On Situating Process Philosophy

by Nicholas Rescher

Nicholas Rescher is author of more than eighty books in various areas of philosophy. He is University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. E-mail: rescher@vms. cis.pitt.edu.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.37-42, Vol. 28, Number 1/2, Spring – Summer, 1999. 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.


The author discusses “process” on the one hand and “process philosophy” on the other. “Process” is a sequentially structured sequence of successive stages or phases whereas “process philosophy” sees processes as central in the ontological scheme of things.

I. Aspects of Processes

The present deliberations have two distinct phases or stages, the first dealing with processes as such and the second with process philosophy as it has evolved in the work of people like Peirce, Whitehead, and Hartshorne. The natural course of events will make it clear why this is so -- and why it has to be so within the wider context of the discussion’s prime purpose of placing process in its proper location in the philosophical landscape.

Let us begin, then, by looking in a rather broad-gauged way at what is at issue with processes.

Nothing particularly new or unusual will be said here on the issue of understanding what a process is. A process will be construed in pretty much thc usual way -- as a sequentially structured sequence of successive stages or phases. Three factors accordingly come to the fore:

1. That a process is a complex -- a unity of distinct stages or phases. A process is always a matter of now this, now that.

2. That this complex has a certain temporal coherence and integrity, and that processes accordingly have an ineliminably temporal dimension.

3. That a process has a structure, a formal generic patterning in virtue of which every concrete process is equipped with a shape or format in that its temporal phases exhibit a fixed pattern.

Although processes themselves are always temporal, they can in general be given an atemporal representation. Thus the mathematical process for solving an equation can be represented by a formalized instruction sequence, or a process of musical performance can be represented by the score that specifies how the performance is to go. Of course, such process representations are not themselves processes as such. The computer program for solving a mathematic problem is not a process -- only its execution, carrying with it the actual solving of the problem, will be so. The program conveys the instructions by which a solver (human or mechanical agent) actualizes the process of producing a solution. Again the score conveys the instructions in line with which a process -- the performance that realizes it -- can be produced by players proceeding to do the right things. And the same holds for text script by which a set of performers (human agents) can actualize the actual process of mounting a stage performance. In such instances, what we have is an instruction set, and this instruction set is not the process itself; but merely the recipe for producing (i.e., realizing) it. In such cases, it is only the realization of the recipe -- its concrete execution or production -- that constitutes a process (of solving or performing, respectively).

Now while the recipe or instruction set for process production is, or may in a certain sense be, a timeless item, nevertheless the process itself must be temporal. To exist (to actually be realized) it must exist in time (with its full realization unfolding "in the course of time," so to speak). In consequence, the actualization of a process by an agent or agency must always intervene between the mere instructions and the process itself. Only by such activity can the process be realized concretely.

This issue of the existence of processes leads to the question: under what sorts of circumstances can processes be said to exist? The answer is: only through their concrete manifestations. For processes, to be is to be exemplified. As long as it is not concretely realized, we have only a possible and not an actual process.

"But surely processes can be contemplated, thought of; described, etc., without being exemplified." Quite right. But, process-descriptions (a conceptualization in general) do not create processes, any more than people-descriptions create people. The principle "To be is to be describable" holds for process conceptions, all right, but not for processes as such. The coherent description of a process does indeed indicate the existence of a correlative process-concept (i.e., of a certain mentalesque abstraction). But, of course, the process itself is something else again, something which must have its footing in space and time in order to exist.

Next, we may turn to the issue of the typology of processes. A process is a sequentially structured sequence of successive stages or phases which themselves are types of events or occurrences (in the case of an abstract process) or definite realizations of such types (in the case of a concrete process). A structureless sequence -- just one darn thing after another -- is not a process. There are, accordingly, three principal ways of classifying processes: (1) by the character of the sequential structure at issue, (2) by the type of subject-matter concerned in the way in which this character is realized, and (3) by the nature of the end-result to which the process tends.

Accordingly, the classification of processes will revolve about three questions:

1. What sort of structure?

2. What sort of occurrences?

3. What sort of result?

With respect to the first we can discriminate, for example, between such different types of sequential structures as those involved in the following:

•a causal process, such as the germination of a seed where each stage of the development sets the stage of the causal production of the next.

•thought-sequencing process, such as the instruction for parsing the grammar of a statement or performing long division or the extraction of a square root. This takes the form: do this, then do this, then do a ceremonial process, such as the king’s toilette first he removes his nightshirt and hands it to the master of the wardrobe, then he is helped by him into his undershirt, etc,

• a performatory process such as the performance of a play or of a concerto.

With respect to the second, we can discriminate between such topical subject matter, themes for occurrences as:

• a biological process

• a mathematical process

• a mental process

• a political process.

With respect to the third, we can discriminate such different end-results as:

• a productive process whose end-result is the realization of some sort of end-product

• a problem-resolving process

• a process of social stylization such as a wedding or a coronation or a formal installation in office.

As such deliberations indicate, processes at large plausibly can be classified in such a tripartite schema: structure-type, occurrence-type, result-type, that is to say by format, by thematic content, and by end-product.

With these deliberations about the nature, the existence, and the classification of processes securely in place, let us now move off in another direction, subject to the understanding that we shall eventually return to this analytical point of departure.

II. Aspects of Process Thought

The topic that will now occupy our attention is "process philosophy," the philosophical doctrine, dating back to Heraclitus, that sees processes as central in the ontological scheme of things. In particular, let us consider some issues regarding how this philosophical approach is positioned on the philosophical stage.

As this century now approaches its end, it is becoming clear that its historians are inclined to picture the situation in philosophy in terms of a great divide. On the one side lies so-called "Analytic" philosophy -- the tradition evolved in the wake of thinkers like Frege, Moore, Russell, and C. D. Broad. On the other side lies the tradition of Continental Philosophy, evolved in the wake of thinkers like Heidegger, Cassirer, and Gadamer in Germany; and Croce or Sartre elsewhere. The one movement aims at precision and clarity taking as its model the formal or the empirical sciences, the other aims at historical depth and hermeneutical generality taking a humanistic and value-oriented approach.

Now in this regard, the general tendency among students and historians of philosophy has been to see process philosophy as firmly emplaced on the Continental side. Classical precursors of processism are seen to include figures like Leibniz and Hegel and its later exponents on the American scene comprising such Continentally influenced thinkers as Peirce, Whitehead, and Hartshorne. Anti-processists, on the other hand, have been principally recruited from the Analytic side of the divide, and include such philosophers as Ramsey, Quine, and Strawson, logically inspired theorists who work under the influence of an essentially static picture of the world drawn from logical theory. And in the setting of this perspective, students and devotees of process philosophy alike have viewed this philosophical approach as positioned squarely on the Continental side of the divide.

Such a view is not without its justification. For it must, of course, be recognized and acknowledged that process philosophy poses problems of assessment -- of prioritization and doctrinal evaluation -- that involve intimate doctrinal as well as historical affinities with Continental thought. Processists are concerned with issues of priority and significance, of interpersonal action and interaction, and of larger human concerns in a way that is generally -- and rightly -- seen as central in the Continental tradition of philosophizing

All the same, it has to be said that this is very far from being all that there is to it. For to think that process philosophy can simply be integrated into the Continental Framework is in error. This error is one of omission rather than commission. The fact is that there is nothing inherently one-sided about process philosophy. On the contrary it is very much of a broad church -- a large-scale project that has affinities and involvements across the entire board of philosophical concerns.

In particular, as the issues with which these present deliberations began clearly indicate, process philosophy is also involved with a whole list of fundamentally analytical issues along the lines of the following:

• How does the concept of processes work?

• What is the nature of a process?

• How is the conception of a process bound up with that of time?

• How is the temporal aspect of processes to be understood?

• What is involved with the existence of processes? How are we to understand the claim that a central process actually exists?

• What sorts of processes are there? How are processes to be classified and what is the typology of process?

It is evident that questions of this sort are quintessentially analytical in character. And it is no less clear that any process philosophy that can stake a cogent claim to adequacy must come to terms with them. In neglecting such issues, it would leave us in the lurch with respect to expectations that are altogether reasonable with regard to the cogent articulation of a philosophical position.

On this basis, I would submit that process philosophy has an inherently analytical dimension that functions so as to block the adequacy of any account that one-sidedly positions it on the Continental side of the divide.

Any fair-minded and conscientious view of the matter has to acknowledge that process philosophy is a complex and prismatically many-sided project that resists any attempt to fence it in neatly and narrowly in the pre-established program holes of philosophical textbook typology. The fact of the matter is that process philosophy is so complex and many sided as to send forth its tentacles into every area of philosophical concern.

And this line of thought brings use to another related point.

In a classic paper of 1908, the then prominent and influential Johns Hopkins University philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy gave reign to his not inconsiderable annoyance with pragmatism.1 "What," he asked, "is it that those pesky pragmatists want anyway?" And in probing for an answer to this question Lovejoy provided a discussion -- provocatively entitled "The Thirteen Pragmatisms" -- that enumerated many different pragmatic themes and theories. Each of these rather different versions of pragmatism varied from the rest and, often as not, actually came into logical conflict with some of them. In scanning this complex and disunified scene Lovejoy concluded that pragmatism just is not a coherent position in philosophy. The doctrine, so he contended, simply self-destructs through inner fission.

However, Lovejoy’s plausible-looking objection to pragmatism commits a series of far-reaching mistakes. For it fails to acknowledge and accommodate the fundamental differences in philosophical teaching between a philosophical doctrine or position on the one hand, and the philosophical approach or tendency on the other. The one is a specific and definite substantive position, the other a generic and potentially diffuse doctrinal tendency. And it is, of course, mistaken to look for doctrinal unity within any broad philosophical tendency.

The fact is that any substantial philosophical tendency -- realism, idealism, materialism, etc. -- is a fundamentally prismatic complex. Each is a broad programmatic tendency that can be worked out in various directions. In each instance it would indulge an inappropriate essentialism to insist on having a single definite monolithic core doctrinal position. Each such tendency is inherently many sided and multiplex.

And of course this holds not just for pragmatism but for process philosophy as well. It too is not a doctrinally monolithic tendency predicated in a particular thesis or theory but a general and programmatic approach. To see it as a unified doctrine would in fact be as much an error as it would be to identify it with the teachings and ideas of a single thinker.

Like any philosophical movement of larger scale, process philosophy has internal divisions and variations. One important difference at issue here roots in the issue of what type of process is taken as paramount and paradigmatic. Some contributors (especially Henri Bergson) see organic processes as central and other sorts of processes as modeled on or superengrafted upon them. Others (especially William James) based their ideas of process on a psychological model and saw human thought as idealistically paradigmatic. Or, turning from substance to methodology, it might be observed that some processists (e.g., Whitehead) articulated their position in terms that root in physics, while others (especially Bergson) relied more on biological considerations. And then too, of course, there are socio-cultural processists like John Dewey But such differences not withstanding, there are family-resemblance commonalties of theme and emphasis that nevertheless leave the teachings of process theorists in the position of variations on a common approach. So in the end it is -- or should be -- clear that the unity of process philosophy is not doctrinal but thematic; it is not a consensus or a thesis but rather a mere diffuse matter of type and approach. All this is something to which a Lovejoy-style complaint about doctrinal diversity would do serious injustice.

The satisfactory articulation of any sort of process philosophy requires the sort of evaluative appraisal and historical contextualization that characterizes Continental philosophy. But it also requires the sort of conceptual clarification and explanatory systematization that characterizes Analytic philosophy. The long and short of it is that process philosophy covers too vast a range to belong to one side or the other of this divide: it is too big to be owned as an exclusive possession of any one particular philosophical approach or tendency.

And there is good reason for accepting this state of things as only fitting and proper. For in this respect process philosophy is simply being true to itself. Process thought, after all, inclines towards viewing reality as a complex manifold of varied but interrelated processes. And just exactly this is, to all appearances, true of process philosophy itself.



1. Arthur O. Lovejoy, "The Thirteen Pragmatisms," The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods (1908): 5-12 and 29-39.