One of the tasks of this blog, since its inception in late 2008, has been to articulate a theoretical-philosophical perspective that I have come to call “process-relational.” This is a theoretical paradigm and an ontology that takes the basic nature of the world to be that of relational process: that is, it understands the basic constituents of the world to be events of encounter, acts or moments of experience that are woven together to constitute the processes by which all things occur, unfold, and evolve. Understanding ourselves and our relations with the world around us in this way, it is argued, can help us unwind ourselves from out of a set of dualisms that have ensnared modern thought over the last few centuries. In contrast to materialist, idealist, dualist, and other perspectives that have dominated modern western philosophy, a process-relational perspective more explicitly recognizes the dynamic, complex, systemic, and evolving nature of reality.
What follows is a brief summary of the process-relational perspective. It is followed by some bibliographic starting points and by a list of links to some of the more substantive posts on this blog that have dealt with process-relational theory.
What is process-relational thought?
Process-relational thought is a form of metaphysical realism that can be found articulated in a variety of philosophies around the world, from ancient times to modern: in Heraclitus and the later Hellenistic Stoics, in Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika philosophers of India, in Zhuang Zhu and the T’ian-t’ai and Hua-Yen Buddhists in China, in the Zen Buddhism of Dogen and the later Zen-inspired Kyoto School of Japanese philosophy, but also, in one form or another, in such western philosophers as Giordano Bruno, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, Friedrich Schelling, Henri Bergson, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, Wilmon Sheldon, Wilfrid Sellars, Justus Buchler, Charles Hartshorne, Gregory Bateson, Gilbert Simondon, Cornelius Castoriadis, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. Contemporary thinkers working in a process-relational vein include Nicholas Rescher, Richard Neville, Robert Corrington, John Deely, David Ray Griffin, Michel Serres, Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers, Xavier Zubiri, William Connolly, Catherine Keller, Brian Massumi, Manuel DeLanda, John Protevi, Freya Mathews, Roland Faber, Michael Weber, and Jane Bennett. Process-relational thought also characterizes significant aspects of the thought of G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger, and of many who follow in the wake of these influential giants of modern philosophy.
In a more general sense, process-relational themes can be found scattered across a range of intellectual and artistic traditions including those of European and North American Romanticism and Transcendentalism (as in the art and thought of Coleridge, Goethe, Emerson, and Muir); a variety of African and indigenous philosophies; the writings of mystics and spiritual philosophers from Plotinus and Shankara to Jelaluddin Rumi, Jakob Boehme, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Carl Jung, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and others; and much of what falls into the Buddhist, Daoist, and neo-Confucian traditions of South and East Asia (sometimes collectively referred to as “Asian field theories”). Such themes are also deeply influential in recent post-constructivist and “non-representational” scholarship in the social and cognitive sciences, including in actor-network theory (Bruno Latour, John Law), enactive cognitivism (Francesco Varela, Evan Thompson), developmental biology (Susan Oyama), ethology and biosemiotics (Jakob von Uexkull, Thomas Sebeok, Jesper Hoffmeyer), and relational and non-representational geography (David Harvey, Doreen Massey, Nigel Thrift, Sarah Whatmore, Steve Hinchliffe); in the speculations of theoretical physicists and biologists including David Bohm, Ilya Prigogine, Brian Goodwin, and Stuart Kauffman; and in East-West philosophical “fusions” like the “integral theory” of Ken Wilber and western variations of Asian nondualist philosophies (such as the work of David Loy, Herbert Guenther, and others).
While not often articulated as a single, unified tradition, a set of common themes justify its identification as an alternative to two forms of thought that have become dominant in western philosophy. These rival traditions are materialism, which views matter as fundamental and human consciousness or perception as a by-product or “epiphenomenon” arising out of material relations, and idealism, which takes perception, consciousness, thought, spirit, or some other non-material force as fundamental and material relations as secondary, if not illusory. A range of interactive and dialectical philosophies have been proposed to mediate between the material and the ideal, but many of these presume the underpinning of a relatively closed binary structure of one kind or another, such as matter versus spirit, idea, or mind, or, alternatively, a conception of opposites, such as Yin and Yang, in which homeostatic balance rather than evolutionary change is considered the baseline norm. Process-relational thought, by contrast, focuses on the dynamism by which things are perpetually moving forward, interacting, and creating new conditions in the world. Process-relational thought rejects the Cartesian idea that there are minds, or things that think, and bodies, or matter that only acts according to strict causal laws. Rather, the two are considered one and the same, or two aspects of the same evolving, processual reality. In this sense, process-relational views are related to certain forms of panpsychism and pan-experientialism, that is, to philosophies that understand “mind” or “mental experience” to be not the possession of specific objects or subjects, but part of the relational expression or manifestation of all things.
At the core of process-relational thought is a focus on the world-making creativity of things: on how things become rather than what they are, on emergence rather than structure. According to this understanding, the world is dynamic and always in process. As Søren Brier puts it, describing the ontology of C. S. Peirce, reality is a spontaneously dynamic “hyper-complexity of living feeling with the tendency to form habits.” That is to say that reality is emergent, evolutionary, and creative –- a view that, not coincidentally, finds much resonance with twentieth-century developments in physics and biology including quantum mechanics, ecology, and chaos and complexity theories. This reality is constituted, at its core, not by objects, permanent structures, material substances, cognitive representations, or Platonic ideas or essences, but by relational encounters and events.
The term “process-relational” is most closely associated with the metaphysics developed by philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and Whitehead’s influence on contemporary process-relational thought is undeniable. But so are the influences of others mentioned including, especially in recent thinking, the ideas of Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and C. S. Peirce. All of these philosophers (though less frequently Deleuze) are sometimes included in the broader category of “process philosophers,” but this term alone does not adequately capture the centrality of relations in process-relational ontology. Similarly, the term “relationalism,” frequently understood to be opposed to various kinds of atomism, individualism, “essentialism,” and to recent “object-oriented” philosophies (such as those of Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, “speculative realists” frequently discussed on this blog), fails to adequately emphasize the processual nature of any and all relations. “Process-relationalism” is thus intended to highlight the temporal dynamism, emergent relational systematicity, and inherently creative openness of a living universe composed of interactive events characterized by some measure of perception, responsiveness, “mind,” or subjectivity (or subjectivation). What the different kinds of processes are that characterize and make up the world (as examined, for instance, in DeLanda’s work on meshworks and hierarchies, Wilber’s work on holons and holarchies, etc.), and what the implications of a process-relational view may be for ethics and politics, are among the questions debated by contemporary process-relational thinkers.
Bibliographic starting points
For general accounts of process-relational themes, see Nicholas Rescher, Process Metaphysics: An Introduction to Process Philosophy (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996); Rescher, Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000); Rescher, “The Promise of Process Philosophy,” in Columbia Companion to Twentieth-Century Philosophies, ed. C. V. Boundas (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 143-155; Douglas Browning and William T. Myers, Philosophers of Process (Fordham University Press, 1998); and David Ray Griffin, Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Peirce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne (SUNY Press, 1993).
Whitehead’s metaphysics are the ones most commonly referred to as “process-relational”; see especially his magnum opus Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (Free Press, 1978) and the more elegant synopsis found in Part Three of Adventures of Ideas (Free Press, 1967). C. Robert Mesle’s Process-Relational Philosophy: An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead (Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), while an oversimplified introduction to his thought, makes clear why the term is appropriate.
For examples of the evolving dialogue among the different positions within process-relational theory, see Keith Robinson, ed., Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson: Rhizomatic Connections (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Roland Faber (ed.), Secrets of Becoming: Negotiating Whitehead, Deleuze, and Butler (Fordham University Press, 2010); Michel Weber (Ed.), After Whitehead: Rescher on Process Metaphysics (Frankfurt, Germany: Ontos Verlag, 2004); Catherine Keller and Anne Daniell, Process and Difference: Between Cosmological and Poststructuralist Postmodernisms (SUNY Press, 2002); and Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (MIT Press, 2009). Comparative studies of process philosophy and Buddhist thought include Steve Odin, Process Metaphysics and Hua-yen Buddhism: A Critical Study of Cumulative Penetration vs. Interpenetration (SUNY Press, 1984), and Peter P. Kakol, Emptiness and Becoming: Integrating Madhyamika Buddhism and Process Philosophy (Emerging Perceptions in Buddhist Studies vol. 22; Delhi, India: D. K. Printworld, 2009).
Process-relational theory continues to evolve in dialogue with various forms of speculative realism, panpsychism, “new materialism,” network and complexity theories, and related trends in processual and relational thought. Recent contributions to a process-relational perspective include significant writings by David Ray Griffin, Catherine Keller, Manuel DeLanda, Stuart Kauffman, John Protevi, Michael Weber, Gordon Globus, Tor Hernes, Jane Bennett, William Connolly, Steven Shaviro, Ken Wilber, and Christopher Vitale.
Process-relational theory on this blog
Some posts on this blog that have dealt with process-relational theory include the following, listed in chronological order. Many, though not all, of these refer to the debate between relational and object-oriented ontologies (mentioned above).
Please note that the links below direct you to Immanence 1.0, which is now defunct. All of these posts can be found in the current version of Immanence, where commenting is possible, but the links below have not been updated. Please instead see the list of links under “Process-Relational Theory 101″ in the blog’s “Primer” page. Alternatively you can search the titles below in the blog’s Search box.
Other substantive posts on this blog that have drawn implicitly on process-relational thinking while focusing on broader topics include the following:
This post updated on May 19, 2011.