Category Archives: Philosophy-Process

Ancient Process Philosophers

Utrecht Moreelse Heraclite.JPGZhang Lu-Laozi Riding an Ox.jpgBuddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra).jpg

Heraclitus                                                               Laozi                                  Buddha

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

Heraclitus and Laozi can be viewed as the earliest representatives of what we can call process philosophy. Heraclitus doesn’t deny that there are things. But he certainly does not emphasize things; and he describes things in reference to their processes, as seen in his teaching on the transformation of the elements. In Taoism, too, the focus on processes is fundamental. Many interpretations of Taoism go so far as to see all particular things as merely parts of the greater whole, which is in process — the Tao. Indeed, a common interpretation is that the objects are mere constructions of human language. The ultimate reality — the Tao, the way, or nature’s way — cannot be known with language. But it can only be, somewhat inadequately, described as in involved in process and flow.

Buddhism also can be viewed as another of the primordial process philosophies. In Buddhism (or at least main strands of it) … it is not clear that objects have any ultimate existence at all. For Buddhists, certainly, our ordinary understanding of things as distinct from other things is really only of instrumental value. The words used to differentiate one object from another do not capture what is ultimate. Ultimate reality transcends what we might call thingness … Buddhists maintain that the ultimate cannot be grasped by specific concepts at all.

Like Taoists, Buddhists stress the impermanence of specific things. They emphasize flow. One of the three marks of existence in Buddhism is impermanence. Another is no-self. Grasping that all things, including the self, continue to change is necessary for enlightenment. Understanding this helps us overcome one of the other three marks, suffering. If we recognize that all things change, we should no longer suffer at our plight, for in some sense the self that is suffering has no ultimate real existence. No-self focuses on how what we understand as the self is not really adequate. The self, like everything, is continually changing. And whatever brought the suffering … will also disappear.

Even though Taoists and Buddhists emphasize flow or impermanence, they do recognize accounts of ourselves as preserving through time. We obviously refer to ourselves with the same names as we change through time. The word “I” refers to any subject who uses it for him or herself. But in what sense is the “I” the same at the various times that a subject uses it? From the 9 pound, eight-ounce child that I was when born, to now, I have a sense of personal identity — even though I don’t even have consciousness of those earliest years, and though I am much larger now than at birth. Other things have changed as well: I now speak two languages fluently. I spoke none at birth. I’ve learned to play a guitar. I can sing. I write and read. In what sense is this me the same me as when I was a child?

Some of these insights of the Buddha or that one can imagine from a Taoist are reinforced from the perspective of contemporary biology. Biologists tell us that every single cell in our bodies changes every seven years. From a contemporary perspective of various sciences, there are good reasons to question the stability of things through time, an idea that dominates our “common sense.” The examples from ecosystems thinking that I have already mentioned drive this home clearly. Process philosophers emphasize the changing of the self and of all things in time as well as their interrelations.

The Basics of Process Philosophy

Alfred North Whitehead.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.