Comparing Whitehead and Chinese Thought by Jay McDaniel
Whitehead’s philosophy has been studied in China since the 1930’s, and many scholars inside and outside of China believe that his thought resembles Chinese ways of thinking more than Western ways in many ways. Indeed, Whitehead himself believed that in certain ways his philosophy was more Chinese in tone. Here is a small sampling of the comparisons that various scholars have made over the past thirty years.
1. The Book of Changes (I Jing) gives us the image of a universe filled with events that interact in spontaneous and creative ways, giving rise to patterns of connection that have myriad meanings amid the inevitability of change. Whitehead pictures the universe in much the same way. He pictures the building blocks of the universe as events rather than substances, and says that these events reveal various patterns of connection which he calls pure potentialities or eternal objects. He offers a philosophy of events in process.
2. Confucianism sees the human being as a person-in-community whose fulfillment lies in responsiveness to a web of social relations and adds that an ideal form of social interaction is ren (benevolence). Again process philosopher will agree. They emphasize that humans are social in nature; there cannot be one human being unless there are others, and that human beings become whole in and through their interactions with one another. Whitehead offers a philosophy of social relations.
3. Philosophical Daoism speaks of the universe as a flowing process of which humans are an integral part and encourages them to dwell in harmony with the larger whole. If these scholars are right, then Whiteheadian philosophy is indeed Chinese in tone and substance. Whiteheadian philosophy like Chinese philosophy, pictures human beings as within, not outside of, the realm of Ten Thousand Things (wanwu) believes that human well-being lies in living in harmony with the greater whole.
4. Chinese Buddhism in the Hua Yen tradition gives us the image of a universe in which every entity is present in every other entity in a network of inter-existence or inter-being. They explain that Hua Yen Buddhists imagine the universe on the analogy of a network of jewels, each of which has an infinite number of facets, and all of which are mirrored in the others. Again process philosophy will agree. In Process and Reality claims that the whole purpose of his philosophy is to show how one being can be present in another and proposes that all entities are present within all others even as they are distinct from one another.
5. Chinese Buddhism in the Chan tradition emphasizes the primacy of each present moment of experience, as the place where enlightenment occurs. For Whitehead, too, there is a primacy to the present moment of experience – the here-and-now – because it is only in the present moment that there is subjective immediacy. The immediacy of the past has perished and the immediacy of the future does not yet exist.
6. Traditional Chinese Medicine is built upon the assumption that the human body is not simply an isolated entity cut off from the world but a place where the whole universe enters into human life, such that the body is a microcosm of the universe. Scholars also suggest that the body consists of centers of energy that are connected to one another in myriad ways amid which balance can be achieved with help from herbs, acupuncture, movement, and other forms of non-western medicine. If this is true of Chinese medicine, then there are indeed areas of overlap with process philosophy, because process philosophy, too, sees each pulsation of energy within the human body, and thus the body as a whole, as a subjective unification – a concrescence – of the entire universe, and it sees each moment of human experience as arising out of deep and preverbal experiences of the body which are called experiences in the mode of causal efficacy.
It is parallels such as these that lead some scholars to suggest that Whitehead’s philosophy is a Western way of catching up with Chinese ways of thinking and adding science to the mix. And it is parallels such as these that lead many to wonder if Whitehead’s philosophy cannot be a bridge between China and the West.
This bridge is being crossed by many scholars on both sides of the ocean, and there is now a very large corpus of scholarly work, written in Chinese and in English, for more advanced study. Readers are encouraged to visit the website of the Institute for Constructive Postmodern Development of China for further resources.
Of course some Chinese readers are also be shaped by Chinese Marxism. There are also parallels between process thought and Chinese Marxism, which to Western readers may not seem more “Chinese” than “Western,” but which will nevertheless be important to both readers. Four are especially worthy of mention here.
7. Chinese Marxism emphasizes a scientific approach to life; and so does process thought. A distinguishing feature of the process tradition is that it draws heavily on insights from early quantum theory and relativity theory and, more importantly, embraces the scientific method as an essential source of wisdom for modern life.
8. Chinese Marxism says that it is important for people to consider the vulnerable and poor in society, and not simply be concerned with more selfish motives; and so does process thought. Process thinkers are especially interested in building a world in which communities exist, in rural and urban settings, that are creative, compassionate, participatory, equitable, ecologically wise and spiritually satisfying -- with no one left behind.
9. Chinese Marxism decries an overly abstract form of philosophy that gets lost in theory and neglects practice; and so does process thought. Process thought criticizes the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, emphasizing that, when we consider reality, we must recognize that elucidating immediate experience, as suffered and enjoyed by human beings and other living beings, is the primary justification for human thought.
10. Chinese Marxism is evolving into a way of thinking that takes the earth itself, not simply as a backdrop for human industry, but as a web of life in which all life unfolds. It is becoming an organic Marxism. Whitehead's philosophy emphasizes and encourages this organic way of thinking, offering a cosmology that can support and enrich Marxist social analysis.
An interesting feature of the process perspective is that is believes these four emphases can be combined with the emphases above into a single approach to life. Thus Whitehead's philosophy may offer a way for Marxism itself to develop in ways that are enriched by traditional Chinese thinking and, for that matter, by more appreciative approaches to religion than is characteristic of orthodox, Western Marxism.