Thinking with Whitehead and the American Pragmatists: Experience and Reality eds. by Brian G. Henning, William T. Myers, and Joseph D. John
Thinking with Whitehead and the American Pragmatists is a volume whose topic is so obvious and fertile that I was sure someone must have already collected essays illustrating the many ways these two lines of inquiry challenge and reinforce one another. And, indeed, there exists the 1994 collection Process Pragmatism: Essays on a Quiet Philosophical Revolution, which was edited by Guy Debrock and contains essays by Sandra Rosenthal, Carl Hausman, and others. The revolution cited in that title must have been exceedingly quiet, since twenty-one years later the timely and well-executed Thinking with Whitehead and the American Pragmatists finds it necessary, once again, to knock down ill-conceived barriers separating these two quite compatible philosophical conversations. While it may be true that, stylistically, Whitehead's writings differ markedly from the classical American pragmatists, anyone who reads [End Page 235] this volume will have no doubt that Whitehead's work belongs alongside that of Peirce, James, Dewey, and Mead.
In the introduction to Thinking with Whitehead and the American Pragmatists, Henning and Myers make the case that Whitehead and the pragmatists share a commitment to panexperientalism, embodied knowledge, falliblism, and an open evolutionary cosmology. With these claims in mind, section one asks, "Is Whitehead a Pragmatist?" before turning in section 2 to articles on "Whitehead's Contributions to Pragmatism." Adopting something of a contrarian tone, William Myers's opening essay in section 1 concludes that no, Whitehead is not a pragmatist because his Platonic appreciation of mathematical models and interest in forms of systematic thinking, which seem almost "rationalistic," put him at odds methodologically with the more open-ended, emergent strategies one finds in the work of Peirce, James, and Dewey. Myer's chapter is useful because it acknowledges why some have held Whitehead apart from the pragmatists. Ultimately, however, he argues that these specific differences don't matter in the face of the agreements listed above, and that most "isms" are artificial boundaries that undermine rather than promote intellectual engagement.
Three other chapters in section 1 press the case for Whitehead's fallibilism on ontological and epistemological grounds. George Allen's essay, "Ultimate Good Sense," emphasizes the way Whitehead's process ontology claims that ultimately all things are nothing more than finite interpretative responses to a dynamic cosmos. The resonance here with Peirce's semiotics is clear. Joseph John's chapter, "Whitehead's Pragmatic Epistemology," lifts up the way any theory of knowledge built on a Whiteheadian process ontology must have all of the elements found in a pragmatic epistemology because the cosmological system demands that knowledge be seen as a species of emerging, finite forms of organic activity rather than as an externalized attempt to sum it up. Moreover, he points out that though the language may not sound it, Whiteheadian speculative philosophy is hypothetical and empirical (i.e., testable) and ultimately measured by its ability to illuminate and enhance human experience. In perhaps the most beautifully written essay in the collection, Nancy Frankenberry argues that Whitehead's commitment to "Contingency All the Way Down" puts him in the company of Donald Davidson and Richard Rorty, who have given up on any attempt to find a fixed permanent structure, pattern, or underlying reality founding order itself. While some might argue such a reading deemphasizes the important role of "eternal objects" in Whitehead's system, Frankenberry counters that it is more important to focus on the ways that Whiteheadian cosmology elevates biological evolution over physics. Any order that comes into being is always historically contingent and in the process of dissolving. [End Page 236] A knowable world, in the traditional way that phrase is meant, is "well lost." This, she claims, makes room for new forms of spirituality that are tied less to certainty and more toward cultivating a loyal openness to what the world and creativity bring forth.
The three remaining articles in section 1 each attempt to affirm Whitehead's status as a pragmatist by highlighting historical links or lines of continuity between Whitehead and specific pragmatic figures. In a chapter titled "Prefiguring Whitehead: Reading Jamesian Pragmatism with Stengers and Latour," Steven Meyer draws on Isabelle Stenger's work to make the case that both Whitehead and James build a "pre-pragmatic" position out of their shared awareness of the instability of language. Thomas Jeannot's contribution, "Whitehead's Speculative Contribution to Praxis," argues that in Whitehead, praxis, a term more naturally associated with Continental thinking, is recovered and given a speculative edge. The last article in this section, "Whitehead's 'Rescue' of American Anti-Intellectualism," is a historical analysis of Whitehead's developing attitudes toward pragmatism and specific pragmatic thinkers. In it Scott Sinclair concludes that Whitehead shifts from an initial rejection of what he took to be a largely anti-intellectual "instrumental" mode of thinking to a warm embrace of pragmatism's core ideas and thinkers. According to Sinclair, toward the end of his career Whitehead saw his cosmology as exactly the thing that pragmatism needed to make its case.
The articles in section 2 attempt in different ways to demonstrate how Whitehead's work has already contributed to pragmatism and how it may continue to do so in the future. Maria Brioschi, for example, argues that Whitehead's understanding of novelty builds on and extends Peirce's understanding of secondness, providing a cosmological addendum to Peirce's phenomenological arguments. Brian Henning extends the linkages with Peirce by arguing in "Creative Love" that Peirce's agapism makes more sense when it is supplemented by Whitehead's relational atomism. In a chapter titled "A Pragmatic Interpretation of Whitehead's Analysis of Religious Experience," Eleonara Mingarelli makes that case that Whitehead's cosmology can be seen as providing the basis for a complementary extension to James's understanding of religion. Where James is effective at helping us to understand how our religious sensibilities shape the ways we are integrated with the things that make up our world, she claims Whitehead show us how we are integrated with the cosmos.
The remaining four chapters of section 2 can be broken into two groups. Two aim less at showing how Whitehead can be linked with pragmatic thinkers and more at how his work opens up new areas for pragmatic reflection. Michael Brady, for example, argues that Whitehead's cosmology can help us better understand the role error plays in evolution. His article, "DNA: A Process [End Page 237] View," makes visible the ways Whitehead's process cosmology, with its notions of conceptual reversion, can push pragmatic insights in directions that would render them more helpful when it comes to science generally and evolution in particular. Similarly, Nicholas Gaskill argues that Whitehead's aesthetic ontology reframes our understanding of beauty in ways that extend Dewey's arguments in Art as Experience. On Whitehead's view, the pursuit of beauty is not just a human endeavor, it is a cosmic affair.
The volume ends with two chapters that provide a glimpse of what it is like to think creatively about philosophical problems from a point of view inspired by both Whiteheadian and pragmatic insights. In a beautiful essay, Vincent Colapietro develops a novel description of the way trauma creates nodes of resistance and preoccupation that interrupt the flow of experience. Pulling directly from James and Whitehead, Colapietro views life as a continual struggle to overcome traumatic experiences by regaining a "flow of feeling" that acknowledges and preserves rather than represses those interruptions. Jude Jones brings Thinking with Whitehead to a close with her meditation on Whitehead's famous phrase "It never really is." As Jones sees it, Whitehead's language of perpetual perishing erases any hint of substance, leaving us with a material world that is best understood as an always dissolving concatenation of rhythmic contrasts. Jones's appreciation for the tragic and the exhilarating aspects of Whitehead's views makes a fitting final case for what Whitehead brings to the pragmatic table.
The claim that Whitehead and the pragmatists might be plowing the same or related fields will not be surprising to readers of the American Journal of Theology & Philosophy. So many AJTP authors already draw liberally from both traditions. Still, there is good reason to hope that this new volume will be useful in inspiring those who find themselves cocooned in either the process or pragmatic camps. If it inspires even a few to look beyond artificially drawn intellectual boundaries, it will have served us all well.