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Reviewed by:
  • Concerning Creativity: A Comparison of Whitehead, Neville, and Chu Hsi
  • David L. Hall
John Berthrong . Concerning Creativity: A Comparison of Whitehead, Neville, and Chu Hsi. SUNY Series in Religious Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Pp. xvii + 254. Hardcover $65.50. Paper $24.50.

Given the irenic and deferential tone of John Berthrong's prose in his Concerning Creativity: A Comparison of Whitehead, Neville, and Chu Hsi, his readers might not readily suspect that an intellectual drama of real significance is being played out in its pages. In this brief review I will attempt to provide the outlines of that drama, and to assess Berthrong's directing skills.

We begin with the rather startling fact that before the "Dictionary Supplement" to the 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published, one would have searched that work in vain for the principal word in the title of Berthrong's book. The OED entry on "creativity" contains three illustrations of its use-one from a literary critic (1875) and the other two from A. N. Whitehead's Religion in the Making (1926).

Berthrong is to be congratulated for recognizing, as most process thinkers have not, that Whitehead introduced not only a new word into our philosophical vocabulary but also a radically novel means of interpreting the world and our experience of it-one that answers to feelings and forms of understanding that have been seriously marginalized in the West. What this means, of course, is that Whitehead's understanding of "creativity" in terms of the spontaneous emergence of novelty requires a radical transvaluation and reconstruction of the nature and import of ontological speculations within the Western tradition. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Western philosophy simply lacks interpretative insights permitting a responsible elaboration of Whitehead's understanding of creativity. Berthrong must look beyond Western culture to find resources with which to defend [End Page 571] Whitehead's novel understanding of creativity properly against the criticisms of mainstream ontologists such as Robert Neville.

It is Whitehead's placement of ontological issues within his speculative scheme against which Neville's criticisms are directed. And, as we shall see, it is this same issue that leads Berthrong to appeal to the Chinese Neo-Confucian Chu Hsi to defend Whitehead against Neville.

It is important to recognize that by the time that Berthrong was awakened from the contented slumber of a Whiteheadian scholastic by Neville's Calvinesque critique, he was already expert in the mainstream thought of an alternative cultural milieu. While other champions of Whitehead's novel speculations have been forced to work within the Western philosophical tradition, Berthrong is able to access a tradition in which discussions of creativity as the spontaneous emergence of novelty employ terms such as ch'i ("matter-energy," "energizing field"), tzu-jan ("self-soing"), i ("change," "becoming"), and ch'eng ("self-actualization," "creativity") that did not come late to Chinese dictionaries. Neville is certainly familiar with Chinese philosophical thought, but he approached the Asian traditions in a serious manner only after his principal intuitions had been systematically articulated. Thus, while Berthrong looks to the Chinese Neo-Confucians for assistance in formulating Whitehead's defense, Neville expects these same thinkers to offer exemplifications of his own solidly wrought reflections. The consequence of this state of affairs is that, in his debate with Neville, Berthrong has the advantage of a somewhat greater flexibility.

Berthrong's flexibility is demonstrated by his method of engaging his principal interlocutors. He employ's Wayne Booth's "coductive" method, which avoids dialectical sublation or analytic reduction in favor of the analogical correlations of concepts and doctrines. Coduction is essentially an ethos-based method expressed through conversations or debates that aim not at refutation or the establishment of a final view but at an enlargement of understanding leading to what Whitehead termed "wide intellectual tolerance."

In his triangulation of Whitehead, Neville, and Chu Hsi, Berthrong provides accurate and balanced presentations of the pertinent ideas of each of the principals. He succinctly articulates Whitehead's understanding of the world as comprised by "actual entities," whose coming into being and passing away express the creative process that is the general...


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