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Process-Relational Philosophy

Process-Relational Philosophy: An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead

by Robert Mesle

read in Feb 2020

book info on goodreads

Mesle opens the book "Process-Relational Philosophy" with a wonderful statement to describe why it is so difficult for us to think in terms of process and becoming rather than being.

"Shadows, wind, and clouds pass so quickly that they seem mostly unreal. So, time and Becoming seem unreal to us. Rocks, iron, and mountains suggest unchanging reality-Being. We can count on them to last, to be there tomorrow and next year."

This is the challenge we face as humans living in the world. Being is real and tangible to us whereas becoming is much more ephemeral.

Mesle aim with the book is to give an introduction into the ideas of process philosophy primarily drawing from Alfred North Whitehead. He introduces the idea of process-relational thinking by showing how a process philosophy differs from the Cartesian dualist thinking that underpins much of Western thought. The key issue lies in the mind-body dualism first introduced into Western philosophy by Descartes. Interestingly, Mesle describes that Descartes himself saw a unity and mingling of the mind and body to some degree, but because it did not fit his mental model he simply left it out of his philosophy. As many other philosophies try to achieve, process philosophy tries to overcome this dualism by treating mind and body as inseparable. The approach with which process philosophy and Whitehead in particular try to achieve this, however, is unique. Mesle shows how Whitehead's idea was not just to develop a general philosophy of the world based on mathematics and scientific laws. Instead, Whitehead tried to develop his generalities from the ground of particular observations.

Experience is thus one of the most important concepts of Whitehead's philosophy. Importantly, experience that goes beyond the commonsensical understanding of conscious experience. Mesle explains how our bodies are taking in so much information every second that most of it does not rise to the level of consciousness. It would thus be flawed to think of experience only in conscious terms. This notion of experience is much in line with Tim Ingold's understanding and distinction between intentionality and attentionality as well as doing and undergoing. Attentionality in Ingold's sense is an openness to experiencing the world; a resonant coupling with the movements of the things to which one attends in going along with them. Undergoing then is the unconscious experiencing that only becomes conscious in the doing that follows it; in order to act inside an experience of the world one needs to be already experiencing or undergoing it. This explanation of unconscious experience---doing-in-undergoing in Ingold's terms---is a much more pragmatic one in that it argues for using our commonsensical understanding of information overload and unconscious bracketing out of certain events and experiences that we nevertheless experience.

Mesle goes on to develop a convincing case for why a process-relational perspective on the world matters. He shows how obviously relational our globalised world has become through technologies such as the World Wide Web. Equally glaring, he argues, is the fact that these global relationships are dynamic processes. The world is changing so fast, that no one can keep up with the change. Some things might change slower than others or even so slow that we cannot even see them changing, but all things nevertheless change. That is why, he argues, the world is better thought of in terms of events and processes rather than things---that is, the core argument of the book:

"Process philosophy is an effort to think clearly and deeply about the obvious truth that our world and our lives are dynamic, interrelated processes and to challenge the apparently obvious, but fundamentally mistaken, idea that the world (including ourselves) is made of things that exist independently of such relationships and that seem to endure unchanged through all the processes of change."

Time and temporality are important concepts for process philosophy. Common among more sophisticated treatments of temporality is the idea that the distinct notions of past, present, and future are actually existing simultaneously and that the past is always already conditioning the present and at the same time the present is already foreshadowing what is to come in the future. Mesle interestingly develops a different understanding of time by saying that the he does not believe that the future exists at all. He says that there is no future out there already pre-determined and waiting to happen. Instead, there is always a myriad of possibilities for future action that are always in becoming. Again an interesting parallel to what Ingold would call the conditioning flow of action. These collective actions, interactions and decision bring new moments or the future into being. Mesle then compares the understanding of time that process philosophers have with that of modern physicists. He explains how contrary to Newtonian physics process philosophers think that there is no universal time or space that exists as some fixed background on which beings can act but that time is simply the passage---the becoming and perishing---of events.

In the second half of the book, Mesle then goes on to show how many classical social concepts such as identity and power can be reframed through process-relational thinking. Most importantly, he critiques an exclusively social constructivist view of the social world and instead argues that social beings always start as bodies and biological organisms:

"Yet, process-relational thinkers remind us that these social constructs, as deep as they are, are created out of our lived embodiment as biological organisms engaging in causal webs deeper than our social practices, languages, and concepts."

Mesle talks about the world, including the social, in terms of a vast web of causal relationships that he refers to as relational processes.

I have started this summary with a quote of the book and I would also like to end it with a quote that beautifully summarises Mesle's core idea in the book and process philosophy more broadly:

"Everything that is actual becomes and perishes. Becoming is the ultimate fact underlying all others. How can we speak of "becoming"? It is not any particular thing or kind of thing. We can never point at becoming apart from specific events that become. Yet it is a feature shared by all things."

Julian Prester © 2023