Process Philosophies (2) Heraclitus, Laozi, Buddha


Heraclitus and Laozi are two of the rarer philosophers who historically have had such an emphasis on processes. Indeed, they can thus be viewed as the earliest representatives of what we can call process philosophy. Heraclitus doesn’t deny that there are things. But he certainly does not emphasize things; and he describes things in reference to their processes, as seen in his teaching on the transformation of the elements. In Taoism, too, the focus on processes is fundamental. Many interpretations of Taoism indeed go so far as to see all particular things as merely parts of the greater whole, which is in process — the Tao. Indeed, a common interpretation is that the objects are mere constructions of human language. The ultimate reality — the Tao, the way, or nature’s way — cannot be known with language. But it can only be, somewhat inadequately, described as in involved in process and flow.

Buddhism, too, can be viewed as another of the primordial process philosophies. In Buddhism (or at least main strands of it), as in Taoism, it is not clear that objects have any ultimate existence at all. For Buddhists, certainly, our ordinary understanding of things as distinct from other things is really only of  instrumental value. The words used to differentiate one object from another do not capture what is ultimate. Ultimate reality transcends what we might call thingness. Like Taoists, Buddhists emphasize that the ultimate cannot be grasped by specific concepts at all.

Like Taoists, Buddhists emphasize the impermanence of specific things. They emphasize flow. One of the three marks of existence in Buddhism is impermanence. Another no-self. Grasping that all things, including the self, continue to change is necessary for enlightenment. Grasping this helps one to overcome one of the other three marks, suffering. If we recognize that all things change, we should no longer suffer at our plight, for in some sense the self that is suffering has no ultimate real existence. No-self focuses on how what we understand as the self is also not really adequate. The self, like everything, is continually changing. Whatever brought the suffering, like what came before it, will also disappear.

Even though Taoists and Buddhists do emphasize flow or impermanance, they do recognize that we give accounts of ourselves as preserving through time. We obviously do refer to ourselves with the same names as we change through time. The word “I” refers to any subject who uses it for him or herself. But in what sense is the “I” the same at the various times that a subject uses it? From the 9 pound, eight ounce child that I was when born, to now, I have a sense of personal identity — even though I don’t even have consciousness of those earliest years, and even though I am much larger now than at birth. Other things have changed as well: I now speak two languages fluently. I spoke none at birth. I’ve learned to play a guitar. I can sing. I write and read. In what sense is this me the same me?

Some of these insights of the Buddha or that one can imagine from a Taoist are reinforced from the perspective of contemporary biology. Biologist now tell us that every single cell is our bodies changes each seven years. From a contemporary perspective of various sciences, there are good reasons to questions the stability of things through time that tends to dominate our “common sense.” The examples from ecosystems thinking that I have already mentioned drive this home very clearly. Process philosophers emphasize the changing of the self and of all things in time and often their interrelations.

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