The following program is tentative and subject to change. Each session is approximately 60 minutes, with half of the time dedicated to discussion. Throughout the conference, tea and coffee will be available to registered participants. For questions on the program, contact

Program Outline

Day 1 - Friday, May 20, 2022

Afternoon sessions 1:00 - 5:00

Keith Robinson (University of Arkansas at Little Rock)
"Whitehead and Sustainable Development"

The concepts of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’, although different, have evolved together to understand the changes brought about in the economic, environmental and social spheres. We can provisionally define the terms together as the study of the relations and interconnections between the world’s economy, global society and the Earth’s limited physical environment and resources. Perhaps unsurprisingly, sustainability and sustainable development have become highly contentious, perhaps even “essentially contested” (Gallie, 1956) concepts, subject to multiple and diverging interpretations across a wide range of fields, disciplines and institutional interests. For most, however, sustainability is now the coin of the environmental realm defining the framework within which policy gets worked out and implemented, becoming “a way of understanding the world and a method for solving global problems” (Sachs, 2015). Nearly all parties now use the language of sustainable development as the medium through which their objectives are to be evaluated and their goals are to be achieved (Giddings et al, 2002).

My contention in this paper is that the real battleground in the discourse of sustainability is the ethical dimension or, at least, that the debate over sustainability can be understood fruitfully along its ethical faultlines, with the central fracture or divisions revolving around the anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric views. These two basic sets of views correspond with what has come to be known in the sustainability literature of the global North as the ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ views, or positions essentially framed around economic considerations, on the one hand, and ecological considerations on the other. With that in mind, I will discuss the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ or TBL as representative of the anthropocentric approach and contrast this with Whitehead’s non-anthropocentric framework.

Although Whitehead is not explicitly mentioned (as far as I know) in the vast literature on sustainable development (John Cobb’s work is, of course, deeply Whiteheadian), one reason to focus on Whitehead is to draw upon the critical and creative resources found in his metaphysics and that grounds his conceptions of value. TBL’s and similar approaches to sustainable development, are dependent upon a metaphysics of anthropocentrism that prioritizes economic value, individual ownership and property rights over environmental and social goods and values, ultimately separating the human from nature (Buchdahl and Raper, 1998; Gibson, 2012; Sarvestani and Shahvali, 2008). In contrast a Whiteheadian metaphysics attempts to locate the human within nature. Rather than an economic and market-based approach rooted in an atomistic mechanism where components are separated and considered independent and detached from the whole, a Whiteheadian non-anthropocentric or ‘strong sustainability’ view, emphasizes the relationality and interdependency of elements that cuts across the distinctions between the human and non-human. ‘Natural capital’, as the economists call it, is not viewed as interchangeable or commensurable with market mechanisms because it is fundamentally bound to values that the market does not recognize and dependent upon ecological limits that cannot be traded or transgressed merely because it’s expedient or profitable. On this view nature’s economy is all encompassing and primary whereas other economies (market, human, social, cultural, etc) are dependent upon it (Buchdahl and Raper, 1998). The promise of Whitehead’s metaphysical account of value lies in the possibility of grounding a new conception of sustainable development.

Ruth Chad (Claremont School of Theology at Willamette University)
"Dream Ape: Visions of a Post-Anthropocene Ecopoiesis"

Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysical vision of the philosophy of organism called into question both the rigid dogmatism of religion and theology as well as the supposedly universal truths of scientific materialism. Anthropocene techno-industrialism has disenchanted even the terms “Earth” and “cosmos” to the point of a collective loss of imagination wherein ecology is sometimes even considered to be a closed, permanent or self-contained system instead of one that is permeable, subject to and affected by the co-creation of human action as a potentiality for constructive and restorative beauty—not only degradation. At this critical juncture in time, and in lieu of the grave realities of climate change, ecopoiesis is a fitting way to express humanity’s capacity to respond to difficult challenges, suffering and terrible loss in order to re-imagine and transform through the creative act such nightmares into a vision of actualized beauty in the world. Whitehead’s philosophic system calls for humanity’s radical reconnection with the primordial to that which is consequential, where the retelling of the cosmogenesis of humanity invites us into a participatory relationship with Gaia, sacred earth; wherein terre saint and terre promise (not in the sense of 'Promised Land', but rather, 'promised earth') becomes the very meaningful humus between the toes, a ground of being guided along an ecopoietic pathway.

Rather than the Anthropocene alienated dominator, the primal Homo sapiens is invited to become dreamweaver, to reconnect by way of language (as mythic storyteller) and culture (as articulated in society, politics, science and religion); to enter the journey of ecopoiesis toward recovering a merged ecological and aesthetic home both in and with Nature instead of being apart from it. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism invites—and indeed, our age demands—that humanity engage in the process of uncovering and rediscovering “thought’s relationship with the earth,” in order to dig up what has been buried beneath the murky illusions of transcendence that have estranged humanity (terre sans terre) from its terrestrial home. Ecology depends now upon culture. With the very real possibility of a post-anthropocentric earth in mind, Whitehead’s philosophy asks humanity to dream to its highest potentialities, and to consider “an entire reorganization of the space of the ethic-politico-juridical, the ecological, and of what it means to dwell on the space of the earth.”

Jonathan Isacoff (Gonzaga University)
"Does Environmental Ethics Require Metaphysics?"

In this paper I evaluate an environmental ethics predicated on Whitehead’s metaphysics. I do so specifically in terms of Deweyan pragmatism. Whitehead argued that a science without value is impoverished. More specifically, Whitehead challenged “the assumption of the bare valuelessness of mere matter” which led to the reduction of the natural world, including all non-human life, as mere commodity (Hargrove, 1979). However, Whitehead was hardly alone in this observation. John Dewey’s greatest philosophical project was no less than a total reconstruction of philosophy for the ages. One of the pillars of that reconstruction was the project to wed science to the betterment of humanity. As Dewey put it:

When physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, contribute to the detection of concrete human woes and to the development of plans for remedying them and relieving the human estate, they become moral, they become part of the apparatus of moral inquiry or science… Natural science loses its divorce from humanity, it becomes itself humanistic in quality. It is something to be pursued not in a technical and specialized way for what is called truth for its own sake, but with the sense of its social bearing, its intellectual indispensableness. It is technical only the sense that it provides the technique of social and moral engineering (Dewey, 1948).

As is widely accepted since Leopold, environmental ethics by definition must marry science to value, as there can be no ethics without valuation. One of the primary difficulties of environmental ethics is that while there are often commonalities among the ethics/value propositions, these are often based on a pluralistic hodge-podge of metaphysical foundations. Henning (2005) has argued for an environmental ethics grounded on Whitehead’s metaphysics. According to Whitehead’s “ontological democracy,” “to be actual is to have value” (Henning 2005). Whitehead’s philosophy of organism was a heroic response to the logical fallacies of philosophical dualism and monism that had dominated modern philosophy. However, Whitehead’s metaphysical system still requires an effective “belief on faith” of the relational, process-based nature of the organist universe. Dewey in contrast, was anti-metaphysical and anti-ontological. Dewey argued unrelentingly that nothing can meaningfully exist outside of experience. Aspects of the universe that are unintelligible to human experience are by definition unknowable and, therefore, logically inconceivable. Accordingly, Whitehead’s organist metaphysics, though based in part on experience, still requires the human mind to perceive and have knowledge of abstract relations and processes, some of which, would have to be assumed from outside of experience. Thus, Whitehead’s conclusion that all that is actual has value would be only partially correct. All that is actual and available to human experience, could be said to have value. That which exists outside of human experience has no ontological basis and is therefore devoid of meaning. Meaninglessness cannot have value. From this Deweyan premise, an environmental ethic could be constructed without a need for a metaphysical foundation on which to ground it. This paper concludes, building on the work of others, by sketching out the possibility of how such an environmental ethic might look.

Dinner & Reception

Day 2 - Saturday, May 21, 2022

Morning session 8:30 - 11:30

Brianne Donaldson (University of California, Irvine)
"Considering Process Animism: Toward Multi-species Futures with Less Loss"

In this paper I will explore Whitehead’s process-relational ontology as a form of animism aimed toward a telos of multi-species co-flourishing with less loss. Drawing on contemporary accounts of animism, my aim is to identify distinct features of process animism, such as the universal affirmation of a physical and mental pole within all becoming occasions, and an account of diverse kinds of beings such as occasions, nexūs, and (personally ordered and/or structured) societies. Additionally, I will explore how each of these kinds of entities may aim toward value creation characterized by less obstruction and greater co-flourishing.

While many have equated process with a panpsychist account of reality, process-as-animism accounts for universal mentality while equally emphasizing non-conscious physical perception, showing how every existent entity creates itself and our collective world from the integration of both aspects.

The animist recognition that entities integrate input from their physical context and surround toward a mental ideal serves several purposes. First, this formation helps us to better conceptualize macro-level beings, whether cells, animals, plants, people, and ecosystems, as distinct events of integrative activity. Second, as integrating activity, all existent entities are on a level ontological playing field while accounting for special differences, that is, each individual entity is actively participating uniquely in self- and world-shaping, through its own degrees of complex integration. Third, this formulation corrects particular bifurcations within the history of philosophy, natural theology, and biology that bifurcate the world into subject/object, mind/body, human/non-human, among others. In a process animism, all entities are perceiving, feeling, and conceptualizing subjects, and all are percipient objects for others. While the ability of each entity to integrate physical data toward a mental ideal of a “harmony of contrasts” (PR 167) differs, this common aim invites embodied practice to enlarge our own personal and social integrations to include as many competing physical entities as possible, while also recognizing that our well-being is dependent on being included in the integrations of others.

Finally, this vision of process animism provides clarity and correction to Whitehead’s image of “civilization” as the striving toward what might be from what presently is. Rightly criticized by scholars as reproducing a Eurocentric, colonial, and rationalist account of progress, Whitehead’s “civilization” takes on its full meaning only by rightly understanding the animist affirmation at the heart of process ontology. Animism is not a primitive world-vision to be supplanted by the “civilized”; rather, civilization is an evolving process animism—an ancient insight and pervasive activity—shaping our worlds to come.

Thomas G. Hermans-Webster (Pacific School of Religion)
"Cooking and Eating with Love: A Whiteheadian Theology of Meals for Planetary Wellbeing"

Lucien Price wrote in Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead that Evelyn Whitehead once remarked, “Cookery is one of those tasks which are insupportable unless done for people one loves.” Alfred North Whitehead responded to her insight, noting that “people are unlikely to get good food, no matter how many cooks they have, or how much they pay for them, unless the cooks love the people for whom they cook…Cooking is one of those arts which most requires to be done by persons of religious nature.” Evelyn Whitehead added to her husband’s comment, saying, “And a good cook cooks to the glory of God.” In this paper, I stand in convicted agreement with the Whiteheads. Furthermore, I ask, “How might a Whiteheadian think about and participate in cooking, good food, and love amid the complex of crises that are causing and resulting from our changing climate?”

This paper will be particularly focused on what has come to be known as the Western Diet and how it has influenced and continues to influence climate change. Furthermore, this paper will build on the work of neoclassical theologian Theodore Walker, Jr., and argue that modernity and its meals have principally emerged through oppressive, commodifying, and exploitative patterns of relationships that are based on the dismemberment of social bodies, including ecological bodies. I will argue that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism offers a transformative antidote to the Western Diet’s devastating impacts on planetary wellbeing. Attending to Whiteheadian themes of dynamic interconnectedness, I recognize that meals always ground the societies who eat them in the planetary processes of life by identifying the cosmic scope of all our relatives at the table.

Engaging and expanding Norman Pittenger’s Whiteheadian Christian sacramental theology, I will argue that meals relate to the identities of and priorities for human societies as we interact with one another and with our other-than-human kin. In Whiteheadian terms, cookery and the meals emerging therefrom are an artform of the religious because they evoke one’s own response to the solitariness of the self in the cosmos. Meals make plain the eater’s dependency upon others for their next moments of life and can awaken the eater’s awareness of the many and varied relationships through which the eater emerges and to which they respond.

In keeping with the philosophy of organism, then, a meal’s value for the eater is more than some mechanistic fulfillment of biologically needed nutrients through food. Meals matter for how creatures relate to one another throughout the cosmos. Meals distinguish between what is actual and what is possible to the point that the actual becomes part of the eater’s own life as physical, spiritual, and social nourishment. In so doing, meals confront the self with the complexity and consequences of the matrices of relations that include the eater. Through our dynamic cosmic relationships, eaters are connected to the multifarious and entangling questions of food security, provision, health, and future amid profound shifts in our planet’s climate that have been caused by human actions. And eaters hope toward particular futures in and beyond these relations and actions, futures that may intensify or abandon present relations in transformative and consequential ways.
How we humans eat matters; it materializes identities that influence our world. How communities value the relationships through which they and their world happen influences and will influence the material conditions of life for their relatives at the table and beyond, rippling through the cosmic web of relations. Meals are opportunities for communities to disclose, in gratitude and humility, the beloved dignity of each creature and the contribution of each creature to a society’s experiences of love and life. In so doing, meals can contribute to healing relationships that have been broken, hidden, and hoarded in the Western Diet’s climate-changing relations.

Lunch 11:45 - 1:15

Afternoon sessions 1:15 - 5:00

Barbara Muraca (University of Oregon)
"Whitehead’s Relational Ontology as Foundation for the ‘Relational Turn’ in Sustainability Science"

Over the last few years a unique momentum for a shift towards relational ontologies has emerged in the interdisciplinary field of environmental and sustainability studies, albeit only with cursory reference to Whitehead’s philosophy.

A recent publication from the Stockholm resilience center highlighted the importance of a relational turn in sustainability science and gave rise to a controversial debate about chances and limitations of relational thinking for sustainability transformation (West et al. 2020; Raymond et al. 2021). West et al. highlight how the relational turn can radically challenge dualisms that are, to a certain extent, still present in social-ecological and complex systems research and show how relational thinking can leverage sustainability transformation by enabling “empirical approaches to knowledge production” and generating “new domains and methods for sustainability interventions” (318).

Critique of the relational turn stress that ‘relational’ remains a buzzing word, too vague for operationalizations where “strategic choices about where to "apply the knife”” are necessary (Raymond et al. 2021). Moreover, if disentangled from critical social and political analyses, the relational turn can easily be coopted by dominant neoliberal ideologies and loose its transformative potential towards sustainability.
In this paper I will address this debate and the critique with reference to Whitehead’s relational ontology and its applications, for example, in Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s ecological economics. I will show how the problem of where to apply the knife is still caught in a relational framework that 1) does not radically conceives of relations as ontologically prior to entities, 2) considers a relational ontology in terms of a monistic holism instead of, as in Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism, as a pluralistic and dynamic ontology, and 3) does not question the bifurcation of nature and therefore a somehow strict separation between epistemology and ontology (thus, ‘applying the knife’ is intended as the mere activity of the observing subject onto a supposedly mute world that does not display its own modalities of (dynamic) distinctions, separations, and liminal de-finitions.

Replacing Western substance metaphysics with a relational metaphysics that is rooted in the same holistic, universal assumptions reproduces a colonial framework for sustainability and limits the success of environmental policies.
Embracing, instead, a radically pluralistic, relational ontology, opens new paths not only in theory, but also for practice and policies.

In the paper I will not only address the theoretical flaws of a relational turn that remains caught in traditional, Western metaphysics, but also show implications for sustainability policies. For example, I will show how a pluralistic, relational ontology can enable a fruitful dialogue with multiple and diverse Indigenous Knowledge and Value Systems and contribute to create a possible common language towards a radical social-ecological transformation.

William Rubel (University of British Columbia; University Canada West)
"The Eye Altering Alters All: Optics, Haptics, and Ecological Modernity in Alfred North Whitehead and William Blake"

To grasp Whitehead’s relevance to the climate emergency, it may be worth pausing to consider his implicit optimism about the emergence of a postsecular modernity. If Whitehead's optimism about the tender insinuation of infinite affections in all “actual occasions” has infected the work of posthumanist thinkers (such as Shaviro, Braidotti, Haraway, Stengers, and Massumi), its deepest roots are in romantic poetry. Ironically, though Whitehead often alludes to Wordsworth, whose poetry attends to the “tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love” (Whitehead), his strongest affinities lie with a poet (and kindred agitator against "Bad Art & Science”) who rejects nature for imagination—William Blake. For these two visionary British thinkers, who lived a century apart, the antidote to modernity’s ecocidal (and “Urizenic”) epistemic regimes is a gentle shift in our mode of attention from the optic (“sense-perception”) to the haptic (“sense-reception”): “the eye altering” that “alters all.”

Put differently, an emphasis on our capacity to romance modernity gives Blake and Whitehead a special resilience in the face of appalling social and ecological destruction. Though Blake (in contrast to “nature’s priest,” Wordsworth) has enjoyed a unique status in recent criticism—as a "voice of the Devil" and infernal printer who melted away the idea of nature invented in the ecomimesis of his fellow romantics—his counter-messianic “apocalyptic” vision poses problems for historical materialist reading. Insisting on the infinitely open “world” in the grain of sand, Blake vehemently rejects commonsense matter, associating it with the “vegetative” or “corporeal” eye of atrophied empiricist senses (which he called Wordsworth’s “universe of death”). No other poet resonates so strongly with Whitehead’s critique of empiricist “commonsense”—the “institution of matter” that Bruno Latour calls “the most idealist of the products of the mind.” For Blake, "Bad Art & Science" are products of an epistemic regime. The "last judgment" is therefore an individual act of attention that burns away the optics of finitude, revealing, in its place the haptic, or “every thing… as it is, Infinite.” This shift, toward delight, is only ever possible in the present moment: "Error or Creation will be Burned up, & then & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear. It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it.”

One need only flip through Process and Reality to notice how Whitehead shares Blake’s abhorrence of the scientistic vision of “nonentity,” or the “grand doctrine of Nature as a self-sufficient, meaningless complex of facts.” Like Blake, he thoroughly questions the secular materialist worldview (with its Urizenic model of private rational self-interest) at the root of our ecocidal culture. Like Blake, he is less concerned with “castigating” the “Pharisees” (for whom "any doctrine which does not implicitly presuppose this [materialist] point of view is assailed as unintelligible”) than with engaging with countless openminded individuals: “to the Publicans and Harlots go: | Teach them true happiness, but let no curse | Go forth out of thy mouth to blight their peace’ (Jerusalem, “To the Christians”). Both viewed modernity at moments of great change. Both admired science but warned against scientism. We are now at a moment of even greater change, when their gentle insights into “consolidated error” offer us ways to cleanse the “doors of perception” in ways that reduce our anxiety and inspire us with perennial optimism.

Brian G. Henning (Gonzaga University) - Closing Session
"Climate Change & the Philosophy of Organism" 

Dinner & Reception