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Process Psychotherapy

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

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 The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.97-102, Vol. 29, Number 1, Spring-Summer, 2000. 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.

I. Landing the Plane in the Field of Psychotherapy

"The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization, and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation" (Whitehead 5). Process and Reality is the result of many flights and many landings. But this account of its method of discovery is an invitation for us to join in the landings of the plane in various fields. One of these is the human psyche as that is understood for purposes of psychotherapy.

To approach psychotherapy from the perspective of Whitehead’s conceptuality may not, initially, seem promising. This is not because psychotherapists have avoided philosophical questions. Many have adopted ideas from philosophers, and others have generated philosophical ideas of their own. But their interest has been in philosophies that deal directly with the human condition, whereas Whitehead sought a far wider generality. It may seem pointless to begin with generalizations that apply to all actual entities whatsoever when one’s interest is the very specific developments in human experience that can cause problems for individual persons.

Nevertheless, the project of relating Whitehead’s thought to psychotherapy has appealed to a few. It certainly has importance for the ongoing development of Whitehead’s cosmology. If when one lands the plane in this field nothing is observed that has not been equally evident without the "rational interpretation" offered by Whitehead’s speculations, this would be a definite mark against the adequacy and relevance of his cosmology. If, worse, there proved to be a clash between what is observed and the efforts to interpret it in relation to Whitehead’s scheme, then the speculations would be directly challenged.

The testing of the speculatively developed conceptuality in a well-established field is not an easy matter. The well-established field does not provide a set of uninterpreted data nor asks whether this new conceptuality can interpret them. On the contrary, the data are all heavily theory-laden. As expressed in established contexts, the data will not fit the new theory exactly Even so, Whiteheadians can see much that is positive in many of the theories with which psychotherapists work. Indeed, one Whiteheadian contribution may be to show how these theories can be brought coherently into a more inclusive whole. Precisely because Whitehead’s approach is more general, it is open to a greater variety of theories at the more concrete level, and it may be able to encourage mutual critique and expansion among them. At the same time, Whiteheadians may see that some of these theories blind their practitioners to some features of the situation, and they may be able to show how a wider set of considerations can he introduced. In this way, the data already articulated In theory-laden ways can be considered.

Is a more fundamental testing possible? This requires the development of psychotherapy that is actually grounded in Whitehead’s conceptuality. Does such psychotherapy exist? Although the number of practitioners is still very limited, the answer now is that it does. Does it work? Those who practice it find that it does. They are beginning to share their experience with other practitioners. It is time for them to share it with readers of this journal as well.

No one supposes that a psychotherapy can be developed simply by deduction from Whitehead’s system. That would he a totally un-Whiteheadian approach. For Whitehead, particulars can never be deduced from more general features of reality. The study of Process and Reality by itself will never produce a skilled counselor! A Whiteheadian will always seek to learn from investigators and practitioners in each field in order to enrich, and sometimes to modify, the conceptuality that is brought into play

II. Codependence in Process Perspective

Mary Elizabeth Moore displayed this dialectical relationship between process philosophy and sociopsychological theory in Teaching from the Heart, her book relating process thought to diverse educational theories. She showed in rich detail that a process perspective could correct and enrich these theories. She also showed how much process thinkers can learn from them and how important it is to be ready to flesh out and revise process ideas as they encounter the wisdom embodied in these theories.

In her contribution to this collection, Moore again illustrates her openness to learning from a theory, in this instance codependence, that has grown out of a quite different framework of ideas than her own. She recognizes that much has been learned in this framework that rings true and has useful application over a wide sphere. An adequate philosophy or theology must take account of this reality. Yet she also thinks that the framework employed by codependence theorists shapes conclusions that are ultimately one-sided. These rightly point out how intimate relationships can be destructive, but they fail to give equal emphasis to the extreme importance of such relationships and to their positive potentiality.

If this were simply a dogmatic statement of the importance of relationships grounded in Whitehead’s doctrine of prehensions, we would all have to recognize the danger of moving in this way from the metaphysics to the more concrete theory. But Moore’s essay does not read like this. Certainly her emphasis on the importance of relations is informed by Whitehead’s doctrine of prehensions. But Moore writes as one who is personally and professionally immersed in relationships and in studying them. She makes no appeal to philosophical doctrine as an external authority. Instead, she appeals to concrete experience, especially the experience of women. It is the failure of the theorists she critiques to deal with some aspects of concrete experience, aspects to which Whiteheadians and feminists are, no doubt, particularly sensitive, to which she calls attention. This is surely one eminently appropriate way to bridge the gap between more general and more particular levels of theory.

She notes that in much psychotherapy including codependence theory cause-effect thinking predominates. Whitehead, in contrast, introduces God as the organ of novelty. Also, both the cause and the effect are often described somewhat negatively. Moore proposes instead that if we accept Whitehead’s conviction that as creativity operates in living things it aims at the enhancement of life, we then will interpret human behavior in terms of the will-to-life. Despite the many distorted and self-destructive forms that drive takes, therapists who interpret these often abortive efforts as inadequate expressions of this basic drive can affirm them and build upon them.

III. A Catalogue of Contributions

The other two contributors are professional therapists who have long meditated on Whitehead’s vision. Being both Whiteheadians and therapists enables them to bring the more abstract theory into contact with their concrete interactions with clients. In these essays they give only secondary attention to theories that reflect different philosophical assumptions. This makes possible the fuller development of new theories informed at once by Whitehead’s cosmology and by immersion in therapeutic practice.

In Toward a Process Psychology, David Roy deals intensively with the relation of Whitehead’s conceptuality and Gestalt psychotherapeutic theory. The present essay approaches matters quite differently. Roy surveys a wide range of topics important in counseling with Whiteheadian categories in mind. As with any theory-building, the theory informs the selection of topics and the way they are investigated. But as in any good theory-building, the selection is not arbitrarily dictated by the theory. Roy selects topics because they have practical importance in his own counseling and in that of others. Also the way they are investigated is not dictated by the theory alone but arises out of the application of the theory in therapeutic practice. His ideas and proposals can be recommended on their merits also to those who are not interested in their philosophical sources.

The way counseling proceeds when informed by Whitehead is not consistently or radically different from the way it proceeds when informed by some other theories. As noted above, many theories are congenial with Whitehead’s conceptuality in some or all respects. The goal is certainly not to create something discontinuous with what others have found effective. Nevertheless, there are important differences between the overall pattern of counseling suggested by Roy and the patterns that are encouraged by other theories.

What is particularly striking about Roy’s essay is the number of Whiteheadian ideas that prove fruitful in relation to psychotherapy. In this respect his essay is radically pioneering. Nothing like this has been done before in the area of process psychotherapy.

IV A Process Psychotherapy

Roy’s own therapeutic style emerges in his essay to some extent. But in this respect Robert Brizee goes much further. Brizee does not draw on as many aspects of Whitehead’s conceptuality, but he does zero in on the central idea of concrescence. What does it mean for therapy if we understand that each occasion of the client’s experience is a coming together of the world in a new event, one which culminates in a decision?

Viewing the client’s experience in that way certainly does nor lead to rejecting all that has been learned in other therapeutic approaches. From a Whiteheadian point of view it seems that these other approaches have focused on particular elements of the world that comes together in experience. What they have learned can be incorporated into the more comprehensive model. Brizee thus recognizes the connections of his style with other therapies. But he does not develop his approach through interaction with them. He articulates it in direct dependence on Whitehead’s model of the actual occasion of experience.

Of course, the fact that the entire past world plays a role in the becoming of each occasion does not mean that every past occasion plays an equal role in its constitution. When we move from metaphysics to cosmology, we already narrow the focus. The most important elements of this world for a human being are the personal past, the body, and other persons such as family members. These constitute the primary objective data of the prehensions that concresce into the new occasion.

Therapists find that those who have played critical roles in the earlier life of a person often continue to be important in the present. Accordingly, there are many voices that clamor to be heard in our ongoing experience. Brizee, influenced by Whitehead, emphasizes that the voices that play the largest roles can change from moment to moment. He proposes that we think of each occasion of experience as the meeting of a unique committee. The goal is to allow all members to speak and to reach a decision that moves the person forward. Of course, many of the same voices are present in most committee meetings.

V. The Personal and the Social

Whereas Moore deals simultaneously with personal and societal therapy. Roy and Brizee discuss the relevance of Whitehead with one-on-one counseling primarily in view From a Whiteheadian point of view, individual persons are deeply social beings, largely constituted by their relation to others. Hence even individual therapy has a strongly social dimension.

As Moore implies, this social view also opens the way to group work. Treatment of the "systems" in which individuals participate is also an appropriate option. Whitehead’s term is "societies," and it would prove of great interest to explore what differences, if any, would follow for therapy if one considered a family, to take a crucial example, as a Whiteheadian society rather than as a system as that is usually understood in systems theory. This illustrates how much remains to be done in the development of process psychotherapy.

VI. God and Psychotherapy

Although the continuities between a Whiteheadian psychotherapy and other forms are extensive, there is one respect in which discontinuity is marked. Our three authors all consider God as an actor in the psychic life and treat this as relevant to therapeutic practice. (Brizee wrote an entire book on identifying God’s role in human events entitled Where in the World is God?) This is likely to make most therapists anxious if not contemptuous.

The anxiety arises from several sources. First, psychotherapy emerged in the late modern context in which belief in God had been largely relegated to the area of superstition. Psychotherapy’s need to be fully secular was accentuated by the fact that its topic, the psyche, was already suspect, given the physicalist bias of the intellectual world. To be acceptable, psychotherapists had to show that the psyche is entirely natural, and in some of their formulations they pointed toward an account of the psyche in purely physicalist terms. When they encountered evidence for unacceptable phenomena, such as mental telepathy, they suppressed it. To speak of God in such a context would only confirm the worst suspicions of the critics.

Second, the usual idea of God in the culture, and also in the churches, was of an external personal being, interfering from without, and particularly connected with restrictive sexual morality. "God" came up in therapy chiefly in relation to guilt and fear of punishment. The word functioned in many clients as a part of the pathology. Healing sometimes consisted in freeing the client from irrational guilt associated with fear of being punished by this "almighty father."

Third, psychotherapists generally try to avoid imposing their personal belief systems on their clients. Of course, they cannot do so altogether. But in a culture in which belief in God is so optional and so private, it is easy for the counselor to avoid introducing it. If the beliefs of the client about God come into discussion, they may be evaluated in terms of their contribution to sickness or health, but the counselor normally avoids discussing them directly.

The way God functions in these essays should lead to fresh consideration of the relevance of these objections. Whitehead’s theories as developed in Process and Reality assign significant cosmological roles to God. They certainly do not represent God as the "almighty father." Belief in God as described by Whitehead is not likely to contribute to pathology. It may, instead, contribute to healing.

All therapists hold many beliefs that they do not try to impose on their clients but which, nevertheless, inform their practice. These essays describe beliefs in this way. None of the authors would insist on clients adopting this language or this belief system. But they do not think that they must avoid the language if it comes up naturally and if direct discussion appears to be therapeutically valuable.

One may suppose that this has relevance only to pastoral counseling, but this is not true. Most people in our society have some belief in God. In most cases the belief is in some respects psychologically damaging and in some respects beneficial. In a good many instances it plays a powerful role unconsciously, if not in consciousness. Most people who go to psychotherapists know that God is not a topic the therapists want to discuss; so they avoid it. But this would seem to be a limitation of psychotherapy. If a Whiteheadian psychotherapy could enable many therapists, pastoral and secular alike, to deal with belief in God in healing ways, this could be a major contribution.


Works Cited

Brizee, Robert. Where in the World is God? God’s Presence in Every Moment of Our Lives. Nashville: Upper Room, 1987.

Mullion Moore, Mary Elizabeth. Teaching from the Heart: Theology and Educational Method. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991. Trinity, 1998.

Roy, David. "The Value of the Dialogue Between Process Thought and Psychotherapy," Process Studies 14 (1985): 158-74.

Roy, David. Toward a Process Psychology. Fresno: Adobe Creations, 2000,

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. 1929. Corrected Edition, Eds. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: Free Press, 1978.

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