Chapter 1:<B> </B>The Process Understanding of the Self

An Introduction to the Process Understanding of Science, Society and the Self
by Leslie A. Muray

Chapter 1:<B> </B>The Process Understanding of the Self


In the substantialist view, the self is an enduring substance, self-identical through time, self-sufficient, and self-contained. It is a fixed self, centered, a self that underlies the flux of experiences, whose relations are external, that is to say, that has relations because it decides to do so. The process-relational understanding presents a radically different alternative.

First in our consideration of the process-relational view of the self is the assertion that the human person is a highly complex psycho-physical organism. While under the dominance of an organizing center of experience, the psyche, everything in the body, from the tiniest energy event to the cell, effect and interact with the dominant center. Psyche, soul, and body are neither separate nor identical; the self is an embodied self yet distinct from the body. Thus, process thought rejects both dualism and monism.

The self is the momentary experiencing subject. Instead of a fixed, substantial self that underlies and undergoes the flux of experience, the self is the subjective immediacy of momentary experience.

The self is a relational or social self; it is what it is by virtue of its relationships; in fact, in one sense, it is its relationship. We saw in the Introduction that the past, not only ones personal past but the past of the whole entire universe, flows into the becoming of any momentary experience. Thus, any human self is constituted by her/his personal past, the past of the universe, and more immediately the cultures and environments of which we are a part.

The profound ways in which we are shaped by the non-human natural environments, history, cultures and sub-cultures in which we are participants cannot be minimized. One of my experiences as a prison chaplain provides a vivid illustration of this. An inmate came up for review before the Institutional Classification Committee, which decided over the movement of inmates from one custody level to another, i.e. maximum to medium, medium to minimum, minimum to trustee. The inmate in question was within six months of her release date, serving a mandatory sentence. When an inmate was this close to her release date, in fact much sooner depending on "time and crime," she was moved to trustee status in order to prepare for a gradual return and adjustment to life outside; with the help of the Vocational Guidance Counselor, she would find a job and/or receive job training; she would work outside of the facility during the daytime, pay taxes and room and board, and return to the prison at night, subject, of course to strip searches and random urinalysis.

The Classification Committee wanted to move the inmate in question from medium to trustee status; the Vocational Guidance Counselor had even found her a job as a maid paying $3.25 an hour. Much to the dismay of the middle class members of the committee, she refused! After a rather heated verbal exchange between the inmate and the members of the Committee, the streetwise Program Supervisor finally asked her what was the most amount of cash she had in her hands at one time. She replied $125,000 (in 1981 when this incident occurred, it would have taken five or six years for the people who made up the Committee to make that much money!) Why should she take a job as a maid making $3.25 when all she had to do was wait six months to finish her time, and she would be back in big money? Her parents and grandparents had been drug dealers, and she took a lot of pride in the Status she had achieved as the biggest drug dealer in her neighborhood (selling illegal drugs was the crime for which she was incarcerated). Reflecting the ethnic and racial tensions and hatred prevalent between blacks and Hispanics in the Southwest, she, a Hispanic who had never used drugs, spoke contemptuously of selling only to blacks. This was the world she knew; the only exposure, in her experience, to anything different was either through TV or in prison, primarily through contact with members of the staff, which, needless to say, was not always positive. As far as the inmate was concerned, anything different from the life style she knew was outside the realm of the plausible and possible.

This story illustrates that the world in which we live also lives in us; not only are we a part of cultures, sub-cultures, socio-politico-economic groups, families and other institutions, they are a part of us, constitutive of our very selfhood. Each one of us understands the world and interprets events from a particular perspective -- and that perspective is profoundly shaped by our non-human and human environments, culture, our socio-politico-economic location, the myths and symbols that organize and give meaning and significance to our lives.

In spite of the profound ways in which we are shaped by our environments, which, as we have seen includes the entire past, nevertheless, the human self is not totally determined. The momentary experience of becoming unifies and creatively synthesizes data from its past. In its freedom as to how it prehends the past and grasps the possibilities of the future, any momentary self truly creates itself anew in each moment.

As I sat down to write, I was feeling, prehending, the experiences of a long day spent counseling. While that weariness is flowing into my present moment of experience, it is much less vivid than it was fifteen minutes ago. Much more vivid in my current experience is the Evening News report on today’s Iran-Contra hearings. And as my weariness and the memory of the news story drift into the background, I feel a new surge of energy in writing these words. I create and recreate myself anew in every moment; as profoundly as I am shaped by it, I am transcending the past.

To claim, as process thinkers do, that the self is the momentary self in its subjective immediacy goes not only contrary to the insights of the inherited tradition and common sense but presents a serious philosophical problem. If I am a new self in every moment, how can I be held responsible and accountable for my past behavior? If I am not the same self I was five seconds ago, let alone a year ago why should I make the payment on a car I bought two years ago? How can Bernard Goetz be brought to trial for shootings that occurred two and a half years ago?

This is the problem of personal identity through time. With its understanding of the self as a momentary self, can process thought account for personal identity through time? One possible answer for maintaining personal identity through time is the continuity of the body; common sense would seem to indicate that when we deal with the same body, we deal with the same person. However, we know that the body changes; in fact the cells totally replenish themselves every nine years.

The typical route taken by process thinkers is to establish personal identity by way of memory. It is through memory, conscious and unconscious, that the past is constitutive of the present. Through memory, my past selves are constitutive of my present momentary self. Some process thinkers draw a distinction between different selves and the same person; the continuity of the person is in the connected composition of the current of selves. Thus, I am responsible for my past as well as the future selves, both immediate and distant, I anticipate becoming with care and concern.


In "basic" communities, in less enlightened times called "primitive" communities, there is little sense of one’s unique personhood. One identifies totally with the life of the community; there is no sense of identity without the community; the ultimate form of punishment is to be cut off from the community.

According to such diverse interpreters as Karl Jaspers, Erich Neumann, and John Cobb, during the Axial Period, roughly 800-200 BC. in Greece, Israel, India, and China, from which the phenomenon spread, human beings rapidly gained a sense of their unique individuality distinct from their relatedness to their community. Through a process we might call "psychic distancing," not only were humans able to look critically at the communities of which they were a part, increasingly they gained the capacity to "objectify" and examine themselves. They saw the various dimensions of the human person, and different civilizations identified one aspect of personhood as the organizing center of experience: for the Greeks, for example, the center was reason, the Hebrews the will.

In today’s world, life is more complicated; at different times, rather than identifying with one aspect of personhood as to the organizing center of experience, we flee from one dimension to another. For example in my present moment of experience, I am to some extent identifying myself with my body as I feel the soreness in my hand. For many people, all of us at one time or another, the body is synonymous with personhood. Similarly, I am identifying with my emotions as I feel the exhilaration of writing. For many people, all of us at least some of the time, the organizing center of experience is the emotions: people are their emotions. In spite of being tired I keep writing, identifying myself, in part, with my will. Many people, all of us some of the time, identify personhood with the will. Finally, in this moment, the dimension of my personhood I identify with the most is reason as I seek to articulate and communicate some of the concepts of process thought. Many people identify, all of us some of the time, personhood with human reason.

We are our bodies; we are our emotions; we are our wills; and we are our rational faculties. But we are more than our bodies, our emotions, our wills, our rational capacities. We are complex psycho-physical organisms, whole persons, who include the various aspects of the human personality, and yet we are much more than these, even in their totality.

In human existence, we might describe the self as "spirit," not a disembodied spirit, but the self in its wholeness, inclusive of yet transcending the body, the emotions, the will, and reason. The spirit transcends itself; it is capable of looking at and taking responsibility for itself as well as other aspects of the personality. It is responsible for how the human self in its wholeness organizes itself around its capacity for self-transcendence. In seeking wholeness, the self attempts to develop fully the health of the body, the capacity to feel and express the emotions, the will, and the capacity to reason. One is hard put to conceive of a more wholistic understanding of the self in its radical freedom.


During the last fifteen years, much of the discussion in ethics has been a recovery of the tradition of character and virtue. The origin of this emphasis is in Hellenistic philosophy. As we have seen, the Greek view of justice is the proper and harmonious functioning of humans in the larger whole of the political community, each fulfilling the function innate to one’s being, fully cognizant and accepting ones limits. Justice has its counterpart in the soul, in the harmonious and proper functioning of the appetites and passions under the dominance of reason. If there was a "just" and "good" society, its counterpart was the "good" and "just" person. To be a good person and have justice in the soul, a constancy of character and one’s dispositions needed to be cultivated. The virtues requisite for a person of good character were courage, temperance, prudence, and justice. Given the static understanding of reality in Greek thought, its understanding of character and virtue are equally static and substantialist.

In the contemporary discussion, constancy of character, the cultivation of the dispositions that lead to it, and consistent personal and professional identity are emphasized. In Christian theological ethics, the constancy of the distinctive Christian character shaped by the distinctiveness of the Christian story is stressed. The particular way constancy of character is emphasized implies a substantialist view of the self and an essentialist understanding of Christianity.

There is much that process thought can contribute to the contemporary ethical discussion on character and virtue. However, its understanding of character and virtue would be considerably different from the traditional Hellenistic view and its offspring as well as the substantialist presuppositions of the contemporary discussion.

We might begin developing a process understanding of character and virtue by looking at how the momentary self, like any momentary experience, has a receptive and active side. These are not opposites on a dialectical collision course but two poles of one momentary experience. On the receptive side, which prehends data from the past, the past of the entire universe, the more of the world, the more contrast I can take in, provided I am not overwhelmed or lose my integrity, the "larger" self I become. Thus, the cultivation of the virtues of empathy, compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, responsiveness and integrity are crucial in the development of a process understanding of character.

For example, if I visit a friend who has cancer, I may respond defensively, out of my own fear of cancer, or out of feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. I may erect a defensive barrier emotionally which makes my visit less helpful than it might have been. However, I may respond to my friend with empathy and compassion, allowing myself to feel her/his feelings, to put myself in his/her position, enabling me to be truly present to her/him; both of us are transformed in the process. Of course, I may empathize and identify with my friend to the point of becoming the patient in the bed, having lost my sense of self and being rather useless both to my friend and myself.

We tend to get so wrapped in our little corner of the world and our social location that we get oblivious to those who do not share that corner of the world and social location. A classic example is the story of the inmate described earlier in this chapter. In terms of lived experience, the middle class world and values of the members of the Classification Committee were foreign to the inmate. In similar fashion, in spite of forty-two years cumulative experience in corrections, the world of pushers and junkies was outside the life experiences and frame of reference of the members of the Committee.

We have a tendency to want to make those unlike ourselves in our image. White middle class people often take the attitude that if only criminals, members of racial minorities, welfare recipients, Third World peoples, behaved like us and shared our values, they would not have the problems that they do. Those told how to live and who to be either lose their sense of selfhood or rebel. Whether we are trying to mold others in our own image or others are attempting to do the same to us, the dynamics of operating in this fashion are not helpful, healthy, or constructive; our lives become truncated and not as rich in experience as they might have been otherwise.

However, we do have the capacity to "cross over," to enter into the lives and frame of residence of those different from ourselves through empathy, compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, responsiveness and imagination. And when we do respond to those different from ourselves in this manner, our lives are enriched and we become "larger" selves. Much of contemporary therapeutic practice is based on similar notions. By conveying unconditional acceptance and empathy, the therapist provides the reassurance for the client that enables her/him to see the past, no matter how debilitating, as meaningful, leading to the present and the possibility of newness of life, and a future pregnant with potentialities that otherwise might not have been envisioned.

Creativity is another virtue process thinkers would want to cultivate. As we have seen, creativity is fundamental to the character of reality itself. The present moment of becoming creatively synthesizes and unifies data from the past and grasps to realize the possibilities of the future. Cultivation of participation in the creative process is essential to a process theory of virtue.

What enables creativity is empathy, compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, and responsiveness. As I respond to others and the world around me with empathy, compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, and responsiveness, new possibilities, new worlds open up. Equally vital is the love and acceptance I receive from others. In our culture, with the dominance of substantialist views, we tend not to know how to handle compliments and receive love and acceptance. At times, we are rather blind when they are offered. Process thinkers would want to nurture a sense of openness to the empathy, compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, and responsiveness we receive from others, and which is essential for the development of those virtues as well as the enhancement of creativity in ourselves.

In the case of the inmate, while the outcome may not have been different, had the members of the Classification Committee, instead of laying their own middle class values on her, approached her with empathy, compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, responsiveness, and openness to her world and talked about her need for a sense of self-worth, of "somebodyness," to use Jesse Jackson’s phrase, for status, she may have been more open and receptive, and seen possibilities she had not encountered before. The inmate and the members of the Committee would at least have had the opportunity to share in each others frame of reference and be mutually transformed selves.

We can see a similar dynamic as the self encounters new ideas. When I am confronted with a new idea, I may react defensively and reject it. Or I may borrow bits and pieces of it and attempt an uneasy synthesis with my previous beliefs and ideas. Or, I may truly wrestle with the new idea, with the way in which it engages my old ideas. When I encounter new ideas in this manner, when I do not feel overwhelmed by new ideas but am open to them, I experience novelty, new ways of thinking, and a transformation of the self.

Another virtue that would be important for process thinkers is gentleness. For those who are religious, the process doctrine of God is important in this regard. Gentleness is part of the character of the divine. Whitehead himself wrote that "God is the poet of the world, guiding the world with vision of truth, beauty and goodness." If to be religious means to imitate the divine, then gentleness is a virtue to be cultivated by the religious person. Whitehead also described the advance of civilization as the victory of persuasion and gentleness over brute force and coercion. Religious or not, gentleness is a virtue of the civilized character.


Process thinkers would not want to underestimate the importance of the constancy of character, of reliability and dependability. However, when one uses the language of "constancy of character," it already implies something fixed, unchanging, predictable. Yet, for process thinkers, an important value, the virtue of creativity, is the zest for novelty and adventure -- characteristics of life itself, particularly in the more complex forms, such as animals with central nervous systems. Certainly, this puts the primacy on change. But how can you have constancy and change at the same time?

In many ways, this resembles the discussion about how I can be a momentary self yet account for my personal identity through time. The answer is similar. I am momentary self but the same person I was ten years ago; my past selves are constitutive of my present moment of becoming. In similar fashion, if I am empathetic, compassionate, sensitive, receptive, responsive, creative and gentle, the selves that I am at particular moments not only change but become "larger" and "richer," encompassing more of the diversity world. Yet, I am, hopefully, constant, reliable, dependable in being empathetic, compassionate, sensitive, receptive, responsive, creative, and gentle. Moreover, I not only cultivate these virtues, I nurture my constancy in their exercise.

There is a great affinity between the process understanding of the self and the concomitant virtues and the Buddhist view of the self. Indeed, much of the groundbreaking work of process theologians has been in the area of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue. In the Buddhist view of the self, as in process thought, the self is not a fixed substance that undergoes the flux of events but the momentary experiencing subject. We might understand this better if we put it in perspective.

For Buddhists, the origin of pain and suffering is clinging, clinging not only to the objects of ones desires but especially to ones past selves. When one is able to let go, one is fully present in the immediacy of subjective experiencing, taking into that experience more of the world, and becoming, to use all too Western language, a "richer," "larger" self. Contrary to Western stereotypes of the annihilation of the self, this reflects a more accurate understanding of the Buddhist doctrine of the "no-self."

Nine months ago, I moved to Michigan after having lived twenty-two years in Arizona, with seven years interspersed in California at college, seminary, and graduate school. Moving is one of the major sources of stress, and the psychological dynamics closely resemble those of bereavement. I missed the warm weather (especially when it snowed April Fools Day!), the sunshine, the desert, familiar surroundings, and friends. From a Buddhist perspective, I was clinging to my past selves; as long as I was doing this, I could not be fully present in my current moment of subjective experiencing or to the environment in which I was presently living. Once I would realize that the past was meaningful, that my past selves live on in the present, although certainly not in their subjective immediacy, I could let go, give up my clinging, and be more fully present in my current momentary experience and to the world.

In a similar fashion, process thought has a great deal of affinity with feminist analyses of the self. According to the feminist thinkers, in our culture, the primary experience of and the normative expectation for men is to be a separate, independent, self-contained, self-sufficient self. The experience of women is different, primarily an experience of relatedness to oneself, one’s body, and the world. The experience of both men and women is distorted and truncated. Taught to be independent and not to feel or express emotions, the male capacity for relationality is underdeveloped. The sense of relationality fundamental to women’s experience is perverted by our culture making women’s self-worth dependent on relations to males, obliterating a sense of independence and unique personhood. In seeking wholeness, men need to develop their capacities for relatedness and receptivity; women, while affirming the fundamental sense of relationality, need to develop their capacities for self-affirmation and self-assertion. A sense of relationality as the matrix that nurtures creativity, needs to be fostered in both men and women.

In the profoundly ecological vision of process thought, organisms always interact with their environments. Both organisms and their environment are dynamic, full of life, and as they interact, they both change. For an increased capacity for novelty, adventure, sensitivity, receptivity, responsiveness, creativity to develop and flower, the environment with which the organism interacts, of which it is a part, needs to be conducive for the emergence of these characteristics and virtues. Thus, to understand the "good" character, it is essential to explore the conditions most likely to lead to its development, the "good" and "just" society. It is to these topics that we turn in the next two chapters.


For Further Reading

For some excellent expositions of the process understanding of the self, see:

Cobb, John B., Jr., A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965).

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

Cobb, John B., Jr., and Griffin, David Ray, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976).

Hartshorne, Charles, "Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest" , Cargas, Harry James, and Lee, Bernard, eds., Religious Experience and Process Theology: The Pastoral Implications of a Major Modern Movement (New York: Paulist Press, 1976), pp. 301-322.

Loomer, Bernard M., "Christian Faith and Process Philosophy," in Brown, Delwin, James, Ralph C., Jr. and Reeves, Gene, eds., Process Philosophy and Christian Faith (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.) pp. 70-98.

Loomer, Bernard M., "Dimensions of Freedom," in Cargas and Lee, pp. 323-339.

Loomer, Bernard M., "Empirical Theology within Process Thought," Meland, Bernard F., ed., The Future of Empirical Theology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969) pp. 149-173.

Loomer, Bernard M., "The Future of Process Philosophy," in Sibley, Jack R. and Gunter, Peter A.Y., eds., Process Philosophy: Basic Writings (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America) pp. 513-538.

Loomer, Bernard M., "A Process-Relational Conception of Creation," in Joranson, Philip N., and Butigan, Ken, Cry of the Environment: Rebuilding the Christian Creation Tradition (Santa Fe: Bear and Company, Inc., 1984), pp. 321-328.

Loomer, Bernard M., "S-l-Z-E is the Measure," in Cargas and Lee, pp. 69-76.

An excellent treatment, a model of the relational vision in the creative synthesis of process and feminist thought, mythology, and depth psychology, is Keller, Catherine, From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986).

For an illuminating account of the stages of the life cycle in women’s experience that is influenced by process thought, see Washbourn, Penelope, Becoming Woman: The Quest for Wholeness in Female Experience (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1977).

For affinity between feminist and process understandings of selfhood see the various essays in Davaney, Sheila Greeve, Feminism and Process Thought (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1981).

The best account of the dialogue between Buddhist and process views of self is Cobb, John B., Jr., Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), especially pp. 75-95, 104-110.

For the contemporary discussion of the ethics of character and virtue, I refer the reader to the works of Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair Maclntyre. Lois Gehr Livezey’s paper, "Goods, Rights, and Virtues: Toward an Interpretation of Justice in Process Thought," The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, 1986, provides another view of this issue from a process perspective.