Who is a Whiteheadian? – March 2007

Question: Who Is a Whiteheadian?

Publication Month: March 2007

Dr. Cobb’s Response

I have chosen this question because there are a good many people, influenced by Whitehead, who tell me they are not Whiteheadians. Some of them give reasons that do not seem to me to have much to do with being, or not being, a Whiteheadian. I am not, of course, speaking of people who know Whitehead but basically reject his thought in favor of analytic philosophy or Kant or Spinoza. Clearly, these are right to say that they are not Whiteheadians even if they acknowledge some incidental influence. I am talking about people who do not turn to another philosophy, but simply turn away from a focus on his.

Sometimes the issue is one of concerns and commitments. For example, one who has studied Whitehead with appreciation may be, or become, a liberation theologian, primarily concerned with overcoming oppression of one sort or another. He of she will then argue that one should draw on any source that helps in this task rather than being bound to any one.

Liberation from political and economic oppressions was not the focus of Whitehead’s life work. To advance the cause of liberation there are many topics one needs to study and think about where Whitehead’s writings will not be those from which one can gain much. These more useful writings may be historical, political, sociological, ethical, and theological. It may make some sense for someone to say, I used to be a Whiteheadian but now I am a liberation theologian. One means that he or she once gave primary attention to Whitehead’s writings and to promoting their study and now gives primary attention to another set of writings.

However, I resist this use of the term. In general, when one says one is a Platonist, an Aristotelian, or a Humean, one does not mean anything of this sort. One means only that on those issues that divide philosophers, one finds Plato, Aristotle, or Hume the most insightful and helpful thinker. One’s primary interest may be business management, or poverty law, or understanding the psycho-dynamics of mental illness. One does not expect to study primarily the philosophers in question in order to advance one’s knowledge.

The way I have made this point may suggest that philosophical commitments are irrelevant to thinking about the special topics. This is not the case. A Platonist is likely to formulate ideas about management somewhat differently from a Humean. An Aristotelian may be attentive to some features of the situation that are not noticed by the others. The point is only that all three will be interested in much of the same literature and research and that they will be likely, because of their reading of current literature in many fields, to agree on some matters that are foreign to all their philosophical mentors. 
Still they remain Platonist, Aristotelian, and Humean.

Sometimes what causes theologically-oriented people who have been influenced by Whitehead to distance themselves from him is discomfort with the tenor and mood of his writings. For example, I often hear that someone cannot be a Whiteheadian because Whitehead was too optimistic. No doubt the cultural mood in the early twentieth century was more optimistic than the one that developed later. No doubt the tone of Whitehead’s writings is affected by that cultural mood. Today we have solid reasons, based for example on ecological deterioration and global warming, to be profoundly pessimistic about the future of our planet. It would be foolish to look for anything like that in Whitehead’s writings. I am deeply concerned about the future of the biosphere, and I do not read Whitehead to gain knowledge of this, but it does not occur to me for this reason to distance myself from Whitehead’s conceptuality. There is nothing in that conceptuality that is in tension with what we now know about human destruction of the environment.

This does not mean that philosophy in general is neutral on this question. Hegel’s philosophy is bound up with the view of a positive future. Dualistic philosophies such as Descartes’ do not allow for the sort of interaction of human beings and the natural world that now play so large a role in the deterioration of the biosphere. But Whitehead’s conceptuality leaves the question of the health of the biosphere to the realm of empirical facts, allowing for human action that is either constructive or destructive. That human beings have chosen to continue pursuing a destructive course does not lead me to reject the conceptuality.

One might argue that in fact the destructiveness of human action has characterized it for many millennia and that Whitehead failed to recognize this. This would be correct, in my opinion, on both counts. For example, he did not prepare his readers for the belated realization that for ten thousand years agriculture has been eroding the soil. He underestimated the quality of life in hunting and gathering societies and overvalued civilization. There were a few people in his generation (very few, actually) who saw these matters more clearly than did he. There were many respects in which he was a child of his times and not in the lead in transcending them. If being a Whiteheadian meant taking him as my authority in all matters, I certainly could not be a Whiteheadian. But so far as I can see these limitations did not affect the basic pattern of his philosophical thought.

On more specifically theological matters, also, there are some on which I do not follow Whitehead. He found little of value in the Hebrew scriptures. His comments about Paul are quite negative. I belong to the form of Christianity that believes that the Hebrew scriptures are extraordinarily rich and who deeply appreciate Paul’s theology. But so far as I can see, his judgments with which I disagree do not damage his contributions to thinking about God and about the relation of God and the world.

Although my commitment to Whitehead would remain even if I found him out of date and unhelpful on far more topics, I rejoice that he seems to have been remarkably wise about many matters. Hence in addition to finding his basic conceptuality extraordinarily fruitful, I also relish the encounter with his wisdom, which is loosely related to that conceptuality. With respect to theology, I would follow much of his thinking about God even if he never mentioned Jesus or said foolish things about him. But in fact I find his comments about Jesus as rich and inspiring today as when he wrote them many decades ago in a very different historical world.

A complex case has to do with sin. That is a theological concept, and Whitehead did not use it. Whitehead-influenced theologians sometimes feel they are departing from Whitehead when they write on this subject. My view is that in fact Whitehead’s thought provides the basis for biblical and significant thinking about sin, although it certainly does not go far in this extremely complex field.

First, it makes the idea of “sin” meaningful. By this I mean that “sin” is meaningless if certain conditions do not obtain. To simplify, I will simply say that “sin” presupposes that better and worse are objectively distinguishable and are partially known as such by most people. It implies that despite all cultural relativities, they are not simply functions of culture. Cultures are also shaped by perception of these differences. This objectivity must be related to God. It implies also that people have some control over their thoughts and their actions. These are not simply determined by past events. And finally, there is no sin unless people sometimes (actually often and perhaps always) fail to act as well as they could. Whitehead’s philosophy is extremely rare in providing all the needed elements for a doctrine of sin.

Second, it favors some basic notions of sin over others. For example, if cuts against notions of disobedience to divine rules or commandments. The God-world relation is not depicted rightly, in Whitehead’s view, in terms of God as lawgiver and judge. Instead, God calls or lures creatures toward the best that is possible in concrete situations. People to some extent respond and to some extent resist. Many Christians judge that this is not the biblical understanding of sin. However, the word for “sin” in the New Testament is hamartia, which can be translated as “missing the mark.” When Whitehead speaks of a rightness in things partly realized and partly missed, he seems to be talking about this “missing the mark.”

However, most of the most interesting and religiously important discussion is about the many ways in which we miss the mark and how these are related to one another. It is about how deeply the tendency to miss the mark is rooted in our universal situation and how much depends on our particular communities and our individual experience. It is about how sin is related to repentance and forgiveness. It is about the possibility of transcending sin and, in some sense, becoming free of it. It is about how the work of Jesus plays into all this. About such matters, Whitehead has very little to contribute. A Whiteheadian will look to other sources than Whitehead for inspiration and guidance. One does not, for that reason, become less of a Whiteheadian.

In concluding, I will put matters in philosophical terms. There are philosophies that imply that facts can be deduced from first principles. These are deterministic systems in which metaphysics plays the controlling role. Whitehead rejects that type of philosophy drastically. A central role for philosophy is to develop a metaphysics that makes clear the radical contingency of the world of facts.

The world of facts is also the world of values. Human attention should focus primarily on the world of facts and values. These can be studied empirically and historically. From empirical and historical study theories can be developed, which guide further study. They can be tested in wider realms.

We can, of course, rest with theories that are successful in narrow fields but not coherently related to others. The modern university encourages this. But those who are satisfied with this are truly not Whiteheadian. Whitehead encourages the testing of theories by their coherence with other theories seeking general theories that apply in multiple fields. The metaphysical goal is to find some very abstract theories that apply everywhere. Those who seek such sweeping generalizations and find more help in Whitehead’s proposals than in others are Whiteheadians. So are those who work in particular fields in ways that build on or assume Whiteheadian ideas about reality. So are those who propose further development or refinements of his conceptuality, continuing the process that can be traced through his own writing.

I have written as if there is one correct way to use the term “Whiteheadian.” Of course, that is itself misleading. People are free to define words as they choose. The question is whether, when detailed explanation does not accompany the term, they will be understood. I have tried to stay close to what I judge to be a normal use of the term. I am writing against a tendency to understand it too restrictively.

No doubt I am doing so in part because some of these restrictive uses would seem to make being a Whiteheadian a very unattractive matter of slavishly agreeing with everything he said. Instead of liberating us to think in new and creative ways, as I have experienced it, Whitehead’s philosophy would become a straightjacket imposed on those who accepted it. Few results would have been more distressing to Whitehead himself.