Process philosophy | Gerald Midgley (2000)

Chapter 4 on “Process philosophy” follows after Chapter 3 on “The Systems Idea”. For context here’s an outline of the sections on the philosophy Chapter 3.

  • 3.1 The Meaning of ‘Systems Philosophy’
  • 3.2 The Boundary Concept
  • 3.3 The ‘Enemies’ of Systems Thinking: Mechanism, Reductionism and Subject/Object Dualism
  • 3.4 The Struggle against Subject/ Object Dualism
  • 3.5 General Systems Theory
    • 3.5.1 Critique of General Systems Theory
  • 3.6 The Theory of Mind
    • 3.6.1 Critique of the Theory of Mind
  • 3.7 The Theory of Autopoiesis
    • 3.7.1 Critique of the Theory of Autopoiesis
  • 3.8 Interpretive Systemology
    • 3.8.1 Critique of Interpretive Systemology
  • 3.9 Conclusion

Here’s the outline of Chapter 4.

  • 4.1 The Problem of Subject/Object Dualism
  • 4.2 The Linguistic Tum
  • 4.3 A Linguistic Tum in Systems Thinking
  • 4.4 The Theory of ‘Three Worlds’
  • 4.5 A Critique of the Linguistic Tum
  • 4.6 The Origins of Knowledge
  • 4.7 From Content to Process Philosophy
  • 4.8 Defining Knowledge
  • 4.9 Sentient Beings
    • 4.9.1 Shorthand Expressions of Boundary Judgements
  • 4.10 Second-Order Reflections on the Nature of the Self
  • 4.11 The Importance of Time
  • 4.12 The Indeterminacy of Process
  • 4.13 Some Consequences of Process Philosophy for Speaking about Reality
    • 4.13.1 Realism
    • 4.13.2 Idealism
    • 4.13.3 Social Constructionism
    • 4.13.4 What can be Said using Process Philosophy?
    • 4.13.5 From Realism to Process
    • 4.13.6 From Idealism to Process
    • 4.13.7 From Social Constructionism to Process
  • 4.14 Conclusion

My interest is in section 4.7, excerpted here.

4.7 From Content to Process Philosophy

If the comrrun assumption of Bateson, von Bertalanffy and Maturana is the specification of a prime originator of knowledge, let us ask if there is anything other than a knowledge generating system that could be treated as analytically prime. My answer is that we can view as prime the process of bringing knowledge into being. Bateson, von Bertalanffy and Maturana all offer a content philosophy. They try to make some propositions (specify some content) about what the knowledge generating system must be like. In contrast, we can switch analytical primacy to the process of specifying that content.44

  • 44 Analytical primacy is not the same as ontological primacy. Something is analytically prime if it is advisable to look at it first, but this does not necessarily mean that it has a more fundamental reality.

Now, in saying this I should acknowledge that I am. using the term ‘process’ in a related, but subtly different, manner to others who have talked about ‘process philosophy’ (e.g., Bergson, 1911; Whitehead, 1929; Pols, 1967; Capek, 1971; Leclerc, 1972, 1986; Mathews, 1991; and Gare, 1996).

Tracing the origins of process philosophy, Gare (1996) cites the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who says, “nothing is, everything is becoming” (p.310, my italics). However, as I understand it, 20th Century process philosophers do not assume that ‘nothing is’. Rather, they take as analytically prime those ‘objects’ (or systems) that provide the means of becoming. Thus, Gare aligns von Bertalanffy with process philosophy because, in general systems theory, the activities of open systems give rise to change: inputs are transformed into outputs, and properties of whole systems emerge. For von Bertalanffy (1968), open systems are therefore the means of becoming.

In contrast, I wish to avoid the identification of any one type of object or system as analytically prime — as I see it, a process should not be logically reliant en the prior identification of just one type of object or system, otherwise we have merely generated another content philosophy (albeit one which is slightly more sophisticated than content philosophies that disregard process altogether). It is for this reason tIiat I cannot accept von Bertalanffy as a process philosopher: he is primarily interested in specifying the nature of systems (i.e., content) giving rise to process. [p. 78, editorial paragraphing added]

So, for me, process philosophy involves identifying a process that is not dependent on the further identification of a single type of system giving rise to that process.

Fuenmayor (1991a,b) goes quite a long way towards such a position. As we saw in Chapter 3, he proposes a recursive form relating together the intentional subject and distinctions of its other (which also serve to delineate the subject). Essentially, making distinctions is process and the subject is content. So, while Fuenmayor takes a step toward process philosophy, he still hangs on to an aspect of content.

It seems to me that the subject has to be expressed as content because of the assumption that Fuenmayor inherits from Phenomenology that the starting point for building a philosophical position should be lived experience. From an experiential point of view, it would be inconceivable not to have a subject (or self) in a semi-pivotal position. Of course, when the self is placed in relation to its other to create a vision of epistemology, this generates the paradoxes expressed in Fuenmayor’s recursive forms (and indeed, these can be made even more paradoxical through the introduction of language, as we saw earlier in this chapter).

So, although Fuenmayor distances himself from the tendency of biological epistemologists to try to root everything in one prime originator of knowledge, there are still problems with his position (which I believe can be overcome) [p. 79, editorial paragraphing added].

In switching analytical primacy from content to process, the particular process I have in mind is making boundary judgements (which are similar to Fuenmayor’s distinctions).45 If we regard the process of making boundary judgements as analytically prime, rather than a particular kind of knowledge generating system, then subjects come to be defined in exactly the same way as objects — by a boundary judgement.

  • 45 See Chapter 3 for an introduction to the idea of boundary judgements, and Chapter 7 for a more detailed discussion.


Midgley, Gerald. 2000. “Process Philosophy.” In Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology, and Practice, 69–99. Contemporary Systems Thinking. Boston, MA: Springer US. .