Posted by: Xhyra Graf | 20 January 2007

Process Philosophy

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 Rescher, Nicholas, “Process Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =


‘Against this historical background, “process philosophy” may be understood as a doctrine invoking certain basic propositions: (1) That time and change are among the principal categories of metaphysical understanding, (2) That process is a principal category of ontological description, (3) That process is more fundamental, or at any rate not less fundamental than things for the purposes of ontological theory, (4) That several if not all of the major elements of the ontological repertoire (God, nature-as-a whole, persons, material substances) are best understood in process linked terms, and (5) That contingency, emergence, novelty, and creativity are among the fundamental categories of metaphysical understanding. A process philosopher, accordingly, is someone for whom temporality, activity, and change — of alteration, striving, passage, and novelty-emergence — are the cardinal factors for our understanding of the real. ‘

‘In brief outline, Strawson’s argument runs essentially as follows:

  1. For objective and identifiable particulars to be knowable, some items must be (1) distinguishable from other co-existents, and (2) reidentifiable over time.
  2. These conditions (viz. distinguishability and reidentifiability) can only be met by material objects (i.e. particulars with material bodies).’

Yada, yada, etc…They mentioned Whitehead which reminded me not to forget [hee] the quote I found a few semesters ago about the task of a philosopher

Strawson maintained that:

The only objects which can constitute [the space-time framework essential to interpersonal communication] are those which confer upon it their own fundamental characteristics. That is to say they must be three dimensional objects with some endurance through time . . . They must collectively have enough diversity, richness, stability, and endurance to make possible just that conception of a single unitary [space-time] framework which we possess. [Page 39]

The process philosopher will have no quarrel with any of this. However, Strawson then proceeded straightaway to draw a deeply problematic conclusion:

Of the categories of object which we recognize, only those satisfy these requirements which are, or possess, material bodies — in the broad sense of the expression. Hence given a certain general feature of the [space-time committed] conceptual scheme which we possess, and given the character of available major categories, things which are, or possess, material bodies must be [epistemologically] basic particulars.

To its decisive detriment, Strawson’s argument simply begs the question here. For all of the features that his analysis require (spatiotemporal stability and endurance, diversity, richness, interpersonal accountability, and the like) are possessed every bit as much by physical processes as by the things that “are or possess material bodies.” It is not material substances (things) that can be distinguished and reidentified within nature’s spatiotemporal framework, but occurrence-contexts (processes) as well. Processes are physically realized without being literally embodied. And the one is no less confrontable and capable of ostensive indication than the other (“that lion”; “that yawning”). Only by an act of deeply problematic fiat is Strawson able — even within the restricted confines of his own analysis — to advantage and prioritize material bodies over physical processes. Even Strawson’s insistence that epistemically basic particulars must be identifiable by ostension holds every bit as much for instances of physical process as for particular constrained material bodies. (Indeed, as we shall see, it is theoretically possible to reconceptualize material bodies as complexes of physical processes, while the reverse — the general reconceptualization of physical processes as complexes of material objects — is just not all that plausible (the “Reism” or “Concretism” of KotarbiÅ„ski and of the later Brentano notwithstanding).)


Process philosophy correspondingly has a complex, two sided relationship with the theory of evolution. For secular, atheological processists evolution typifies the creative workings of a self-sustaining nature that dispenses with the services of God. For theological processists like Teilhard de Chardin, evolution exhibits God’s handwriting in the book of nature. But processists of all descriptions see evolution not only as a crucial instrument for understanding the role of intelligence in the world’s scheme of things but also as a key aspect of the world’s natural development. And, more generally, the evolutionary process has provided process philosophy with one of its main models for how large scale collective processes (on the order of organic development at large) can inhere in and result from the operation of numerous small-scale individual processes (on the order of individual lives), thus accounting for innovation and creativity also on a macro-level scale.

But there is one further complexity here. Where human intelligence is concerned, biological evolution is undoubtedly Darwinian, with teleologically blind natural selection operating with respect to teleologically blind random mutations. Cultural evolution, on the other hand, is generally Teilhardian, governed by a rationally-guided selection among purposefully devised mutational variations. Taken in all, cognitive evolution involves both components, superimposing rational selection on biological selection. Our cognitive capacities and faculties are part of the natural endowment we owe to biological evolution. But our cognitive methods, procedures, standards, and techniques are socio-culturally developed resources that evolve through rational selection in the process of cultural transmission through successive generations. Our cognitive hardware (mechanisms and capacities) develops through Darwinian natural selection, but our cognitive software (the methods and procedures by which we transact our cognitive business) develops in a Teilhardian process of rational selection that involves purposeful intelligence-guided variation and selection. Biology produces the instrument, so to speak, and culture writes the music — where obviously the former powerfully constrains the latter. (You cannot play the drums on a piano.)



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