The Basics of Process Philosophy

Alfred North Whitehead in 1936.jpg

Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947)

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

There is a strong tendency to overlook process and to think we simply live in world full of separate things. We use nouns, which indicate some kind of stable entities — what in the philosophical tradition have been called “substances.” It’s quite normal to think of the world as a thing, filled with other things — rivers, mountains, lions, mosquitos, people, all sort of things. It’s also quite normal to think of these individual things as distinct from other things, which they are not. The fish is not the river. It is in the river. The river is not the river valley. It flows through the valley. The valley is not the region. But it is a part of a region. Objects are parts of bigger objects still. Wholes are parts of other wholes.

It is indeed very natural for us to think in terms of such objects. Yet some philosophers have tried to orient us away from focusing so much on things and to guide us to think of processes as primary. The fish then is seen as a form of life only sustained through the eating of other fish and plant life, the absorption of minerals, whose habit is the healthy river, and whose well-being and even survival is dependent on the health of the river. The river is water in flow, but a healthy river needs water blockages in places, such as rocks and logs that create dams from which water overflows further into the river. These overflows add oxygen to the water, creating a healthier habitat for fish. Overflow into the flood plain is necessary for healthy rivers. There bacteria forms, which filter nitrates from the to nitrogen gas, which then is returned to the atmosphere. Without this filtering process, the nitrate levels of the river water also can become too high and fish in a lake into which a river feeds may become unhealthy and die. This process of overflow also creates ponds and puddles, which serve as habitat for various animals in the river valley.

Now, where does the river stop and the river valley begin? The ponds and puddles were once a part of the river, but later a part of the river valley. How are these separable in any definitive sense? Ecosystems have fuzzy boundaries. The region, for its part, is also not just an area of some square miles or hectors (though we can draw one up that way for political purposes). But for the purposes of biology, a bioregion likewise has a fuzzy boundary. In modern society,  a region is characterized not only by the flora, fauna and geographical formations but by industry, flows of traffic, people who have moved to the region, and other things, all which influence the biodiversity of the area, the health of the river, and so on. Processes are involved at every step being described here. We cannot understand the things mentioned without understanding the processes in which they are involved. Process philosophers tend to emphasize these processes that interlink these various things, and they emphasize that the things themselves have fuzzy boundaries and are also characterized by their processes.

The focus on processes is rarer than the focus on stable things. But especially in light of our environmental concerns today, and the fundamental importance of understanding the intersection of biological and human processes in order to address those concerns, a focus on processes is vital.

In referring to process philosophy in this context, I am leaning on some ideas developed by Nicholas Rescher in Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues (Univ. of Pittsburg Press, 2000.) But I am focusing on different figures than he does.

First of all, I want to underline the importance of adding various Eastern philosophers to the list of process thinkers, including Laozi and Buddha. Among Western philosophers, I will also emphasize some different thinkers than Rescher does. In addition to thinkers that Rescher mentions — of course, Alfred Whitehead, the 20th century American philosophers most clearly identified with the label of process philosophy, as well as Heraclitus, Henri Bergson, Charles Sanders Pierce and William James — I think it important to add Hegel and Marx, certain systems thinkers, as well as Giles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri, two important 20th century French philosophers. These thinkers too underline the importance of systemic interactions, of process, of change.

All of these thinkers share at least the first four characteristics that Rescher views as basic tendencies of process thinkers. In Rescher’s words:

  1. Time and change are among the principle categories of metaphysical understanding.
  2. Process is a principle category of ontological description.
  3. Processes are more fundamental, or at any rate, not less fundamental than things for the purposes of ontological theory.
  4. 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 terms.
  5. Contingency, emergence, novelty, and creativity are among the fundamental categories of metaphysical understanding.  (5-6)

The final criterion is the one that some of the thinkers on my list are considered by some not to meet. Hegel and Marx are often read as not allowing contingency. Nonetheless, these thinkers, like Heraclitus and Laozi, and the others mentioned, focus on process as fundamental to understanding history, self, and much else. So there is good reason to include them.

A future post will focus on Heraclitus, Laozi, and the Buddha as some of the original process thinkers.


Rescher, Nicholas. Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues. (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press. 2000)

Schlesinger, Bill. June 7, 2016.“What Makes a Healthy Stream?”  Translational Ecology. Citizen Scientist. Web. Access February 8, 2018.

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16 thoughts on “The Basics of Process Philosophy

  1. I am pleased to learn that philosophers have recognized the Object/Process dichotomy for a long time. I have developed my own version of the idea independently, and I’ve come at it from a very different angle: the failure of software designers to grasp the true significance of the computer. I outline these concepts here:

    Lesson #3 on this index page directly addresses the Object/Process dichotomy.

  2. What is life? A PROCESS of transformation of matter and energy in a manner that returns roughly to its starting conditions. The simplest life has a few entangled cycles. Advanced life has legions of cycles, many of which can take up the slack when others fail, promoting endurance.
    Reproduction, classically included as a necessary element of life, can be seen as just an additional set of cycles that reinforce robustness. An infertile lifeform is simply a LESS robust process, rather than some kind of special exception.
    And it is easy to see that a virus is not alive in this setting. The cycle of viral propagation is a simple form of life that intrudes on another, more robust system of cycles; the inert viral body is just a step in that cycle, rather than a lifeform in itself.

  3. This article is for those with a broad background in philosophy which I do not have.

    “Hegel and Marx are often read as not allowing contingency”

    The above must be a reference to their determinism; specifically laws of history and somesuch.

  4. Marx postulated laws of history. Unfortunately, they do not exist– otherwise, to start with, we would not need the United Nations International Court Of Justice…

  5. thanks for the link Chris. I had never thought about all the connections between substances and events. In philosophy this is often referred to as a substance ontology vs an even ontology.

  6. Things and Processes

    Our brains have not evolved to understand the fine structure and behaviour of matter nor for understanding the origin of the universe or of our species. Our brains evolved to enable us to survive in order to replicate and thus increase the number of each type in the gene pool. That is why we find it difficult to conceptualise quantum phenomena or matter in extreme states such as a blackhole.

    Understanding the fine structure and behaviour of matter, the origin of the universe and evolution by natural selection is just an epiphenomenon of the working of brain-for-survival. A brain builds a model of the world for survival purposes not for metaphysical understanding of how the world works to satisfy our curiosity. This model has to be founded on separation (i.e. that the world is made up of things) because if we go back to the beginning of life on earth, the foundation upon which the primordial little self-replicating bag of life was built was separation from the milieu in which it is living. That is why it had to have some kind of walls separating it from the outside and some processes within to enable it to reject and accept certain items. Without the bag becoming a thing there would be no life and no evolution leading to our brains that can think of ‘process philosophy’. If your process embraced the tiger process to become one flow you will not survive and will not procreate offspring to repeat what you have done. You need to keep your separation.

    But we also should not take this process of separation to extreme. There are times when we need to think systemically and not think of the various parts making up a larger dynamical system as separate from each other but as nodes whose definition is dependent on their relationships with the other nodes in the system as when, for example, we deal with an ecosystems or human societies. It might then be appropriate to think of the system as being made of processes of the flow of matter, energy and information throughout the system.

    Our brains and thus our minds are structured to think of the world as being made of things and it is appropriate to capitalise upon this unless it is harmful to think in this way and it becomes more appropriate to think in terms of processes. Wisdom is to apply the right model at the right time and place.

  7. I suppose this makes sense, that there was evolutionary pressure to think of reality as consisting of substances rather than processes. – JGM

  8. This might be somewhat of an overstatement. Does it have to be so either/or?

    “A brain builds a model of the world for survival purposes not for metaphysical understanding of how the world works to satisfy our curiosity.”

  9. interesting question. Perhaps originally for the former but then, as a byproduct for the latter. Deep questions here. JGM

  10. I said;
    Understanding the fine structure and behaviour of matter, the origin of the universe and evolution by natural selection is just an epiphenomenon of the working of a brain that was structured to bestow upon its owner some survival advantage.
    Note also that, throughout the evolution of the brain, there were no evolutionary pressures to think philosophically or rationally about things in ways that did not bestow upon the thinker some survival advantage.

  11. Don’t know if I agree with you 100 percent, Alhazen.

    Dogs bay at the Moon out of fear: survival-related. Also confusion; canines do not know what the Moon is. But in addition there is awe.
    Awe can be considered something of a ‘philosophical’/metaphysical product even in animals, no matter how crude the philosophy/metaphysics is.

  12. To Alan

    Epiphenomenon is everywhere. It is just the use or the application of an item designed for some function for carrying out another different function. It happens with biological organs designed by natural selection as well as with artefacts designed by man. For example, an empty can could be used for carrying water or as a musical instrument when banged on by a stick or a container to store things in it.

    The brain evolved to detect patterns in space and time and to store them in memory in order to immediately recognise opportunity (food, mate) and danger from tiny signs which will trigger the whole stored pattern. For example; seeing a few stripes between branches will immediately conjure up the image of a tiger. No time is wasted in trying to discover further what those stripes meant.

    Now in science, we have applied epiphenomenally what we used for survival, namely pattern recognition for discovering patterns in nature. If you think of the whole endeavour of science you could put it all in a nutshell and say; it is the process of discovering the different patterns in nature or how things are arranged and behave regularly.

  13. Sorry, too narrow even for me. Until the origins of the cosmos is known, I cannot agree.
    Take simulation: if reality is a sim, then our lives are secondary to the sim, and any functions are tertiary. (Plus am factoring the conceivability of parallel universes, etc.)

    However if you want to limit it strictly to biology, it is understood– I do not wish to do so at this time.

  14. Dear Alan
    I write mature/children picture books in my spare time and when I feel creative. Your last comment prompted me to use the Sufi character Mulla Nasruddin and came up with the following story. I hope you will take it light heartedly, but if you don’t, at least think of it as just part of the simulation. Here is the story;

    One of the philosophers known for his erudition and depth of metaphysical and religious knowledge visited the cafe frequented by Mullah Nasruddin and addressed the cafe’s patrons, saying that existence was not what they envision it to be, it was a dream and not a reality!

    The village madman who was in a daze, bemused by the act of sipping his tea, stopped, leaned on his staff, looked intently with cocked eyes at the philosopher and listened not happy at being disturbed. The Mullah was looking and waiting for how this unusual situation might unfold.

    When the philosopher completed his dazzling lecture, the madman fell with his staff on the head of the philosopher. The philosopher took a deep breath and collapsed on the ground with blood streaming from his head. Mullah Nasruddin rushed forward to his aid saying: “Don’t worry professor, it is only a dream!” But the philosopher screamed in pain; “Don’t you see you fool! That madman has just awakened me from my sleep! Take me quickly to the doctor!

    Mulla supported the philosopher and led him to the clinic quietly mumbling to himself a song;

    He was a monument of knowledge
    Which tumbled to the ground
    A crying fantasy
    Can you tell your story now?
    …Only with tears
    We know the truth of our narration

  15. But honestly Alan, one can imagine infinite possible ‘realities’, none of which can be tested for validity and thus conclude or dismiss anything. Obviously, this is not a fruitful or effective way of reflecting about life.

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