Why is process philosophy on the margins? – December 2014

Question: Why is process philosophy on the margins of philosophy? Is this a problem process thinkers should be trying to remedy?

Publication Month: December 2014

Yes, we should be trying to remedy this. However, my approach is the reverse of what the questioner may have in mind. We should work for a large-scale change in the understanding of philosophy, rather than try to make our contribution fit into the narrow parameters of what is now academic philosophy. This no doubt sounds arrogant and pretentious, and it is indeed a serious critique of academic philosophy. This is part of a critique of the current value-free research university in which academic philosophers have to struggle to maintain any place at all for philosophy. One may think it is out of place to criticize this widely-admired institution, but at least from the perspective of process thought, the adulation of this institution is a profound mistake.

Let me make clear that my critique is not the one that now most threatens research universities. That critique comes from the purely economistic mindset. From that perspective, the more prestigious universities are extremely inefficient. Professors are protected by tenure, and many of them teach rather few students. Fewer professors could give more courses to larger classes. If they repeat the same courses over and over, this requires little preparation. Also, they could be hired simply to teach individual courses without health benefits or retirement programs. Distance learning is probably still more efficient. Against such dissolution of traditional universities, I support those that continue to provide for real contact between teachers and students and support faculty in their research.

My critique is very different. I believe that education should encourage critical and creative thought. I believe that such thought is inevitably oriented to real issues in the world and that these are inescapably bound up with each other and with values. Value-free thought cannot deal helpfully with important issues. And in any case, no important issues are wisely settled within the confines of any academic discipline. The disciplinary organization of knowledge was developed for the purpose of advancing research on narrowly defined topics. It does not encourage intellectual reflection or realistic application of ideas.

At the University of Berlin where this organization of knowledge was first developed, at first philosophy was given the special role of giving a comprehensive view that showed how the various disciplines are related. This stimulated brilliant work, such as that of Hegel. But before long, philosophers gave up such an ambitious goal and chose instead to teach one academic discipline among others. Defining the topic of philosophy as a subject matter not considered in other disciplines has proved problematic. The obvious choice would have been metaphysics had not Kant ruled that out. On the European continent the choice was often phenomenology; in the English-language world epistemology and a certain approach to language have been preferred.

Since the historical figures called philosophers are still studied, much more happens in philosophy departments than strict limitation to a specialized discipline allows. But even when a great thinker is studied, the analysis is often directed in quite specialized ways. The enormous influence of Plato and Aristotle in Western culture can hardly be grasped in terms of the issues on which attention is typically concentrated when they are studied today.

Inevitably, as philosophy conforms to the university norm, students are formed into specialized scholars rather than into philosophers. I studied at Chicago before this change had occurred. My teachers included Charles Morris, Rudolf Carnap, Charles Hartshorne, and Richard McKeon. Through them I learned about other philosophers, and all agreed that to think well today one needed knowledge about past thinkers so that one could stand on their shoulders. But they challenged me with their own diverse views as well. Each wanted to persuade me. No topic was off limits. The goal was that I think philosophically. When I teach philosophy, my hope is to help students think philosophically about whatever topics seem most important to them.

Of course, process philosophy can be an objective topic of scholarly inquiry. In that form it can be introduced into philosophy departments today. I wish this happened more often. Perhaps the questioner is simply asking why it is not studied. Why, for example is Whitehead excluded from the standard histories?

My judgment is as follows. If he could be studied simply as an historical figure, there would be a fair chance that he would be taught. But his ideas are now affirmed and lived out by people who are led by those ideas to think in ways seen as inappropriate in the university. They engage in metaphysics and some even talk about God. These are topics that since Kant have been ruled out. They are interested is applying process thought in education and physics and even theology.

Process philosophers seeking acceptance from their peers have tried to develop a nontheistic, nonmetaphysical version of Whitehead. Some limit themselves to the early writings of Whitehead that can be understood as purely logical and phenomenological. I commend these efforts, for even in this truncated form Whitehead’s philosophy of events has much to commend it. But I think it is important that those of us who can, keep alive knowledge of the whole of Whitehead’s comprehensive vision. The world needs this kind of wisdom, even if the supposedly value-free research university cannot tolerate it.

I consider this peculiarly important today. I believe that one underlying reason for the failure of our culture to respond well to the crises it faces is that its “experts” have been socialized into ways of thinking that discourage critical thought and the quest for wisdom. Experts in economics are not allowed to question that increased market activity is the one right goal of policy even when it obviously leads to ecological problems. Experts in agriculture assume that it is always good to produce more goods with less labor even though the effects on society and on the land are seriously deleterious.

The university does not encourage, indeed, it hardly allows, discussion of these questions. But they must be considered in the real world, and the world needs places or contexts in which this discussion can occur. It is far more important that Whiteheadians create such places than that they gain acceptance in universities.

This question allows me the occasion to tout the conference we are planning for June 4-7, 2015. It will be the tenth International Whitehead Conference. But whereas the earlier ones have been gatherings chiefly of those interested in Whitehead’s thought, this one addresses the question of how a change of basic paradigm in the Whiteheadian direction frees us to work for an ecological civilization. It aims to show that thought can be organized around important questions and deal with them as interconnected. It makes apparent that value-laden thought, passionately concerned to save life from destruction by human action, can be free from distortion by this value commitment and can probe more deeply and wisely. We want to show how philosophy can work creatively toward the salvation of the world.

We believe that there are a good many people teaching in universities who would like to devote their efforts to human benefit. We hope we can encourage them to challenge the narrow canalization of research. Heidegger rightly pointed out that academic disciplines don’t think. We hope we can get a hearing in the university for the possibility of once again encouraging thought. We would particularly like for philosophy departments to be centers of intellectual life.

This is the way we would like to remedy the situation in which process philosophy is marginalized in the academic study of philosophy. We would like to persuade philosophers that the global crisis is too important to ignore, that they should stop fiddling while Rome burns, and should instead use their considerable gifts to guide action.

Philosophers could help their colleagues in various fields to identify and re-examine the assumptions that underlie their disciplines. Replacing these with more realistic ones might free teachers in many fields to respond helpfully to real problems. If philosophers moved in this direction and once again became lovers of wisdom, I hope that process thought would be welcomed to participate, perhaps even to lead. But I would consider it a profound betrayal of my calling as a process philosopher to try to fit Whitehead into what is now thought of as “philosophy.”