The Value of the Dialogue Between Process Thought and Psychotherapy

by David E. Roy

David E. Roy is the Executive Director of The Samaritan Center of Southwestern Michigan, St. Joseph, Michigan.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 158-174, Vol. 14, Number 3, Fall, 1985. 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.


A dialogue between process theology and psychotherapy is needed on both a theoretical and a applied basis. Such a dialogue will further psychotherapy’s evolution thus improving the human condition.

The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation (PR 5/ 7).


In Process and Reality Whitehead produced a cosmology derived from several areas of knowledge and "years of meditation" (PR xiv/ x). These derived general ideas have been woven into a system which aims at universal applicability and adequacy (PR 3/ 4). For Whitehead, "the test of some success is application beyond the immediate origin" (PR 5/8), which is also a measure of adequacy (PR 3f./ 5).

The challenge is to bring these general ideas to ground in a new field, to see if they are indeed illustrated in this latter area, while remaining fair to the self-understanding of both fields. The challenge would appear worth taking for the potential value to Whitehead’s system and for the field chosen for examination.

This could transcend the limitations of static exercise and result in an active exchange between two fields, yielding new ideas and directions for both as concepts twist and flow together, exciting each field in turn. We wish to examine the value this undertaking might have for process thought and psychotherapy. This piece will not present the complete agenda, but simply initial indications of areas of mutual benefit and some of the implications for such an exchange.

A. Value to Process Thought

This dialogue between process thought and psychotherapy can benefit the former in at least four ways:

1. It can increase the recognition and appreciation of the relevance of process thought for the major issues of our times while exposing the theory to a vast and diverse audience.

Work that emerges from this encounter will further current efforts to make Whitehead’s thought more accessible to a larger and more general audience by correlating it with the purpose and concepts of a conceptual system more readily understood as applicable to the world in which we live. The relevance of therapy for dealing with some of the major problems of society is widely recognized. These problems include psychotic and neurotic disorders, certain crimes against property and persons, alcohol and other substance dependencies, troubled marital and family relationships, certain educational difficulties, and psychogenic somatic disorders.

Correlation of process concepts with those of therapy will make them more widely understood. To realize, for example, that the dominant occasion, as one example of an actual occasion, is what is called the self at a given instant (the organizing center of the person) can clarify the relevance of the cosmology.

To make this point clearer and more convincing, let us consider some major concepts from one representative school of therapy. Gestalt Therapy is fairly well-known, ranking as the sixth most common affiliation for therapists by one recent assessment (GE 3). Its founder, Fritz Perls, and others have created a unique system by combining several sources: psychoanalysis, Gestalt Psychology, Zen, existential philosophy, Reichian Therapy, and psychodrama. At its best, it is playful and experimental. As an outgrowth of psychoanalysis, it can represent this source for the purposes of this argument.2

The notion of a gestalt, borrowed from Gestalt Psychology, has much affinity with Whitehead’s notion of an actual occasion. "A gestalt is a pattern, a configuration, the particular form of organization of the individual parts that go into its makeup" (GA 3). A gestalt is made by contact with the field. A gestalt therefore is a complete and organized unit of experience which includes individual aspects and which is formed out of its contact (prehension) with the field or environment. This contact, which results in the gestalt, yields meaning and provides the perspective. (These and other correlations between Whitehead’s ideas and Gestalt Therapy are summarized in Figure 1.)

In Gestalt Therapy, the self is called "the system of contacts at any moment" (GT 235) and is a gestalt (as the dominant occasion is an actual occasion), though the theory does not emphasize this.The "self is spontaneous, middle in mode . . ." (GT 376). The two poles of the middle mode are the "alternate structures of the self" (GT 243), the id and the ego. The id is the passive, relaxed pole, and the ego, the opposite. These modes of the self and Whitehead’s modes of perception are quite similar. The id mode, which correlates with the mode of causal efficacy, is characterized by acceptance of the unchanging given which is perceived vaguely. The ego mode, which correlates with the mode of presentational immediacy, is engaged with the given, actively seeking to create a solution to the problem, defining the self through identifications and alienations (self vs. not-self). The middle mode correlates with the mode of symbolic reference and is characterized by spontaneity, the outgrowth of the two preceding modes.

Concrescence correlates will with the stages of gestalt formation. Fore-contact (phase of physical feelings) includes confluence, openness to all (initial aim) and introjection, the taking in of an aspect of the whole (objective datum). Destructuring contact3 (phase of conceptual feelings) involves the complete abstraction of the pure possibilities from the accepted given. Projective contact (phase of propositional feelings) projects a set of possibilities for meeting the need. Retroflective contact (phase of intellectual feelings), turns back toward the self an outwardly-directed impulse in order actively to experiment with the set of possibilities for the discovery/creation of the best solution. Final contact (satisfaction) is the full, intense response to the best solution to the need. The goal is clear and dominates awareness. (This is also described as involving the middle mode and its characteristic spontaneity.) The self moves from extreme deliberation (the fourth stage of gestalt formation) to surrender (relaxation) as the process reaches a satisfactory conclusion.

Finally, the id mode of the self, where reality is experienced as causally efficacious, correlates with the stage of fore-contact and the phase of physical feelings. The ego mode of the self, where reality is experienced or perceived as immediately presented (with the detailed discrimination of the data supplied by the first mode), correlates with the stage of projective contact and the phase of propositional feelings (those at least which involve the world as the locus in the presented duration). The middle mode of the self, where there is reference between the symbol (usually via presentational immediacy) and the meaning (usually via causal efficacy), correlates with the stage of retroflective contact and the phase of intellectual feelings. Final contact and satisfaction are the culmination of the process.

Most schools of psychotherapy agree upon the reality and importance of the unconscious. Gestalt Therapy sees the continuum of awareness shading off into total unawareness. Traditional psychoanalysis has held the unconscious in a central place for both theory and practice. All of its offspring, from C. G. Jung to the ego psychologists, tend to recognize the reality of unconscious experience, even if it does not always play the key in treatment that it does for more classical analysts.

Whitehead’s discussions on consciousness are complicated, but generally they correlate well with the understanding of psychotherapy. There is consciousness and unconsciousness, the former arising in the phase of intellectual feelings (and also associated with symbolic reference). An actual entity, in this case the dominant occasion, can "be conscious of some part of its experience" (PR 53/ 83). Most of experience remains unconscious.

2.The dialogue with psychotherapy can serve as a test of Whitehead’s theory by evaluating its success in areas beyond its immediate origin, indicating to some extent the adequacy of its cosmology.

One such area which illustrates this point is family systems therapy. This approach is one of the most recent and most vigorous developments in psychotherapy. It arose from several sources, including simultaneous attempts on the part of several clinicians in the early Fifties to understand and to treat their schizophrenic patients more successfully than had been the case with orthodox one-to-one approaches (see HFT). These psychiatrists, psychologists, and others looked anew at the sheer experience of what actually was occurring. The result was a shift beyond the reigning one-to-one patient-therapist relationship for both explanation and treatment. The theories of Bateson and Bowen are the two examples to be explored here of the many theories and approaches which resulted from this shift in perception.

The more basic and noninterpreted data of direct experience can be understood in Whitehead’s categories as physical feelings. Whitehead understands these as fundamentally relational. This was recognized also in the family therapy movement. In discovering that the "sick" member of the family could be more clearly understood and sometimes better helped in the context of the purposive role played in the family, a system with much mutual inheritance, these pioneers went far afield from their origins, yet in just the direction that a Whiteheadian perspective would anticipate. For Whitehead’s theory is thoroughly relational.

The pioneering work of Murray Bowen contains categories with strong affinities for Whitehead’s concepts. A good deal of Bowen’s scheme turns on his notion of an "undifferentiated ego mass" of a family. To quote:

Differentiation of self. This concept is a cornerstone of the theory The concept defines people according to the degree of fusion, or differentiation, between emotional and intellectual functioning. This characteristic is so universal it can be used as a way of categorizing all people on a single continuum. At the low extreme are those whose emotion and intellect are so fused that their lives are dominated by the emotional system. These are the people who are less flexible, less adaptable, and more emotionally dependent on those about them. They are easily stressed into dysfunction, and it is difficult for them to recover from dysfunction. They inherit a high percentage of all human problems. At the other extreme are those who are more differentiated. It is impossible for there to be more than relative separation between emotional and intellectual functioning, but those whose intellectual functioning can retain relative autonomy in periods of stress are more flexible, more adaptable, and more independent of the emotionality about them. (FTCP 362)

At higher levels of differentiation, the function of the emotional and intellectual systems are more clearly distinguishable. (FTCP 363)

The over-all goal [of therapy based on differentiation] is to help individual family members to rise up out of the emotional togetherness that binds us all. The instinctual force toward differentiation is built into the organism, just as are the emotional forces that oppose it. (FTCP 371)

This, when coupled with Whitehead’s theory, is highly suggestive of a developmentally-grounded diagnostic scheme, whereby the mental pole becomes increasingly important in the constitution of the dominant occasion as a person develops and matures. The growth of the role of the mental pole does not happen at the expense of the physical pole. This development further enriches the occasion s experience.

This principle can be extended to the persons who constitute a particular family. Though a family is not an ontological reality, the intensity of the mutual inheritance influences the development of the individuals such that one potentially can speak of a family’s maturational level as being roughly identical to any given member, and in the same terms used to describe an individual’s developmental position. The connection between the intrapsychic and the interpersonal, via the singular ontological reality of the actual occasion, has value for therapy, as we shall see (Section B. 7.).

The work of the late Gregory Bateson provided a major portion of the creative impetus for the Mental Research Institute, noted for its contributions to the field of family therapy, and more recently for a large number of theoreticians-clinicians. His work bears exciting similarities to Whitehead’s.4 Lawrence Allman, a student of Bateson, has written of the "Aesthetics of Family Therapy." In this he touches on themes familiar to students of Whitehead: aesthetics, transformation, evolution, the one and the many, fundamental relatedness, among others:

The fundamental aesthetic nature of systems epistemology is one of the central ideological legacies of Gregory Bateson. Through the careful study of numerous living contexts, Bateson again and again showed how the patterns of systems reflect the symmetry and unity of nature. Family systems, being part of the whole ecology of living systems, are organized, according to Bateson, by the aesthetic principles of nature. Through an understanding of these fundamental aesthetic principles of organization, we can best help to keep ourselves and our families alive and open to the evolutionary process. (1:43)

The goal of therapy within Bateson’s view of mind would be to increase our aesthetic resonance with the unity of contexts, transforming our consciousness from a linear, mechanistic view of reality to one governed by the aesthetics of patterns. In order to maintain the forever changing sense of connectedness, we must continually participate in the infinite contextual meanings of our lives that unite us as a species to the evolutionary process of fitting together. (1:49)

It has been a fundamental principle of family therapy that the self is part of a holistic universe and that within the differentiated self the whole is immanent. (1:49)

Viewing life energy from an open systems view frees us from the Freudian pessimism of closed system models and allows us to participate as parts of evolving open systems creating meaningful contextual transformations. In turn, we will help families and ourselves adjust to and adapt to the continual evolution of mental life. (1:55)

Or to take a very different illustration, we may consider C. G. Jung’s polar categories of the intuitive vs. sensate modes of perception and the thinking vs. feeling modes of decision making. These psychological functions, popularized through the Myers-Briggs test, are defined in terms easily recognizable as Whiteheadian. For example, a person generally prefers to perceive either by means of sensation (concrete facts) or intuition (forms, possibilities). This may be the difference between perceptive propositions (particularly those which are direct and authentic) and imaginative propositions, or the contrast between conscious perception and intuitive judgments. Decisions for Jung are made on the basis of either feelings or rational analysis, thereby involving varying degree’s of Whitehead’s physical and mental poles.

3. The interaction with psychotherapy can enhance Whitehead’s original theory by stimulating further work. In the first instance, it can function as a stimulus for internal integration of the theory as presented in Process and Reality.

The analysis required to produce the four-way connections of FIGURE 1 suggested a relationship between Whitehead’s theories of perception and concrescence. This grew out of the effort to relate Whitehead’s ideas to therapy, particularly with respect to Gestalt Therapy. The form of the argument is roughly: If the modes of the therapy’s theory of self can correlate with Whitehead’s modes of perception, and these same modes can correlate with the stages of gestalt formation, which in turn correlate with the phases of concrescence, then it is quite possible that Whitehead’s mode of perception can correlate with the phases of concrescence.

These two theories may well be offering differing descriptions of the same basic unit of reality (cf. the ontological principle). In summary, for human beings, causal efficacy can be considered as the physical feeling by the subject of the world as grouped into nexus (involving a transmuted physical feeling). This world is experienced as causally efficacious for the percipient subject by reason of the physical purposes in the given. Presentational immediacy, on the other hand, can be considered as a propositional feeling with its speculation centered on the presented duration, derived from bodily efficacy; and it involves the kind of propositional feeling called "perceptive," for the most part, but not exclusively. Symbolic reference is the concluding integration of these two primary or direct modes of perception, involving error (if not always consciousness) as does the phase of intellectual feelings.


4. The comparison can serve as a catalyst for further development of themes only initiated in Process and Reality.

For example, there is a certain richness added to Whitehead’s ideas about perception when one begins to see that presentational immediacy and propositional feelings may be differing discussions of the same topic. It seems quite possible that presentational immediacy involves both kinds of propositional feelings (perceptive and imaginative).5 Yet there are differences. The most important one is that propositional feelings are not limited to the presented duration, in contrast to presentational immediacy. Thus it would seem that presentational immediacy defines one aspect of a propositional feeling, but does not define all kinds of propositions in terms of the locus of their logical subjects.

Among Whitehead’s denser discussions are his remarks about propositional and intellectual feelings. Any serious work developing an understanding of perception and consciousness, let alone a theory of psychopathology or disturbed functioning, will spend time elaborating on these brief remarks. The understanding of "reality" vs. "fantasy" and the complex interweaving of perceptions of possibilities (far-fetched to immediate) with reality, which produces consciousness, will be teased apart and discussed at length.

These are four ways in which process thought may benefit by an exchange with psychotherapy. They may only scratch the surface.

B. Value to Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy can benefit from the dialogue with process thought in at least eleven ways:

1. The field of psychotherapy is a pluralistic and creative adventure today with numerous schools of therapy, major and minor. Each has its particular emphasis of how and what to treat (and for how long). Whitehead’s unified cosmology has the power to serve as bridge and unifer of this variety. It can promote creative yet systematic connections among these various schools by viewing several approaches from a common perspective, thus furthering the quest for the metatheory.

It is interesting to note in this context that family therapy broke out of purely intrapsychic relations into wider systems of relationships that characterize and condition us all; and now we see the more recent birth of "ecological" therapy, where the concern broadens to include human relationships to the fullest extent possible (see FFT 256ff.). This is exactly the direction of development that would be anticipated and supported by Whitehead’s cosmology. Yet in the wake of this advance there is a tendency by some to ignore or disparage the myriad of ideas and approaches of other schools. Thus Perls, to the end of his life, criticized Freud and his theories, sometimes quite caustically (see GA). The family therapy movement long has criticized its precursors in individual therapy (see BFT 38ff.). Whitehead’s system has the potential to hold this diversity together, while at the same time suggesting priorities and judgments as to what is more and less important.

Within the field of family therapy there are the same kinds of issues:

A question that will not (and perhaps should not) be resolved is the relationship of the major schools of systems change to one another. Are the systemic and strategic approaches basically the same, or do they come from different conceptual universes, despite their seeming likeness and common roots? (FFT 337)

How does this explosion of theories and approaches fit together? Is there a developmental continuum such that one theory and approach may fit a particular case at one stage of therapy, but need to be replaced by another at a point further along? The field is beginning to have clarity about its degree of development and needs a vision with the power to further the progress.

Hoffman sees the shift occurring from a homeostatic to an evolutionary paradigm and lists nine ideas she believes "will be the benchmarks of the new generation" of thinkers and therapists in the field (FFT 346-48). Several of them involve the attempt to move beyond the Newtonian paradigm of causality, an issue which certainly concerned Whitehead. To the degree that his solution that both the physical and mental poles are aspects of each occasion is recognized, those wrestling with the issue of causality in the context of individual choices will produce clearer results. The nine benchmarks also accept the contemporary understanding of time, the role of unpredictability (novelty), persuasion as a higher form of power than coercion, and the priority of evolution and change (instability) over equilibrium or stasis.

This whole issue has important practical implications as more and more families become involved in therapy. These families certainly need to have the closest fit between their situations and the theory and approaches used by their therapists. Being able to hold together, and to sort through, the multitude of theories in relation to the variety represented by clients and therapists should help produce better matches and therefore better treatment.

2. Individual schools of therapy would also benefit by encountering Whitehead’s cosmology, even if no thought or attention is given to connections with other schools.

Each may find improvement (increased clarity and consistency, for example). Gestalt Therapy is a process-oriented therapy (without any known direct influence from Whitehead), for it transformed into processes Freud’s extensive reifications of psychic events (such as the transformation of the Freudian constructs of id and ego into modes of the self). Yet in Gestalt Therapy there are occasional lapses into substantialist categories. For example, contact is defined in a processive fashion as experience, as defining the subject and simultaneously representing a point of view, which brings the concept of contact and prehension quite close. But the authors lapse immediately into a discussion of the "contact-boundary," as though there were this "thing" which separated subject from object (cf. GT 229). This "thingness" pervades much of psychotherapy, contributing to a sense of mutual exclusiveness and difficulty in seeing commonality. After all these personality structures are not like physical structures, such as a heart or lung, upon which you can get observers to agree. These structures are less visible, and yet equally real. They certainly endure, yet they are dynamics of the occasion at each moment, not immutable or impenetrable barriers. Descriptions of these structures should not turn them into objects in which characteristics adhere.

3. Whitehead’s theory also can begin to orient psychotherapy to a deeper understanding of its means and goals.

If process philosophy has more adequately described the nature of reality, we can reasonably expect that persons treated according to its values will be better served. The emphasis would be on the creative, developmental, relational, and feelingful themes of experience. Intensity and harmony of experience generally would be valued over dullness and discord, complexity over simplicity, beauty and enjoyment over ugliness and drudgery. Some of Allman’s discussion illustrates this point (section A. 2), as does later material (in B. 10).

4. There is the implicit affirmation in this cosmology that the resources necessary for healing, for being able to function as an integrated whole, are perpetually available.

Each instance of a dominant occasion is a renewed opportunity where any given dynamic can achieve its proper place among others. Individuals who are excessively dominated by powerful emotions which flood the self can objectify those emotions by reflecting upon them in conceptual experience. Individuals with a paucity of emotional content in their experience can be assured that those more causal, bodily experiences lie behind their intellectualizations, always supplied by physical experience.

5. The primacy of creativity, as the ultimate principle of reality, raises wonderful issues.

Where there is reiteration instead of reversion, there may be need of therapy, a need for new possibilities to be introduced from someone outside and therefore relatively unaffected by the reiteration (at least initially) in order to free the system to find new solutions utilizing other approaches. These other approaches are not just laterally equivalent, but may well represent progress along a continuum of development. This continuuum appears to begin with physical feelings dominating the occasion’s experience and may well exhibit a continuous increase in the role of conceptual feelings in the self’s experience. The richest, most intense, and most highly developed stage would be that experience which includes the maximum of both.

Creativity affords a vantage point to evaluate therapies. The number of family therapies which place high value on the role of creativity and related characteristics for diagnosis, assessment, and therapy, as well as for its goals, is striking (DA). The words creativity and creative are positively valued and regularly occur in the literature, as do related concepts: flexibility (vs. rigidity), growth, tolerance of deviance, paradoxical prescriptions, creation of greater complexity, and so forth (DA 25-28; generally, 22-33).

6. Process cosmology produces a clear focus on the fundamental relatedness of all of reality.

This has implications for the full range of therapy. Just as an individual can be dominated by physical, conformal feelings, so can a family. The influence of those members frequently in intense contact with each other is often explicable and predictable. Process thought also suggests therapists cannot be neutral or uninfluential. Values play a central role in therapy and will come through the personhood of the therapist, like it or not. A current debate in family therapy concerns whether or not it is valid to use the therapist’s self extensively (DA). From Whitehead’s perspective this particular debate is an empty gesture, for the selves in the room are mutually involved.

7. The ontological principle, the concepts of the essential relatedness and separateness of reality, and numerous other Whiteheadian concepts help pave the way for a truly holistic view of health and healing while moving beyond mind-body and subject-object splits. The rigor, complexity, and cohesiveness of the theory enables it to provide the comprehensive conceptual framework for holistic approaches to health and healing so that the field can move beyond the support of compelling intuitions about the shape of this orientation.

There is but one kind of actual occasion, though occasions differ in many ways. The occasions that make up the body, whether viewed at the subcellular or the major systemic levels, are not different in kind from the one that is the self at a given instant. The self, the dominant occasion, is supported by and arises out of the body. When it is organized into a serially ordered grouping, it becomes what we call the psyche.

8. The Whiteheadian orientation, when applied to sexual and cultural differences, can give rise to more sensitive and inclusive, systematic, and appropriate theories and therapies.

The diminution, if not complete exclusion, of the feminine from our global culture is at the root of the precarious imbalance caused by independence, self-sufficiency, exploitation, domination, and so forth. As the feminine emerges, so does a much richer and more healing global society, one characterized by interrelatedness, interdependency, synergistic mutual enhancement, persuasion, and so forth. The masculine probably will become more deeply rooted and more mature as a result. Whitehead’s cosmology includes the characteristics that cluster at each of these poles and can aid this personal and cultural evolution by holding both together. This understanding will be able to enhance work done in therapy where these issues play themselves out in a direct, immediate, and specific fashion in the lives of clients -- and therapists.

Just as there are clear cultural differences that in turn influence the course of therapy (by whatever name), the theory should be able to illustrate the fundamental similarities. Certain basic developmental and relational issues, for example, must pervade all cultures. Interest in this is more than mere curiosity, for the lack of this understanding can be seen at the heart of the enormous number of global conflicts which have increasingly catastrophic implications.

9. The theory also should be able to hold together the intrapsychic and the interpersonal (see also section A. 2.).

There is understandable wariness about approaching the understanding of families with a developmental scheme (Hoffman refers to it as "stairs to Heaven" in FTT 102). Nevertheless, there may be a developmentally-grounded diagnostic scheme in which the mental pole becomes increasingly important in the constitution of self as a person matures, adding its contribution to that of the physical pole. This same principle of development can be extended to the persons who constitute a particular family because of the intensity of the mutual inheritance among family members. This means we can speak of a family’s maturational level in the same terms used to describe an individual’s developmental position. Individual members of the family system become more capable of interdependency (being independent yet connected) as both the individual and the family system mature along the same continuum. While the mental pole becomes increasingly important, with its operations involving presentational immediacy and symbolic reference, propositional and intellectual feelings, the person nonetheless needs the full availability of the physical pole for prehending the world with physical feelings.

A disorder might be defined as a major diminution of any of these dimensions of experience over many instances of the dominant occasion, when a full and creative response to the situation could be enriched by the inclusion of the missing dynamic(s). These disorders may often be supported by individuals who stay in close relationship within the family. Though individual members of the family may differ, their degree of maturity along the continuum will be strongly related (often either identical or quite the opposite). This is due in part to the intense and repeated inheritance from one another. This gives one a bridge between the intrapsychic and the interpersonal which extends the relevance of the theory beyond the older view, though still including it, and into the more contemporary interpersonal focus of many of today’s therapies.

10. The dialogue with process thought can lead to an emerging understanding of the role of the spiritual dimension of reality for psychotherapy.

This is a complicated topic which raises many emotions on all sides. Projections and assumptions abound in the secular and religious communities, few of which are submitted to much rational scrutiny. The religious community has been its own worst enemy in this needless struggle. The secular community with some justification has resisted insights which appear to come from religion and theology, since so much of this has been clearly antithetical to the facts of human beings and their development and to mental and social health in general. For religion and theology have behaved defensively in the face of new ideas, reacting with suspicion and hostility to what emerges in the world. Instead of working to include these new ideas, and thereby growing and becoming more sensitive, the reaction has been to become more and more protective, insolated, and exclusive. Western religion has tended to lose sight of its role in the scheme of things. Theology has not been able to show how to overcome that blindness. This lack is a major factor in actual and potential twentieth-century tragedies. Religion and theology have come to represent merely one perspective among others, no longer the most fundamental and most inclusive. Yet there is a place for the dynamics which are studied by the field of theology, no matter what those dynamics are called.

One root of cause of this splitting, which results in the exclusion of the spiritual, is a world view that emphasizes one pure mode of perception (presentational immediacy) over against the other pure mode (causal efficacy). Our experience of reality is predominantly characterized by the analytical, the visual, the independent and detached, the clear and vivid. The qualities belonging to the other mode are diminished, even actively devalued. These include an experience of being connected to all of reality, a full sense of acceptance of what is and is coming to one, a strong feeling of being influenced by all that is. When this mode is dominant, there are moments when one’s awareness is dominated by the less organized, more chaotic, vague, and primitive feelings (akin to Whitaker’s "crazy" side). Eventually what is diminished and thereby trivialized by the downplaying of this mode is the experience of meaning, for that is usually contributed by the mode of causal efficacy to the mixed mode of symbolic reference. Yet this pure mode’s very existence is denied often and, at the same time, its characteristics become "bad" from the culture’s point of view. This is very confusing and results in a denial of actual experience, a paradigm for splitting the self and also for creating a double-bind (which family therapy literature asserts is a root cause of schizophrenia).

Our theology and our practice of religion have been influenced by this cultural tendency. Their reflective and active wisdom has been reduced to being equal to other points of view, no longer providing the perspective by which to evaluate and to transcend these other views. As a result, we have lost the capacity to directly experience, and reflect upon, our connection to all, and to the source of meaning. This has greatly diminished the positive, creative influence of theology and religion in our culture. The irony is that often religion and theology have attempted to "prove" their importance and to "justify" their existence by attempting to use arguments designed to satisfy the requirements of the mode of presentational immediacy, when that of course will not work. It is impossible to attempt to "prove" the spiritual dimension and its influence in the world, in the context of a simple empiricism, for fundamental and inclusive meaning is exactly what tends to be excluded from this context. At best this context ends up allowing the spiritual dimension to be viewed as one among others, and not as the dimension which underlies and gives meaning and direction and purpose to all the others.6

Now perhaps is the time for a change towards a fully integrated understanding of psychotherapy as fundamentally spiritual. Much will have to be changed to allow this to happen, but there are already places within the traditionally secular psychotherapies where there is explicit or implicit recognition of the role of the transcendent values. Certainly this role is explicitly realized in Jung’s works, as well as in Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis. There are shades of this in Gestalt Therapy, with its emphasis on the "wisdom of the organism" and its faith placed in the hierarchy of needs. Whitaker approaches it in his emphasis on the whimsical, the freedom to play and to allow the "crazy" side of the therapist to emerge with all its intuition and novelty. Even in more traditional analysis, the notion of the observing ego as a prognosis of health and a means of health has a close kinship with Cobb’s understanding of the spiritual structure of existence and the self-transcendent self (see SCE). This structure of the self, the spiritual, develops within the psyche (soul) and serves the purpose of being potentially fully open to the initial aim.

Generally, when viewed from the perspective of Whitehead’s vision, any therapy which assigns creativity, in all its various forms and with all its various names, a central place in its self-understanding and in the conduct of its work is approaching an understanding of the centrality of the spiritual dimension.

Body, self, psyche, and spirit are in close relationship with each other. In Whitehead’s vision, they are not truly separable. The self emerges from the body, the psyche unfolds from the succession of selves, and the spirit develops within the psyche. What a vision for therapy!

11. Finally, the metatheory. In the long run, the creative comprehensiveness of Whitehead’s cosmology may contribute to a unified theory of psychotherapy, such as psychiatrist and pioneer family therapist Carl Whitaker has dreamed of for more than 30 years (see RP xiii-xiv). One of the basic notions that undergirds the new and emerging vision is the resounding importance of the ontological principle, whereby there is but one kind of res vera. The dynamics of a temporal entity or actual occasion, which can be separated only through analysis but not in actuality, are the features which characterize each moment in some kind of unique configuration. This means that any scheme for diagnosis or assessment, any kind of developmental scheme, any kind of scheme at all for psychotherapy, will take this into account. Our experience is constituted out of these themes, whether in health or disease. This makes the job deceptively simply, yet quite complex. The personal, the interpersonal, the entire self-other, all flows out of this. The rich wisdom of Freudian thought, of Jungian depth analysis, of Gestalt experience, of Family systems and structures, each has a place. All have pursued the fundamentals far enough to have touched those basic themes. What Whitehead’s cosmology will do is to help them see that more clearly and go further.

The dialogue therefore will further the evolution of psychotherapy, which is one major force for improving the human condition. This transformation, to be set in motion by bringing together process philosophy and psychotherapy on both a theoretical and an applied basis, will involve how we understand and how we respond to each other and the world. The impact will not be limited to the consulting room, obviously, for psychotherapy from its start has been a catalyst for change in many areas, a key source of inspiration in the struggle to create a more coherent, nurturing, and whole world.



BFT -- Ferber, Andrew, Marilyn Mendelsohn, and Augustus Napier. The Book of Family Therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973.

DA -- Keeney, Bradford P., Editor. Diagnosis and Assessment in Family Therapy. Volume 4 in The Family Therapy Collections, James C. Hansen, Editor. Rockville, Maryland: Aspen Systems Corporation, 1983.

FFT -- Hoffman, Lynn. Foundations of Family Therapy. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1981.

FTCP -- Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York: Jason Aronson, 1978.

GA -- Perls, Frederick S. The Gestalt Approach and Eye Witness to Therapy. Ben Lomond, California: Science and Behavior Books, 1973.

GE -- Smith, Edward L., Editor. The Growing Edge of Gestalt Therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1976.

GT -- Perls, Frederick S., Paul Goodman, and Ralph Hefferline. Gestalt Therapy. New York: Dell, 1951.

HFT -- Gurman, Alan S. and David P. Kniskern, Editors. Handbook of Family Therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1981.

RP -- Whitaker, Carl A., and Thomas P. Malone. The Roots of Psychotherapy. New York: The Blakiston Company, 1953.

SCE -- Cobb, John B., Jr. The Structure of Christian Existence. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967.

1.Allmnan, Lawrence B., "The Aesthetic Preference: Overcoming the Pragmatic Error," Family Process 21/1 (March, 1982), 43-56.



1 I am indebted to John B. Cobb, Jr., for much help with this article. The flaws are entirely mine.

2 The id was connected to causal efficacy by William C. Lewis, M.D., a psychiatrist, in his article on "Structural Aspects of Psychoanalytic Theory of Instinctual Drives, Affects and Time," in Norman S. Greenfield and William C. Lewis (eds.) Psychoanalysis and Current Biological Thought (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965). However, Whitehead’s system was not well-integrated with the psychoanalytic theory in this article. For example, there was no reference to other features of the theory of perception, let alone concrescence.

3 The theory of Gestalt Therapy does not recognize the stage of "destructuring" contact along with the other stages usually assigned. However, there is important attention given to this process in the theory, and it is not totally unreasonable to give it the formal title of a stage. A stage, after all, is merely a verbal shorthand for distinctions arrived at analytically, not a reality in the ontological sense. A summary of the evidence for destructuring:

There is reference made to "the given dissolving into its possibilities" (CT 403) as a part of the discussion on gestalt formation. "Destroying (destructuring) is the demolition of a whole into fragments in order to assimilate them as parts in a new whole" (CT 340). This is seen as necessary prior to any "creative reconstruction" (CT 67) and is applied to any "given object" (CT 67). These objects include substance (food) as well as ideals, interpersonal influence, and habits (CT 341); as well as activities or situations (CT 67). The process of the given dissolving into its possibilities is assigned by Gestalt Therapy to the first contact stage (fore-contact) along with the experience of the given (FT 403). Likewise, experience of actual fact ("unchanging given," CT 375) and pure potentiality (CT 375) are assigned to the same self mode, the id (CT 378).

4 Bateson did have some awareness of at least the early Whitehead. In Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chandler Publishing Company, 1972) Bateson refers to Principia Mathematica several times. He acknowledges Whitehead’s "fallacy of misplaced concreteness (p. 64). He differs from Whitehead on a major point: "I do not agree with Samuel Butler, Whitehead, or Teilhard de Chardin that it follows from the mental character of the macroscopic world that the single atomies must have mental character or potentiality. I see the mental as a function only of a complex relationship" (footnote to p. 465).

5An earlier attempt at developing the relationship between Whitehead’s theories of perception and concrescence was made by William S. Cobb in his article "Whitehead’s Twofold Analysis of Experience," Modern Schoolman 47 (1970), 321-30. The purpose of his article was "to show, by means of a detailed comparison, that the two analyses are coherent" (p. 321). In his conclusion, however, he acknowledges that his analysis "has been sketchy, but hopefully . . . sufficient to give some indication of the fact that the two analyses are complementary" (p. 330). He does not explain the shift from "coherent" to "complementary" in describing the two theories.

There is one major area of difference between Cobb’s account and this one, having to do with the relationship between presentational immediacy and propositional feelings. In Cobb’s version, there is an understanding that despite an indication that presentational immediacy may be equivalent only to one type of perceptive propositional feeling (the direct authentic perceptive feeling), other material suggests that "delusive" perceptions (a variation of direct authentic) are involved as well (PR 122/186). However, there are also indications that presentational immediacy may involve the other major kind of propositional feeling, the imaginative: "Again in the transmuted feeling only part of the original nexus maybe objectified, and the eternal object may have been derived from members of the other part of the original nexus. This is the case for perception in the mode of ‘presentational immediacy’ " (PR 253/386; also, 122/ 186). The basic elements of an imaginative proposition are named: the origin of the logical subjects from one portion of the original (objectified) nexus and the eternal object (for the predicate) from another part of the nexus.

6 If there is no way to talk about this, or to lift the experience of causal efficacy into our awareness, then eventually it drops away, flows into the background where it is held prisoner, active sometimes in a chaotic and destructive fashion, a producer of illness and not of health. Yet the need for some way of addressing this dimension is clear, for there is a return to this over and over in other terms. The priestly quality of scientists and their pure white robes is a familiar image. Yet the meaning of their discoveries and of their creations is lost, and the results are extraordinarily cruel and destructive. We have the Holocaust to remind us of that. We have the threat of nuclear annihilation against a backdrop of chemicals unleashed in our air, in our water, and in our bodies as a result. We have enormous corporations, some of which conduct business with the principle that they bear no responsibility to the world beyond making profits for shareholders. Once the product leaves their door and the wastes leave their premises, they are not responsible. If our craziness is excluded from our direct and conscious experience, it comes back as the demonic in rational clothing.

Another result of the overemphasis on the mode of presentational immediacy is the devaluation of the role of the generalist and the overvaluation of the role of the specialist. We leave ourselves with no way to tie all of our various studies of and activities in reality together. This leads over and over to separateness and not to connection. This should not be taken for an argument against specialization, for knowledge is furthered this way. But there is a limit to the value and importance of this tendency, and ultimately it becomes quite destructive if there is no way to hold all the specialties together. We become exclusive and not inclusive.