Is Whitehead Relevant in China Today?

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

This lecture was delivered by Dr. Cobb at the Fourth International Whitehead Conference, Beijing, June 17-20, 2002: Used by permission of the author. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Constructive postmodernism of the Whiteheadian variety implies a program for public life, as well as that of individuals, that is quite different from the one that our modernist leaders are pursuing.


I would not be here if I did not believe the answer is emphatically Yes. If I may make some bold, sweeping generalizations, I will claim the following.

  1. The religions and philosophies of India and China are full of profound insights badly needed in the contemporary world in both East and West. However, they had their fullest development in an age when science was not an important part of cultural and intellectual life, and technology was not highly developed. They were formulated in less continuity with mathematics than was true of Western philosophy. They do not express a refined historical consciousness.
  2. These traditions richly contribute to the interior and daily life of many people in the East, and in recent decades they have attracted much appreciative attention in the West as well. But beyond the very personal sphere, they have more ambiguous effects. For example, they continue to inform much of the attitude toward political authority. Having developed in a context where authority was concentrated at the top, they do little to undergird a more democratic spirit. They assume a traditional society, and do not respond directly to the problems of a modern one. In short, despite the great potential of traditional Asian thought, outside the realm of daily life and religion, its relevance to contemporary problems has not been adequately articulated.
  3. Whitehead’s thought developed in close relation to science and mathematics and in the context of modern social and political problems. Precisely in that context he came to a view of reality that has remarkable points of contact with traditional Indian and Chinese ideas. His process thought can be greatly enriched by assimilating the wisdom accumulated in those traditions over the millennia. It can also function as a bridge, expanding the application of those ideas and relating them to the issues of our time.
  4. Now consider what is happening in the West.

    1. Western philosophy as a whole has run dry. The Kantian tradition that has dominated the European mind for two centuries has contributed meanings, but it fails to provide us with a context for private or public life. Deconstructive postmodernism tends toward nihilism whether its practitioners want to go there or not. Most philosophers of science provide little help to scientists themselves as they struggle to make sense of the strange phenomena they encounter. A number of philosophers, such as Richard Rorty, have proclaimed the end of the philosophic tradition.

    2. At the deepest level, the problem with Western philosophy is that it has not freed itself from the domination of substance categories. Of course, most philosophers are aware of the difficulties with the idea of substance, and they rarely affirm the reality of substances directly. But because they reject the discipline of metaphysics, they have no way of replacing the substance categories that pervade our Indo-European languages with alternative ways of thinking. This leaves substance intact in the background of their thought.

    3. The same is true for the sciences. Physicists know that traditional categories based on substance thought have broken down. For example, the ether they posited to underlie the light waves does not exist. But because the mathematics developed to describe wave phenomena continued to achieve useful results, they continue to use the idea of wave as if there were something to wave. They often acknowledge that science no longer corresponds with some objective reality, and the resulting science is full of paradoxes. Because, like the philosophers, they eschew metaphysics, they cannot develop an alternative conceptuality that fits their evidence. Science itself suffers from the results.

  5. Indian and Chinese philosophies include alternatives to substance thought much more fully than does European philosophy. Hence they have much to offer. But as we saw above they are not formulated in way that is directly relevant to the concerns of the contemporary world.
  6. Whitehead’s basic conceptuality is closer to that typical of East Asia than to that typical of Europe. But because he developed it out of a background in mathematics and physics, it has a systematic rigor and relevance to contemporary issues that Asian philosophy usually lacks. Because he was not afraid of metaphysical questions, Whitehead worked out an alternative to substance thinking that fits the evidence of the sciences while differing from their usual formulations. In this way he offers to Asians a bridge to the correction of Western science and its incorporation into their own worldview.
  7. Now I will take another tack in making my claim for Whitehead’s usefulness.

  8. China is committed to modernization. Modernization is nearly equivalent to Westernization. There is no doubt that modernity in the West has brought great advances in knowledge and technology. It has also encouraged democracy and human rights. It has brought about an economic prosperity for masses of people that has no precedent in human history. There is much for which we Westerners, who are heirs of modernization, are grateful. But we are also painfully aware of its limitations. Modernity has been extremely, and damagingly, individualistic. In its later forms it has been preoccupied with gaining wealth and employing competitive means to this end. In the process it has strained the social fabric to the breaking point.
  9. Modernity has denied any intrinsic value to the natural world and accordingly we have exploited our environment shamelessly. We now see that we pay a high price for this. The nature that has nurtured us so long is no longer able to do so. We are trying to slow the degradation of nature and preserve bits of it, but much is forever lost. And the policies of modernity continue to eat away at what is left. Modernity has led inevitably to an ecological crisis in which we are already involved but which will become far more acute in the decades immediately ahead.
  10. The critique of modernity is now widespread. Most of what is called postmodernism leads to the abandonment of any quest for comprehensive vision. It attacks the idea of a master narrative or a cosmology. It leaves us with local knowledge that is powerless against the continuing advance of the steamrollers of modernity. Although it criticizes brilliantly, it offers few concrete proposals for the way ahead. On the whole, it is as alienated from the natural world as was the modernity it critiques. In some respects it carries dangerous tendencies within modernity to an extreme rather than providing a different point of departure.
  11. Whitehead provides an alternative. He, too, was critical of the modern world, and his followers pursue and extend that critique. But he wanted not just to tear down the ideas of the modern world but also to replace them with more adequate ideas. These provide positive proposals for responding to the issues of the day. In this sense his ideas are part of the movement of constructive postmodernism. We need to have our thought checked and corrected by deconstructive postmodernism and enriched and developed through interaction with Asian, communitarian, ecological, and feminist thought as well as that of primal peoples. But there is thus far no indication that encounter with these other positions will undercut or invalidate our basic ideas. Modified and enriched by all these influences, Whiteheadian thought can suggest a way ahead in science, economics, politics, education, and social policy.
  12. In the area of religion, China is now at a very interesting place. The traditional culture met the religious needs of people in a variety of ways. But, for reasons I have already indicated, that culture is no longer unproblematic. Partly this is because it was systematically attacked and weakened during the Red Guard period. Partly it is because modernization, by its nature, is in tension with traditional cultures. For a while leaders hoped that Communism would meet the needs that traditional religions once fulfilled. But today this is true for only a few. Accordingly, there is an openness in China for religious teaching of many varieties. Since Whitehead’s understanding of reality is so close to that of traditional Chinese thought, the comments above about Whitehead’s ability to act as a bridge between traditional ideas and the contemporary world are relevant here. I want to add now a comment about Christianity.

  13. As a professional Christian teacher I am happy that Christianity has won many converts in China and attracted interest at a number of levels Yet my pleasure is not unqualified. In the West we know much that is good to which Christianity has profoundly contributed. We want to share that. I believe that Christianity can make very important contributions in China as well. But we know that many Christian beliefs have done great harm as well. We would like to warn against those. Unfortunately, large-scale movements to Christianity are unlikely to be critical. They are likely to support some of the ways of thinking that have done harm in the West.
  14. One of the problems of Christianity in the past has been otherworldliness and an accompanying dualism of spirit and body. This has been connected to patriarchalism and homophobia. I do not know how far that has been appropriated by Chinese Christians, but it stands as a threat to the healthier potentialities of traditional Chinese culture. Another risk is biblicism, a kind of absolutization of the authority of the Bible that leads to irrational beliefs and actions. Another danger is that believers may expect of their faith more than it can deliver, and live in either self-deception or disillusionment.
  15. On the whole, China has dealt with religious diversity, historically, better than did Western Christianity. Buddhists, Confucians, Taoists, and others have lived side by side. Indeed, a single individual could participate in all of these traditions. This has not been true of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the West. All of these have tendencies to exclusivism and to the rejection of other communities of believers, but Christianity has the worst record. China does not need that.
  16. You will not be surprised to hear me say that I believe that Whitehead can help in this respect as well. Process theology has built on Whitehead’s thought and has interpreted the Christian tradition accordingly. It is certainly not the only form of revisionist Christian theology that works against the dualism, biblicism, and false expectations associated with so much of historic and contemporary Christianity. It is certainly not the only way to avoid Christian exclusivism. But, in my biased opinion, it offers the most thorough and systematic way around these problems and encourages a form of Christianity that could make a positive contribution to working out the relationship among the religious communities of China as well as their relations to the prevailing secular society.

These sweeping claims will simply have to stand here undeveloped. I hope that by the end of this conference, they will not seem altogether preposterous. I will take the time remaining to me to develop just one claim somewhat more fully. I implied that Whiteheadian thought could bring some traditional ideas to bear on contemporary problems. I believe that among these contemporary concerns, economics is central. Hence I will offer a critique of the dominant economic thinking of modernity and also suggestions for a different way of thinking about economics and also practicing it. My exposition will show how close together are the necessary deconstruction of the modern and the reconstruction of the Whiteheadian postmodern.


Modern economic theory is based on an understanding of human beings in their capacity as economic actors. We call the resulting model of the human being Homo economicus. No economist supposes that human beings are exhaustively understood as economic actors. Everyone knows that human beings are also political actors, Homo politicus, and religious actors, Homo religiosus. The list can be extended. The features of the human being identified as Homo economicus are abstracted from the complex fullness of human existence. The academic discipline of economics is based on these abstractions. This discipline is unusual among the social sciences in the influence it has on public life.

Homo economicus is self-contained in a thoroughly individualistic way. "He" (and I think the male language is appropriate here) relates to others only in market transactions. In these he seeks to gain as much as possible in goods and services for himself at the smallest possible expenditure of money or labor. This is "rational" behavior, and the science of economics depends on the rationality of human actors.

Now we must ask, is this an accurate picture of human economic behavior? Certainly, we must agree that much behavior in the market place conforms to this model. People bargain to get what they want for the lowest price possible. When they sell, they try to get the best price they can. Typically they seek the employment that is the best paid. And employers try to get the work they need done as inexpensively as possible. This is the pattern to which economists appeal.

It is not, of course, exhaustively accurate. In seeking employment, pay is not the only consideration. People will accept lower pay if the conditions are pleasant and the work interesting. To an employer it is important to have loyalty and good morale in the workforce, and these are not exhaustively a matter of pay. Occasionally economists try to put money values on all of these intangibles, but for the most part, following their model’s most apparent implications, they ignore these other factors.

Furthermore, unless there is basic honesty and self-discipline, the whole market system breaks down. The government can enforce honesty and self-discipline in some respects, but laws cannot replace internal commitments and character. Unfortunately, the market, especially as economists interpret it, tends to erode these crucial values. In terms of market values, if dishonesty is profitable, there is nothing wrong with it. If employees can persuade their employers that they are doing good jobs, there is no harm in dawdling. For the market to work well, it must be set in a context in which ethical values not characteristic of Homo economicus are nevertheless operative. If the market and its values extend into larger sections of society, as they now do in the United States, the market itself suffers.

The clash between market values and concern for justice and the common good is shown by a series of experiments conducted some years ago. Large groups of people were given tokens that they could invest in one of two ways. They could exchange their tokens for one cent each. Or they could put them in a pool that pays 2.2 cents each but distributes the proceeds to all players. Market values dictate that one exchange all one’s tokens for money to be paid to oneself. One could then hope that other players would put money in the collective pool from which one would receive additional funds. On the other hand, it is clear that if all players put all their tokens in the collective pool, all would benefit maximally.

In fact most people exchanged part of their tokens in one way and part in the other. Overall, the division was roughly half and half. When asked why they did not follow what most economists would call rational practices, they said they thought that exchanging some tokens in the collective pool was only fair. Many said that a truly fair-minded person would put more in the collective pool than they had themselves done.

The only group that deviated drastically from the pattern was composed of a group of beginning graduate students in economics. This group contributed only 20% to the collective pool. Clearly their specialization in economics had led them to adopt market values! The power of the market model in the thinking of economists was dramatically indicated in their comments on the experiment. When presented with the results, they assumed that most players were simply unaware that exchanging all their tokens directly was the most profitable procedure. That players might regard concern for the common good to be rational did not occur to them.

I cite this study as indicating that viewing people as Homo economicus deeply affects perceptions and actions. Sadly, in the United States, this view is steadily gaining strength. I suspect that if the experiment were conducted today, far more people would act the way the students of economics acted; far fewer would act for the common good.

Market values are influencing more and more segments of society. The medical profession has recently, quite publicly and openly, been turned into the medical industry. The educational system is now supported for its service to the market rather than its contribution to citizenship and human values. There is a systematic effort to develop a theory of law based on the application of economic principles.

One might suppose that market principles have always dominated business, but, as I have noted, business itself requires the functioning of other values. A popular adage has been that "honesty is the best policy." Today, however, businessmen are sometimes counseled to obey the law only when that is profitable, and to break it when they can thereby earn more money. For example, the punishment for violating regulations protecting the environment is usually a fine. Operating by market principles, the businessman is encouraged to calculate the extra cost of obeying the law and to count against that the cost of penalties likely to levied by the government. If profits are likely to exceed penalties, then the businessman who behaves "rationally" will break the law.

Process thought provides a different model of human beings, one that, if accepted, would have quite different consequences for public life generally. Instead of viewing individuals as isolated substances relating to others only through market transactions, Whitehead encourages us to see the individual as largely constituted by relations to others. This makes a huge difference.

With the now standard model, the well being of other human beings contributes nothing to mine. Hence, harming others in order to get ahead is quite rational. With the Whiteheadian model, my well being is largely the result of the well being of other people, especially those who are close to me. Rational behavior is that which improves the community of which I am a part rather than that which increases my wealth at the expense of others. A thoroughgoing Whiteheadian, in the experiment of which I have spoken, would calculate correctly that all would benefit most if all put their money in the common pool and act accordingly.

The contrast can be stated in terms of the importance of human community. The now dominant economics has no place for community. We are simply collections of individuals, each seeking his or her gain. The application of this model leads systematically to the destruction of given communities. Karl Polanyi’s book, The Great Transformation, shows what happened in eighteenth century England. In the United States, in the past fifty years, applying the dominant model to agriculture and to manufacturing has destroyed thousands of rural communities and hundreds of industrial ones.

Since World War II most economic development around the world since has followed this individualistic, anti-community, model. The results, in my opinion, have been humanly disastrous. There has been an alternative, associated with the work of Mahatma Gandhi, and pursued by many non-governmental organizations. It is called "community development." This model, far more congenial to a Whiteheadian, takes existing communities as given and works with them to improve their economic well being. This may entail installing a pump that brings water to the village and that the villagers understand well enough to keep in repair. It may entail introducing solar cookers that reduce the need to go great distances to get firewood. It may entail developing handiwork to be sold to tourists that can be produced when less time is required on the farm. The point is that people are helped to be more productive in ways that keep communities intact. Sadly, villages that have improved their lot in such ways are sometimes wiped out by agribusiness or by flooding caused by a huge dam built to fulfill the goals of standard, top-down, development based on the individualistic model.

The model of the individual that underlies this emphasis on community can be formulated as "person-in-community". The theory here is that the values of truly personal existence are achieved only in relation to others, therefore, in community. On the other hand, one is not simply a part of a community. One has one’s own individuality and independence. In Whitehead’s model, however far we are shaped by the inflowing of the past, there is also a decision in each moment. The more we are able to incorporate from others, the more significant that decision becomes. The image of person-in-community puts equal emphasis on dependence on community and personal self-determination or freedom. The point is that these support one another. The richer the community of which we are a part, the more fully we become persons with our own individuality and freedom.

A second feature of the standard economic model is the radical dualism between human beings and the natural world. The only values are the enjoyments or satisfactions of individual human beings. This is thoroughgoing anthropocentrism. Elements in the natural world count for nothing in themselves. Their value is only what human beings will pay for them.

What are valued in this way are chiefly the elements of the natural world that are used to produce goods for the market. Oil, of course, is of great value. So are trees and fish. Land is of value as the locus of production and because people will pay for places to live and work.

In principle, economists acknowledge that because people enjoy scenery, that also has value. They occasionally attempt to value it by asking people how much they would pay to prevent its destruction. But calculations of this sort play very little role in economic theory and practice. Generally, that which does not actually come into the market is ignored. Nature otherwise is simply omitted from economic theory.

A Whiteheadian operates out of a very different model. There are differences between human beings and other creatures, just as there are differences among various species of other creatures. These differences are important. Human beings have a kind of responsibility for the whole that no other creature has. But humanity is still part of the natural world. Our relations are not only with other human beings. They are with other creatures as well. Whether we should extend the idea of community to include these other creatures is uncertain. But our relation to them is like our relation to other human beings in that their well being contributes to ours. A healthy biosphere is important to human well being. Its loss impoverishes our lives.

Furthermore, Whiteheadians recognize that human well being is not all that matters. The well being of other creatures is also important in itself and not only for our sake. The suffering of animals is evil in itself. Their contentment and enjoyment of life is good in itself.

A Whiteheadian also values variety. The richness of experience is enhanced by the diversity of what is integrated into it. When variety is lost our experience is impoverished. This is true also for God. Biodiversity enriches the life of God. Its reduction by human activity impoverishes God.

In these sketchy comments I have tried to indicate that constructive postmodernism of the Whiteheadian variety implies a program for public life, as well as that of individuals, that is quite different from the one that our modernist leaders are pursuing. In my opinion, the present program, built on a model that ignores community and ecology, leads to disaster. I profoundly hope that, before it is too late, a different vision, more like that generated from Whitehead’s thought, can gain significant influence.