Throughout the history of Western thought there have been key thinkers who have approached the world through a process view. The idea is that the world is constantly changing, both on its own and as people interact within it. These changing interactions and our understanding of reality and knowledge can collectively be called dynamic philosophy. Philosophy covers a range of subjects from metaphysics (the study of what exists) to epistemology (the study of knowledge) to ethics (the study of what is right). The reach extends to nearly every academic discipline, with specialized fields like psychology, natural science, and even comparative literature being rooted in philosophy. The dynamic aspect emphasizes the way the world evolves: how people affect and are affected by the world, how societies develop, how nature itself never stands still but is a continuing series of births and deaths—as Darwin identified, evolution. Anthropology has been influenced profoundly by this dynamic, or process, approach.
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus (6th century B.C.) is known for the saying, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Change, he felt, was the one constant in life, the one guarantee. As a moment in time passes, a river is no longer the same, the water moving as it does in a flowing current from one place to another. People change as well, aging imperceptively from one moment to the next. Stepping into a river may not seem to be a life-altering event but the person is different nonetheless, because his experience has been enriched from the first step. Other pre-Socratic philosophers (the ancient Greeks prior to the time of Socrates, 469-399 B.C.) believed that such elements as water (Thales of Miletus, 620-546 B.C.) and air (Anaximenes, 585-524 B.C.) were the underlying forces behind all life. Heraclitus lauded change, however, with the understanding of an underlying logos, or steadfast principle of reality that directs all things. The world in this view is in constant motion, but it is not chaotic; there is an order to the universe, even in strife, struggle, and what appear to be opposing forces or tensions.
The Roman poet Lucretius (99-55 B.C.) was a follower of Greek philosopher Epicurus (340-270 B.C.). The two men believed that change was essential to existence and that reality consists of an eternal collection of tiny atoms that move and change form to create the worlds, beings, and objects we recognize. Gods are not necessary and if they exist, they have little to do with the goings-on of humanity. When people die their atoms dissipate and return to the earth in a different form. Lucretius expressed these and other views in his epic Latin poem, On the Nature of Things. Unsurprisingly, he was influenced by tumultuous political times. He saw humans as being ruled by passions and hungers, but felt that they could control these urges through knowledge and cooperation. People could determine how to live their lives in a changing, adaptable way, rather than being locked into whatever was dictated by divine command.
Such theories fell out of fashion for several centuries during the Middle Ages and the spread of Christianity across Europe. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (16461716) was a German mathematician and philosopher who posed a different view of God than the anthropomorphized, omniscient, omnipotent God envisioned by the Roman Catholic Church. Like the atomists, Leibniz proposed that all existence was contained in individually moving, microscopic beings, or monads, and he saw God as the harmony that exists between their movements. This idea is different from that of his contemporary, Baruch Spinoza (16321677), who claimed that one underlying substance presented itself in individual beings by accident. For Leibniz the arrangement was no accident, but rather the harmonious effort of the independent monads, each empowered with its own intelligence.
There is debate as to whether Leibniz or Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was the first to develop modern calculus, but Leibniz’s influence on the sciences can be witnessed unquestionably in the concept of feedback. In engineering, for example, feedback is information that is collected as input and programmed into a device to generate a consequent output. Rather than a static flow of information in one direction, feedback allows the cycle to continue in what could be described as a dynamic process. Similar implications are felt in anthropology, such as economic systems and biological evolution that responds and shifts direction according to an interactive flow of information. In a lay sense, feedback can inform the decisions made by individuals and groups of people—and ultimately the development of societies. Leibniz’s monadic system of independently functioning, intelligent units contains this element of interaction at its core.
The capacity for reaction was central to the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), who saw world history as a continuous series of unfolding events, each responding to recent actions in an attempt to improve upon the flaws. Politically, the implications of this theory would explain reactionary movements in which an extreme approach to social policy inspires an extreme swing toward the opposite direction by the next generation. Totalitarianism prompts a desire to protect individual freedoms; an extremely liberal society is met with a return to traditionalist values. In a complicated and challenging application to metaphysics, Hegel proposed that existence requires an infinite interaction between the extremes of abstract idea and individual will, like an eternal pendulum swinging between thesis and antithesis in search of balance and pure harmony, or the synthesis of ideas. This dialectic approach influenced generations to come, including fellow Germans: Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), who emphasized the connection between human needs and a desire to believe in God; Bruno Bauer (1809-1882), who interestingly abandoned his early “right” political thought for a later “left” movement; and Karl Marx (1818-1883) in the beginning of his paradigmatic political career.
Marx is known for his economic theories and his famous call to working men to unite in revolt against the wealthy, opportunistic bourgeoisie (the capitalists who, by definition, exploit and abuse the working class). His is a dynamic philosophy particularly because of the emphasis on struggle, but also because he was not satisfied merely with studying the world; he wanted to change it. Marx accepted the dialectic Hegel proposed but rejected the idealist application of intellectually moving toward the abstract “real.” Life is material, and Marx’s application confronted materialism head-on, seeing human choices and confrontations as a result of the world rather than the world as a construction of the human mind. Marx believed that humans are not merely products of a pre-established biological blueprint, but rather, they adapt and respond to the events and circumstances of their world.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) saw the world as founded on a type of creative energy in all matter and all living things, which he called “the will to power.” This will is beyond the desire to survive and preserve one’s own life; rather, it is the underlying influence that Nietzsche believed could explain all behavior and events in nature. Nietzsche detested what he called “slave morality” and the constraints imposed by the Christian view that God (and the afterlife) should be the human focus. In his series of parables in the collection Thus Spake Zarathustra (1885), Neitzsche showed how the Übermensch or “overman” could free himself from his chains by overcoming traditionalist strongholds by denouncing the old-world ideas of God and focusing on his own life, in the present, to construct his own set of morals and ideals (thus the often-misunderstood phrase, “God is dead”). Again, like Hegel’s dialectic, there is a dynamic exchange as the slave becomes his own master, harnessing the power of his will. Nietzsche presented the overman as the ultimate state from which early “human” apes were transitioning as a spiritual journey with implications for ethics, politics, and religion.
A literal evolution from ape to human was proposed decades earlier by Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who in The Origin of the Species (1859) presented the concepts that would forever change science, philosophy, and every field in between. Having observed fossil patterns that indicated change across generations in both plant and animal species, Darwin proposed his theory of biological evolution whereby modern humans could be traced as descendants of other animals. This undermined the authority of the Church which for centuries had taught that man and woman were direct creations of God in God’s image. If humans evolved from apes, then the implication was that God’s image was that of an ape or earlier animal—amphibian, fish, or even insect. If an ape is clearly inferior to humans, then evolution seemed to propose God’s image as a creature less developed than homo sapiens. Darwin’s theory of evolution was met with exactly the reactionary social dynamics Hegel and others had identified. Darwin began his studies as a natural scientist observing sea life and South American vegetation. Perhaps due to sensitivity toward the impact such claims would make, Darwin took years to expand his observations to the point of including humans within this potential to evolve. Nevertheless, change was integral to life, Darwin argued, both in common descent through evolution and the concept of natural selection. Because nature is dynamic, certain traits can prevail or be repressed. Weaker species eventually die out or become stronger through adaptation. Darwin’s theory makes use of Leibniz’s concept of feedback as the world and the beings within it constantly interact, compete, learn, and evolve.
Darwinism often is reduced to “survival of the fittest,” a phrase actually termed by English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Spencer’s work established evolutionary change as the foundation of the social sciences, applied specifically to sociology and psychology. Human interactions, like genetic biological traits, work in such a manner as to ensure a type of natural selection within social groups, Spencer claimed. Some people are better equipped to deal with life’s misfortunes; some human societies will naturally conquer others by superiority or force of might. Spencer’s theories developed into “social Darwinism” which, although belied by the name, was not specifically endorsed by Darwin himself. Social Darwinism extended evolution to the study of human culture and toward a controversial justification for abandoning the poor and the members of society most prone to disease. Weak people could contaminate the gene pool, so in its most extreme form, social Darwinism maintained that only the strongest of the species should be allowed to reproduce. The distinction between descriptive theory and prescriptive plan for ethics became blurred. If it was natural for the strong to overpower the weak, then it would be unnatural to resist the domination that was inevitable.
The American philosophical movement of pragmatism emerged around the same time Spencer’s theories were being integrated into social policy, and pragmatism emphasized the involvement of the human intellect in developing a better society. This is where the similarities end. Pragmatist John Dewey (1859-1952), known for his educational philosophy, felt that the attainment of knowledge was an ongoing process, not something that children would learn once according to permanent and absolute principles of reality. Rote memorization does not engage the learner; for an experience to be truly valuable and consequential it should involve active participants who direct their attention toward improvement and toward recognizing their roles as individuals within the larger society. Dewey was not afraid of committing to an idea such as atheism, but he emphasized the continual search for truth through the process of refined experimentation. Earlier pragmatists Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910) directed this active approach to scientific inquiry toward the disciplines of mathematical logic and psychology, respectively.
The French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941) exchanged ideas about consciousness with James, and both were interested in the intuitive energy that drives the functions of the mind. This interest informed the rejection of intellectualism as well as the mind-body dualistic separation that perplexed such philosophers as René Descartes (1596-1650). Experience, rather than pure logic, is the appropriate means for seeking the truth about the world. The spiritual element, however, the élan vital or vital force of the mind, is what Bergson saw as responsible for the evolution of living things. Like Nietzsche and Marx, Bergson proposed conflict as being inherent to life: inorganic matter in a battle against creativity, or, more specifically, the way in which beings are able to persist across time while continuing to evolve. Intelligence is a unique phenomenon among humans because of a decreased capacity to respond to the environment purely according to instinct, as is sufficient for other animals. It is by returning to this instinct that humans can overcome the emphasis on intellectual pursuits which only further remove the living being from his recognition of true knowledge and existence. Bergson’s theories oppose the empirical versus pure intuition model proposed by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) as an irreconcilable rift between perception and true reality. Rather, through intuition Bergson saw a means of explaining the simultaneous change and apparent persistence of life.
Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) also rejected Cartesian mind-body dualism and developed the concept known as process philosophy. Like Bergson, Whitehead recognized reality as a succession of events maintained by experience, rather than as individual apprehension of existing material objects. Interestingly, this view allows for the possibility of God as the creator of the possibilities of experience; it is individual will, however, that determines direction and choices. The world is constantly evolving and cannot be contained within a static understanding of what exists. Whitehead’s metaphysical conception led to the development of process theology, whereby God contains all other existence, and necessarily changes as free will determines new paths of experience. There are essential elements of God, such as goodness, that remain eternally steadfast, but the world as it is experienced is subject to change by its nature and by the experiences of the beings within it. Immortality is through God, but God as the perfect being must allow for the possibility of change, rather than imposing an infallible view of perfect existence created by force.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was both a theologian and a paleontologist who embraced the marriage of biology to spirituality found in Bergson’s l’Evolution Créatrice (Creative Evolution, 1907). Teilhard’s conviction was that evolution was orthogenetic and teleological in nature; that is, human life was part of a larger and linear progression of life encompassing the whole universe and moving toward perfection. Unlike modern evolutionary synthesis or neo-Darwinism, Teilhard did not believe that the changes across generations were mere accidents. He acknowledged the interaction of the beings in nature and their potential for affecting the environment, but believed this movement was in a positive direction, toward improving overall species and the world. This is not unlike the underlying harmony Leibniz proposed as the collection of movements among the monads. Teilhard’s geological excavations in China were more warmly received by the Roman Catholic Church than were his religious lectures (Teilhard was an ordained Jesuit priest); his theological writings were barred from publication, he was relieved of his lecture privileges, and he was banished from his homeland of France for philosophical differences with the Vatican. Teilhard was part of the 1929 group that discovered the Peking Man, homo erectus fossilized remains from the Pleistocene era. Paleontology ultimately exposed the weakness of the orthogenetic theory when no mechanism could be determined to fully explain the inconsistencies that appeared among different groups of fossils; there was no clear, single, linear plan to explain the evolution of all life forms. The 1950s discovery of DNA genetic structure further emphasized that the direction of evolution was subject to modification between generations and not exclusively committed to a single goal. Nevertheless, Teilhard’s approach was to unite science and theology by emphasizing the ways in which spirituality can be found in the material world, because both are part of the common totality of existence in the universe.
- Bergson, H.-L. (1998/1907). Creative evolution. New York: Dover Publications.
- Darwin, C. (1964/1859). On the origin of the species. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Dewey, J. (1958/1925). Experience and nature. New York: Dover Publications.
- (2001/1969). On the nature of things. M. F. Smith (Trans.). Indianapolis, IN:
- Nietzsche, F. (1999/1885). Thus SpakeZarathustra. New York: Dover Publications.
- Spencer, H. (1967). The evolution of society: Selections from Herbert Spencer’s principles of sociology.R.L. Carneiro (Ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1975/1959). The phenomenon of man. B. Wall (Trans.). New York: HarperCollins.
- Whitehead, A. N. (1978/1929). Process and reality: An essay in cosmology. D. R. Griffin & D. W. Sherburne (Eds.). New York: Free Press.