Denis Hurtubise on Ford and the "Traditional" Interpretation

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. 368-370, Vol. 29, Number 2, Fall-Winter, 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.


Cobb’s main objection to Hurtubise’s formulation is that it seems to imply that Ford thinks that his textual analysis indicates that Whitehead himself did not affirm the efficacy of the Consequent Nature in the world. But Cobb says that Ford acknowledges that Whitehead’s statement affirms such efficacy. See Lewis S. Ford and Traditional Interpretations of Whitehead’s Metaphysics by Denis Hurtubise at

Dennis Hurtubise (Process Studies 29.1) has provided a helpful and accurate summary of Ford’s findings on the latest stage of Whitehead’s thinking in Process and Reality. His thesis is that Ford’s work does not offer the support to the "traditional" interpretation that Ford himself suggests. Chiefly, this means that passages traditional interpreters have employed to argue that the initial aim is derived from the Consequent Nature of God rather than the Primordial Nature alone fail to provide evidence for this view

With respect to several of the passages Hurtubise cites, he is correct. The overwhelming portion of the book is written without the Consequent Nature in mind, and certainly with no thought of creatures prehending it. Accordingly, Ford believes that any passage that can be read without this doctrine should be read in that way. Although the passage on page 88 about the "super-jective nature" reads easily as implying the doctrine in question, I agree that it may not have been intended to do so. The passage on pages 244-45 is quite unlikely to have the Consequent Nature in view Ford’s careful analysis, as summarized by Hurtubise, is helpful in showing that the only text pointing clearly to the efficacy of the Consequent Nature of God in the world is on pages 350-51.

My only quarrel with Hurtubise’s account is with respect to this last passage. He leaves the impression that in Ford’s analysis it does not offer support for the traditional interpretation. But his detailed statements about Ford do not support this implication. Ford sees here an instance of Whitehead’s intuitions outrunning his systematic formulations. I agree with Ford. But from this, what should we conclude? Ford takes the systematic notion that an actual entity can only be prehended when it has achieved satisfaction, combined with the notion that as satisfied an actual entity is in the past, as rendering unacceptable the intuition that the Consequent Nature as everlasting concrescence can be prehended. Traditional interpreters have instead undertaken to develop the system in such a way as to make sense of the intuition. This is certainly a difference. My objection to Hurtubise’s formulation is that it seems to imply that Ford thinks that his textual analysis indicates that Whitehead himself did not affirm the efficacy of the Consequent Nature in the world. In my reading of Ford, he acknowledges that Whitehead’s statement affirms such efficacy, but he responds that Whitehead should not have taken this step because it violates his own systematic position.

The argument between Ford and traditional interpreters, then, is about how to move forward from the very last phase of Whitehead’s formulations in Process and Reality, not about what Whitehead intended to say. Ford has moved to a quite different and original form of theism, which he does not claim to find in Whitehead. Traditional interpreters seek a way of accounting for Whitehead’s final intuition as expressed in his account of the fourth phase with minimal adjustments of the systematic position at which he had arrived. They divide on how best to do so. One group holds that, in view of the marked differences between God and all other actual entities, there are reasons to see the divine satisfaction as also functioning differently from the satisfactions of actual occasions. The weaving of physical feelings on the eternally satisfied Primordial Nature allows, they believe, for a growing, everlasting satisfaction. Another group follows Charles Hartshorne in viewing God as a personally ordered society of actual occasions rather than as a single, everlasting actual entity. This solves the problem of the possibility of prehending the Consequent Nature, but it is clearly a change from Whitehead rather than an interpretation of his texts.

Ford dismisses both moves as unsatisfactory. But this dismissal is not based on the denial that the intuition expressed in these paragraphs calls for some such development. It is based, instead, on the judgment that the divine satisfaction must be very much like creaturely ones, on the one hand, and that the Hartshornean move creates additional problems, on the other. I believe his dismissal is too quick. There are, of course, theoretical problems with both moves. A perfected and universally convincing doctrine of God does not exist in the process context or in any other. The same is true of a doctrine of human beings or of societies or of electrons, or of the status of the past. My own judgment is that the recent work of Palmyre M. F Oomen in Process Studies comes remarkably close both to satisfying the need for coherence and to faithfully respecting the texts of Process and Reality. I do not find Ford’s objections to her formulations persuasive. But that does not mean that now we have the perfected doctrine!

I do not intend, therefore, to suggest that there are no remaining problems in making sense of Whitehead’s latest intuition. But surely few would argue that Ford’s alternate proposals are free from all difficulties. What I am urging is that we understand the difference between the traditional interpreters and Ford as that between the effort to make sense of Whitehead’s intuition in terms of Whitehead’s categories and disallowing it because it conflicts with the simplest understanding of some of those categories. This seems to be the way Ford understands the difference. The debate about how seriously to take Whitehead’s intuition, even when he has not fully systematized it, is different from the question of identifying the meaning of the passage in which the intuition is expressed. That the passage implies that the Consequent Nature of God affects what happens in the world is clear. That the only mode of such influence systematically considered in Process and Rea1ity is prehensive is not in dispute. Supposing that creatures have two separate prehensions of God, one of each nature, would complicate the theory far more than viewing the one prehensive relation as relating to both natures. Hence, if we begin with the goal of making sense of Whitehead’s intuition, as Ford also understands it, the traditional interpretations have much in their favor.


Works Cited

Hurtubise, Denis. "Lewis S. Ford and the Traditional Interpretations of Whitehead’s Metaphysics." Process Studies 29.1 (2000):168-74.

Oomen, Palmyre M. F. "The Prehensibility of God’s Consequent Nature." Process Studies 27.1-2 (1998): 108-33.