Process Thought From a European Perspective 1

by Jan Van Der Veken

Jan Van Der Veken is Professor of Philosophy at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Kardinaal Mercierplein 2, 3000 Leuven, Belgium, and Chairman of the European Society for Process Thought. He has published extensively on process thought in Dutch.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 240-247, Vol. 19, Number 4, Winter, 1990. 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.


What is needed in this time of anti-metaphysical thinking is an outlook on reality which allows us to see the interconnectedness of our different concerns. The great danger threatening the world is to try to solve problems in isolation.

In 1924 Whitehead retired from a long and distinguished teaching career in mathematics, mathematical physics and logic, first as a Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge (1884-1910), and subsequently at the Imperial College of Science and Technology and in the University of London. Remarkably, however, Whitehead essentially began a second career in philosophy at Harvard University during 1924-25 at the age of sixty-three.

The question I am tackling in this paper is the following one: is a third career for Whitehead in the making? His thought has in recent years begun to travel back across the Atlantic to Europe. Some works of Whitehead have been translated into German, French and Dutch; and international conventions have been organized in Leuven (1978), Bonn (1981), Bad Homburg (1983), and Sigriswil, Switzerland (1987). A Hegel-Whitehead symposium organized at Fordham University has brought together European and American Whiteheadians in a fruitful dialogue. Smaller meetings of process people have also taken place. The proceedings of those conferences are published. A European Society for Process Thought was formed in 1978, and in Leuven a Center for Process Thought was established. Notwithstanding all these, it is difficult to decide whether Whitehead has become "a classic" in Europe, and to assess in a sober way how much of an impact he has made on the European cultural scene.

In certain respects, the interest of European philosophers in the thought of A.N. Whitehead has proven often to be (after the title of a recent popular movie) a "Fatal Attraction." (I owe these stories to George Lucas.) In 1956, Professor John E. Smith of Yale University paid a visit to the venerable Martin Heidegger. Their conversation lasted for three hours, during which time Heidegger expressed his passionate interest in turning toward a new, post-Hegelian pursuit of a philosophy of nature. Smith responded that in America A.N. Whitehead had already spawned such a movement. Heidegger was most pleasantly surprised and interested, and expressed a desire to read some of Whitehead’s philosophy. It was, in fact, at Heidegger’s request that the tremendous project of translating Process and Reality (PR) was begun at Suhrkamp Verlag (Frankfurt). However, before the translation could be made available to him, Heidegger died.

The great French Jesuit paleontologist and theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, had read Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (SMW) while on an exploration in the Gobi desert. He had vowed to continue the study of this great thinker "when time permitted." In 1955, Teilhard came to New York to begin a period of retirement and study; in his case of books were many works of Whitehead which he now planned to study closely. Unfortunately, in 1955, Teilhard died.

Merleau-Ponty, toward the end of his life, read a French translation of The Function of Reason (FR) and declared Whitehead to be one of the most original and creative philosophers he had ever read. He planned to embark on a further study of Whitehead’s works; but unfortunately, at that time, he died.

Let me now trace my personal way to process thought. In 1965 I finished a doctoral dissertation on Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I was truly interested in the so-called "later Merleau-Ponty" who was in search of a new metaphysics. Only in The Visible and the Invisible (VI) some sketchy outlines can be found. There are also the "Résumés des Cours" (notes from the lectures) and there, in a rather astonishing way. Merleau-Ponty turns to a philosophical study of Nature, mentioning such authors as Schelling and even Whitehead (only once). At that time I was also looking for some new inspiration on how to think about God, in a way which would not imply a complete break with my own philosophical and theological tradition.

I still remember vividly how a friend of mine during a conference mentioned his recent discovery of two books which seemed to be quite inspiring to him: Schubert M. Ogden’s The Reality of God (RG) and John B. Cobb’s A Christian Natural Theology Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (CNT). In 1967 Robinson’s second book, Exploration into God (EG) appeared. This book is frankly imbued with the process spirit.

In 1972 I met for the first time real process people, such as John B. Cobb and Lewis Ford, at the Convention of the Learned Societies in the field of Religion, held in Los Angeles. In 1973 I attended the Theological Institute, organized by Bernard Lee, in Saint Louis, Missouri. This Institute included lecturers such as Eugene Fontinell, Bernard Loomer and Charles Hartshorne himself. In 1974 I was invited to teach a course on process thought at the University of San Francisco. During that same year I spent a research semester at Claremont. While there I was urged to participate in the East-West Conference in Honolulu. There I met Japanese scholars, mostly Buddhists, who were also interested in process thought. Many of them later came to Leuven.

That semester, of course, had been a great breakthrough in my interest in process thought. I started teaching, lecturing and writing on it. At that time almost nothing on process thought had been written in Dutch, so that we even had to invent the terminology, which was not always easy. Students of mine, such as Professor André Cloots, Abraham Koothottil, James Eiswert, Paul Thelakat and many others started to be interested in process thought and wrote doctoral dissertations on the subject.

At Claremont I had discovered such a wealth of documents on process thought that I really felt that something analogous -- although far more modest -- should be created in Leuven. This has been the origin of the Louvain Center for Process Thought, which is flourishing, thanks to the help of the Claremont Center.

In 1978 Charles Hartshorne accepted the invitation to lecture for one semester at Leuven. On the occasion of the conferral of the honorary degree upon Charles Hartshorne, we tried to bring together all the process people we could contact in Europe for a weekend devoted to Whitehead s Legacy. The proceedings of this colloquium have been published as a volume in a (modest) series of publications, issued by the Center in Leuven. During that weekend the European Society for Process Thought (ESPT) was created, with Charles Hartshorne as the honorary president. From then on Leuven assumed the responsibility and the chair of the ESPT.

The Center in Leuven has hosted many scholars, from all over the world. In the meantime, interest in process thought has emerged in Germany: H. Holz and E. Wolf-Gazo organized the Bonn Conference, and F. Rapp and R. Wiehl the Bad Homburg Conference.


Now I would like to state in a more philosophical way what process thought can mean to us in Europe.

In a remarkable survey of recent publications on Whitehead, Werner Stegmaier (AZP13:61-77), Bonn, tackles the question as to whether Whitehead can be considered a classic in philosophy on the European scene. What would be a classic? Three things are necessary. An author should not be read only in a limited circle, but important connections should be made with the classical authors in the field. A philosophical classic should contribute in a significant way not only to the problems of his time, but also to our everyday philosophizing. A classical author should impress the readers of the following generations by the wealth of his ideas, and the fertileness of their formulation.

In important ways Whitehead is on the way to becoming a classic. A real contribution to the dialogue between Whitehead and mainline European philosophy has been made by the contributors to four important volumes, which are in fact the papers of four major conferences:

Whitehead und der Prozessbegriff-Whitehead and the Idea of Process. Beiträge zur Philosophie Alfred North Whiteheads auf dem Ersten Internationalen Whitehead-Symposium 1981 -Proceedings of the First International Whitehead Symposium 1981. Ed. Harold Hold and Ernest Wolf-Gazo. Freiburg/München: Alber 1984, 478 pp.

Whiteheads Metaphysik der Kreativität. Internationales Whitehead-Symposium Bad Homburg 1983. Ed. Friedrich Rapp and Reiner Wiehl, Freiburg/ München: Alber 1986, 241 pp.

Hegel and Whitehead. Contemporary Perspectives on Systematic Philosophy. Ed. George R. Lucas. New York: State University of New York Press, 1986, 325 pp. A German translation, edited by George R. Lucas, Jr. and Antoon Braeckman under the title Whitehead un de deutsche Idealism us – Whitehead and German Idealism, Bern/Frankfurt am Main/New York: Peter Lang, 1990, 161 pp., also contains some new material.

Natur Subjektivitatä Gott. Ed. H. Holzhey, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1990. 300 pp.

Also in the Dutch-language area some initiatives have been taken. Journals such as the Tijdschrift voor Filosofie (TF), Louvain Studies (LS) and Wijsgerig Perspectief (WP) have devoted special issues to process thought. A series of smaller publications and reprints has been published by the Center of Metaphysics of Leuven (PD, GC, WR and reprints of TF and LS). Religion in the Making has been translated into Dutch, with a running commentary and notes under the title De dynamiek van de religie (DR). An anthology of important texts on process thought appeared in Dutch, with an introduction and a glossary (GW).

It is impossible to give a detailed analysis of all the contributions. As far as the individual contributions are concerned, it will suffice to point to the excellent article of E. Wolf-Gazo in the Bonn-volume ("Die Whitehead-Rezeption im deutschen Sprachraum seit 1945") and to the study of W. Stegmaier. It must be said, however, that a new problem emerged. It surfaced again and again that Whitehead has a very special way of relating to classical authors, such as Plato, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant. Whitehead does not really qualify as a specialist in the history of philosophy. Too often it has to be said that, as far as the details are concerned, Whitehead makes a onesided use of his sources. For instance, he quotes several times a phrase from Locke (about "power") which hardly attracts the attention of other Locke commentators. The relationship between Kant and Whitehead is a much debated issue (to which I will return later): in a candid way Whitehead calls his philosophy a return to certain pre-Kantian modes of thought. Even more startling is Whitehead’s relation to Hegel. Although the connections with German idealism seem to be most obvious, White-head confesses that he has not read Hegel at all. Of course, there are enough indirect influences to make the dialogue meaningful and fruitful. So many technical questions have arisen, but the dialogue between Whiteheadians and non-Whiteheadians is relatively new.

A second feature is the fruitfulness of Whitehead’s philosophy in other domains. Here it is evident that Whitehead’s philosophy is attractive to many of us because it makes a real contribution to mainly two domains: theology and contemporary philosophy of nature. It will be clear from my personal account that the interest of many of us in process thought has its starting point in theology. My position, however, is that process thought is first of all a metaphysical system, which by no means should be limited to its theological implications. I even suggested in a paper with the startling title, "Whitehead’s God is not Whiteheadian Enough," presented at the Bonn-Conference, that Whitehead himself should have made a clearer distinction between what can be said on the basis of a particular religious experience and tradition, and that which follows from a strict philosophical analysis.

In Science and the Modern World Whitehead conceived "God" not as an actual entity, but as a first characterization (or limitation) of substantial activity. "Some particular how is necessary": this is what can be said on the basis of an analysis of the philosophical situation itself. What "further can be said," however -- i.e., whether the Principle of Limitation should be conceived as "Allah, Brahman, Yahweh or Father in Heaven" -- is left to be decided on the basis of particular experiences of the different religious traditions. Whitehead leaves open even the possibility of a non-theistic interpretation of the Principle of Limitation, talking about Chance as a possible name for that principle. So I think that there is even textual evidence to show that on a purely philosophical basis alone, Whitehead’s system does not require us to postulate the God of religion. Why is it then that in the other works of the "trilogy" the God-problem receives such a vital place? My thesis is that this is mainly due to the particular situation in which those books were written. Religion in the Making is a series of four Lowell Lectures, delivered in a chapel and addressing explicitly the topic of religion. Process and Reality reflects the Gifford Lectures offered in 1927-1928 at Edinburgh. Those lectures, devoted by Lord Gifford to the topic of natural theology, have quite evidently to address that topic. That explains, I suggest, that Whitehead thought it appropriate to devote the last chapter of Process and Reality to "God and the World," whereas the series of lectures as a whole is an "Essay in Cosmology."

In fact, I think that it is important to stress that Whitehead is more than a natural theologian, and offers a metaphysical conceptuality which is also able to tackle questions raised by contemporary science. That this was publicly recognized by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers (the writers of Order out of Chaos) was a real encouragement to me, and fostered the cause of process thought in Europe. Ilya Prigogine is a chemist, born in Russia and naturalized as Belgian, who obtained the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1973 for his work on "dissipative structures." Prigogine tackles problems such as the irreversibility of time and the emergence of order out of a less complex situation. Prigogine is an advocate of a "metamorphosis of science." The criticisms that he addresses to classical science are strikingly similar to Whitehead’s views in Science in the Modern World. Isabelle Stengers, who is a close collaborator of Prigogine, and who, in fact, "holds the pen," is very much interested in Whitehead’s conceptual framework and feels that it is quite adequate to address problems raised by contemporary science, such as the emergence of order and newness. My colleague of the Université Catholique de Louvain, professor Ladrière, a mathematician and philosopher, sees also the relevance of Whitehead for contemporary thought which takes seriously the findings of recent science.

Whitehead is also attractive to us, because he really offers a philosophy of culture. In that respect, I particularly like Whitehead’s post-technical works, such as Adventures of Ideas and Modes of Thoughts. What Whitehead says about Truth, Beauty, Adventure and Peace is truly inspiring. Although the moral implications of his philosophy are less elaborated, I see here great prospects for process thought. Whitehead describes morality as concern for the consequences of our actions in the long run. Whitehead transcends a morality which is just a morality of short relations, based on duty. A student of mine, Emmanuel Agius, wrote a doctoral dissertation on "The Relevance of Whitehead for the Issue of the Rights of Future Generations."

I think that it is a real advantage that Whitehead also allows for intercultural dialogue. I already mentioned the East-West conference in Honolulu. There it seemed that the non-substantialist philosophy of Whitehead was particularly attractive to Buddhists, because of the doctrine of the no-self. A theme which emerged again and again was the possibility of contemporaries and the reality of time. In 1984 I was able to attend the East-West Conference on Process Thought in Nagoya, and in 1987 the Conference organized by Tokiyuki Nobuhara on "Process, Peace and Human Rights" in Kansai Seminar Home, Kyoto. Here the issues related to the moral implications of process thought were tackled. I see a great future for process thought in domains such as the concern for justice and peace, and we have to add, the concern for the integrity of creation.

"JPIC" is a new acronym that is becoming popular in Europe these days. It points to the theme of the Convention of Basel in May 1989, organized by the European Council of Christian Churches, and devoted to "Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation." It seems to me that there is no philosophy today which is better equipped than process thought to link together ethical and ecological problems. John Cobb devoted much attention to this topic, and Charles Birch, as an eminent biologist and process thinker, has contributed much by his writings and lectures to the wider acceptance of a process style of thought in the circles of the World Council of Churches.

It is obvious that process thought by itself can offer no ready-made answer to the great challenges of our time. But process thought can offer a viable conceptuality with which to explore these issues thoroughly. Process thought stresses the togetherness of all there is. A telling characteristic of the great problems which haunt the world (our relation to nature, world population issues, the call for justice) is that these problems cannot be isolated from one another. For that reason, we really do need an outlook on reality which allows us to see the interconnectedness of our different concerns. The great danger threatening the world is to try to solve problems in isolation -- which according to the basic inspiration of process thought is in principle impossible.

Turning to the third characteristic suggested by W. Stegmaier to allow us to talk about "a classic," we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. Whitehead is sometimes very attractive by the breadth of his culture, by the amazing way he finds a cogent and inspiring expression for some deep insights. On the other hand, a book such as Process and Reality is, at first sight, extremely arduous and has discouraged many from further engagement in process thought. One sometimes feels like a squirrel, who likes the acorn but cannot get through the shell. One reason that process thought is still a minority movement may also be that its conceptuality is at first sight difficult to cope with. Maybe we should reconsider the appropriateness of certain Whiteheadian concepts and principles, such as the role of eternal objects and of the ontological principle within the system. Maybe we need to place more stress on the unity of the whole than on the discreetness of the parts. Maybe the whole has some priority over against the parts (which would imply that Creativity is somehow more basic and more active than the actual entities themselves). I think, however, that we should not concentrate on technical issues alone and develop a kind of Whiteheadian scholasticism.

I suggest that we have to reconsider the relative importance we give to the earlier works of Whitehead (the so called pre-systematic works), to the more technical "trilogy" (SR, RM, PR) and to the post-systematic works (such as AI and MT). We should distinguish between Whitehead-the-system-builder and Whitehead the philosopher-of-culture. What is needed today far more than a metaphysical system is a style of philosophizing in the process vein, which is at the same time faithful to Whitehead’s basic inspiration and still creative enough to face new challenges. It should be speculative and daring, and at the same time open to every element of our experience.


It follows from what has preceded that we may have reasons to be happy with process thought. It does not obliterate, however, other interests in phenomenology and linguistic analysis. I only wish that process thought could be more widely accepted as a constructive way of thinking in this anti-metaphysical time of de-construction (Martin Heidegger, Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida).

The special contribution of Leuven to ongoing Whiteheadian scholarship seems to me to be the drawing of a clearer distinction between the "philosophical absolute" and the "religious absolute." André Cloots has devoted a doctoral dissertation to the theme of creativity in Whitehead and Hartshorne. What comes out of his research is that Whitehead’s concept of God is far closer to the traditional than Hartshorne’s; on the other hand, Hartshorne seems to be in a better position to counter Heidegger’s criticism that in traditional Western onto-theology God is in fact reduced to a being amongst beings, although the Highest. In Hartshorne’s system however, God and Creativity have a tendency to coincide. It has seemed that a clearer distinction between Creativity and God is both required and possible, an argument that Cloots and I developed in our joint article (CGPTR).

An issue which surfaces again and again in our Louvain-discussions is the relationship between Whitehead and classical philosophy. Guest lecturers such as Ernest Wolf-Gazo and George Lucas devoted much attention to this problem. The dialogue between Whitehead and Kant is important in that respect. It seems to me that Whitehead cannot be reduced to a pre-Kantian thinker, although he himself has suggested that the philosophy of organism is an extension of certain pre-Kantian modes of thought. Whitehead says also, in Religion in the Making, that his own philosophy is an extension of the procedure that Kant applied in his Critique of Practical Reason: "This line of thought extends Kant’s argument. He saw the necessity for God in the moral order" (RM 104). Kant looks for the conditions of possibility of morality itself. Whitehead looks for that without which an ordered world would not be possible. "There is an actual world because there is an order in nature" (RM 104), and not the other way around. This is not an argument from design (in that case, it is not possible to find more than that what is given in nature itself); it is a true transcendental argument, looking for the conditions of possibility of those features that are truly exhibited by the world in which we live, and without which that world would not be conceivable. These are the so-called "formative elements," which truly belong to the metaphysical scheme.

A last question which arises is the very possibility of the whole metaphysical enterprise. Whitehead himself talks about "the distrust of metaphysical philosophy" as one of the signs of the time. This distrust has anything but decreased. Here the issue of "post-modernity" arises. I do not think that it can be claimed that Whitehead is a post-modern author (in the European sense of the word), but it seems to me that his conception of philosophy is far more subtle than the kind of metaphysics which is rejected by our contemporaries. Whitehead defines speculative philosophy as "the endeavor to frame a logical, coherent, applicable and adequate system of thought in terms of which every item of our experience can be conceived" (PR 3/4). Whitehead was fully aware of the constructive (i.e. "to frame") and tentative character of the whole philosophical enterprise, and of the pitfalls of language. That brings him far closer to the philosophic mood of our time than any rigid Whiteheadian scholasticism would allow.

Let me conclude with a somewhat re-written quotation from Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effects:

Those Whiteheadians who cannot combine reverence to Alfred North with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a career stifled by useless shadows (88).



AZP13 -- W. Stegmaier. "Klassiker Whitehead? Zu neuen Sammelbände über Whiteheads Philosophic der Innovation." Allgemeine Zeitschrift für Philosophie 13/2 (1988).

CGPTR -- André Cloots and Jan Van der Veken. "Can the God of Process Thought be ‘Redeemed’?" Ed. S. Sia. Charles Hartshorne’s Concept of God: Philosophical and Theological Responses. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989.

CNT -- John B. Cobb, Jr. A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead. Philadelphia: Westminister, 1965.

DR -- De dynamiek van de religie. Religion in the Making. Trans./comment. by J. Van der Veken. Kapellen-Kampen: DNB/Uitgeverij Pelckmans-Uitgeverij Kok Agora, 1988.

EG -- John A.T. Robinson. Exploration into God. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967.

GC -- God and Change. Ed. J. Van der Veken. Leuven: Center of Metaphysics and Philosophy of God, 1987.

GW -- God en wereld. Basisteksten uit de proces-theologie (an anthology of important texts on process thought). Select./trans./comment. by J. Van der Veken. Gravenhage: Meinema, 1989.

LS7 -- Louvain Studies 7/2 (Fall 1978): 75-114.

PD -- J. Van der Veken. Proces-denken. Een oriëntatie. Leuven: Centrum voor Metafysica en Wijsgerige Godsleer, 1985.

RG -- Schubert M. Ogden. The Reality of God and Other Essays. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

TF42 -- 2ijdschriftvoorFilosofie 42/1 (March 1980): 3-112. WP25 -- Wijsgerig perspectief op maatschappij en wetenschap 25/4 (1984-1985): 109.

WR -- Whitehead en de religie. Kon-teksten bil ‘Religion in the Making’. Ed. A. Cloots. Leuven: Center of Metaphysics and Philosophy of God-Peeters, 1990.



1. This extended version of the paper was also presented at the meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy in Buffalo, New York, March 3-4, 1990.