretist Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, and the later Darwin (attempting to account in a more speculative vein both for the wider significance of his naturalistic interpretation of evolutionary development, and for the apparent mathematical improbability of his earlier biological views on random variation). This genre of speculative philosophy culminates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the more familiar works of Henri Bergson, Samuel Alexander, Jan Smuts, Lecomte de Nuöy, and C. Lloyd Morgan, and survives prominently even in the present in the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, Julian Huxley, C. H. Waddington, Theodosius Dobzhansky, W. H. Thorpe, and Rene Dubos (cf. GMPT 54-98).

Evolutionary cosmologies are commonly inspired by an interest in numerous well-documented phenomena of change, development, and ultimately transformation and supersession both of geological forms and of biological species over the course of time. Evolutionary cosmologies may begin simply as rival evolutionist theories -- alternative causal explanations for these observed phenomena of development, change, and transformation.3 An evolutionist theory becomes an evolutionary cosmology whenever the favored evolutionist theory is extrapolated from its original context as an account of geological or biological change, and made to serve as an overarching cosmological category, such that "evolution" in some idiosyncratic sense becomes the basis for a systematic and unified interpretation of a wide array of diverse phenomena beyond the domains of biology and geology. The "synthetic philosophy" of Herbert Spencer provides an instructive case study of this procedure. Beginning with a mechanistic version of Lamarck’s speculative evolutionist hypothesis, he resolves to apply the concept of "evolution" to every branch of science and learning. He thus proceeds to encompass psychology, sociology, history, culture, ethics, and political theory within the explanatory scope of a version of "evolution" extrapolated and sweepingly generalized into a vast, speculative cosmological category.4 More recently, the Jesuit paleontologist and anthropologist Teilhard de Chardin attained notoriety and ultimately widespread popularity by attempting to recast the whole of the Roman Catholic worldview in an "evolutionist" framework.5

In the aftermath of Darwin, evolutionary cosmologies -- formulated quite frequently by intellectuals with considerable scientific training and credentials -- appear somehow "grounded" in the most recent developments in the biological sciences, and thus frequently themselves attempt to assume the "mantle of authority" of science. Notwithstanding, virtually all such cosmologies (including even Spencer’s implausible mechanistic approach) entail concepts of evolutionary development which are classically Lamarckian rather than Darwinian. Such cosmologies are almost always "vitalistic" in the sense of requiring auxiliary and somewhat ad hoc hypotheses to account for the apparent violation of the law of entropy in the impetus toward greater complexity manifested in the evolutionary process.6 Evolutionary cosmologies thus perpetuate a much older tradition of Romantic Naturphilosophie far more than providing a fully contemporary philosophy of science or some sort of "scientifically-verified" philosophy.7

As they focus on the significance of change over permanence, flux over stability, and novel emergence over the mere repetition and rearrangement of existing forms, evolutionary cosmologies are quite understandably viewed as "process" philosophies. 8 Indeed, examination of the historical development of process philosophies tends strongly to suggest that evolutionary cosmology of some form is what is most often meant and understood by the term "process philosophy," despite the contemporary name-association of this term with the thought of Whitehead.9

Because evolutionary cosmologies are invariably rooted in the tradition of speculative and mystical Naturphilosophie, tend to favor a Lamarckian over a Darwinian approach to evolution itself, and are often wildly speculative and imaginative in content, such cosmologies do not enjoy much favor in contemporary philosophical circles. More generally, the concept of "process" philosophy itself suffers from this tacit historical association. To confess interest in "process philosophy" as a viable vocation (over and against the mere historical study of a certain tradition) is to seem to associate oneself with a tradition thoroughly discredited in the eyes of its more analytically-inclined critics as little more than an historical anachronism -- a throwback to the worst examples of unrestrained 19th-century speculative nonsense.10

II.

In terms of the foregoing description of "evolutionary cosmology," it is clear that Whitehead himself does not formulate an explicit evolutionary cosmology, although he is understood to have formulated a process cosmology. In this section I propose to investigate simultaneously two related questions: (1) to what extent is Whitehead’s accomplishment similar to or compatible with evolutionary process cosmologies; and (2) to what extent is he influenced in his philosophical development by evolutionist theories generally, or by evolutionary cosmologists, including those whom he cites by name, such as Bergson, Alexander, and Morgan?

If convention is any guide, it would appear that the answer to both questions should affirm strong compatibility and substantial influence. In delineating the "process" approach to speculative philosophy, Andrew J. Reck associates Spencer, Bergson, Alexander, and Teilhard with Whitehead and C. H. Mead (SP). Compiling representative anthologies of process philosophical writing, Douglas Browning in 1965 (POP) and J. R. Sibley and P. A. Y. Gunter in 1978 (PPBW) include Bergson, selections from the later evolutionary cosmology of C. S. Peirce, Samuel Alexander, and C. Lloyd Morgan along with Whitehead and several American pragmatists as constituting the main "process philosophers." This amplifies the customary convention in the history of philosophy generally to designate a tradition of "process philosophy" comprising Bergson, Alexander, and Whitehead, with James or Dewey occasionally thrown in for good measure. The habitual association of Whitehead with Teilhard is too familiar and customary to bear repeating.

Quite apart from this problematic classification of Anglo-American realists and American pragmatists (cf. GMPT 136-80) such conventional associations tend to obscure, rather than elucidate the influence of evolutionist theories on Whitehead’s philosophical development, and do nothing to clarify the actual influence on, or to evaluate the compatibility of evolutionary cosmologies with, Whitehead’s philosophy. Against the uncritical implication of such conventional associations, I claim that there is a remarkable absence of reference in Whitehead’s work to "evolution," to specific evolutionist theories, or to specific evolutionary cosmologies or cosmologists. Such references as do occur, moreover, tend to support the claim that Whitehead was not particularly influenced by those evolutionary cosmologists whom he does politely mention on occasion.

Finally, his scattered references to "evolution" generally suggest that Whitehead himself made no clear distinction between evolutionist theories generally and evolutionary cosmologies: he seems on occasion, for example, to conflate "evolution" [Darwin s theory? Lamarck’s theory?] with "emergent evolution" [Morgan’s cosmology? Alexander’s? Bergson’s?]. Such total disregard for elementary distinctions and significant theoretical differences in those few references to evolution which do occur in Whitehead’s writings suggests, finally, that evolution and evolutionist theories play no significant or systematic role in his philosophy, and that the affinity, the continuity, and even the compatibility of Whitehead’s process metaphysics with evolutionary cosmology is routinely overestimated.

Were my claims untrue, one would expect to find extensive discussion of evolution and evolutionist theories, and expect to detect the significant influence of evolutionary cosmologies of one sort or another, in any of several places. If evolution were of systematic import, it ought to figure centrally in Process and Reality, or at least in the systematic portions of Science and the Modern World or Part III of Adventures of Ideas. Alternatively, one might expect to see the cultural or historical importance of Darwin or the theory of evolution underscored and interpreted in the remainder of AI or the main text of SMW. Failing this, one might search for the mention of evolution in Whitehead’s writings on the philosophy of nature -- either the comparatively early Concept of Nature or the much-later Chicago lectures on Nature and Life. I shall begin with these latter works.

In CN there simply is no reference to evolution whatever. Samuel Alexander is mentioned vaguely in the introduction, concerning his views on relativity and spacetime (CN viii); Bergson is mentioned only once regarding Whitehead’s sympathetic assessment of his approach to time (CN 54). None of the other central figures or issues in evolutionary cosmology are cited, nor can the slightest trace of their influence be detected.

Far more surprisingly, in the 1933 Chicago lectures on Nature and Life (NL), the themes of evolution, emergent evolution, and the works of Alexander, Bergson, and Morgan, are likewise not mentioned at all. The word "emerges" does occur once (cf. MT 24), in a manner that might suggest (albeit very indirectly) Whitehead’s acknowledged presupposition of the central ideas of emergent evolutionism. But no explicit discussion of evolution, evolutionary cosmology, or emergent evolution is offered there or elsewhere. The context of discussion is, rather, that of the continuity between various "levels" of organic and inorganic experience. This doctrine of interconnectedness or organic holism is admittedly in keeping with the Romantic Naturphilosophie tradition of the "great chain of Being" -- a tradition which I have cited as the background of much evolutionary cosmology, and one, moreover, with which Whitehead earlier had expressed a profound sympathy (SMW ch. V).

Whitehead’s express intention in these two lectures is rather to call attention to the continuity between general features of the natural world and the specific, higher-grade phenomena associated with mind and self-consciousness. Whitehead later reissued these lectures with six more given at Wellesley College in 1937, published as Modes of Thought. In the sixth of these Wellesley lectures, as it turns out, there is a mildly negative assessment of the concept of evolutionary emergence and "upward progress, arguing in favor of the greater significance of continuity with the "lower orders" of nature (MT 153).

A major concern of "emergent evolutionists" such as Morgan and Alexander was to provide a scientifically-credible account of the appearance in the evolutionary process of mind and self-consciousness in a manner which would undercut the radical Cartesian and mechanistic distinction between mind and nature. This latter refutation of "arbitrary bifurcation" is clearly also the intention of Whitehead’s Chicago lectures. Moreover, Whitehead’s own views on the significance of mind in and for nature generally have undergone a substantial transformation over the intervening fourteen years since the publication of CN. One need only compare the anti-idealistic, anti-metaphysical polemic in which "nature is closed to mind" and any attempt to "drag in" the relations of nature to mind constitutes a "metaphysical interpretation" which is "an illegitimate importation into the philosophy of natural science" (CN 4, 27f.),11 with the thoroughgoing anti-dualist pansubjectivism of "Nature Alive."

One might be tempted to argue at this point that we have discerned the transforming influence of the cosmology of "emergent evolution" at least on Whitehead’s thinking. But any claim of significant influence turns out to be quite difficult to document and sustain. If we construct an evolutionary account of mind on the basis of NL (which Whitehead does not do), it would be that mind is but a special case -- a particularly high-grade organization -- of the experience or feeling characteristic of all actuality. In C. Lloyd Morgan’s terminology, Whitehead seems to hold that human mind and self-consciousness are "resultants"; novel reorganizations of potentialities and principles present from the beginning and common to all; whereas for Morgan himself, by contrast, mind represented an emergent quality, wholly new, different and inexplicable in terms of what had come before. A vague and quite general similarity of concerns is evidenced; nothing more.

Morgan had earlier complained (EEV) about Whitehead’s treatment of mind in CN as wholly distinct from nature, and objected to Whitehead’s earlier claim that the study of their relations constitutes metaphysics rather than philosophy of science. In SMW, Whitehead in turn gives his only written acknowledgement of Morgan: "There has been no occasion in the text to make detailed reference to Lloyd Morgan’s Emergent Evolution or to Alexander’s Space, Time and Deity. It will be obvious to readers that I have found them very suggestive. I am especially indebted to Alexander’s great work" (SMW xi). Clearly Whitehead read Morgan’s book (along with Alexander’s) and found it "very suggestive" -- but in what way we may never really be certain, since none of the central ideas of Morgan’s theory reappear or are acknowledged in SMW, nor later in PR and AI. One is skating on rather thin ice to suggest on the basis of this polite acknowledgement in a preface in 1925 that Morgan at least could have been in any real way instrumental in Whitehead’s development of the ideas found years later in NL.12 The case remains to be made with respect to Alexander.

Turning to SMW itself, it is surprising how insignificant are the references to Charles Darwin specifically or to the issue of evolution generally, even in Chapter VI on the "Nineteenth Century," given the historical importance of Darwin in the development of modern science. For the most part, evolution is dismissed casually as one of those ideas which heralded the demise of scientific materialism (SMW 147ff.). There is a suggestive comment a few pages earlier (SMW 135), in which Whitehead argues that both scientific concepts and the "laws of nature" themselves "exhibit the arbitrariness of these conditions as the outcome of a wider evolution beyond nature itself,..." [my emphasis]. There is an obvious external comparison which could be drawn here with the evolutionary cosmology of C. S. Pence, in which the laws of nature are described as having evolved, as subject to change, and as having more the characteristic of habit.13 However, there is no evidence whatever that Whitehead knew of Peirce’s views or was in any way influenced by them.14

In the same chapter (SMW 157f.) Whitehead speaks of the "evolution of complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms," as well as of enduring organisms as "the outcome of evolution." It is clear, however -- and confirmed through an examination of his Harvard lectures from this period (see below) -- that the "evolution" to which Whitehead refers here is not macroscopic biological or geological evolution, but the transition from the immediate past to the novel subjective experience of the immediate present. His concern is not with evolutionist theories or cosmology, but with an initial formulation of his micro-ontology of actual occasions, intended to provide a coherent account of the experience of novelty and creativity as more than endless permutations of the previously-given. The point in the context of this chapter is to demonstrate that his "organic mechanism" is itself consistent with the observation of biological and geological evolution (on whatever theory) in a way that the older "materialistic mechanism" is not -- but not in turn to provide yet another theoretical account of such evolution itself.

In Adventures of Ideas there are no references to evolution, emergent evolution, Alexander, or Morgan. Bergson is mentioned only in connection with the tension between the "dogmatic fallacy" of logical philosophy and the reactionary "anti-intellectualism" of Bergson, Nietzsche, and American pragmatism (AI 287). This is similar to the earlier polite dissociation from Bergson’s "attack" on reason which Whitehead had offered in SMW (74).

We turn now to Process and Reality itself. Here again, however, no conclusive evidence regarding the influence of evolutionist theories or evolutionary cosmologies in the formation of Whitehead’s final metaphysical synthesis can be detected. Morgan is not mentioned. Alexander is treated only briefly, by relating his pervasive "principle of unrest" to the first category of explanation, and by suggesting the resemblance of his term "enjoyment" in Space, Time and Deity (1920) to Whitehead’s concept of "Feeling" and Bergson’s understanding of "intuition" (PR 28/ 42f., 40f./ 65). Bergson is cited several times in a sympathetic but nonessential fashion, in connection with such concepts as "intuition, "canalization," and "spatialization," all of which refer to the characteristics of thought and experience, rather than to evolution or to Bergson’s wider evolutionary cosmology. These references suggest Whitehead’s familiarity with Creative Evolution and Bergson’s other works, to be sure, but the ideas are not utilized in any sense remotely resembling an evolutionary cosmology, or suggesting any real influence of Bergson’s own variation of "emergent" evolution (cf. PR xii/ vii, 33/ 49, 82/ 126, 107/ 163, 114/ 174, 209/ 319, 220/ 336, 280/ 428, 321/ 489). Rather, Bergson’s influence on Whitehead is entirely similar to that of William James, as pertaining almost entirely to Whitehead’s development of a theory of subjective experience.

When "evolution" is mentioned or discussed at all in PR, it is in a general, offhand, and vague fashion. Whitehead suggests, for example, that "error is . . . the schoolmaster by whose agency there is upward evolution" (PR 168/256). Earlier Whitehead opines: "The full sweep of the modern doctrine of evolution would have confused the Newton of the Scholium, but would have enlightened the Plato of the Timaeus" (PR 93/ 143). Such remarks do not demonstrate that Whitehead presupposed any specific evolutionary cosmology. Rather, they are unfortunately gratuitous, since neither there nor elsewhere does Whitehead offer the slightest clue as to what he understands by "upward evolution" or the "modern doctrine."

This last observation admits of one possible exception. Early in Part III of PR, Whitehead writes:

The term ‘multiple contrast’ will be used when there are or may be more then two elements jointly contrasted. . . . A multiple contrast is analyzable into component dual contrasts. But a multiple contrast is not a mere aggregation of dual contrasts. It is one contrast, over and above its component contrasts. This doctrine that a multiple contrast cannot be conceived as a mere disjunction of dual contrasts is the basis of the doctrine of emergent evolution. (PR 229/ 349; my emphasis)

This rather obscure reference does not give us much to go on. These "multiple contrasts" of eternal objects, which are formally but not actually analyzable into simpler constituent components, are central to Whitehead’s understanding of the origins of novelty. He may be attempting here to offer an account of Morgan’s "emergent" qualities (the basis of emergent evolution) in a manner which would suggest the wider grounding of that theory in his cosmology. But this is the most I dare surmise.

I base this interpretation, moreover, not on any published material, but on lecture notes taken by Whitehead’s Harvard colleague, William Ernest Hocking, during Whitehead’s first lecture course at Harvard during the academic year 1924-25. In a lecture dated Thursday, May 14 (1925) on the topic "Emergence of Thought," Hocking himself abruptly editorializes: "Very much the same general line as Lloyd Morgan and Alexander. [Whitehead was prior] in Emergent Evolution" (EMW 297).15 There is no indication on that day or any other, however, that Whitehead himself discussed Morgan. This lecture seems to have been devoted in large part to criticisms of Alexander, specifically that his notion of "emergence" is too vague and muddled to give any useful account of "cognitive experience" in particular, or of the more general observations of the novel and creative features of determinate actualities of whatever sort. In an earlier lecture on "cognitive experience" (April 28, 1924), Hocking quotes Whitehead that "Consciousness is a relation between an emergent entity and the composite potentiality from which it emerges" (EMW 291).

It is clear from the context, moreover, that Whitehead is concerned primarily with the "emergence of novel features in immediate occasions of experience, beyond that indicated by the constraints of the immediate past on such experience. That is, Whitehead is already at work formulating an early version of what will finally become his micro-ontology of the genesis and generic features of "actual entities" -- and he finds prior accounts of "emergence" in evolutionary cosmologies like Alexander’s [and Morgan’s?] entirely unsuited to this descriptive task. He does not discuss, nor does he appear the slightest bit interested in, the larger macroscopic evolutionary cosmologies from which these accounts of emergence derive.16

I have reserved for last, however, analysis of the one work by Whitehead which would seriously challenge my conclusions: The Function of Reason. This work consists of three brief Vanuxem Lectures delivered at Princeton University (March, 1929), which, of all of Whitehead’s writings, appears to be the most focused upon evolution, and perhaps upon the development of an evolutionary cosmology accounting for the phenomenon of evolutionary emergence and development.

Such appearances, however, are quite deceptive. True, evolution and "emergence" (of a sort) are mentioned. As it turns out, however, these lectures are almost entirely absorbed with developing a philosophy of culture. Very little is actually said about evolution -- and what is said is once again quite general and innocuous. Nothing at all is said about specific evolutionist theories of any sort, and Whitehead certainly does not here formulate one of his own. Bergson is occasionally invoked (FR 29, 33); Darwin receives honorable mention along with Galileo and Newton for developing a generalized scheme of ideas within which elements of actual experience were rendered intelligible (FR 73). Neither Darwin nor Bergson is treated in the context of their evolutionist theories or their evolutionary cosmologies, and FR itself does not in any sense constitute an evolutionary cosmology, nor does it exhibit the significant influence of any other evolutionary cosmology.

The "introductory summary" suggests that Whitehead will contrast the principle of entropy and the "slow decay of physical nature" with a contrary tendency illustrated "by the upward course of biological evolution." Only the first few pages of the first lecture and the penultimate page of the last, however, are devoted to the concept of "evolution." Moreover, in both instances, the "doctrine of evolution" [which?] is faulted for its explanatory deficiencies: "The various evolutionary formulae give no hint . . . why there should be cities" (FR 89; cf. 5)17 The apparent problematic question is raised: "Why has the trend of evolution been upwards?" (FR 7), to which (Herbert Spencer’s unacknowledged) "evolutionary fallacy" of "the survival of the fittest" presumably provides no answer (FR 4).

Here would have been the golden opportunity for Whitehead to have cited, and perhaps quarreled with evolutionary cosmologies with which he is presumably familiar, such as those of Alexander, Bergson, and Morgan -- all of which aim to provide precisely the answer to this question. Here, indeed, would have been the ideal context for Whitehead to explore the evolutionary dimensions of his own metaphysical system -- or perhaps to outline, at least, his own alternative evolutionary cosmology.

Instead, he proceeds to outline the prerequisites for human cultural advancement. Where a central problematic for all prior evolutionary cosmologists had been accounting for the evolutionary emergence of self-conscious mind, Whitehead presupposes the full-blown existence of human reason sundered initially by the apparently unlike functions of theoria and praxis. His hypothesis is that slow development and often even cultural decay are the fruits of this bifurcation, whereas the inadvertent wedding of these two disparate functions of reason during the last century and a half have produced an unprecedented cultural advance: imagination now focused on the improvement of technique; technique guided, illuminated, and immeasurably enhanced through experiment with imaginative alternatives to the given and the known (FR 42). The sworn enemy of such cultural vitality and creativity is "obscurantism," once the domain of the clergy, presently the vice of scientific dogmatists (FR 44).

Students of Whitehead’s systematic thought will recognize his employment of important systematic concepts: concrete actuality involves an interweaving of efficient and final causation; inheritance of order combined with an aim or subjective appetition for novelty yields "an increase in satisfaction" and an "enjoyment of contrasts" (FR 8, 22). It is clear that Whitehead sees a parallel between the physical and mental aspects of dipolar occasions and the practical (physical) and theoretical (mental) aspects which together constitute the proper function of Reason as a counterweight to the general tendency towards dissolution and decay (FR 32f.).

Such observations foreshadow the fully developed philosophy of civilization and culture contained in Al (the assessment of the practical and theoretical function of reason in FR anticipates the evaluation of the Hellenistic and Hellenic ideals of culture in Al, for example). Such views do not (any more than, say, Toynbee’s philosophy of history) constitute an evolutionist theory or an evolutionary cosmology. Indeed, as Hegel’s views on culture and history illustrate, these sorts of speculations are logically independent of any or all perspectives on evolution, even when they turn out to be broadly consistent with evolutionary phenomena. The attempt to portray FR as a significant piece of evolutionist philosophy utterly fails.

III.

It is not a sufficient condition for classification as an evolutionary cosmology that a philosophical system take some vague cognizance of, or prove itself compatible with the brute historical facts of evolutionary change and transformation (which are by no means always "upward" or "progressive"). Merely to be cognizant of the details of evolutionary development is not the same as holding an "evolutionist theory" regarding the cause of such transformations, let alone the same as holding a full-blown cosmological scheme interpreting the "larger significance" and "broader applications" of such transformation! Were it otherwise, then virtually every philosophical position developed in Western Europe and America at least since the mid-nineteenth century would qualify as some sort of evolutionary cosmology and, by implication, as a "process" philosophy as well. Such classification is hardly efficacious.

Whitehead is not an "emergent evolutionist" or an "evolutionary cosmologist" in the more general sense. No clearly definable doctrine of evolution is in evidence in his philosophy. His statements about evolution and the emergent evolutionists are vague, and occasionally even contradictory. He does not appear overly concerned with giving further interpretation to the idea of evolution, and evidently had not clearly thought through his own position on evolution in anything approaching a systematic sense.

This is not to say that evolutionist theories are unimportant to his philosophy. Whitehead is as "post-evolutionary" in his thought as were the pragmatists, for example, in theirs.18 That is to say, Whitehead, James, Peirce, and Dewey all presuppose some concept of evolutionary development in their philosophies; indeed, their respective styles of philosophizing would have been inconceivable apart from the prior development of evolutionist theories. Only in Peirce’s later thought, however, does an explicit evolutionary paradigm come to assume central importance. Among these four thinkers, that js, only Peirce develops a full-blown "evolutionary cosmology in any recognizable sense.

Whitehead’s cosmology, by contrast, is influenced principally by mathematical physics (primarily relativity theory, and to a lesser degree, quantum mechanics). There is little explicit influence from the field of biology, from biological evolution, or from evolutionist theories generally, all of which are unsystematically presupposed. Thus, Whitehead’s version of process philosophy represents a sharp break from the customs and practices of his many predecessors in the larger tradition of process philosophy, according to which analysis and development of explicitly evolutionary cosmologies constituted the principal mode of philosophical investigation.

Evolutionary cosmology and what I have elsewhere termed Whitehead’s "process rationalism" (GMPT 27) represent quite distinct "schools" of thought within the larger process tradition. Certainly there are similarities, affinities, and lines of mutual historical and intellectual influence which justify grouping these disparate schools as one overall "tradition" of process philosophy. A simple conflation of that tradition, coupled with the uncritical affiliation of the various major adherents of those process "schools," however, dictates a Continual confused evaluation of the process tradition as a whole on the basis of these misleading historical associations, rather than on the basis of the logical rigor and cogency of each school or practitioner in isolation. This unfortunate tendency is, nonetheless, the norm among both disciples and critics of process philosophy. I have simply argued here that we ought not to ignore or misconstrue real differences between these schools of process thought, nor permit their historical conflation to continue unchallenged.

 

References

BJA -- Victor A. Lowe, "The Influence of Bergson, James and Alexander on Whitehead," Journal of the History of Ideas, 10 (1949), 267-96.

EEV -- C. Lloyd Morgan, Emergent Evolution. London: Williams and Norgate, 1923.

EEWP -- James R. Gray, "Dualism and Monism in Emergent Evolutionism and Whiteheadian Process." Society for the Study of Process Philosophies, December 28, 1982. [unpublished]

EWM -- Lewis S. Ford, The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics: 1925-1929. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

FOD -- Forerunners of Darwin: 1745-1859, eds. Bentley Glass, Owsei Temkin and William L. Straus, Jr. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1959/1968.

GCB -- A. O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being. "The William James Lectures, 1933." Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942.

GMPT -- George R. Lucas, Jr., The Genesis of Modern Process Thought: An Historical Outline with Bibliography. "American Theological Library Association Bibliography Series, 7." Metuchen, NJ., and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1983.

MPT -- James R. Gray, Modern Process Thought: A Brief Ideological History. Washington: University Press of America, 1982.

POP -- Douglas Browning, ed. Philosophers of Process. New York: Random House, 1965.

PPBW -- Jack R. Sibley and P. A. Y. Gunter, eds. Process Philosophy: Basic Writings. Washington: University Press of America, 1978.

SP -- Andrew J. Reck, Speculative Philosophy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972, pp. 185-232.

 

Notes

1 One notable exception to this uncritical trend is an essay by Victor Lowe, "The Influence of Bergson, James and Alexander on Whitehead" (BJA), arguing, contrary to prevailing opinion, that the impact of these three predecessors was more that of encouragement or expressed common sympathy with Whitehead’s views, rather than "indispensable influence." A common climate of opinion and a common community of shared, mutual concerns among these philosophers was, in itself, sufficient to account for the similarities occasionally evidenced. I would add only that the "common community of shared mutual concerns" regarding evolution is more in evidence in the appreciative comments of Alexander and Morgan for Whitehead’s efforts, than in any recognizable assimilation by him of theirs.

2 Morgan (EEV) contrasted "emergents" with "resultants -- the latter indeed being new qualities explained on the basis of evolutionary continuity (a novel rearrangement of previously-existing components). No "reasons" internal to nature can be given for emergents -- although Morgan characterized himself as a thoroughgoing "naturalist," and rejected what he characterized as the dualistic, teleological vitalism of Bergson. "Emergents," for Morgan, constitute the inexplicable, radically contingent aspect of novelty in evolution.

3At present, for example, the well-entrenched neo-Darwinian hypothesis of "gradualism" (biological evolution occurs slowly, and more or less continuously as the constant interplay of random variations and natural selection over vast periods of time) is confronted with a somewhat more radical and neo-Lamarckian theory of "punctuated equilibrium" favored by Harvard biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Peter Williamson, collaborated by fossil discoveries of paleontologist and cultural anthropologist Richard Leakey in Africa. The latter theory suggests that biological forms are surprisingly stable over long periods of time, and mutate suddenly and quite rapidly in response to equally sudden and dramatic environmental changes.

4 Spencer’s main corpus includes First Principles (1862), Principles of Biology (1864), Principles of Psychology (1870), and Principles of Sociology (1876).

5Teilhard formulates a comprehensive vision of evolution as the pattern of divine creativity in nature, and, armed with this vision, proceeds to reinterpret the relation of science and Christian theology, the development of human culture (especially the significance of communication technologies), and the emergence of self-conscious mind. Ultimately Teilhard’s evolutionist theory serves as the basis for a comprehensive social philosophy and prophetic-religious vision of the human future. The extensive scope of this vision is suggested by the 620 works by Teilhard, and the over 4300 works interpreting his thought, recently detailed in Joseph M. McCarthy’s Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: A Comprehensive Bibliography (New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1981).

6 While some variation of the "vitalist" hypothesis appears necessary in historical perspective, the recent findings of Nobel-laureate chemist Ilya Prigogine regarding the tendency toward self-organization and greater complexity in dissipative chemical structures shows that the evolution of complexity is itself compatible with, rather than contrary to the general physical principles of thermodynamics. Cf., e.g., Self-organization in Non-equilibrium Systems: from Dissipative Structures to Order through Fluctuations (New York: Wiley, 1977).

7Verne Grant, the author of a widely-used textbook on the modern theory of "synthetic evolution" is harshly critical of Teilhard and other proponents of vitalistic hypotheses, such as "orthogenesis," which are little more than "mystical name-calling" for which there is no scientific evidence whatever. The concept of "orthoselection" stresses organic-environment interaction of sufficient duration to reveal trends which follow environmental shifts -- a neo-Darwinian blending of the Darwinian and Lamarcking approaches which obviates the need for the historical anachronism of "orthogenesis," which is still of interest only to "literary intellectuals and religious philosophers" intent on discerning the working of higher purposes in the evolutionary process. Cf. Organismic Evolution (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1977).

8 Cf. the striking remark of intellectual historian C. C. Gillispie: "Lamarck’s theory of evolution was the last attempt to make a science out of the instinct, as old as Heraclitos and deeply hostile to Aristotelian formalization, that the world is flux and process, and that science is to study, not the configurations of matter, nor the categories of form, but the manifestations of that activity which is ontologically fundamental as bodies in motion and species of being are not. This is no longer a familiar view. It is not even recognizable [sic!]" (FOD 268f.).

9This is not my view alone, but is implicit in an earlier study of this history by James B. Gray (MPT). Gray’s own attempt to call attention to the historical priority of evolutionary cosmologies is motivated, however, by a quite different concern (with which I take strong exception), expressed in an unpublished paper: "the particular influence of evolutionary theories on Whitehead’s work has been overlooked" (EEWP 1, 28).

10 A. O. Lovejoy, in his devastating historical critique of the "great chain of being," subtlety seems to connect Whitehead, as he explicitly connects Bergson, with a temporized version of the "Chain of Being" metaphysical tradition in the 20th century (GCB 315-33). A more gracious account of the "dated" nature of process metaphysics, linking it with the last gasp of 19th-century speculative trends, can be found in W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. V (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975 [2nd edition, revised]), pp. 15-17.

11The latter comments occur in the context of the chapter on the "bifurcation of nature, but it is clear that Whitehead (at this point in time) holds the idealists responsible for this bifurcation, along with reductionists like Newton and dualists like Locke, because all bog down on the alleged difference, and the subsequent question of the relation between, nature and mind, rather than developing a pure concept of nature in itself.

12 It is worth noting, by contrast, that Morgan later credits the influence of Whitehead on his own ideas: cf. "Mind in Evolution," Creation by Evolution, ed. Frances Mason (New York: Macmillan, 1928).

13 Peirce once commented that "the only possible way of accounting for the laws of nature and for uniformity in general is to suppose them results of evolution," while evolution itself "means nothing but growth in the widest sense of that word. All laws are the result of evolution and continue to evolve. Thus no laws are absolute. The tendency of everything is to take on habit." Cf. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Pierce, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935), vol. VI, pp. 12-15; and Justus Buchler, The Philosophy of Pierce (London: Harcourt, Brace, 1950), p. 360.

14 This impression is borne out in Lewis Ford’s recent and meticulous reconstruction of the critical phases of the development of Whitehead’s metaphysics: EMW 34, 115. There is no indication of Piercean influence in the formation of Whitehead’s views on the evolution of laws of nature. Such influence would have had to have been indirectly mediated through Dewey or James. But there is likewise no significant influence from Dewey, and James enters in only with respect to Whitehead’s approval of his views on the nature of conscious experience.

15 Hocking’s notes are from actual transcripts deposited with Houghton Library at Harvard University as edited by Jennifer Hamlin von der Luft in Appendix I of EMW, pp. 262-302.

16 In lectures delivered between November 21 and December 16, 1924, however, Whitehead does discuss evolution and emergence in more cosmological terms -- but in a manner that is entirely innocuous, unsystematic, and which gives no evidence whatever of interest in or influence of other evolutionary cosmologies: e.g.," Evolution is the production of superior types out of inferior types" (MW 266; cf. 267-69). Bergson is the only other evolutionary cosmologist besides Alexander mentioned by name -- and Whitehead’s interest is here restricted to a few general remarks on time and intuition (cf. EWM 276, 294). A single parenthetical reference to Herbert Spencer has to do only with his theory of perception, not his evolutionist views (EWM 291).

17 This is the only instance I can locate in which Whitehead shows even rudimentary awareness that there is more than one "doctrine" or "formula" of evolution. I have slightly improved the thrust of this quotation: Whitehead actually (somewhat embarrassingly) claims that the "struggle for existence gives no hint why there should be cities" even though Hobbes’ social theory provides just such an account, illustrating that cultural change and even transformation per se has necessarily little to do with the issue of evolution. It is once again apparent from such effective but vacuous rhetorical flourishes that Whitehead holds no clear or systematic concept of "evolution."

18 Charles Morris, The Pragmatic Movement in American Philosophy (New York: Braziler Press, 1970), pp. 7f.


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