Sharing a Vague Vision: Wieman’s Early Critique of Whitehead

by C. Robert Mesle

Dr. Mesle was associate professor of philosophy and religion at Graceland College, Lamoni, Iowa in 1987.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 23-53, Vol. 20, Number 1, Spring, 1991. 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 traces the development of four major strands in Wieman’s thought which should both clarify his relationship to the philosophy of Whitehead and illuminate the growth of his own thought. Wieman eventually expressed sharp criticism of Whitehead’s philosophy.

In 1927, Henry Nelson Wieman began nearly 20 years of teaching at the University of Chicago Divinity School, commissioned, in part, to interpret the thought of Alfred North Whitehead for his colleagues and students. Bernard Meland, a member of Wieman’s first class on the philosophy of religion there, recalls that Wieman used only two texts for the course: Part IV of William Hocking’s The Meaning of God in Human Experience, and Whitehead’s Religion in the Making. Of these texts, Meland remarked that, "We studied them the way fundamentalists study the scriptures" (BEM). Because of this historical connection and because of his continued emphasis on the process of creativity, Wieman has often been grouped with the school of process philosophy and theology, and especially with Whitehead. While Wieman was certainly a process thinker in the broad sense, his use of the key terms "process" and "creativity" was often very different from Whitehead’s. And Wieman eventually expressed sharp criticism of Whitehead’s philosophy.

The central focus of this study is to trace the development of four major strands in Wieman’s thought, which should both clarify his relationship to the philosophy of Whitehead and illuminate the growth of his own thought.

This task is complicated by what Meland calls the "maverick" character of Wieman’s thought. Indeed, Meland adds, "Wieman’s thought was just one transition after another." But this is not to derogate Wieman. He was an experimenter who listened to those about him, both colleagues and students, with interest in and openness to new ideas and modes of expression. He was not afraid to grab hold of a phrase or concept and explore it in an article or even a chapter of a book and then, finding it wanting, drop it without further comment. Those ideas which survived this constant sorting process might take radically different forms from book to book. And running through much of this are his periodic re-evaluations of Whitehead.

Four Themes

Despite his wanderings, there is also a remarkable persistence in Wieman’s thought. I see at least four major strands running through his work which can be traced and which can help to clarify his understanding of, attraction to, and eventual disenchantment with Whitehead. They are:

1. A theory of Supreme Value which, despite many changes in formulation, can always be understood (whether or not Wieman himself said so explicitly) in aesthetic terms;

2. Correlative to his value theory, a definition of God as that Something which is supremely important to the increase of quality or value in human existence (although he wavered in his use of the designation "God" for that Something);1

3. The conviction that this Something is subject to scientific examination in the broad sense of empirical observation and rational reflection, and that we must not go beyond the empirical evidence in describing its nature;

4. The determination that our concept of God be a "workable" one, which persons can "adjust to" and assist through practical, concrete activity.

While few texts clearly discuss all four of these concerns, it does seem best to trace these strands chronologically.

Preview of Conclusions

Given the complexities and occasional inconsistencies in the development of Wieman’s thought and his critique of Whitehead, the following analysis will be easier to follow if the general conclusions are outlined in advance.

The most basic and consistent theme in Wieman’s thought is the quest to understand and describe the nature and source of supreme value in a way that will enable humans to experience the greatest increase of value. A central element in this quest was the insistence that it be empirically grounded. Wieman was always sensitive to the lack of precision inherent in any exploration of the breadth and depth of religious experience. Nevertheless, he never ceased to oppose any interpretation of God or the creative process which moved beyond the range of empirical and rational investigation. If something is not subject to such investigation, Wieman argued, then it must be outside the world of events relevant to our experience, and hence cannot possibly be the source of value which we seek.

Changes in Wieman’s own constructive thought and in his critique of White-head revolve around these central affirmations. Early in his career, Wieman was interested in creativity, or the source of supreme value, as a cosmic process. Consequently, he was willing to lean toward the speculative side of empirical philosophy. During this stage he was very attracted to Whitehead, who was then groping for just such a universal vision of reality and value. As an empiricist, Wieman felt comfortable with Whitehead’s explicit effort to develop a metaphysics which was informed by, and informing of, the modern sciences. As a value theorist, Wieman was attracted to Whitehead’s discussion of the process by which all value becomes actual.

Whitehead continued to sharpen his metaphysical vision, especially in Process and Reality. That additional specificity required that Whitehead be more speculative. Especially, Wieman believed Whitehead’s vision of the concrete nature of God was interpretive in ways which moved beyond the range of empirical verification. From Wieman’s point of view, I think, this doctrine not only lacked empirical justification, it also tended to move the source of human good further away from the range of human action.

While Whitehead was becoming more speculative and cosmological, Wieman was moving in the opposite direction. He was becoming more restrictive in his empiricism and less interested in cosmic processes. He was also focusing his concern more on specifically human experiences of creativity. Although Wieman never denied the relevance of larger cosmic processes to the human predicament, he became less interested in them and more suspicious of speculation. So despite the closeness of their common interests at some points, it can readily be seen why Wieman gradually moved away from Whitehead, while retaining an appreciation for Whitehead’s contribution to his thought.

The Beginnings The Organization of Interests, 1917

Two sources are especially informative for Wieman’s early period -- his dissertation in philosophy at Harvard, The Organization of Interests, and an article in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods of September, 1917, titled "A Criticism of Coordination as a Criterion of Moral Value." Together, these provide an important picture of the origins of much that will follow.

It seems most appropriate to begin with the thesis.

Our problem will be to discover that organization of human interests which is most conducive to their maximum fulfillment. The object of our desire is the greatest good. The principle of organization, which we propose, we shall call creativity. Our thesis is that all interests should be so organized as to function as one; and that one should be a creative interest. Interest which is directed to developing a fuller consciousness of some object, and not for any ulterior end, is what we shall call creative interest. It is creative of integrated experience. We believe that the organization which causes all the processes constitutive of human life to function in satisfying creative interest, is the organization of life which yields the most complete and continuous satisfaction. (OI 3)

Note the centrality of creativity, the analysis of human life in terms of processes, and especially the beginnings of an aesthetic theory of value.

Beauty was the central value category for Whitehead, because in his vision reality is constituted by drops of experience which must integrate complex data (feelings) into a unity with both harmony and contrasts. The published texts do not indicate that Wieman was explicitly working with an aesthetic ideal in mind at the start of his career. But I think they do suggest that he was moving in that direction. The "thesis...that all interests should be organized as to function as one," so as to be "creative of integrated experience," while "sustaining and increasing the number of different elements or aspects of the world which enter into consciousness," seems to adumbrate a vision of aesthetic organization of value experience (OI 3, 15).

What might qualify any claim as to the aesthetic character of Wieman’s model was his concern to distinguish "organization" from "coordination," coupled with his specification that "Coordination means harmony, but . . .organization does not" (JPPS14:539). Wieman challenged the theory of coordination’s claim that "all conflict is evil because it means that two or more interests are preventing each other from that full measure of satisfaction which each would enjoy if they were delivered from this condition of mutual frustration" (JPPS 14:534). Wieman offered the obvious refutation that such conflict is not only inherent in existence, but at times desirable. In his dissertation a specific example of this appeared that was central to his theory of interests: conflict intensifies consciousness, the source of interests.

Primary consciousness consists of perceptions; secondary of the phenomena of reflection, of memory, of conception, of desires, fears, hopes, affections. . . . The development of secondary consciousness is the development of self-consciousness. Its growth is what we mean by creativity. (OI 8)

What tended to blur the aesthetic consciousness in Wieman’s approach was not just the denunciation of harmony, but also the emphasis on conflict that results from this concern for the growth of self-consciousness. Wieman believed that "It is the antagonism of other minds which more than anything else, stimulates the processes of secondary consciousness" (OI 8). He went so far as to claim that "Coordination has no value for creative interest except as it enters in to magnify the conflicts of systems, and thereby make consciousness more vivid and complicated" (OI 15).

This failure to express clearly the need for balance between harmony and conflict need not be taken as an indication of serious deficiency of insight on Wieman’s part, for he acknowledged (though almost grudgingly) that "creative interest is fulfilled in reducing uncoordinated interests to a coordinated system, provided these systems can be applied to a wider range and complexity of antagonistic responses" (OI 15). There is, in fact, an embryonic suggestion of Whitehead’s concept of peace as it appears in Adventure of Ideas, combined with what could just as well be termed, with Whitehead, "harmony and intensity of feeling." Wieman writes:

So we reach the conclusion that discord of interests is a value because it is the sole condition which satisfies one of the inalienable interests of human nature, namely, the interest in creativity. Whether the mutual thwarting of impulses does, or does not, have values depends on whether there exists in the individual this state of mind, this onward-pressing consciousness, which seeks that satisfaction found in the forming of new combinations and the consequent growth in the range and vividness of consciousness. For such a mind all experience would have positive value, the conflicts as well as the harmonies, just so far as all experience is integrated in the growth of an expanding consciousness. Hence, the supreme moral achievement would be the establishment of such a state of mind. . . . (JPPSI4:539)

We should also note that even then Wieman sought to restrict his efforts to a workable arena, while acknowledging that the problem itself is not so limited.

We cannot for several reasons make a distinct study of that natural environment which would be most favorable to satisfaction of human needs. Such a study would lead us too far afield. The significance of climate, rivers, soil, seaboard, mountains, etc., it [sic] is no doubt very great, as well as the wider cosmic processes. But every field of investigation must be more or less arbitrarily limited. So we shall restrict ourselves to activities most conducive to satisfaction. . . . (OI 5)

It is not simply the explicit decision to limit the discussion which is important, but also the decision as to what the limits shall be (human activities) and the recognition of the relevant data being excluded (the wider cosmic processes) which are of interest. While Wieman was not always faithful to this resolve, it does foreshadow his eventual movement away from Whitehead, as well as the vision which originally attracted Wieman to him.

Sharing a Vague Vision

Bernard Meland, reflecting on Wieman’s period of enthusiasm for Whitehead, remarked that "It is often the very vagueness of an idea which makes it so attractive." And indeed, it was in the vague, groping efforts of Whitehead in Concept of Nature, Science and the Modern World, and Religion in the Making, that Wieman found such exciting prospects for a whole new way to get at the problem of God through the joint efforts of science and religion. "I remember his saying in class," Meland continued, "that there are possibilities in Whitehead’s early writings for a metaphysics that would be just right for us if he would just turn his attention to metaphysics." This interest in metaphysics points to another important aspect of this period. It is during this time that Wieman briefly departed from his resolve to limit his investigation. Only when struggling for a vision of the whole of reality -- of the "wider cosmic processes" -- did he share the special excitement of Whitehead’s endeavor.

Religious Experience and Scientific Method, 1926

It is precisely this excitement which flows so electrically through Religious Experience and Scientific Method, and which Wieman strove to convey to his students. Once again, Meland re-creates for us the atmosphere of that period.

I should say that to me, the exciting thing about the first book is that I think it was at this time Wieman had been almost poetically, aesthetically, religiously aroused by Whitehead. And he’s engaged in trying to say what he knows he cannot say, but which it is important to perceive if there is any way of pointing to it. It almost has the vividness of some of the things you find in scripture where someone has had a vision, and all he can say is "Come and see! Come and see!" And he is saying that about quotes from Whitehead. Come and see what this man has said. And ponder what he has said. See that this is not simply a matter of language, ideals, or something we fabricate in terms of our own wishful outreach. He’s talking about happening. He’s talking about the way the whole universe, the total datum of the universe, at this moment, at any moment, actually is.

Wieman defined the purpose of the book as an attempt to show the objective character of religious experience in the sense that the "religious experience is experience of an object, however undefined, which is as truly external to the individual as is any tree or stone he may experience. It signifies something which extends beyond that space-time occupied by the individual undergoing the experience" (RESM 5). And of course that object is God.

Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. (RESM 9)

This Something may be either the universe as "a single organic unity" or it may be only "certain of these sustaining conditions," but in either case,

The word God, taken with its very minimum meaning, is the name for this Something of supreme value. God may be much more than this, but he is certainly this by definition. In this sense, with this minimum meaning, God cannot be denied. His existence is absolutely certain. He is simply that which is supremely significant in all the universe for human living, however known or unknown he maybe. He is certainly the object of supreme value. (RESM 9-10)

While Wieman was not dealing specifically with value theory in this text, his concern that God be identified with supreme value is clearly stated. It was here, however, that he established the correlation between God and supreme value via the undefined Something. To the extent that this Something actually remained undefined (beyond the minimum offered above), Wieman was introducing a rigid empiricism to which he would not be entirely faithful here, but to which he would return in later years.

The claim that he was not fully empirical in this rigid sense requires some explanation. The basic logic presented above is this: Human beings could not survive unless some condition or conditions beneficent to them existed. Human beings do, however, exist and experience some degree of value and prosperity. Therefore some condition or conditions beneficial to persons must exist. The empirical support for this argument is so fundamental that Wieman considered this argument to be effectively beyond dispute. Almost on a par with this is the correlative conclusion that this Something must be a concrete reality experience-able by humans in some manner. This was the kind of highly restrictive empiricism with which Wieman would later attack Whitehead -- but not yet.

The attempt to define the nature of the Something more precisely led Wieman to the search for a method. Since he was convinced that the reality he sought must be a concrete one, subject to experience, he argued for a scientific method. "The knowledge of God must ultimately be subjected to scientific method," (RESM 23) "if by science we understand merely that method by which truth and error are discriminated and knowledge verified" (RESM 32-3). But in order to define God, the Something which underlies human existence and welfare, a new kind of science is needed. The advance of human knowledge has demanded, and subsequently resulted from, the development of new methods of identifying and dealing with the data within a certain scope of human experience: first the physical and chemical, and then, more recently, the social and psychological. Wieman was quite aware of the charges that these latter disciplines, and certainly the religious arena, were not and never could be proper subjects for science. But his argument was that just as the physical and chemical sciences (he distinguished the two on the grounds that chemistry developed from the pseudo-science of alchemy) were once vague and unscientific because they had not yet learned to properly discriminate the relevant data, so the social sciences were then (as now) struggling to develop adequate methods for discrimination of data. Given time, he believed they would succeed. Thus far, Wieman was still seeking a non-speculative empiricism, but he soon began to blur that distinction.

The basic difference between the social and physical sciences, he argued, is that the former are confronted by data which are so much more complex and inter-related than the latter. Thus, it has required and will require longer to develop adequate methods to deal with the data. But the most complex and far-reaching of all aspects of human concern is the religious one. As a result it requires the most sophisticated of all scientific methods. Furthermore, the central source of data for the study of religion must obviously be religious experience. But "the datum of religious experience is so exceedingly complex that no method has yet been devised which is fit to treat it scientifically" (RESM 23).

Wieman had already indicated that he did not know whether God was to be conceived as the whole of the universe or only as a part of it, a limited set of conditions within it. It was his tendency throughout the book to pursue the first alternative, very probably in response to the Whiteheadian vision, that led him to conclude in his preface to the 1971 edition that "In this book I still retained features of the idea of God beyond the reach of empirical inquiry and hence obstructive to the full cooperation of science and religion" (RESM 3). Indeed, it was precisely his effort to incorporate the cosmic vision of Whitehead (especially the idea of experiencing all of reality as a single complex datum) into his own interpretation of religious experience that created such tension in his efforts to effect a union between religious experience and scientific method; for the task of science is to "prune down the objects [of experience] to the limits of its own powers of definition and minute examination," while "religion must deal with the total concrete fact..." (RESM 53).

The several sciences can help immensely in our attempts to understand this datum of religious experience, but until we get a science which can study this datum without reducing it to the data peculiar to some other science, we cannot give a scientific explanation of it.... The science adapted to the investigation of the religious problem has not yet attained maturity. It is still in the womb of philosophy which is the mother of all sciences. (RESM 296)

It seems likely that the philosophy which Wieman hoped would give birth to this science was at least in part Whiteheadian. The specific text to which he refers is Concept of Nature, from which he extracted two major concerns: one epistemological and one metaphysical. First, Wieman noted Whitehead’s concern that the object of experience must be granted an objective reality separate from the experiencing subject. Wieman was careful to acknowledge that White-head himself avoided discussing the religious aspects of any of the problems under consideration. But the general concern to avoid any solipsism was certainly in Whitehead’s mind, and Wieman understood Whitehead’s position to be relevant to his own. He pointed to Whitehead’s rejection of the "bifurcation" of nature, interpreting this to mean that the "object or event observed must not be confused with the mind that does the observing" (RESM 178).

In this we most heartily agree. We feel that he has contributed immensely to the clarification of the whole field of experience by this insistence; and that he has opened the way to a far more satisfactory interpretation of the object of religious experience as well as to a more satisfactory scientific description of natural processes. As long as we think that the observing mind must perforce give its own qualities to everything which it observes, our thinking is constantly moving in a circle and we find our-selves headed toward solipsism with almost every turn. (RESM 179)

Given the initial statement of the purpose of Wieman’s book, the impact of Whitehead on Wieman at this point is evident.

Perhaps even more important is the concept of the "total event" of experience which Wieman also credited to Whitehead. The account of this totality to which Wieman referred was clearly an early formulation of the process of concretion which, in Process and Reality, is the process by which individual actualities acquire concreteness, or definiteness. Quoting the Concept of Nature:

. . .The past and future meet and mingle in the ill-defined present. The passage of nature which is only another name for the creative force of existence has no narrow ledge of definite instantaneous present within which to operate. Its operative present which is now urging nature forward must be sought for throughout the whole, in the remotest past as well as in the narrowest breadth of any present duration. Perhaps also in the unrealized future.(CN 73 = RESM 153)

Wieman tended to deal with this largely in terms of living organisms who are able to remember, learn, and anticipate, but he did not limit it to this, acknowledging that, "In fact, Whitehead seems to be very sure that the whole passage of nature involves in its operative present all the past" (RESM 158). It should be explained, however, that his tendency to emphasize the organic quality of such "mnemonic accumulation" is not to exclude the inorganic in nature but to toy with the idea of a cosmic consciousness, spirit or mind.

May we not conclude, then, that life, purpose and spirit all have this generic character of mnemonic accumulation.... Here, then, do we not have a tenable concept of spirit and purpose? It is the preservation of the past as operative in the present and as shaping the future. Such mind and purpose throughout nature would be an "operative present" which included "the remotest past as well as the narrowest breadth of any present duration," and furthermore included "the future that might be" as well as the future "that shall be." (RESM 158-9)

This early form of concretion was even more important as it took shape in Wieman’s concept of religious experience. Quoting Whitehead again, Wieman found just the description of mystical awareness that he wanted. "The immediate fact for awareness is the whole occurrence of nature" (RESM 176, CN 14). Wieman seemed puzzled that "Whitehead does not seem to attach any value to this state of awareness, that Whitehead in fact conjectured that this might be the kind of awareness present in lower life forms. As an early approach to perception in the mode of causal efficacy, this is hardly surprising to Whiteheadians, but it is also hardly surprising that it should have confused Wieman, who was interpreting this awareness as the apex of religious experience, the source of data for the new religious science he envisioned. Thus we come again to the recognition that it was the very vagueness of Whitehead’s formulation, at least as read by Wieman, which made it possible for Wieman to be so excited by it. This is not to say that at this early stage Wieman was unfaithful to Whitehead or grossly misinterpreting him. Quite the contrary, he did seem to have grasped several important concepts and to have harnessed them successfully to his own endeavor as is seen in the following citations.

In fact, Whitehead is most emphatic in his rejection of materialism; and we believe that his work, together with that of others akin to him, has rendered materialism altogether obsolete among the well informed. Furthermore, his insistence that the event, rather than the object, is the basic fact of nature and that nature is marked by a "creative advance" lends itself most readily to the religious interpretation. For "event" and "creative advance" mean precisely that in nature the past does not drop out of existence with each successive instant, as materialism would declare, but that the past continues operative with the present to shape the future. And this, as we saw last chapter, is precisely the best idea we can form of mind, purpose and life.

There is, above all, one all-inclusive event including all other events, and having as its ingredients all objects. (RESM 180-I)

This "total event" can no doubt be correctly described as having electrons as its ingredients, and many other things besides. It can also be described as having God as its ingredient. That is to say, it can be correctly defined as that which, when made the object of attentive awareness, yields the values of religious experience. That is what we mean by God when approached from the standpoint of experience. (RESM 178)

This last passage is especially important, for it draws together the notion of God, value, and experience. Of it, Meland wrote in the margin of his text, "This is the beginning of Wieman’s empirical search for God as a definitive event." But I believe it can be argued equally well that it was rather the point at which he crossed over into the vision which he later came to believe was too broad to be workable or empirically sound and from which he eventually retreated. In either case, the power of Whitehead’s influence is evident here in Wieman’s thoughts on value, his efforts to define the Something, and his early efforts to expand the range of experience open to a yet-to-be-developed scientific method of interpreting religious experience.

The Wrestle of Religion with Truth, 1927

It was in his second book, The Wrestle of Religion with Truth, however, that Wieman embraced most completely the thought of Whitehead, specifically as found in Religion in the Making and (to some extent) Science and the Modern World(WRT 181-2). Meland agrees, and goes further to say that,

It represented a total commitment to Whitehead for giving a definition to the meaning of God, in almost a behavioral sense of the word. What stood out as an almost mystical vision in the first book, now came down to a kind of a working broad delineation, in a behavioral fashion, to the specific behavior in the universe that was to be designated God.

It is worth pausing to remind ourselves that Wieman’s wholehearted endorsement was of Whitehead’s thought as Wieman understood it then. As Meland indicates, Wieman understood Whitehead’s God in terms of the behavior of the universe itself. Wieman saw Whitehead’s God at this point as the fully immanent principle of concretion, as (a dimension of) the universe’s "system of organization," the "make-up of the universe," or the "inherent nature of all things" (WRT 185), not as the more transcendent actual entity who emerged (more clearly?) in Process and Reality. Wieman also saw Whitehead ‘s God at this point as fully temporal. God here is an aspect of the temporal order of the universe, not a non-temporal ordering entity. God is a dimension or aspect of the order of the universe because in Wieman’s view God (the principle of concretion) is the source of good, but not of evil. Hence God cannot be identified without qualification as the structure of all reality.

Was his understanding accurate? We might object, for example, that Wieman never responded here to Whitehead’s references to God as a "non-temporal actual entity" (RM 88) -- a crucial omission. Yet, at the same time, Wieman’s reading of Whitehead can have historical importance for us since it is not shaped by a prior reading of Process and Reality. We should be careful not simply to assume that we have a clearly superior understanding of Whitehead’s 1926 mind because we see how ideas blossomed in later works. Perhaps it is Wieman (obviously one of the best-informed and most careful contemporary readers of Whitehead) who gives us a clearer picture of Whitehead at that point -- precisely by being free of our temporal bias. For my purposes here it is not crucial to decide whether Wieman accurately understood Whitehead’s view of God, and I have no great wish to defend Wieman. But those with historical interests may wish to consider the value of his contemporary reading of Whitehead.

With that introductory comment, let me return to our primary strategy. Each of the four strands outlined at the beginning of this study was clearly and explicitly developed in this text, or more accurately, in three chapters (XI, XII, XLII) which were devoted exclusively to the interpretation of Whitehead’s principle of concretion. I will consequently organize the analysis of these three chapters according to the four strands.

The principle of concretion is the principle of aesthetic organization in the universe, and hence, said Wieman, the source of supreme value. Quoting Whitehead’s assertion that "All order is therefore aesthetic order, and the moral order is merely certain aspects of aesthetic order" (RM 101), Wieman concurred.

Why is the most basic order of the universe, and the order to be identified with God, the aesthetic rather than the moral or conceptual? Because the aesthetic is the most rich and full. The aesthetic is the order of concreteness. The aesthetic order includes the moral and conceptual and much more, because it is the order of the total concrete fullness of the world. (WRT 186)

To be moral, then, men must be more than moral. They must be aesthetic. And to be profoundly aesthetic, in Whitehead’s sense, is to be religious. (WRT 190)

Some note should certainly be taken of the fact that Wieman was not satisfied with the term "aesthetic" to describe the experience of this order; i.e., of religious experience. He felt that it carries too restrictive a connotation and that it implies too passive an experience. Clearly, however, this in no way contradicts the claim that his value system is an aesthetic one. His point was only that the word is not generally understood to refer to the character of reality as a whole or the religious experience of that order.

It was not until the concept of aesthetic value in the process of concretion was interpreted as the Something which is supremely important to the increase of value and quality in human life that this picture became more clear. And perhaps to round it out, it would be best to include the fourth concept specified, that of a workable concept of God to which people can and must adjust.

In the chapter on "The Religious Test of this Concept," Wieman asked specifically,

Does the concept designate that Something in all being upon which human life must depend and to which humans must adjust, in order to attain the greatest possibilities of good and escape the greatest possibilities of evil? (WRT 198)

The answer, according to Wieman, is that the principle of concretion does satisfy this test. First, because it implies a benevolent character on the part of reality toward the general accumulation of value and richness. "For what is universal love if not the ordering of all being in such a way that it can enter most fully into the existence of every particular thing?" The same thing would be true if God were defined as beauty. "For is not beauty precisely this entrance of all parts into each part?" In either case, if God be love or beauty, it is clear that God as the principle of concretion is, according to this test, that which increases value throughout reality. Thus "God must be the principle of concretion" (WRT 198-200).

But insofar as prehension, the mechanism of concretion developed in Science and the Modern World (and later in Process and Reality), can be interpreted in specifically human terms, this aesthetic principle is especially crucial to the increase of value in human existence, providing persons adjust themselves to it. A dog prehends more richly than a grain of sand, a person more richly and fully than a dog. Further, a genuinely cultured person with a wider range of exposure and sensitivity prehends more richly and completely than a savage, Wieman suggests. And finally, if the person is a prehender of other persons, a lover of persons whose lives are also filled with rich prehensions, then we have, according to Wieman, the richest kind of human existence. "In such a person we have the divine order of concretion reaching its highest degree of actualization in this existent world, so far as we have knowledge. The best man in the best society is the most concrete thing we can have in this world. He is the most divine" (WRT 196).

Lewis Ford is probably correct in holding that Wieman departed from Whitehead by seeing concretion as something which occurred in degrees (EWM 148). For Wieman, the more concrete something is, the more value it achieves; while for Whitehead something either becomes concrete (actual) or it does not. Thus for Whitehead, the principle of concretion is the ground of good and evil alike; while for Wieman, the principle -- God -- is unambiguously good. In chapter XIII of Wrestle Wieman adopted the classic Augustinian argument (as in De Natura Boni) that evil is ultimately parasitic on the principle of concretion, which is itself good. This determination to define God as absolutely good persisted in Wieman’s thought throughout his career.

Lastly, Wieman would hardly fail to be captivated by the strong empirical emphasis in Whitehead’s discussions of the principle of concretion in general. and God in particular. Consider, for example, Whitehead’s statement in Religion in the Making:

It is not the case that there is an actual world which accidentally happens to exhibit an order of nature. There is an actual world because there is an order of nature. If there were no order, there would be no world. (RM 101)

The argument that "since there is a world, we know there is an order," is obviously like Wieman’s argument that since persons exist and prosper there must be Something beneficial to us. This order, of course, for Whitehead, is the principle of concretion, which is God. But the empirical demands and opportunities go further, for while concretion may be necessary as a general metaphysical principle, Whitehead adds that "there can be no metaphysical reason for what is determined.... What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis" (SMW 178). That is, the general principle of concretion cannot tell us in advance what, specifically, will become concrete. Only experience can tell us this. Wieman was also impressed that Whitehead was working out of a context of mathematics and thorough familiarity with modern physics, and devoted a chapter to "The Scientific Test of this Concept," in which he also affirmed a resounding "yes" to Whitehead.

"A Workable Idea of God," 1929

The next expression of Wieman’s thinking of significance for this study appears in The Christian Century for February 14, 1929, under the title "A Workable Idea of God." Here he began by warning his readers against ideas which are merely pleasant or enjoyable at the expense of workability. "A workable idea of God is one which enables us to join ourselves with his working in such a way as to promote it and to be sustained and strengthened and enriched by it.... Ideas of God which give pleasant inner experiences but have no other practical value are dangerous because they either soothe us to negligent passivity or else divert our energies into unprofitable channels" (CC46:226).

In order to be workable, a concept of God must identify God with "Whatever actual operating process in the universe is capable of producing the greatest good" (CC46:226). Obviously such a concept must be founded on facts gained through empirical analysis and rational thought. Even if such study leads us to something comparatively unromantic or unexciting, like "electrons, or the organic chemistry of the living cell, or the autonomic nervous system or the sun or anything else, then the workable idea of God would say: Lo, this is God. This is what we must work with and connect with in order to attain the greatest goods" (CC46:226).

Repeating the reasoning encountered before, he asserted the obviousness of the presence of some value-making process in the universe. There is some value, so there must be something which works to create value, whatever it is. He then went on to define value in terms similar to those used before, but with more of an emphasis on activity. "Wherever we find anything which can be called a value or a good, we find two or more activities or factors working together to sustain and enhance one another" (CC46:226). Given this, it is clear, he said, that "The value making process of the universe is that process by which activities are brought together in such a way as to sustain one another." "Value is increased by increasing the degree to which factors support one another and also by increasing the number of different factors which enter into mutual support" (CC46:227). Then, in a very Whiteheadian way, he concluded that God "is the constitutional tendency of the universe toward progressive integration.... Without this tendency the universe would fall to pieces and become a multiverse or chaos" (CC46:228).

He then foreshadowed two themes later to be developed in The Source of Human Good.

That does not mean that the universe will inevitably develop richer integrations and higher values, because there are other tendencies which work against it. But it does mean that the tendency which is God, no matter how obstructed, will always operate as long as there is any universe at all. (CC46:228)

Nature might take other routes, but in the absence of empirical data to that effect,

we must hold that the way of progressive integration lies through the increase of human good. It thrills through all the universe but comes to fullest flower in human friendliness and mutual understanding, in aesthetic and logical organization of shared experience, in all the arts and sciences and in a planet transfigured with creations of beauty. (CC46:228)

While this article may in some ways have already marked the beginnings of a transition to more independent thinking on Wieman’s part, it seems more appropriate to conclude this section with his review of Process and Reality, in January of 1930, He began with an observation destined to evoke knowing smiles of agreement from every student who struggles through this Herculean text. "Not many will read Whitehead’s recent book in this generation; not many will read it in any generation" (JR 10:137). While emphasizing the inability of any man to conceive adequately or express fully the character of reality, Wieman gave Whitehead the sober but high praise, "There is reason to believe the best possible answer up to date is here presented. Some day there will be a better answer, but not now" (JR 10:137-8).

As we would expect, Wieman expressed certain aspects of Whitehead’s thought here in terms appropriate to his own concerns. Never using any of Whitehead’s own language, which he, like many others, felt was excessively original, he nevertheless stressed that "Events constitute the ultimate fact beyond which there can be nothing else" (JR 10:139). This theme would be foundational for The Source of Human Good, even though in a very different sense than Whitehead meant it. In line with concerns already seen, Wieman noted Whitehead’s acknowledgement of the mutually exclusive character of many great values and concluded that "Therefore the chief problem of progress is to organize the world in such a way as to make less mutually exclusive and more mutually inclusive the best that men can experience and the best that can ever occur" (JR1O:138). He identified God with the organization in the universe which works to achieve this in regard to both actualities and possibilities (i.e., the primordial nature of God), and concluded his review with the assertion that "Through him is all increase of value" (JRIO: 139). This return to Wieman’s own dominant concern may not be an accurate representation of Whitehead’s own central intent, but it is certainly a major tribute to Whitehead’s doctrine of God from Wieman’s perspective.

At the beginning of this section, Bernard Meland recalled for us Wieman’s wish that Whitehead would turn his attention to metaphysics. It should now be added that he further remarked that Wieman "got more than he asked for in Process and Reality. That ‘more’ was the consequent nature of God." Although Wieman singled out Chapter I of Part V for special tribute, he totally ignored Chapter II and made no reference whatsoever to the dipolar God. We can hardly imagine that he failed to notice this crucial addition to Whitehead’s metaphysics. Something new had been added and Wieman apparently needed time to reconsider.



BEM -- Bernard Eugene Meland. All quotations from Meland are taken from tapes in my personal files of three conversations we shared on 11/4/75, 12/2/75 and 12/16/75. Meland was a student, and later a colleague of Wieman’s, as well as being himself a major figure in empirical process theology at the University of Chicago.


APR -- With Bernard E. Meland. American Philosophies of Religion. Chicago: Willett, Clarke & Co., 1936.

JPPS14 -- "A Criticism of Coordination as a Criterion of Moral Value." The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods (now the J. of Philosophy) 14/20 (Sept. 27) 1917.

RR -- "God and Value." Religious Realism. Ed. D. C. MacIntosh. NY: Macmillan, 1931.

ETW -- "Intellectual Autobiography." The Empirical Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman. Ed. Robert Bretall. NY: Macmillan, 1963.

ITG -- With D. C. MacIntosh and Max Carl Otto. Is There a God? A collection of articles from The Christian Century. Ed. Charles Clayton Morrison. Chicago, NY: Willett, Clarke & Co., 1932.

MUC -- Man ‘s Ultimate Commitment. Edwardsville and Carbondale: S.I.U. Press, 1974 (first published in 1958).

NPR -- With Regina Westcott-Wieman. Normative Psychology of Religion. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1935. (Wieman wrote the chapter on "Supreme Value.")

OI -- The Organization of Interests. Ed. Cedric L. Hepler. NY: University Press of America, 1985. (Wieman’s 1917 Ph.D. thesis at Harvard.)

JR10 -- "A Philosophy of Religion." Journal of Religion 10/1 (January, 1930). (A review of Whitehead’s PR.)

RESM -- Religious Experience and Scientific Method. Edwardsville and Carbondale: S.I.U. Press, 1971. (First published in 1926).

RI -- Religious Inquiry. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

JR19 -- Review of Whitehead’s MT. The Journal of Religion 19/2 (April, 1939): 237-9.

SHG -- The Source of Human Good. Edwardsville and Carbondale: S.I.U. Press, 1967. (First published in 1946).

JR14 – "Values: Primary Data for Religious Inquiry." The Journal of Religion, 16/14 (October, 1936).

CC46 – "A Workable Idea of God." The Christian Century 46 (Feb. 14, 1929): 226-8.

WRT -- The Wrestle of Religion with Truth. NY: Macmillan, 1927.



1Wieman’s interest in the term "God" seems to have fluctuated considerably. In his "Intellectual Autobiography," he asserted that, "Never once in my life have I doubted the reality of God..." (ETW 6). But this is not to say that he always affirmed that this reality must be called God. Certainly that name lacks prominence in The Source of Human Good (SHG) in comparison with terms like "creative event" or "qualitative meaning." Meland expressed his view that while Wieman may have been a valuable member of the University of Chicago faculty, he was somewhat out of place there as a philosopher among theologians. In an interview Wieman granted me on May 24, 1975. shortly before his death, he indicated that he felt that there must be an alternative to the terms "theist" and "humanist" which would more accurately describe him. In Is There a God?, he wrote, "Perhaps I am an atheist, as Mr. Otto says I am. But give me a word, if you take from me the word ‘God.’ I must have a word that I may speak of that which is so plainly pointed out by the glory and passion, tragedy and despair of human living." See also his article, "On Using the Word ‘God’: A Reply," in the Journal of Philosophy 30 (July 20, 1933), pp. 399-404.