Immediate Thoughts on the Poverty of Process

The term “process” in philosophy is a meaningless, confusing phrase which should be abandoned quickly. Now, that does not mean that I renounce any of my philosophical positions, but rather, that I believe this piece of terminology does more harm than good, along with the word “becoming” in the abstract, especially when opposed to “being’ in the abstract. Every time I hear such things I cannot help but roll my eyes. It seems that any philosopher who puts in a good word for Heraclitus, from Nietzsche, to Whitehead and Deleuze, or even Heidegger, all are welcomed into the great pantheon of philosophers who “emphasized flux” and are “process-oriented.” Wikipedia’s page for Process Philosophy says:

“Philosophers who appeal to process rather than substance include Heraclitus, Karl Marx,[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, Charles Sanders Peirce, Alfred North Whitehead, William James, R. G. Collingwood, Alan Watts, Robert M. Pirsig, Charles Hartshorne, Arran Gare, Nicholas Rescher, Colin Wilson, and Gilles Deleuze.”

The vast disagreements philosophically between such figures should make such a division immediately suspect with only a moments thought. Those who follow me on Twitter might know me for my (sometimes violent) engagements with Hegelians. Perhaps Deleuze and Whitehead are worthy of being linked, but Deleuze inherits from Whitehead. It is hardly accurate I think to enthrone Whitehead as the “philosopher of process” even. It brings a host of misunderstandings about his metaphysics to newcomers, and greatly confuses people about Whitehead’s project.

Whitehead in fact, insists on the reality of permanence and eternity, despite them lacking ultimate status. Whitehead’s “flux” of motionless atoms is a far cry from Deleuze’s Spinozism, and an even further cry from Hegel’s apotheosis of consciousness. Whitehead’s project is not so much to defeat the notion of persisting things but rather to fight Aristotelian notions of substance-attribute metaphysics and the bifurcation of nature. The mistake that people make in reading “Process and Reality” is to make process itself something substantial, and in this they lose Whitehead’s truly interesting move, which is to affirm the process which the substantial entities take part in as the ultimate explanatory fact to be appealed to over and above the entities themselves. This process is Creativity, and it is the process which is reality. It fills the place which substance would, without being something substantial. The process of Creativity though is a very distinct process, and it involves stops and breaks as much as flows and flux.

Recognizing this is where we can begin to make some useful distinctions between the various “process” philosophers. Whitehead and Deleuze are perhaps best described as empiricists, in a sense which they both assigned themselves:

I have always felt that I am an empiricist . . . [My empiricism] is derived from the two characteristics by which Whitehead defined empiricism: the abstract does not explain, but must itself be explained; and the aim is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced (creativeness). (WP 7)

This term can also lead to confusion, but perhaps calling Deleuze and Whitehead “Radical Empiricists” à la William James might remedy this.

Becoming appears at the beginning of Hegel’s Science of Logic as merely one moment of a logic whose process ultimately affirms substantialist modes of thinking, albeit in a different manner than Aristotle. I do not know enough to comment on Heidegger, or on German Idealists other than Hegel, but it is clear enough that whenever these different thinkers affirm things like becoming they mean different things, and often have an entirely different goal or approach. To continue attempting to give them more unproblematic labels, we could separate all of these “process-oriented” further.

Anti-substantialists include thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, Whitehead, and Deleuze. Nietzsche is difficult to place into a further category, so I will refrain (Deleuze and Heidegger might become jealous if I placed them with one or the other). They can further be split between the empiricists, Deleuze and Whitehead, and the ontologist Heidegger. Deleuze and Whitehead can be further split, the latter being an atomist and the former being a monist (in simplified terms). The German Idealists on the other hand, are dialectical and concerned with processes of consciousness and subjectivity, (as is Heidegger to some extent). There is enough scholarship on how the German Idealists divide internally that I will refrain from commenting.

So now we can do away with lumping people together, we can start to strip away terms like process and becoming and use something more accurate. Whitehead is concerned with Creativity, Deleuze with creativity specifically as morphogenesis via difference, Heidegger with Being and Time, and Hegel with the development of consciousness, or the Phenomenology of Spirit, among other things.

The reason for such hostility is that the word process becomes a kind of shibboleth or magic wand used to wave problems away, or as a kind of rhetorical device that stupefies actual thought. It also obscures what philosophers might actually be talking about. It bothers me when starry-eyed beautiful souls talk about the wonders of Whitehead’s philosophy of process and how it focuses on how the world is “dynamic and changing.” Well, Aristotle doesn’t expunge change from the world either, and neither does Plato. It is true that he rather makes creatitive process the primary, but what is truly unique about Whitehead is that he tries to provide a rigorous account of the conditions for creativity while at the same time accounting for the continuity of things, their permanence. He never throws up his hands and says “it’s all flux!” but rather attempts to explain both poles of experience, flux and permanence, as things in a complimentary contrast. To characterize Whitehead as someone who attempts to abolish one thing or another in certain dichotomies is to fundamentally misunderstand the goal of his philosophy.

In short, the term not only blurs the distinction between philosophers, but makes it unclear what each philosopher really attempts to accomplish.


[Please note that this post is merely airing some frustrated thoughts, rather than attempting to present a rigorous position in earnest.]

Whitehead on Space and Time

Whitehead has some of the most conceptually liberating notions for thinking about time, space, and extensionality, but unfortunately, they can be difficult to grasp. Whitehead places space and time, as well as any other possible dimension, on what he terms the extensive continuum. This is the widest possible field which we are able to imagine. The bare extensive continuum is merely a field of potential that can be filled by actual entities through extensive connection.

Any kind of extension, either through space or time, takes place on the extensive continuum. Any kind of dimensionality is a form of extension, and the forms of extension which we bear witness to are not the only ways in which actual entities can and do manifest themselves. The three spatial dimensions which we are used to could be different. It’s entirely possible for there to be a society of entities which live in a “flatland” for instance.  This notion of time as one type of extensive connectedness allows for thinking about becoming and process outside of notions of pure time.

What is meant by extensive connectedness deserves some clarification. When an entity extends through space or time, this fundamentally has to do with the way in which the entity is situating itself in a scheme of relatedness. The different modes of extension are part of what determines how an entity interacts, or connects with other entities. It can do this spatially or temporally, or any other numbers of ways which we cannot conceive.  An entity that is highly extended is strongly related to many entities compared to one which is less extended. With this in mind, we can begin to think of time as just one form of extensive connection. The process of becoming is atemporal for Whitehead, time merely illustrates certain effects of becoming. What is more fundamental in talking about past, present, and future for Whitehead is determining the causal order of things. What we see as time merely illustrates some aspects of the causal relationships in a given entity’s becoming.

The extensive continuum also represents the potential divisibility of things. Everything on the continuum can be divided or split into parts by examination, but is found as a unified solidarity, hence continuum.

Now, what would this actually look like? The actual world of a given actual entity for Whitehead is causally in the past for that entity. That is, the entity is causally dependent on the entities in it. The things which this concresence is causally independent of are its contemporary entities. Though Whitehead is not clear on this, the way in which an entity extends temporally would determine which entities in its causal future are dependent on it and which are independent, while matters of space would deal with the “location” and importance of its connections to entities in this timeframe.

Thinking of becoming outside of time allows for a great expansion of the imagination. It lets us to reconcile notions of eternity and permanence inside of an ever-novel and changing universe, and also makes the discoveries of empirical sciencelike relativity, quantum entanglement, et ceteramore easily reconcileable with our categories of thought, though I am hesitant to make any sweeping claims on this matter without doing further research.