Philosopher Peter Caws once offhandedly suggested, in his keynote address at a meeting of the North American Sartre Society, that philosophy perhaps needs a subdiscipline devoted to “elpisology”, the theory of hope. The aim of this paper will be to explore the elpisological availability of process thought as a heartening perspective that envisions a path to the actualization of four ideal and hopeful possibilities: (1) the possibility of becoming whole human beings, of healing from disconnectedness and alienation; (2) the possibility of whole communities, of rescue from the civilizational collapse that being a mere aggregation and cash nexus¹ of alienated and atomized individuals rather than a relational society seems to have us on the verge of; (3) the possibility of global solidarity between human beings, and with the rest of life on the planet, a sustainable course change from our current ecologically self-destructive trajectory; (4) the possibility of living within a cultural paradigm of holism where greater richness and intensity of spiritual experience might be realized, a renewal from the disenchantment and meaninglessness caused by both reductionistic materialism and consumerist materialism. It will be argued that hope ultimately needs to find a basis in a theory of reality, and above all in an ontology of justice, and that Whitehead’s process-relational conceptuality is especially well suited to meeting this need.
A River of Tragedy Runs Through It
To borrow a metaphor from Norman Maclean's novel, it can be said of our civilization that a river perennially runs through it, not Maclean’s spiritually symbolic and solacing river but rather a historically and humanly tragic river called patriarchy², which has carried down through the ages a masculine misconstrual of power as unilateral power and power-over relationality issuing in an excessive emphasis on autonomy and dominative individualism, the denial of internal relations and egalitarian interdependency, and a host of anti-relational biases (Spretnak 245-261). If like Livingston and Stanley we go in search of its ultimate source we find that its two main tributaries are a “substantialism of domination”³, the ontological perspective that reality consists of separate substantial entities, with an accompanying “tendency towards objectification, possession, and control” (Dykeman, Weed, and White 95) ; and the Neolithic transition from “a norm-based sharing economy” to “a possession-based property economy” (Bowles and Choi 2206), which gave rise to a selfish individualism focused on owning some of the world’s separate substantial things, and the enjoyment of superior social status and dominance based on what one owns (perhaps Rousseau got it right, it seems that human beings originally created chains for themselves by egoistically engaging the world as a population of discrete substances to be owned and dominated). The Bronze-Age paradigm of patriarchy that these tributaries eventually merged into has continued to destructively flow down through world history, taking different forms in different societies. In the 18th and 19th centuries it swamped Western societies in the form of classical liberalism, whose validation and valorization of egoistic autonomy and the pursuit of social dominance through private wealth accumulation breeds a pronounced and incorrigible tendency in our culture to promote the very antitheses of whole persons, whole communities, a whole planet, and a holistic way of thought and life.
Realizing the hopes of whole persons, whole communities, a whole planet, and a holistic form of life will therefore involve no less tall an order than debunking and shattering the long-perceived legitimacy of patriarchy and an interdependence denying liberal form of autonomy (Taylor, 187-210), and deprogramming a Western mind that’s deeply conditioned to take substantialism and materialism to be common sense. It will be argued that Whiteheadian process philosophy is just the ontology for the job.
It Takes a Just Village
The materialization of the four process hopes will indeed take the proverbial village. From a Whiteheadian point of view it can even be argued that fulfilling the second hope, whole communities, to some extent subsumes the fulfillment of the other three. For a Whiteheadian all of Creation is composed of elementary units of a social process and their societies, the essence of the creative journey from process and potentiality to concrete actuality is invariably dynamic relationality and community (Evans 25, 94). The success of human beings in bringing the four hopes to a state of satisfaction and actuality can be expected to follow the same processive course of emergence from generative relationality and community that everything else that’s actual in our societal universe has followed. Community then, and more specifically just community, merits a Whiteheadian’s special focus, and giving it an adequate treatment will be the subjective aim of the rest of this paper.
Living Together, Growing Together—The 5th Dimension
The philosophy of organism’s perspective that our existence is a process by which we’re socially interrelated and interconstituted with each other not only indicates the following focus on community, it’s tailor made for supporting five defining dimensions of the kind of whole community that’s necessary for the realization of the other three hopes: (1) ubuntu⁴, consciousness of human interconnectedness; (2) eco-consciousness, consciousness of interconnectedness with the earth’s majority nonhuman entities and systems; (3) compassion, the subjective, felt experience of interconnectedness motivating acts of grace; (4) participatory democracy, a societal decision-making process that aims at authentically democratic political interconnectedness; (5) justice, the shalomic⁵ ordering of interconnecteness.
There’s of course a common theme among these four organic dimensions of whole communities: interconnectedness; and each is certainly integral, but the fifth, justice, is arguably decisive. Justice, as I’ll shortly elaborate, is the intentional ordering of interconnectedness for well-being, and without it interconnectedness can indeed go disastrously awry. This is not to sell the other dimensions short, but by themselves they’re insufficient to ensure a shalomic civilization. To paraphrase a popular expression, no justice, no shalom.
A cautionary historical case in point is the miscarriage of compassion that resulted from the humanitarian efforts of Bartolomé de las Casas. Guided solely by compassion for indigenous Americans whose brutalization he had witnessed firsthand, de las Casas successfully lobbied the Spanish Crown for their replacement in the latifundia and mines of New Spain by African slaves, making himself, to his later painful regret, instrumental and complicit in the escalation of the African slave trade. In the example of de las Casas and his ironic part in ramping up the Atlantic slave trade we see that compassion by itself, in isolation from a ubuntic or universalistic concept of justice, is likely go down as yet another god who failed tragically. But what exactly is this justice that’s so critical?
Whiteheadian Justice—a Revised Footnote to Plato
From a process perspective, and along Platonic lines but without the casteism, justice is defined here as an actualization, organization, and engagement of interrelatedness and interdependence geared toward actual entities becoming what they should be in terms of embodying the eternal objects that are ideal for them, for the kind of entities that they are. In the case of our species this means the ordering of community to meet basic eudaimonic needs and enable human beings (all human beings, no one being left behind for any reason) to fully do justice to their human potential—human mental, socio-moral, and spiritual potential, i.e., our potential to develop beautiful minds, beautiful relations with each other and the world, and beautiful relations with ultimate reality. Justice also equally importantly means the organization of our social interbeing⁶ to empower us to contribute our actualized potential back to society and the world. Justice then is essentially an organization of human relationality based on the principle of From each according to her ability, to each according to her need.
A Morality of Justice and an Ethic of Care Rolled Into One
By their above definition, operationalizing such a process vision of shalomic justice is then a nonnegotiable precondition for whole communities. What’s more, a process ontology also arguably has the virtue of being a sound foundation for precisely the kind of honest, social, and utilitarian morality that we need in order to realize the hope of just communities. Conventional morality has yet to materialize a just society. One possible explanation of this, the essential Marxist criticism of conventional ethics and morality, is that normal, traditional ethics and morality betrays us into a form of idealism. Conventional moralism, it’s argued, is determinative of a moral subjectivity and perspective that’s abstracted from the context of positive social, economic, and political realities and history; it to too great an extent subverts morality into an engagement with abstract ideas, and ideologies shaped by the interests of the powerful; and into omphalocentrically cultivating our moral subjectivity and right-mindedness, to the neglect of a utilitarian and ameliorative engagement with the objective world aimed at universalizing and maximizing well-being. This is also seen to accord with and contribute to the tendency of conventional morality to be status quo oriented, geared to affirming and perpetuating the established order, despite its damning inequities. According to this view then, conventional idealist morality seriously works against our coming to grips with society’s asymmetrical power relations and oppressive systemic realities in a conscientizing way, thereby ironically perpetuating moral evils of the structural variety, and effectively preventing the realization of whole communities. Conversely, a social-relational process-based ethic concentrates our moral subjectivity on concrete social and existential realities, and moreover it recognizes our subjectivity to actually be interconstituted with them. Consciousness therefore is neither abstracted nor distracted from material evils and conditions. Rather, process thought has a utilitarian focus on real-world conditions and caring social relations, on well-being creation and promoting the greatest social good. A process morality consequently is ill disposed to countenancing social and economic injustices, and communities ordered to a process morality would be more likely to be just and compassionate communities than are communities ordered to conventional morality. Process thought then, on yet another count, is strongly indicated for actualizing the hope of just and whole communities.
Conclusion—100 Seconds to Midnight
The modern form of society that patriarchy has morphed into, based as it is upon an exploitationist mode of economic production that alienates us from each other and society, from our planet, and from a just and salogenic form of life, is fatally designed for the opposite of shalomic community, and in fact is giving us a good bit of evidence that it may very well be rapidly approaching the end of its limited viability. It has been argued here that our most realistic hope for averting civilizational collapse lies in civilizational metanoia, as it were, a conversion of our civilization to a process-relational theory of reality; and that an ethos of shalomic justice grounded in it, and communities that concretely embody such an ethos are vital for a large scale fostering of the kind of holistic consciousness that's needed to bring about wholeness and harmony for humanity and the earth. A sizable vanguard of progressive individuals may be able to reach it without the benefit of being socialized for it, but from both a Whiteheadian and a historical point of view it will take society endorsing, and getting behind promoting it to successfully make it our consensus consciousness. Given that the doomsday clock is currently set at a mere 100 seconds to midnight, whether we’ll succeed in bringing off this monumental collective conversion of consciousness and the global actualization of the four hopes of process thought in time remains to be seen. But thanks largely to my reflections on the creative and spiritual potential of process thought I live in hope; and in the conviction that it's only as communities, local and planetary; only by making common cause with each other, and with the processes of existence, that we have an honest hope of a future beyond our "twilight civilization"⁷.
1. “Cash nexus” is a term coined by Karl Marx to describe the aggregation of purely economic transactional relations that has largely supplanted a form of society based on deeper and more well-roundedly human social relations 2. The term patriarchy will be used to refer not merely to social structures ordered for male supremacy, but rather more broadly for social systems and cultures geared to the masculine misunderstanding of power as unilateral power, and power-over relationality. 3. A phrase taken from Lik Kuen Tong, a Chinese process thinker who deserves to have greater name recognition than he currently enjoys. 4. “Ubuntu” is not only the name of the Linux operating system of the computer that this paper is being typed on, it’s also a term derived from the Bantu language that means species consciousness, a consciousness of sharing a common humanity and internal relation with all human beings, a sense that: “I am because you are” (Tutu). 5. Adjectival form of shalom. According to Cornelius Plantinga: “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed … Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” (Plantinga 10). Shalomic then can serve as a synonym for holistic, and eudaimonic. 6. A Term borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism of engagement with social justice issues. 7. Cornel West’s term for moribund late capitalism. Works Cited Bowles, Samuel, Jung-Kyoo, Choi. ‘The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the Origins of Private Property’. Journal of Political Economy. Volume 127, Number 5. 2019 Dykeman,Therese Boos, Weed, Laura E., White, David. Introduction to Field-Being Philosophy: An Anthology of Lik Kuen Tong's Thought. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2022 Evans, Malcolm D. Whitehead and Philosophy of Education: The Seamless Coat of Learning. Rodopi. 1998 Plantinga, Cornelius. Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company. 1995 Spretnak, Charlene States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age. HarperSanFrancisco. 1991 Tutu, Desmond. Quoted in U.S. Department of State. Ubuntu Diplomacy