Process Philosophy

What is process philosophy?

Process philosophy was an early twentieth century system of thought that was strongly influenced by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity and other scientific ideas, such as the wave theory of light and sub-atomic physics. The fundamental metaphysical premise of process philosophy is that the basic unit of existence is not a stable thing, such as an atom, but events, or change over time. The two most prominent process philosophers were Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000).

Who was Alfred North Whitehead?

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was famous in analytic philosophy for his collaboration with his student Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) on Principia Mathematica (three volumes; 1910, 1912, 1913). Principia took almost 10 years to complete and was highly regarded as an impressive but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reduce mathematics to logic. Whitehead was also the American originator of process philosophy, a version of philosophy of science and metaphysics that is similar to pragmatism in its emphasis on change and the dynamic nature of experience.

What are the highlights of Alfred North Whitehead's career?

Whitehead spent the first 25 years of his teaching career at Trinity College, Cambridge. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) distanced themselves from each other after Russell became a pacifist during World War I and Whitehead's son was killed in that war. Whitehead taught at the University of London and began publishing works on philosophy of science, such as Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), The Concept of Nature (1920), and The Principle of Relativity (1922). His most important work as a process philosopher was Process and Reality (1927-1928), which was published after he moved to the United States to accept a position at Harvard.

What was Alfred North Whitehead's process philosophy?

Whitehead believed that it is impossible to have an idea of simple spatial or temporal location. He claimed that in our immediate experience nothing possesses "this character of simple location." Instead, Whitehead held that simple location requires a process of "constructive abstraction" that is made up of considerations of existing volumes extended over one another, such as a nest of baskets, Russian dolls, or pots of different sizes. Every location has an aspect of itself in every other location and thereby mirrors the entire world. (It's unlikely that Whitehead meant literally "mirrors," so much as he wanted to emphasize that things are not completely self-contained or isolated from other things.)

Moreover, what we imagine to be objects are actually constructed events and processes. Process, not substance, is the basic unit of the world. The work of philosophy is to explain the relations or connections between scientific and logical descriptions of reality and our everyday experience (of nested volumes). To believe that science directly describes experience is to commit the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness."

How did Charles Hartshorne's system of the universe work?

All human sensations, according to Hartshorne, are feelings, and nature itself is the totality of all interactions of sentient, creative beings, which exist for all time in God's memory. The entire universe is literally God's body. The most important values—which can be sensed and are immortal as events of sensation—concern beauty. Beauty can be theoretically understood as a mean between order and disorder and/or simplicity and complexity.

What did Alfred North Whitehead think the world was composed of in reality?

According to Whitehead, the most primitive real unit is an actual occasion, which is not any thing or substance that persists in time, but a process, a process of becoming. This process of becoming is related to every other process of becoming, or as White-head's commentators have explained, the basic unit of reality is a Leibnizian monad that has windows on every conceivable "surface." The entire world is organic and "nature is a structure of evolving processes." Reality is process. Moreover, Whitehead believed that his ontology, unlike the scientific ontology of inert objects, allowed for the existence of an evolving God.

Who was Charles Hartshorne?

Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) wrote over 20 books dedicated to developing the theological side of Whitehead's philosophy. Hartshorne posited a dynamic form of evolution that included human events, time, history, and God. God is "dipolar." He has an abstract pole and a concrete one. Hartshorne thought that the necessity of God's existence could be proved in his version of St. Anselm of Canterbury's ontological argument. Hartshorne believed that Anselm was mistaken in attempting to prove the existence of God from thought, but that what can be proved is the necessity of God's existence.

Hartshorne's major works are Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy of Nature (1968), The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays in Neoclassical Metaphysics (1962; revised, 1973), Anselm's Discovery (1965), A Natural Theology for Our Time (1967; revised, 1992), The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation (1968), Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method (1970), Reality as Social Process (1971), Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1984), and Born to Sing: An Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song(1992).

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