Whitehead's Differences from Buddhism
By Hartshorne, Charles
Philosophy East & West
V. 25 (1975)
Copyright 1975 by University of Hawaii Press
Whitehead has profound points of agreement with Buddhism. It is almost harder to state the important differences than the aspects of agreement. This is the more remarkable in that evidences of actual influence of Buddhist works upon him are slight. For the Western thinker, as for the great Asiatic tradition, concrete entities are momentary, and change is successive creation of new entities, rather than successive changes in identical ones. On both sides the attenuation of the idea of genetic or personal identity is accompanied by a corresponding attenuation of the idea of nonidentity between persons or things. One is internally related to one's own past, but also to the past of others. For both doctrines, the point is relevant to the question of motivation and the relations of self-interest and altruism. Regard for self and regard for those who are normally viewed as others turn out to be special cases of a universalized altruism for which one's past or future states are as genuinely "other" as the states of another person. For both doctrines also the entire cosmos is, in principle, embraced in this generalized altruism or love, and the ultimate value of "peace" (which almost seems a Whiteheadian equivalent for nirvaa.na) is realized by embodying this attitude in one's entire being. Whitehead's rejection of materialism and dualism, finally, is compatible with Buddhism, which has often leaned toward some form of idealism, as in the mystical saying, "all things are capable of Buddhahood."
With so much in common, what are the differences? There is, perhaps above all, Whitehead's much more definite and clear acknowledgment of the asymmetry between relations to predecessors and relations to successors. For Whitehead, but apparently not for Naagaarjuna, for example, events asymmetrically include their predecessors as prehended or objectified data, these relations being constitutive of the prehending but not of the prehended events. Buddhist writers seem often to imply symmetry, as if the present equally definitely implied earlier and later events. "Time's arrow" is much more sharply apparent in Whitehead's scheme. The world hangs together for him through the one-way or nonmutual relation of inheritance through objectification.
The Buddhist phrase "dependent origination" seems somewhat ambiguous. It at least suggests mutual dependence among the originating items. For Whitehead, as for relativity physics, contemporary events are mutually independent and are connected only insofar as they share, inherit from, a partly common past and insofar as a partly common future must inherit from them. For Whitehead also there is no converse relation to that of inheriting -- say the relation of "being inherited" -- which is similarly internal to its subject. On the contrary, a present event or experience is quite independent of the particular events coming after and prehending it. I have not been able to find a clear statement of this asymmetry in Buddhism, though "origination" seems to imply it.
It is important, however, to qualify the above, so far as Whitehead is concerned. If experience a is followed by experience b, then b prehends and depends
upon a, but a does not prehend or depend upon b. However, it is of the essence of a that it will be prehended by later experiences, some experiences or other. "To be is to be potentially (subsequently) prehended." Whitehead uses other words, but this is the meaning. What it amounts to is this, the class of "subsequent prehenders of a" cannot remain empty; though it is nothing to a just what members of the class actually occur. By contrast, b required not merely some predecessors or other as data for its prehensions, but it also required the very prior experiences which actually took place, including a. If we abstract from this distinction between particular and generic requirement, then there is a partial symmetry even in Whitehead's view, so that the disagreement with Buddhism, so far as there is such, is partial only.
There is even greater subtlety about another important difference. Whitehead is a theist, and Buddhism, at least often, seems not to be -- though Suzuki once declared that he was not sure of this. Here we need to introduce a third difference, that Whitehead leans toward rationalism and Buddhism seems to reject rational thought as incapable of attaining the highest truth. Yet at times Whitehead goes rather far toward a similar mysticism, and Mahaayaana Buddhism has sometimes gone fairly far toward a rational cosmology. Perhaps the two sides can be made to approach each other by some such statement as this: if we could formulate ultimate truth (what is possessed in achieving Peace or nirvaa.na) theoretically, it would have to be in some sort of theistic language, but perhaps such formulation is not really possible.
It is necessary, I believe, to connect the differences regarding God and the asymmetry of time with the Western bias toward a positive valuation of normal human living, as contrasted to the Asiatic tendency to disvalue it -- shown, for instance, in the fact that weddings are not usually performed by Buddhist priests (at least in Japan). Buddha was oppressed by the universal truth that all definite things and relations are ephemeral. Whitehead agrees that the persistence of persons and things through change is in the end temporary and is only an abstract way of looking at what, concretely, is a succession of ever-new realities, each displacing its predecessors -- except (for Whitehead a crucial qualification) insofar as this displacing consists in a more or less inadequate prehending ("abstractly," or by partly "negative prehensions") of predecessors, and except, further, that all actualities are prehended adequately, or in their full truth, by divine actuality. Only in this way does Whitehead think it possible to avoid the conclusion that "all experience is but a passing whiff of insignificance." To save the passing moment from everlasting nihilation, he sees no alternative to the ideal appropriation of the moment as imperishable datum in the divine experience. Such objectification as the nondivine subjects achieve is severely limited, incapable of preserving anything like the full richness and value of the data, and the objectification of an event by successive nondivine experiences tends to get fainter and fainter. Moreover, for Whitehead there is
no individual survival of death, even to the extent that Buddhist thought seems to allow it in the reincarnation idea.
In spite of its affinity to Buddhism, it should be clear from the points just made that Whitehead's view is also profoundly Western. He does not even seem to deny the positive value of ordinary experience, whether human or subhuman. Peace is for him the highest, but in no sense the only value. Yet, in abstraction from his theistic faith, he would, if anything, be more negative about ordinary experience, and indeed any experience, than the Buddhists, apart from nirvaa.na, would be.
Of course there are many aspects of Whitehead's detailed cosmology, making use as it does of modern science, which one would not find in the Buddhist suutras. And I believe that Whitehead's great experience in mathematics and formal logic has given his concepts a clarity that one learns not to expect from the older Asian writers. But nevertheless, in Whitehead, far more, I believe, than in Hume, Kant, or Schopenhauer, some of the best elements in the Western and Eastern traditions are combined. I would grant, however, that the subtle antirationalism (a term which some scholars would reject in this connection) of the Buddhists is closer to Hume or Kant than to Whitehead. Yet in the positive spiritual content of the doctrines, I think it is the great Anglo-American who comes nearest to giving us what ancient Greece, Judea, and India (Nepal) together have to offer the modern world.
It may surprise some that I have not mentioned the Whiteheadian doctrine of "eternal objects." In one phase there was, I gather, something of the sort in early Buddhism. It dropped out, and I personally think that this doctrine is a dispensable element of Whitehead's system. If he needs it, then so and for the same reasons does Buddhism. But I fail to see the necessity on either side. Creativity, momentary actual creatures, and a form of creativity (and corresponding actuality) able to prehend all actuality adequately and cosmically, are the essentials. Creativity itself (the determining of the antecedently indeterminate) simply as such, is merely a concept of productive becoming general enough to span the differences between the various levels of nondivine and also divine productive becoming. It is said not to be an actual entity. The actual entities (including God) are all creatures, in thinking about which we may abstract various aspects. They are also all "self-creative" and influential in the becoming of others. God is in a unique sense Creator, since the divine form of creativity is cosmically relevant, has always had and must always have instantiation in actuality, and by its ordering influence gives the cosmic process a coherence or order (allowing for quite real but limited aspects of disorder arising from the self-determinations of the creatures) which could not otherwise be explained.
The simplest way that I have found to compare Whitehead with Buddhism is to make use of Alexandra David-Neel's admirably clear little book.  Here the
main points to be found in many far longer works are presented, together with one point I have not discovered elsewhere. This is that at least the Tibetan Buddhists held, as did Whitehead, that in perception only past, not simultaneous or contemporary, events are given. The Tibetans, the author explains, noticed that in the distant firing of a gun the smoke of the explosion is seen before the sound is heard. This of course directly proves only that the explosion precedes the auditory perception, but might seem to leave open the question of whether it also precedes the visual perception. Yet I admire the generalization exhibited in the Tibetan reasoning; for after all, once we open our minds to the possibility of perceiving past events, there are good reasons for supposing that this is what perception essentially is.
The perceived is cause of the perceiving, we perceive the explosion because it happened, it did not happen because we perceive it. Thus there is a causal asymmetry. And it is the past on which the present asymmetrically depends. If the perceived were simultaneous with the perceiving, the causal relation, if any, should be mutual. Nor does this argument exhaust the grounds for agreeing with the Tibetans and Whitehead (against nearly all others who have expressed an opinion) that the absolute present can no more be given in perception than it can be remembered. It can indeed be "known" in the present, in the sense that the causal stability of the world is such that what has just occurred outside or inside our bodies is not likely to be very different from what is still occurring there. If the table was just previously there, it doubtless is still there without changes that we need to take into account in ordinary cases. If the prey was just previously running in a certain direction at a certain speed, it probably is still running at a point suitably farther along in the same direction. If my tooth was aching a fraction of a second ago, it presumably is still in need of attention. There is no necessity, whether practical or theoretical, for an absolute simultaneity of the given and the experience in or for which it is given. True enough, if it is really given at time t, it cannot be unreal at time t', but the doctrine that to be past is to be unreal makes nonsense not only of memory but also of causation. If the past is real enough to cause present effects, it is real enough to form data for present experience. The ability to miss this point is rather widespread. A past event has sufficient reality to be as past, and the Whiteheadian view is that this is the same as to be as objectified. (Since nondivine objectification is inadequate, deficient in concreteness, it would indeed follow that past events must -- assuming atheism -- have lost much of their reality and value. This is precisely one of Whitehead's reasons for not being an atheist.)
How charming it is that the Tibetans anticipated Whitehead in this important point in the theory of perception, presumably long before European thinkers came to it. Perception and memory are the two basic forms of experiencing the past, and all concrete data are past. Perception is what memory becomes if its past data are not previous experiences in the same individual or personal sequence, but rather events, experiences in some other sequence, or possibly
in no definite sequence of similar events. Perception is "impersonal memory," memory is personal perception. (Introspection -- there is a suutra which says this -- is really retrospection.) Awareness of the already happened is the basic form of our direct intuitions of reality. If this is not a famous discovery it is because in philosophy, unlike physics, discipline is so weak, subjectivity of procedure so pronounced, that there are no generally accepted criteria of intellectual success or significant originality. By my criteria the Tibetans and Whitehead made a discovery of great value when they integrated memory and perception under a single concept, the givenness of the past -- from which givenness all we need by way of knowledge of the present and future can be derived, in large part by instinct, or unconscious habits formed in early childhood.
Reading Griffin's essay on a similar subject after my essay had been written leads me to a few further remarks. I find Griffin admirably clear and illuminating. I had not realized the extent to which strict determinism was a factor in early Buddhism. No wonder they could see no consistent sense in a pluralistic view of reality. How penetrating the reasoning that if antecedent and subsequent results strictly imply each other causally then each event is equivalent to the entire series, past and future; and thus, since equivalence is a transitive as well as symmetrical relation, each event is equivalent to every other. Therewith any significant plurality is lost. How characteristic of Naagaarjuna! But it confirms the charge I have been making against that thinker, that he reasons splendidly, but from arbitrary premises. The symmetry he arrives at is assumed in those premises. Thus he claims to exhaust the possible causal doctrines as follows: earlier and later events or situations may be mutually independent, mutually interdependent, neither dependent nor independent, both dependent and independent. Each of the four cases, as stated, is symmetrical. True enough, one might introduce further divisions -- for instance, according to the way in which the earlier depends on the later differs from the way in which the later depends upon the earlier. But, in the reasoning used to discredit each of the four cases, no use whatever is made of this possibility, and it is precisely this neglect of the asymmetrical case that gives the reasoning its apparent cogency.
The same is true when the four possibilities are stated as: cause and effect are alike, different, alike and different, neither alike nor different. If they are merely alike there is no distinction and no real change from cause to effect, if merely different than anything could cause anything. But suppose they are alike in both being instances of subjectivity, but different in that while the effect is a single subject the cause is a group of antecedent subjects objectified in the new subject, whereby "the many become one and are increased by one." Moreover, the subjective forms of the prehending subject must be such as to achieve aesthetic integrity in spite of the diversity among the prehended subjects. Thus by no means anything could cause anything. So long as the symmetry of likeness and difference, taken in their pure abstractness, is alone considered, no
light can be shed upon the intuitively asymmetrical relation of causing and being caused. The later subject contains and is constituted by its contrasts, its differences, from earlier subjects, but these differences did not enter into the constitutions of the earlier subjects. It ought to be obvious that the level of abstract symmetry on which the dialectic moves is bound to conceal the meaning of causal conditioning. You might as well try to explain conditioning by starting with equivalence, biconditioning. Obviously the basic idea is simple conditioning.
(A contemporary example of the same mistake is found in Archie Bahm's doctrine that "interdependence" is the universal principle. This is merely the special case in which dependence holds both ways. Dewey's emphasis upon "transaction" as the primary epistemic relation is open to a similar criticism, though here more of value would survive the criticism.)
As I have repeatedly pointed out, a neglect of asymmetry closely similar to Naagaarjuna's is found many centuries later in Bradley's dialectic about relations, as well as in Russell's and Hume's defenses of external relations (reiterated by Ayer and Von Wright). All these parties ignore the doctrine that events depend upon, are partly constituted by their relations to, preceding events, but not vice versa. Yet memory and perception, as Whitehead argues, indicate that experience consists in such one-way dependence, experience depending upon the temporally prior experienced events which were and remain independent of the experience. The "prejudice of symmetry" is one of the most widespread of all intellectual biases and while it sometimes leads to intellectual discoveries it also leads to fundamental errors, as I have argued elsewhere.  The basic relations that bind the world together are both internal and external, internal at one "end" or with respect to one term, external at the other end or with respect to the other term. But few are the philosophers who realize this, and even Whitehead, whose system largely conforms to it, never, so far as I know, stated the principle itself in its abstract clarity, as I have just done.
In one curious way many Buddhists seem more individualistic than Whitehead. As one writer puts it, for Buddhism persons are self-created, their careers being largely determined at each stage by decisions or actions of their own in previous stages. For Whitehead, only momentary actualities have literal creativity, persons being "personally ordered" (linear) "societies" (sequences) of actualities, each influenced by past members of the society according to the very same principle, though not necessarily to the same degree, as by past members of other societies. Buddhists seem to say some such things too, but they cannot consistently say them and also say that what happens to a person is uniquely, or according to some strict scheme of desert, determined by "one's own" actions at previous times or in previous lives. Surely Buddhists are not Leibnizian monadologists, holding that substances have no influence upon one another! But there seems some ambiguity here from which Whitehead is free.
Whitehead is one of the few philosophers of all time who not only grants
that there is a perfectly real aspect of chance in personal careers but who generalizes this aspect, as Peirce did for his "Tychism," so that it applies to all happenings whatever. For Whitehead there is no strict natural or moral causal law which holds absolutely of any part of reality. "Disorder is as real as order." Thus his theism does not make deity responsible for the details of history, hence not for the particular evils or goods we or the other animals experience. No more than Buddhism does Whitehead have any use for the pseudoconcept of "omnipotence," if the word means a providence determining all things precisely as they are, leaving nothing for the creatures to determine, whether for themselves or for each other. My father, an Episcopal clergyman, did not accept this doctrine, and I have never accepted it. On this negative point also I am pleased to find Whitehead and Buddhism in concord. "Omnipotent" degraded rather than exalted deity, since, as Lequier said a century ago, it denied to him the capacity to create and know genuinely free creatures, that is, nondivine or lesser creators. Freedom is self-creation or nothing.
Perhaps it is of some significance that the Buddhist avoidance of theism was decided upon at a time when a process theology comparable to Whitehead's, or even to Lequier's or Fechner's, did not exist and was, so far as I know, scarcely dreamt of in any clear conceptual form. If Whiteheadian theology can become a challenge to Buddhism, it will at least be one that does far more than merely reiterate some ancient challenge to that tradition.
The provincialism of metaphysicians is nearing its end. Let linguistic analysts ignore the wider world if they wish, the select group of practicing metaphysicians should from now on pay attention to the two great international, highly developed traditions in their subject, the Western (Semitic in religious origins, Greek in scientific inspiration) and the Buddhist (Indian, Chinese, and Japanese). As Whitehead well said, these two traditions should no longer be protected from each other.
1. The Secret Oral Teachings in Thibetan Buddhist Sects. By Alexandra David-Neel and Lama Yongden. Trans. H. N. M. Hardy. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1967.
2. See Chapter X of my Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method (London: SCM Press; La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1970).