The Approach to Whitehead: Traditional? Genetic? or Systematic?

by Jorge Luis Nobo

Jorge Luis Nobo is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Washburn University of Topeka, Kansas 66621.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 48-63, Vol. 27:1-2, Spring – Summer, 1998. 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.


Dr. Nobo believes Dr. Ford’s genetic approach must be given up for a more systematic approach.

I am concerned here not with particular interpretations of Whitehead’s metaphysics, but with certain contrasting assumptions guiding how different interpreters, or different groups of interpreters, have approached, or are currently approaching, that interpretative task. These assumptions are such that, to a lesser or greater degree, they constrain or dictate the overall interpretative strategy used by those whom they guide. In consequence, the assumptions characterizing a particular approach to Whitehead can and do affect the accuracy and coherence of the interpretations yielded by that approach. If the assumptions are unfounded or misguided, they can unnecessarily restrict the texts to which an interpretation appeals, or they can force it to slight or misinterpret important texts. Well-founded assumptions, on the other hand, can greatly assist the interpretative task and thus enhance the likelihood of its success. Clearly, then, a study of the various assumptions underlying the different approaches from which the interpretations of Whitehead proceed is of fundamental importance and very much in order.

To date, interpretations of Whitehead have proceeded from three different approaches, each of which is defined by a different set of guiding assumptions. The oldest and most widespread approach may be termed traditional. It operates under the general guidance of three basic assumptions: first and most distinctive, that the whole of Whitehead’s metaphysical system finds complete expression between the covers of Process and Reality; second, that only one self-same metaphysical system is to be found between those covers; and third, that this self-same metaphysical system, at least in its general outline and perhaps in a less mature form, finds partial expression in Science and the Modern World, Religion in the Making, and Symbolism. From this approach have proceeded the interpretations authored by A.H. Johnson, Ivor Leclerc, William Christian, Donald Sherburne, and Edward Pals. Jointly, these interpretations, which we may justly label traditional, define an important epoch in Whiteheadian scholarship.

More recently, the traditional approach has been challenged, in different ways and in different respects, by the novel approaches to Whitehead undertaken by Lewis Ford and myself. In doing so we have put into question also, though again in different ways and respects, the adequacy of traditional interpretations.

Our efforts thus signal the substantive difference that different approaches can make, as well as the importance of taking the best approach possible, by which I mean the one with the most warranted and illuminating assumptions.

In keeping with the terms used by Ford to characterize our contrasting interpretative strategies, his approach may be termed genetic, and mine, systematic (EWM 178). Each approach makes a distinctive or defining assumption, but both are partly defined in relation to their respective takes on the assumptions made by the traditional approach. For this last reason, it must be noted that Ford implicitly agrees with my characterization of the traditional approach, but attributes to it an additional or fourth assumption: that the third part of Process and Reality constitutes the canonical text on which the interpretation of Whitehead must be primarily based (RIWW 47; ECTC 1). I am not entirely sure that this assumption is made by all traditional interpreters, but can waive the issue for the limited purposes of this essay. What is important is that Ford’s own interpretation of Whitehead assumes the canonical status of the said third part, and that he believes that all traditional interpretations make the same assumption.

The systematic approach denies any privileged or canonical status to Part m of Process and Reality. More importantly, its defining assumption is that Whitehead’s whole metaphysical system is nor found entirely in any one of his books. Granted, the greater part of it is found in his magnum opus, but much that is essential to its coherence and applicability, and thus to its accurate interpretation, is found only in earlier and later works. This approach, however, does agree with the traditional one in holding that only one self-same metaphysical system is conveyed in Process and Reality, and that this one self-same system animates all Whitehead’s works from Science and the Modern World onwards.

In contrast, Ford’s genetic approach shares with the traditional one the assumption that the whole of Whitehead’s metaphysical system can be found completely in Process and Reality. But it rejects the second and third assumptions by which the traditional approach is defined. For Ford claims, first, that Whitehead’s magnum opus contains numerous passages expressing various metaphysical positions that Whitehead once held but gave up in favor of a final metaphysical position expressed primarily in the supposedly canonical Part III; and second, that this final position is not to be found in any of the books or articles Whitehead wrote before composing his Gifford Lectures. These two claims are based on the defining assumption of Ford’s genetic approach: that Whitehead’s metaphysical thought changed almost constantly from the time he came to Harvard in 1924 until it finally crystallized, in late 1928, during the last stages of preparing for publication his Gifford Lectures. This defining assumption, we shall see shortly, requires Ford to make a host of problematic assumptions about how Whitehead gave expression to his rapidly changing metaphysical positions.

We now have to determine which of these competing approaches rests on the most warranted set of assumptions and is thus most likely to lead to an accurate interpretation of Whitehead’s metaphysics, one adequate to the whole range of relevant texts. My main contention, of course, will be that the honor belongs to the systematic approach; but I will also strongly suggest that some assumptions made by the other two approaches are not only unwarranted, but dangerous to the adequacy and integrity of the shared interpretative task. In pursuit of these goals, I will examine the three approaches in respect to what direct, or external, evidence there may be to justify adopting any one of them in preference to the other two. In the end, I will argue that the external evidence overwhelmingly supports the systematic approach.

I. Ford on Whitehead

Ford’s strategy of genetic analysis rests on a number of claims -- often boldly stated as if they reported obvious or well-documented facts -- concerning the development of Whitehead’s metaphysical thought and the manner in which Whitehead composed his books. In this regard, the most basic of Ford’s claims is that, after coming to Harvard, Whitehead developed new metaphysical ideas and positions at such breakneck speed that his writings and lectures could not keep pace with his thought: the writings or lectures of one week were partially or completely superseded by those of a few weeks later (PEHP 15; COP 73; RIWW 50; FPP 41). This distinctive claim underlies the genetic approach and is presupposed by all the habits of composition that Ford attributes to Whitehead. In the remainder of this section, I summarize what Ford has to say on these matters.

As Whitehead’s metaphysical thought advanced to newly gained positions, Ford holds, it left in its wake a rapidly expanding accumulation of writings expressing views once held but now abandoned or significantly modified. But, Ford claims, Whitehead both disliked engaging in any extensive revision of his writings and could not bear to leave them unpublished -- even if they conveyed doctrines he had already abandoned or substantially modified (EWM 178, 190; RIWW 50; FPP 42). For these reasons, he claims, Whitehead decided to publish the writings conveying modified or abandoned views right alongside the newer writings presenting his latest or final views.

Whitehead, however, was reluctant to acknowledge in print the rapid changes his thought had undergone (COP 75, fn. 2; FPP 42). Accordingly, rather than giving any explicit indication of how or why his views had changed, Whitehead devised a method of getting his readers to emphasize superseding doctrines over superseded ones, to interpret expressions of earlier positions in terms of expressions of later ones, and to disregard all passages conveying already abandoned ideas (EWM xi-xii). The method in question consisted in carefully juxtaposing old and new writings in ways that would persuade readers to interpret the former in terms of the latter (EWM 178, 212,231; RPWW 50). In consequence of this method, and of the reasoning leading to it, practically the whole of Science and the Modern World was written from a point of view that Whitehead abandoned when he discovered, or so Ford alleges, the need for temporal atomicity. But by the insertion of a few appropriately placed passages, Ford assures us, Whitehead successfully disguised this fact from his readers and induced them to interpret the bulk of the book in terms of his most recent discovery (EWM xi, 177; RIWW 50).

After the completion of Science and the Modern World Whitehead’s thought went through a long period (1925-1929) of even more rapid development and generated a series of metaphysical positions that were all abandoned or modified almost as quickly as they were written down -- all, that is, except the final metaphysical position. Early writings from this period were published in Religion in the Making and in Symbolism, books that, according to Ford, themselves conceal significant changes in Whitehead’s metaphysical position. Later writings, including those conveying Whitehead’s final metaphysical position, were brought together in Process and Reality. The greater portion of this last book, however, gives expression to views, doctrines, and theories associated with metaphysical positions only temporarily held by Whitehead on the road to his final metaphysical position. These were views, doctrines, and theories, therefore, which Whitehead already had either rejected or significantly altered (EWM 190). Yet by a more extensive use of the method he had already used successfully in Science and the Modern World, Whitehead intended them to be either disregarded altogether or correctly reinterpreted in terms of his final metaphysical position (EWM xi, 177; RIWW 51). The passages conveying this final position, Whitehead gathered primarily in the book’s third part.

Although the method used to guide the readers of Process and Reality resulted in many textual anomalies -- discontinuities, ghost references, terminological inconsistencies, and so forth -- it nonetheless succeeded in getting readers to interpret all passages written from abandoned points of view (most of the book) in terms of the final metaphysical position conveyed in the book’s third part (ECTC 1; RIWW 47). Thus, interpreters using the traditional approach, were able to focus, albeit unconsciously, on the passages conveying the final position, while disregarding anything incompatible with or superseded by the final position. This result is the reason why practitioners of the traditional approach erroneously believe that all the ideas, doctrines, and theories expressed in Process and Reality are compatible with the final metaphysical position expressed in its third part.

This fortunate result of the compositional habits Ford attributes to Whitehead strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. I would find it difficult to accept even if the other attributions on which it rests could be substantiated. But, interestingly, Ford has never provided any direct or external evidence for the compositional habits he attributes to Whitehead, though his bold assertions on the matter leave most readers with the impression that such evidence exists and would be forthcoming if only someone requested it. With one qualified exception, 1 there is, in fact, no direct evidence for any of the habits of composition that Ford attributes to Whitehead. Indeed, the direct evidence that in fact exists, and it is not slight, contradicts, almost point for point, each of Ford’s attributions.

The direct evidence consists of what Whitehead himself tells us, first, about how his books are meant to be read and understood, about the genesis of his ideas, and about modifications in his views; and second, about the nature of his thinking, about his difficulties in translating his thoughts into words, about the sources of his philosophical terminology, and about the peculiar manner in which he composed his books. I shall deal here with the first, but not the second, set of these Whiteheadian pronouncements.2 The guidance all these pronouncements provide is, in my estimation, indispensable for any approach to the interpretation of his writings. More to the point, these pronouncements jointly constitute the foundation and justification of the systematic approach.

Accordingly, I next examine three important Whiteheadian pronouncements concerning his thought and his writings. Each is an indispensable guidepost to achieving a coherent and adequate interpretation of Whitehead’s philosophic thought and its written expression. And each is directly relevant to the issue at hand which of the three approaches to Whitehead is best justified by external evidence?

II Whitehead on Whitehead

The most fundamental guidepost provided by Whitehead is also the most explicitly and frequently stated: (1) that his books can be read independently of one another, but are meant to complement and supplement each other in giving expression to his philosophical system. This is what Whitehead invariably tells us in the prefaces to many of his philosophical works:

[The Concept of Nature] forms a companion book to my previous work An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. Either book can be read independently but they supplement each other. In part the present book supplies points of view which were omitted from its predecessor; in part it traverses the same ground with an alternative exposition. (CN vi)

Since the publication of the first edition of this book [i.e., An Enquiry Concerning The Principles of Natural Knowledge] in 1919, the various topics considered in it have been also considered by me in The Concept of Nature ... and in The Principle of Relativity .... I hope in the immediate future to embody the standpoint of these volumes in a more complete metaphysical study. (PNX, 2nd edition, xi)

The train of thought which was applied to science in ... Science and the Modern World is here [in Religion in the Making] applied to religion. The two books are independent, but it is inevitable that to some extent they elucidate each other by showing the same way of thought in different applications. (RM 7)

The three books -- Science and the Modern World, Process and Reality, Adventures of Ideas -- are an endeavor to express a way 0f understanding the nature of things, and to point out how that way of understanding is illustrated by a survey of the mutations of human experience. Each book can be read separately; but they supplement each other’s omissions or compressions. (AI vii)

[Modes of Thought condenses] for publication those features of my Harvard lectures which are incompletely presented in my [previously] published works. (MT vii)

Note, first, that all of Whitehead’s philosophical books are intended to express one and the same system of thought, one and the same way of understanding the nature of things. Note, second, that the books supplement and elucidate one another by remedying each other’s omissions or compressions. Points of view omitted from, or only implicit in, one book are included or made explicit in another. Note, third, that the limited standpoint of the earlier works on the philosophy of nature -- The Principles of Natural Knowledge, The Concept of Nature, and The Principle of Relativity -- is to be embodied in the more comprehensive standpoint of the later works on metaphysics. Finally, note that Whitehead’s three major metaphysical books -- Science and the Modern World, Process and Reality, and Adventures of Ideas -- do not, even when taken together, succeed in communicating everything that Whitehead was trying to convey in his Harvard lectures. These prefatorial comments, then, make it abundantly clear that Whitehead’s system of thought, and not just its various applications, must be gleaned from the totality of his published works. No one book by itself -- not even Process and Reality -- is sufficient for that task. Clearly, the distinctive assumption of the traditional approach has been refuted.

That Process and Reality omits or compresses doctrines or theories essential to the coherence and applicability of Whitehead’s system of thought is a fact generally ignored by the traditional and genetic approaches. It is, on the other hand, the cornerstone of the systematic approach; for this last approach holds that any in-depth interpretation of Process and Reality must be conducted under the illumination provided, at the very least, by correlative in-depth interpretations of Science and the Modern World, Adventures of Ideas, and Modes of Thought. I say at the very least because the full text of Process and Reality cannot be interpreted coherently and consistently except in the context provided by each of Whitehead’s philosophical writings, including the earlier works on nature. Moreover, the same is true for the interpretation of any other philosophical work by Whitehead. Earlier and later works illuminate each other because they give expression, under various deliberate limitations of scope or of point of view, to the same basic scheme of thought.

That the works on nature should prove to illuminate and be illuminated by the works on metaphysics is not at all surprising if we take seriously Whitehead’s announcement, in the preface to the second edition of The Principles of Natural Knowledge, of his intention "to embody the standpoint of these volumes [on the philosophy of nature] in a more complete metaphysical study" (PNK ix). For it can be shown, by a close comparison of the two sets of texts, that the basic metaphysical ideas to be conveyed by that study were already very much in Whitehead’s mind when he was writing on the philosophy of nature? They constituted a metaphysical theory of experience from which could be abstracted, for the limited purposes of natural science, a theory of nature -- but of nature understood abstractly as the terminus of sense-perception. Thus what was being announced by Whitehead (in August of 1924, just before leaving for Harvard), was an account of the implicit metaphysical theory grounding his pronouncements on nature as a datum for scientific knowledge.

The intimate link between the works on nature and the works on metaphysics is precisely what we should expect given that (2) Whitehead’s basic scheme of metaphysical ideas had been in his mind for quite a long time before he moved to Harvard in 1924. Whitehead made no secret of this fact. "My writings on [speculative4] philosophy," he tells Lucien Price, "were all after I came to this country, but the ideas had been germinating in me for the better part of a lifetime. Some of them I had when I was at school before ever I went up to the university" (DOW 263). Similarly, in the preface to Process and Reality, he tells us that he is there endeavoring "to compress the material derived from years of meditation" (PR xiv/x). Also, in a letter to Mark Barr concerning the possibility of being offered a post at Harvard, Whitehead says the post would be very attractive because it would provide him the opportunity of developing in systematic form his "ideas on Logic, the Philosophy of Science, Metaphysics, and some more general questions, half philosophical and half practical, such as Education" (ANW-2 134). He adds: "I should greatly value the opportunity of expressing in lectures and in less formal manner the philosophical ideas which have accumulated in my mind."

That Whitehead’s system of metaphysical ideas -- his speculative system -- was well developed before he crossed the Atlantic was the impression independently gained by William Ernest Hocking, the Harvard colleague who knew him best. As someone who attended Whitehead’s earliest lectures, and who later team-taught a number of courses with Whitehead, Hocking speaks from first-hand experience when he tell us that Whitehead’s "speculative structure, which came to fruition during his American years, was already well advanced in its main outlines. Had this not been the case, he would have lacked the compelling motive to cross the ocean. Any impression that he began his mature philosophical work in America is far from the fact" (WKH 8). Victor Lowe, a very careful student of Whitehead’s life and works, and the first to employ the systematic approach, is of the same opinion: "From what Whitehead said in his first lectures, it appears that most of the key ideas of his mature philosophy where in his mind when he arrived from England; they needed precise verbalization, review, and further development into a system" (ANW-2 145).

Clearly, then, the system of thought to which Whitehead’s Harvard lectures gave expression was the result of lifelong reflection and was -- for the most part -- already in Whitehead’s mind when he came to this country. We have every reason to expect, therefore, that the fundamental metaphysical ideas of his philosophy were already quite settled by the time his tenure at Harvard gave Whitehead the opportunity to commit them to writing. This is not to deny that important details had yet to be worked out and that major areas of application awaited systematic exploration. Nor is it to deny that Whitehead could find his way to new ideas while developing or giving expression to old Ones.5 But there is no reason to expect the dramatic shifts in metaphysical outlook or doctrine so often posited by Ford’s genetic studies.6

In this last regard, it is important to remember that (3) Whitehead took every opportunity to report to his readers major shifts or alterations in his thought. Consider that, to the second edition of The Principles of Natural Knowledge, Whitehead appended a series of notes in which he explicitly modified or repudiated some of the major concepts or theories he had advanced in that book. He candidly admits, for example, that "the attempt in *33 to define duration merely by means of its unlimitedness is a failure" (PNX 204). Consider also that, in a note appended to The Concept of Nature, Whitehead just as candidly asserts that in reading the book’s proofs he has come to the conclusion that his "limitation of infinite events to durations is untenable" (CN 197-198). He then goes on to provide a fairly detailed repudiation of views he has presented in the book’s fourth chapter. As a final example, consider the equal candor with which, in Process and Reality, Whitehead admits that his method of extensive abstraction "was unable to define a ‘point’ without the intervention of the theory of ‘duration’" (PR 287/440).

There is no reason, then, to believe that Whitehead would have hesitated to state in print the abandonment or modification of any metaphysical doctrine or position he had previously held. Nor is there any reason to believe that he would have been reluctant to excise from a manuscript any passage formulating a view to which he no longer adhered. Yet these are precisely the beliefs that Ford views on the compositional histories of Science and the Modern World and Process and Reality require us to adopt.

III. Nobo on Ford

Of the guideposts we are here considering, the first two clearly undermine the basic assumption of Ford’s genetic approach -- that Whitehead’s metaphysical thinking evolved primarily in this country and changed so rapidly that it crystallized into the final mature position only in the supposedly late writings constituting the third part of Process and Reality. The third guidepost, in turn, makes evident that there is no credible warrant for Ford’s attribution to Whitehead of a reluctance to acknowledge in print changes in his metaphysical position; for this attribution is clearly at odds with Whitehead’s well-established habit of explicitly acknowledging in later works (or second editions) mistakes made in earlier ones (or first editions).

Nor is there any credible warrant for Ford’s parallel attribution to Whitehead of a need to publish everything he had written, even materials conveying metaphysical positions or doctrines he had already abandoned or modified. What could account for such a need? Surely not intellectual vanity; for Whitehead is the same man who, in his deathbed as it were, asked Paul Weiss to commit to the flames all his unpublished writings. Whitehead is simply not the sort of man who, as Ford claims, would decide not to "alert his readers to inadequacies in the texts still retained" (FPP 42).

All the other habits of composition that Ford attributes to Whitehead rest on the two attributions we have just put into question; for we are told that the insertions of later writings into earlier ones, and the overall arrangements of writings in a given book, are meant to induce readers to disregard passages conveying abandoned doctrines or positions or, if the doctrines and positions are kept in modified form, to reinterpret them in terms of their final or mature formulations. Had Whitehead not allegedly insisted in publishing writings no longer expressive of his then current metaphysical positions or doctrines, no such roundabout method of communicating his mature views would have been necessary.

The upshot of the three Whiteheadian guideposts above considered should now be clear. Ford’s claim that Whitehead’s philosophic thought underwent, from 1924 to 1929, rapid and drastic shifts in respect to basic metaphysical doctrines is not the report of a fact. Nor is Ford reporting a fact when he claims that White-head decided to publish large amounts of writings conveying abandoned or superseded positions side by side with newer writings conveying his later or more mature views. Of course, when pressed in conversation, Ford readily admits that the statements in question are not factual but constitute, instead, a highly imaginative hypothesis primarily intended to explain the ever-shifting terminology with which Whitehead expressed his thought and the many textual anomalies -- topical discontinuities, clumsy insertions, ghost references, etc -- that plague his philosophical books, particularly Science and the Modern World and Process and Reality. Indeed, Ford says as much in more guarded, written characterizations of his genetic approach (RIWW 50). However, Ford has never acknowledged that the basic hypothesis supporting the genetic approach is not only devoid of any external validation (i.e., validation other than its alleged explanatory value), but is m fact inconsistent with Whitehead’s explicit pronouncements on the development of his thought, on mistakes and modifications of that thought, and on the mutual illumination of his books.

The brute fact of this inconsistency pinpoints how extremely dangerous Ford’s hypothesis really is; for it leads to a basic interpretative strategy that is diametrically opposed to the one required by Whitehead’s many statements to the effect that his books are intended to supplement one another’s omissions and compressions and that, consequently, his system of thought, including his basic metaphysical system, must be carefully gleaned from all his philosophical works. In his own words, Ford’s basic interpretative strategy is "to interpret each [chronological] unit [of writing] in terms of its own concepts and those of previous units, excluding any ideas found only in writings still to come" (EWM xi). The units in question, it should be noted, are not ultimately books, but rather layers of writings within one book-layers, often quite brief, whose actual compositional order is not the same as their order of appearance in the book they compose, but rather corresponds, supposedly, to the order of major shifts in Whitehead’s metaphysical thinking. Accordingly, what Ford is recommending is not only that we interpret each of Whitehead’s books in forced isolation from later ones, but also that, within any one book, we interpret each alleged chronological unit in forced isolation from any unit allegedly later than itself. It is by this method that Ford claims to discover in Whitehead a succession of metaphysical positions incompatible with one another, and particularly incompatible with, but also gradually leading to, what he takes to be the mature metaphysical position expressed in the supposedly canonical Part III of Process and Reality.

To adopt, in the absence of any external reason to do so, a strategy so contrary to how Whitehead understood the development and expression of his thought is, I think, to court interpretative disaster. It is to reject outright Whitehead’s helpful guidance, a guidance much needed given the many flaws of exposition to which Whitehead candidly admitted (LFWH 199). It is, in effect, to wrestle with Whitehead’s genius with both interpretative arms tied behind our backs. It is to blind ourselves to meanings and allusions that stare us in the face.

Some of the disturbing effects of this dangerous strategy have been noticed already in the ongoing debate regarding when it was that panpsychism became a feature of Whitehead’s metaphysics -- a debate that Cobb joins in his contribution to this Special Focus (supra). For in the earliest round of the debate, Griffin remarked on how forced, unnecessarily cautious, or simply unnatural are Ford’s readings of relevant passages in Science and the Modern World and Religion in the Making -- readings claiming that panpsychism is not truly found in either book, and that the appearance to the contrary is due to our reading into them ideas derived from the canonical portions of Process and Reality (REWM 194-201). How much more unnatural would Griffin find Ford’s second round claim (FPP 41-44) that not even pansubjectivism is to be found in the former book? In a still later round, McHenry tries to show that the concept of prehension makes sense only in the context of panpsychism and that, consequently, the latter doctrine must be present already in Science and the Modern World (WPSP 1-11). Moreover, he contends that reading this early book as Ford does makes the text "less rather than more intelligible" (WPSP 11).

McHenry’s conclusions, as well as Griffin’s, are more or less what one would expect if Science and the Modern World and Process and Reality (and, for that matter, Adventures of Ideas) give expression to one self-same scheme of thought and are intended to illuminate one another and to remedy each other’s omissions and compressions. However, neither Griffin nor McHenry ever question the basic assumptions underlying Ford’s interpretative strategy. That is, they do not repudiate the genetic approach. They merely disagree with some of Ford’s conclusions regarding in what book (or book’s layer) Whitehead first adopted a particular canonical idea or doctrine. They thereby leave themselves open to refutation by arguments of the sort admirably exemplified in Cobb’s article. Those arguments, however, have force only if Ford’s interpretative strategy is justified. But Ford’s strategy is justified only if his hypothesis concerning the development and expression of Whitehead’s thought is justified. Yet Griffin, McHenry, and Cobb alike ignore the fact that Ford’s hypothesis is backed by no external evidence -- indeed, is contradicted by all such evidence. Accordingly, it bears asking why they are so quick to accept Ford’s hypothesis.

One reason, I think, is that the debate over the emergence of panpsychism in Whitehead’s thought is no more than a squabble among members of the same interpretative family. They all understand Whitehead’s metaphysics in very similar ways. More importantly, each, including Ford, arrived at his interpretation of Whitehead’s thought by means of the traditional approach -- the approach that expects to find, within the confines of Process and Reality, the whole of Whitehead’s mature metaphysical system. To be sure, Griffin, McHenry, and Cobb originally differed from Ford in believing that in that book they would find only Whitehead’s mature metaphysical system, and in believing that much of that system was already to be found, at least implicitly, in Science and the Modern World. And it is precisely these two beliefs that are compromised by Ford’s genetic approach; but they are compromised without ever bringing into question the justification of the traditional interpretations. Thus, Griffin, McHenry, and Cobb can debate the panpsychism issue with Ford, and among themselves, without having to fear that their respective interpretations of Whitehead’s metaphysics -- interpretations on which ride much of their respective philosophies or theologies -- will be found wanting in any important respect.

I am suggesting that Ford’s views on the genesis and expression of Whitehead’s metaphysics has had the unfortunate and very dangerous effect of lulling adherents of the traditional approach into a false sense of security regarding the adequacy of the interpretations they have arrived at by means of that approach. This complacency, which Cobb acknowledges with his typical candor (supra), was being encouraged by Ford, albeit unconsciously, even before my use of the systematic approach had produced a significantly new interpretation of Whitehead’s metaphysics -- one gleaned from all of Whitehead’s books from The Principles of Natural Knowledge to Modes of Thought, and one which, whatever its merits are finally judged to be, constitutes a strong, thoroughly argued, and well-documented challenge to the whole range of traditional interpretations.

Ford had all but discounted the possibility of such an interpretation, and thereby of such a challenge, two years in advance of the 1986 publication of my Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Extension and Solidarity. In a remark apparently aimed at the interpretative efforts of Victor Lowe, Ford wrote in 1984: "Endeavors to piece together Whitehead’s later writings so as to form one coherent whole frequently end up harmonizing disparate ideas and interpreting suggestive and incomplete ideas from the earlier writings in terms of a rather narrow canon of Whiteheadian insights, usually drawn from the later stages of PR" (EWM xi). Moreover, a few sentences later, Ford made it evident that the traditional interpretations are not placed in jeopardy by the genetic approach: "This study will probably disturb prevailing interpretations of Whitehead’s philosophy less than might be imagined, for the interpretations have largely been based on what I call ... ‘the final revisions’ of PR" (EWM xi). These final revisions not only supposedly convey Whitehead’s final metaphysical position, but the passages in which they are found are also precisely those on which the traditional interpretations are presumably grounded. Thus, traditional interpretations are deficient only in ignoring passages absolutely incompatible with the final position, and in not recognizing how much they are using the final position to reinterpret passages expressing Whitehead’s earlier metaphysical views (EWM xi-xii). But these are not genuine deficiencies since they are the intended effects of Whitehead’s compositional magic.

Clearly, from Ford’s point of view, traditional interpretations need fear neither the systematic approach nor the genetic approach. Not the former, as Ford went on to maintain after the publication of my book, because it succeeds only in ferreting out metaphysical doctrines once held by Whitehead, but ultimately rejected by him in favor of his final metaphysical position (RIWW 50). Not the latter because genetic analysis is ultimately concerned not with producing a new interpretation of Whitehead, not with challenging received interpretations, but with explaining how Whitehead arrived at what traditional interpretations take to be his only metaphysical position, and with explaining, by the same token, why traditional interpretations are not undermined by the many Whiteheadian passages with which they are completely or partially inconsistent.

A third danger created by Ford’s hypothesis is now in evidence. Ford never questions the traditional interpretation of Whitehead he brings to his genetic investigations. Every decision Ford makes as to which passages are early or late, which views superseded or superseding, which doctrines abandoned or retained, assumes the adequacy of that interpretation and thus is intended to preserve it unchanged and unchallenged. But if all external evidence militates against Ford’s genetic method, and if the results of that method are not comparatively evaluated with, or tested against, those obtained by the systematic approach, what guarantee can Ford give that he is not just explaining away all Whiteheadian passages that are incompatible with his very traditional interpretation? Ford comes close to admitting this point when he writes:

Those championing the standard interpretation are apt to dismiss Nobo’s book out of hand, but it cannot be easily ignored. They may well consider theirs a superior metaphysics, but the immediate question is, which offers a more comprehensive and convincing interpretation of the texts? If our task is to find a single interpretation of the texts, then Nobo’s effort is probably superior to the standard interpretation. It can explain a greater diversity and variety of texts than the other view is likely to be able to. Its scholarship and fidelity to the texts cannot be easily faulted; it rivals Christian in scope and detail. (RIWW 48, emphasis added)

My question is: why should it not be our task to find a single interpretation of the texts if that is exactly what Whitehead explicitly encourages us to do? Ford, disregarding all external evidence, assumes otherwise, assumes the texts cannot be subsumed under a single interpretation. More to the point, he does so while being fully cognizant of the vast number of texts either incompatible with, or not readily subsumable under, the traditional interpretation to which he subscribes. It is thus obvious that the true goal of the genetic approach is to preserve the traditional interpretation by providing an explanation for all the Whiteheadian texts it ignores, contradicts, or slights. This much is implicit in Ford’s concession that, if the genetic approach is not taken -- particularly if Process and Reality is believed to present a single unified position -- then "Nobo’s position should be adopted" (RIWW 57).

The issue in this essay is not whether my interpretation of Whitehead’s metaphysics should be adopted. The issue, instead, is whether the systematic approach that yielded it has more external evidence in its favor than the other two approaches under consideration. In this section, I have been concerned to show that the genetic approach is not only contradicted by all relevant external evidence, but also employs an extremely dangerous interpretative strategy: dangerous to the piecemeal investigation of Whiteheadian doctrines; dangerous to the mind-set with which new interpretations of Whitehead’s philosophy should be received and evaluated and dangerous because of the inherent circularity of its reasoning, to the integrity and validity of any compositional analysis conducted under the umbrella of its assumptions.

IV. Some Conclusions

Ford’s genetic approach to the interpretation of Whitehead’s metaphysics is not a genuine alternative to the traditional or systematic approaches. It is only a handmaiden to the traditional approach because at every turn it presupposes the general adequacy and completeness of traditional interpretations. Its ultimate goal is to explain how and why Whitehead arrived at what it considers to be his final metaphysical position. If there truly is a final position superseding many intervening ones, then the genetic approach can enhance how that position is understood and argued for. But the supposed history of intermediate positions the genetic approach claims to uncover rests on a view of the development and expression of Whitehead’s thought that is clearly contradicted by Whitehead’s own word and practice. Thus, so far as we can judge from the external evidence here consulted, the genetic approach is parasitic on, and not an alternative to, the traditional approach. Is the latter approach tenableP

The external evidence here adduced has shown, conclusively I think, that Whitehead intended his metaphysical books to be read each under the various lights provided by the others. To be sure, much can be learned from any one book read in isolation from the others. But because each book omits or compresses important metaphysical doctrines, any in-depth interpretation of Whitehead’s complete metaphysical theory must be garnered from all his metaphysical books, even from all his philosophical works. Not to do so is, at best, to render an incomplete picture of the theory; and at worst to severely distort some of its more important and useful features.

The traditional approach is wrong or misguided in its belief that Wliitehead’s entire metaphysical system is to be found within the covers of Process and Realzty. More misguided even is the belief -- perhaps not truly traditional -- that the entire system can be found in the book’s now fabled third part. On the other hand, the external evidence examined in this essay gives no reason to abandon the traditional belief than only one self-same metaphysical position is being expressed in the various parts and sections of Whitehead’s magnum opus. Moreover, such evidence explicitly supports the belief, also traditional, that one self-same scheme of thought animates and finds at least implicit expression in Whitehead’s writings beginning with Science and the Modern World. Indeed, the evidence supports the non-traditional view that the scheme already was animating and finding implicit expression in Whitehead’s books on nature.

The traditional approach, though not all its characteristic beliefs, must be given up in favor of the systematic approach, the only one fully warranted by the external evidence here considered. This does not mean that all interpretations spawned by the former approach must be rejected wholesale. It does mean that they must be revisited and their findings compared with those of interpretations based on the systematic approach. As a result, a better, more accurate and, I think, more applicable interpretation of Whitehead’s metaphysics is bound to emerge.



ANW-1 Victor Lowe, Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, Vol. I. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

ANW-2 Victor Lowe, Alfred North Whitehead The Man and His Work, Vol. II. Edited by J.B. Schneewind. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

COP Lewis S. Ford, "The Concept of ‘Process’: From ‘Transition’ to ‘Concrescence’," Whitehead and the Idea of Process, Edited by Harald Holz and Ernest Wolf-Gazo. Feiburg/München: Verlag Karl Alber, 1984, 73-101.

DOW Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, as recorded by Lucien Price (1954). New York: Mentor Book, 1956.

ECTC Lewis S. Ford, "Efficient Causation: Transition or Concrescence?" Paper presented at the meeting of the Society for the Study of Process Philosophies, held in Philadelphia, PA, March 12, 1987.

EWM Lewis S. Ford, The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, 1925-1929. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984.

FPP Lewis S. Ford, "From Pre-Panpsychism to Pansubjectivity," Faith and Creativity: Essays in Honor of Eugene Peters, Edited by George Nordgulen and George Shields. St. Louis, MO: GPB Press, 1987, 41-61.

LFWH Unpublished Letter from Whitehead to Hartshorne (January 2,1936), Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, Edited and Introduction by George L. Kline. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963, 198-199.

PEHP Lewis S. Ford, "Panpsychism and the Early History of Prehension," Process Studies 24 (1995), 15 -- 33.

REWM David R. Mason (Exposition) and David Ray Griffin (Critique), "Review of Lewis S. Ford’s The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics," Process Studies 15 (1986), 192-207.

RIWW Lewis S. Ford, "Recent Interpretations of Whitehead’s Writings," The Modern Schoolman 65 (1987), 47-59.

WKH William Ernest Hocking, "Whitehead as I Knew Him." Alfred North Whitehead Essays on His Philosophy. Edited and Introduction by George L. Kline. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963, 7-17.

WMES Jorge Luis Nobo, Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Extension and Solidarity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986.

WPSP Leemon B. McHenry, "Whitehead’s Panpsychism as the Subjectivity of Prehension," Process Studies 24 (1995), 1-14.



‘Whitehead’s method of composing books did involve the interweaving of previously written materials; and some of those materials were written from points of view differing in their limitations of scope or in their explicitness; but all reflected one and the same system of thought, only adapted to different purposes. I leave for another essay an in-depth consideration 0f the external evidence supporting this claim.

2The second set, once taken into account, provides an explanation of the terminological inconsistencies and thematic discontinuities of Whitehead’s philosophical works -- an explanation that I think is more tenable than Eord’s.

3This conclusion was also reached by CI. Lewis in "The Categories of Natural Knowledge," The Philosophy ofAlfred North Whitehea4, 2nd ed., Edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp. La Salle: Open Court, 1951 (1941), 742 -- 744.

~I have inserted "speculative" because Whitehead’s earlier works on the philosophy of nature are also philosophical writings. He explicitly refers to them as such in his "Autobiographical Notes": "My philosophic writings started in London, at the latter end of the war" (ESP 20).

5lndeed, I believe Whitehead had his own case in mind when he told Lucien Price that a man does not exhaust his creativity by continual expression but rather he "brings vague ideas into precision by putting them into speech or writing; and by expression he develops his ideas and finds his way to new ones" (DOW 264). But there is no reason to believe that, in Whitehead’s case, these new ideas were incompatible with the old ones.

~‘To develop a view is not the same as to alter it. Whitehead says as much when, in the preface to The Concept of Nature, he links the views expressed in that book with those he had expressed in The Principles of Natural Knowledge~ "I am not conscious that I have in any way altered my views. Some developments have been made" (CN vii). In the preface to Science and the Modern World, he expresses the same sentiment regarding the additions or expansions to the Lowell Lectures 0f 1925 -- additions or expansions that were meant "to complete the thought 0f the book on a scale which could not be included within that lecture course" (SMW viii). He then adds that the book represents "one train 0f thought." Also, in a letter to the book’s publisher, he writes~ "I have completed the book so as to carry out the full scheme 0f thought which was curtailed for these [Lowell] lectures

The whole makes a continuous train of thought, and the previous history of the material does not mean that the scheme lacks unity -- at least in my mind" (ANW-2 165).