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.]

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