- 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...