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An Introduction to the Process Understanding of Science, Society and the Self by Leslie A. Muray

Leslie A. Muray, Ph.D., teachest philosophy and ethics at Curry College in Massachusetts. He studied Process Theology under Dr. John Cobb at Claremont School of Theology. Published by The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston/Queenston, 1988. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 2: The Process View of Society


Any discussion of the process understanding of society is complicated by its technical definition of the word. A "society" is a nexus, a coming together of energy events extended in space and time that share a common defining characteristic. Thus, quite typically, discussions of "societies" by process thinkers are quite different from common sense usage of the word as well as sociological definitions, and usually do not refer to human societies.

Some process thinkers have used the technical Whiteheadian definition in analyzing human societies. For example, some process theologians think of the Jesus-event and its continual reappropriation as providing the common element of form that is the defining characteristic of the society called the church.

Most process thinkers do not follow this line of reasoning. While, to be sure, the technical use of the word society has certain analogies to the functioning of human societies, these analogies are not complete and, as we shall see later, break down.

The problem emerges when human societies are treated as organisms. In most organismic views of human societies, there is no room for any kind of individuality. Society is an organism, with each person having her or his part in its proper functioning. The common element of form or defining characteristic is the state, which knows what people should think, how they should live, what is best for them. This line of reasoning has been used by totalitarian governments of both the right and the left to justify their existence and their most abhorrent actions.

In modern thought, societies have been treated as individuals and agents; in its organismic expression, states, as the vehicles expressing the national will, have been viewed as individuals, omnipresent, omnicompetent, superior to the individuals and groups on behalf of whose alleged interests they act. Process thought denies these contentions. Agency is located in individuals. Societies are the individuals who comprise it, even though those individuals are social and relational in their very being who they are. Inadvertently, those process thinkers who think of the Jesus-event as the common element of form that is the defining characteristic of the society called the church can be interpreted to depict the Jesus-event as having agency, as the mind of the organism, in a manner of speaking, that subsumes the individuality of it members.

Unlike most organismic views, the profoundly relational and equally organismic vision of process thought is able to do justice to the individual. In fact, to use Whitehead’s own description, it has sometimes been called a vision of the individual-in-community. The self-creation of a unique momentary experience, in its subjective immediacy, as it unifies and synthesizes data from the past and actualizes relevant possibilities, is paradigmatic of this understanding of the individual-in-community.

Human societies are like organisms in the interdependence and interrelatedness of their constituent parts. Change one part and the others change as well. For example, suppose a family goes for therapy on account of the delinquent behavior of one of the teenage sons. Instead of trying to "fix" the "identified patient" or "problem child," a skillful therapist will work on the couple’s relationship and patterns of behavior. The basic presupposition is that if you change the couple’s pattern of interaction, the son’s behavior patterns will change as well. This principle also applies to the larger units of human societies and institutions. When one part of society changes, all the other parts and the larger whole also change. As the role and status of women and minorities alter, the role and status of other segments of the population, particularly white males, the organizations of institutions such as the family as well as the whole of society also shifts.

The organismic view of society on the part of process thought has much in common with systems theory, which holds that human societies are systems, at times sub-systems intertwined in complex ways and parts of a larger system. Change in any part of the system or sub-system causes a ripple effect that changes every other part and the system as whole. Indeed, some process thinkers have been influenced by systems theory. The reverse is also true: some process thinkers have had an impact on systems theory. The process understanding of society also has much in common with Talcott Parsons’ sociological theory of functionalism, which has dominated North American sociology for the last thirty-five years and which is predicated on viewing human societies as analogous to organisms.

What makes the process-relational view different from most organismic interpretations, as we have seen, is, first of all, the notion that unique individuals do create themselves and their societies, as profoundly shaped as they are by them, instead of being subsumed by an omnicompetent and all knowing state that functions as the brain of the organism. Secondly, the process-relational vision is highly sensitive to the complex relativity of the function and role of culture and sub-cultures in the larger framework of society, a view also shared by most sociologists and systems theorists.

It is to the distinctions between society, culture, sub-culture, civilization, and community, in conversation with the discipline of sociology, that we now turn in the rest of this chapter.


Much of modern sociology prides itself on being scientific and deterministic. Most sociological theories hold that it is an empirical, observable fact that humans are products of their socio-politico-economic-cultural environments.

In large measure, process-relational thought affirms this claim. If in any moment the whole of the past, not only of the person but of the subculture, culture, society, human history, the whole universe, flows into the becoming of the self, humans are indeed molded by the totality of their environment. However, as we have seen, no momentary experiencing subject is totally determined; it is literally self-creative, deciding what it is, as it unifies data from the past in creative synthesis and as it actualizes possibilities.

While affirming that there is randomness and chance in the universe, process thought is not a form of indeterminacy in the typical way the word is used, referring to reality being constituted by discreet causally unrelated entities. At the risk of sounding like I am quibbling over words, the process relational vision may be described as a form of "soft determinism." Fully aware that language shapes reality, the very way in which process thinkers use the word "shape" instead of "determine" is deliberate, attempting to show that while partially molded by the totality of the environment, any entity is also an instance of creativity.

Most sociological theories treat the non-human natural world in mechanistic terms, seeing the non-human natural world as inert, lifeless matter, merely a stage on which the human drama is played out (to be sure, sociologists do acknowledge the importance of topography and geography in the diverse development of human cultures and societies). In this regard, they differ substantially from the profoundly ecological vision of process-relational thought. Process thinkers encourage sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, historians, and scholars in other disciplines to take a more holistic approach, taking into account and doing justice to how human organisms interact not only with the human environment of their cultures and societies but also the non-human environments of which they are a part that are throbbing with life, energy, and creativity.

The process-relational vision would also assert that the claims of sociology to be neutral and value-free are pretentious. Any position reflects its partial perspective, culture, and socio-politico-economic location. The beginning of objectivity is to admit one’s lack of it.

Quite typically, sociologists define "societies" as relatively self-sufficient groupings of people sharing common cultures and territories. "Cultures" are usually characterized as the totality of a people’s life-style, comprised of their material objects, knowledge, ideas, and patterns of conduct. Ordinarily, culture is sub-divided into two categories, "material culture," referring to the physical objects people use, such as clubs, pots and pans, automobiles, and "non-material culture," describing such non-physical aspects of human life as ideas, knowledge, language, and conduct. Sociologists also deal with such topics as the components of culture, i.e., beliefs, values, language, and norms; cultural dynamics; cultural integration; cultural change; ideal culture, what people profess to follow, and real culture, how people actually behave in relation to these claims; ethnocentrism, the proclivity to see one’s culture as the best and consequently all others as inferior; and cultural relativity.

Sociology, as is readily apparent from reading the previous paragraph, is technical in its use of terms like "culture," and is highly specialized. Although aware of the philosophical underpinnings of their discipline, sociologists rarely articulate or critically explore these bases of their work. Process thinkers, on the other hand, have focused on the philosophical dimensions and foundations of culture.

A major area of interest to process thinkers, for example, are the myths, images, models, paradigms, and rituals around which people organize their experiences and through which they find significance and meaning for their lives. To be sure, sociologists have not ignored this area. However, sociological work is restricted to the function of myths, images and rituals, and not with truth claims.

An example of how the process-relational vision deals with cultural issues mentioned above is tradition. In most of the history of Western thought, tradition has been viewed in essentialist categories. It has been the task of each age to make intelligible the underlying, unchanging, eternal essence of its traditions. While the manifestation may vary from age to age and place to place, the underlying essence of a tradition, that is its very identity can never be altered.

Process-relational thought takes a very different approach, one that is analogous to the understanding of the self. As we have seen, the self is a momentary experiencing subject that constitutes itself by creatively synthesizing data from the past and responding to the possibilities of the future. Traditions function in a similar fashion. Instead of seeing tradition manifesting in diverse ways an eternal and unchanging essence, process thought views it as living, ongoing dynamic and creative. As it responds to the challenges of the present, if it is to survive, a tradition reappropriates its past and reconstitutes itself. Thus, there is no underlying unchanging essence to tradition, only a constant process of interpretation and reinterpretation.

For example, earlier in this chapter I mentioned that using the complex terminology of process thought, some of its theological exponents have seen the common element of form, the defining characteristic of the church as the Jesus-event. Although not its intention, this position could be interpreted in an essentialist way not easily reconcilable with the process-relational vision. This understanding could also be viewed as attributing an agency to the Jesus-event that subsumes the individuality and creativity of those reappropriating the event. Most process theologians prefer to consider Christianity as an ongoing, historical movement that in each age reappropriates the memory of Jesus, not only through the foundational paradigms of Scripture but through the constant process of reinterpretation found in church history. As Christianity reconstitutes itself in response to the challenges of today and reappropriates its traditions, a problem that arises is that not all of that tradition is very illuminating in meeting contemporary needs. For example, much of Christianity’s inherited past is sexist, racist, and anti-Judaic, a past from which it needs to be liberated.

Another example of our discussion of tradition is the celebration of the bicentennial of the Constitution. Along with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the Constitution is the foundational and paradigmatic document of this country, embodying its professed ideals. Throughout the history of this nation, the Constitution has been interpreted and reinterpreted in an ongoing process of reappropriation and application of its ideals. However, in dealing with today’s problems and challenges, not all of the Constitution and its presuppositions are equally illuminating, helpful, and valid. Outside of the most rabid racist and sexist, who would want to go back to considering blacks three-fifths of white people, and deny the franchise to women?

At this point, the crucial issue pertains to the criteria the adherents of a tradition use in the reconstitution of that tradition. For process-relational thinkers, those criteria are whatever contributes to the enhancement of relationality and creativity that are true of the fundamental character of reality itself; whatever contributes to the experience of beauty, intensity, richness through contrast.

These notions seem terribly abstract. However, in the case of Christianity, we see them operating as we acknowledge the disharmony as well as deprivation of greater richness in the sexism, racism, anti-Judaism of its inherited tradition. As it seeks liberation from this dimension of its past, as it encounters feminist theology, the new consciousness of women, blacks, Third World peoples, and their suppressed traditions, post-Holocaust Judaism as well as other religions, Christianity is transformed, becomes more authentically relational and creative, richer, more inclusive, less trivial in its harmony. Some process theologians see this dynamic as the very work of Christ.

This view is relativistic, and has an affinity with the cultural relativism affirmed by the discipline of sociology. In one sense, everything is relative, that is to say, related to everything else. In another, everything is relative in the context of culture, history, geography, socio-politico-economic location; what may be considered right and proper in one culture, even a sub-culture, may be abhorrent in another. The crucial difference between the relativism of sociology and the process-relational vision is that sociology’s treatment of relativism is descriptive while that of process thought is both descriptive and normative. Process thought is deeply concerned with not only the aims and interests around which cultures define themselves and human social activities; it is even more concerned with what appropriate cultural aims and interests should be.

Just as the process-relational vision tries to do justice to the profound ways in which we are shaped by our environment yet denies total determinism, so it affirms relativism while denying total relativism. We have all heard the position of total relativism when someone claims, "It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe." Process thought claims the contrary; what we believe is extremely important; our beliefs profoundly shape the way we live out our lives. Many of the horrors of the twentieth century were perpetrated by tyrants who were not only carrying out their beliefs but were convinced in the rightness of doing so. Process thought itself is an alternative to the substantialist view that has had an adverse practical impact on human history.

It might be more accurate to describe the process-relational vision as pluralistic rather than relativistic. Much has been made recently of the pluralism of people, cultures, religions, life styles, etc. of the contemporary world. Process thought not only affirms this pluralism, it goes beyond most views in advocating such an attitude of openness that through the encounter with other peoples, cultures, religions, life styles, mutual transformation can take place. Once again, for some process theologians this is the very work of Christ.


Much of the literature in sociology, philosophy, theology, particularly those influenced by existentialism, has been an eloquent critique of modern industrial, technological society, its emphasis on rational bureaucratic methods, its conformism in spite of its lip service to individualism, and the mass society that is its product. While process thinkers are in sympathy with these critiques, their focus is different.

In the last chapter, I mentioned how during the Axial Period humans attained a heightened sense of individuality as they started to distance themselves psychically, to stand back and reflect critically about their communities and themselves. Process thinkers, while wanting to preserve the gains made in the heightened Western sense of personhood, feel the sense of community has been virtually lost in industrialized society.

The words "society" and "community" refer to very different realities. The literature on the topic is so vast that in many intellectual circles the word society is virtually synonymous with mass society. As small towns, small firms, inner cities, in spite of and at times, in their own way, because of gentrification, decline, and suburban life styles become increasingly mobile, privatized, and fragmented, the loss of the sense of community is more acute.

Let me illustrate. My family moved to a residential neighborhood in Phoenix, Arizona in 1965. People in the neighborhood generally knew each other, visited each other, had children in the same age group. As their children graduated from high school and went to college or started working, as parents aged and retired, the neighborhood changed. It was gradually made up of older people, some of whom died, others moved away. The younger people who moved in were so busy with working and living their own lives that one couple did not meet their next door neighbors for several months. The contact between neighbors decreased. Another couple did not know for several days that their neighbor three doors down had died. Such a loss of the sense of community is symptomatic of life styles in industrial, technological societies.

The purpose of the preceding discussion has been to set the stage and clarify the definition and importance of community for process thinkers. As I have mentioned. process thinkers do not want to lose the positive gains of our heightened sense of individuality. However, in process thought the individual is always an individual-in-community. The community of which an individual is a part is also a part of the individual. The self is a social-relational self as the entire past is constitutive of the becoming of a momentary experience; as the subjective immediacy perishes, that momentary experience enters into the self-constitution of other selves and momentary experiences. While distinct, the distinction between the individual and the community is not absolute; the more I participate in the community, the more of an individual, in the sense of a richer, larger self, I can become.

For process thinkers, community is where one’s unique personhood in its creative freedom is accepted and affirmed, and where one finds a sense of belonging, rootedness, and intimacy. True to the relational vision that is the foundation of this understanding of community, process thinkers have advocated and experimented with communal, simplified, ecologically responsible life styles. In these endeavors, they have sought something novel rather than a romantic or nostalgic return to previous tribal and pastoral life styles. Some have advocated the enhancement of economically self-sufficient, decentralized, participatory, ecologically sustainable regional units in a way reminiscent of the programs of the Green Parties in Western Europe. Since our interrelatedness and interdependence is not just local but global, process thinkers have been in the forefront in the advocacy of global awareness and world history, human and non-human. The slogan "Act locally, think globally" is an accurate summary of their position and activities, although many have not been reticent about acting globally.

If the communities in which we live shape us profoundly, if the social institutions of which we are a part are also a part of us, the organization of our communities and social institutions is of paramount importance. If the self is a social-relational self, it is not enough to change individuals for social change to occur; social structures need to be changed as well. To be true to the fundamental character of reality, social structures need to foster relationality and creativity, and provide the maximum opportunity for the experience of beauty, of harmony and intensity, with contrast. In this regard, existing social structures, whether capitalist or socialist, are found wanting; in their own way, each gets in the way of the development of full, unique personhood and creativity, and fragments relationality and community; each also denies the maximum opportunity for the experience of beauty by erecting superficial harmony that denies deeper social divisions, and, either through rigidity and/or the social and cultural isolation of groups and individuals, impedes the possibility of increased contrast and richness of experience. I shall explore the political dimensions of these issues in the next chapter.

Lurking in the background of our discussion of both selfhood and society are the issues of stability and order versus novelty and creative freedom. Process-relational thought certainly acknowledges that novelty and creativity and freedom flourish when there is order and stability. If we look at nature, it is the complex social orders that are human beings and animals with central nervous systems which are the ones with the greatest capacity for novelty and creative freedom. However, human societies (and we need to keep in mind the distinction between the more technical Whiteheadian definition of society and its application to human societies) that have emphasized order and stability have tended to be hierarchical, authoritarian, and dictatorial, suffocating novelty, creativity, and freedom. In process thought, while acknowledging the need for stability and order, creative freedom and novelty are the priorities on the scale of values. As we shall see in the next chapter, the process-relational vision is profoundly democratic, communitarian, egalitarian, and participatory.


Whitehead’s own understanding of society focused on a discussion of Civilization. For him, civilization was the process of humans growing more civilized, the victory of persuasion, not just in the sense of rational arguments but as a manner of living, over brute force. Chief among the features of civilization is the increased sense of the dignity of every human being in all its interdependencies. The characteristics of civilization are Truth, Beauty, Adventure, and Peace.

Lest we digress into a philosophical discussion beyond our subject matter, suffice it to say that Truth is the conformation between Appearance and Reality. One of the functions of Truth in Civilization is the promotion of Beauty, the delicate balance between harmony and intensity. Given the overall aesthetic nature of the process-relational vision, Art serves a vital civilizing function. It serves to adapt purposefully Appearance and Reality as well as promote the experience of Beauty in living.

Adventure is the zest for living, a ceasing restlessness that reaches for novel possibilities. For Whitehead, the zest for adventure is characteristic of life itself, of all actualities. He claimed that all organisms seek " (I) to live, (II) to live well, (III) to live better." The zest for adventure is requisite and necessary for individuals, communities, and civilizations; without it they are unable to respond to new challenges and die of fatigue.

Peace may be appropriately described as a sense of wholeness and serenity in the relationship with oneself, other selves, the world, and, if one is religious, God. It is not merely the absence of conflict. It has the character of a gift, and is comprised of two elements, Youth and Tragedy. The characteristic of Youth is the zest for adventure, life and novelty.) Tragedy is the experience of loss, of possibilities unactualized and lost that tempers Youth and its zest for adventure. Peace is a delicate balance between Youth and Tragedy. It is also certainly a delicate balance between all things. Although Whitehead certainly affirmed progress in the history of civilization, with his emphasis on Tragedy, he was certainly not sanguine about automatic progress as were many of the intellectual currents of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Whitehead’s view, religion is vital to the health of any civilization. He identifies four factors in the history of religious expression: ritual, emotion, belief, rationalization. While each is present during different phases, the later phases are promoted by and explanatory of the earlier. The rational faculties purge the unhealthy elements from religion. The culmination of rational religion is world-loyalty.

Although Whitehead defined religion as what an individual does in her/his solitariness, the nurture of character and the cultivation of the inner life, that solitariness can never be absolute; what is attained in solitariness is passed back into the community. In fact, for Whitehead, the problem of religion is the problem of the individual-in-community. It is to the political dimensions of this problem that we turn in the next chapter.


For Further Reading

For a view that applies the technical Whiteheadian view of society to human societies, the theological notion that the Jesus-event is the common element of form that is the defining characteristic of the society called the church, see Lee, Bernard, SM., The Becoming of the Church: A Process Theology of the Structures of Christian Experience (New York: Paulist Press, 1974), pp. 55-207.

For views that stress the importance of individuals, though social and relational, see Cobb, John B., Jr., "Post-Modern Social Policy," unpublished paper presented at the conference, "Toward a Post-Modern World," Santa Barbara, California, January, 1987.

Hall, David, L., The Civilization of Experience: A Whiteheadian Theory of Culture (New York: Fordham University Press, 1973), pp. 59-111.

Hartshorne, Charles, The Divinity Relativity: A Social Conception of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948).

The Winter, 1986 issue of Process Studies, Volume 15, Number 4 is devoted to the problem of the analogy of society in the technical Whiteheadian sense to human societies.

For a process thinker deeply influenced by systems theory see Laszlo, Ervin, Essential Society: An Ontological Reconstruction (The Hague: Martinus Ni]hoff, 1963). Also by the same author, Introduction to Systems Philosophy: Toward a New Paradigm of Contemporary Thought (Gordon and Breach, 1972).

Whitehead’s most extensive treatment of society is contained in his

Adventure of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, a Division of The Macmillan Company, 1967). Others of his works important for his understanding of society include The Function of Reason (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1968); Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, a Division of The Macmillan Company, 1966); Religion in the Making (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1967).

An excellent introduction to the discipline of sociology is Sullivan,

Thomas J., and Thompson, Kendrick S., Sociology: Concepts. Issues and Applications (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1984). Talcott Parsons’ classic work, reflecting both an organismic and systems approach, is The Social System (New York: The Free Press, 1951).

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