Which is More Fundamental: Processes or Things? by Celso Vieira

Glass Half Full or Half Empty by Sealle, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Metaphysics is the attempt to understand how existence works by examining the building blocks of reality, the distinctions between mental and physical entities, and the fundamental questions of being and reality. But metaphysics is not only an arcane branch of philosophy: human beings use metaphysical assumptions to navigate the world. Assumptions about what exists and what is fundamental exert a powerful influence on our lives. Indeed, the less aware we are of our metaphysical assumptions, the more we are subject to them.

Western metaphysics tends to rely on the paradigm of substances. We often see the world as a world of things, composed of atomic molecules, natural kinds, galaxies. Objects are the paradigmatic mode of existence, the basic building blocks of the Universe. What exists exists as an object. That is to say, things are of a certain kind, they have some specific qualities and well-defined spatial and temporal limits. For instance: Fido is my dog, he is grey, and was born one year ago. (It’s worth noting that such a simple statement will give rise to a litany of metaphysical disputes within substance metaphysics: realists believe that universals, such as the natural kind ‘dogs’, exist while nominalists believe them to be only intellectual abstractions.)

Though substance metaphysics seems to undergird Western ‘common sense’, I think it is wrong. To see this, consider the cliché about the glass of water: is it half-empty or half-full? The question assumes a static arrangement of things serving as a basis for either an optimistic or a pessimistic interpretation. One can engage in interminable disputes about the correct description of the physical set-up, or about the legitimacy of the psychological evaluations. But what if the isolated frame ‘a glass of water’ fails to give the relevant information? Anyone would prefer an emptier glass that is getting full to a fuller one getting empty. Any analysis lacking information about change misses the point, which is just what substance metaphysics is missing. Process philosophers, meanwhile, think we should go beyond looking at the world as a set of static unrelated items, and instead examine the processes that make up the world. Processes, not objects, are fundamental.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus provides the most famous image of process metaphysics. ‘It is not possible,’ he says, ‘to step twice into the same river’ – because existence depends on change; the river you step into a second time is changed from the river you stepped into originally (and you have changed in the interval, too). And while substance philosophers will tend to search for the smallest constituent objects in order to locate reality’s most fundamental building blocks, process philosophers think this is insufficient. So do modern physicists. Electrons are now understood as bundles of energy in a field, and quantum vacuum fluctuations prove that there are fields without bundles but no bundles without fields. Things seem to be reducible to processes – and not the reverse. (As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, we should think about ‘occurrences’ instead of ‘things’.)

Change poses a recurring problem for substance metaphysics. Universals have traditionally been a popular way to circumvent it. These static entities are difficult to define precisely, but can be thought of as ‘hyper-things’ that are instantiated in many different particular things. A universal is the thing that particulars have in common, such as types, kinds and relations. Universals are essentially different from particulars: Aristotle, for instance, argued that particulars – such as Fido my dog – are subject to generation and corruption, while species – the universal – are eternal. This particular example provides another instance in which science seems to favour process metaphysics. Thanks to the theory of evolution, the Aristotelian view that species are unchanging and eternal was proven wrong. Species evolve. They change. Dogs, after all, evolved from wolves to constitute a whole different kind. Once again, we’re better off using the paradigm of change rather than substance.

Process metaphysics leads to a re-evaluation of other important philosophical notions. Consider identity. To explain why things change without losing their identity, substance philosophers need to posit some underlying core – an essence –that remains the same throughout change. It is not easy to pin down what this core might be, as the paradox of Theseus’ ship illustrates. A ship goes on a long voyage and requires significant repairs: new planks to replace the old, fresh oars to replace the decayed, and so on, until, by the time the ship returns to port, there is not one single piece that belonged to the ship when it departed. Is this the same ship, even though materially it is completely different? For substance philosophers, this is something of a paradox; for process philosophers, this is a necessary part of identity. Of course it is the same ship. Identity ceases to be a static equivalence of a thing with itself. After all, without the repairs, the ship would have lost its functionality. Instead, as the German philosopher Nicholas Rescher argues in Ideas in Process (2009), identity just is a programmatic development. That is, the identity of a process is the structural identity of its programme. Other things being equal, every puppy will turn out to be a dog. (This programme need not be thought of as deterministic. The interactions between processes, Rescher argues, open room for variations.)

Processes are not the mere intervals between two different states of affairs or two objects, as the paradox of the heap exemplifies: take a heap of sand and remove one grain. It remains a heap; one grain doesn’t make a difference. But if you repeat the subtraction enough times, eventually there will be just one grain. Clearly, this isn’t a heap. Where did it become a non-heap? By looking at the process, and not the end-states of affairs, you’ll realise the impossibility of pinpointing the boundary between heap and non-heap. (Similarly, no individual was the exact turning point between wolves and dogs.) At the very least, this gives us a warning about the unnoticed abstraction operating on our division of natural kinds. Process philosophers such as Henri Bergson stop at this negative conclusion, believing that processes cannot be known but only experienced. Regardless, as the Danish philosopher Johanna Seibt notes, it might just be the case that focusing on the process requires a whole new perspective.

Looking at the world as a manifold of interconnected processes has scientific and philosophical advantages, but there are more prosaic benefits too. Process philosophy invites us to look at longer stretches of time, blurred boundaries and connected relations. Identity as a programmatic – but not deterministic – process welcomes innovation through small, recurring changes. Under these metaphysical assumptions, a meaningful life is less about finding your ‘real’ self than expanding its boundaries. Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Celso Vieira has a PhD in philosophy from the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. He lives in Belo Horizonte where he started the first Brazilian chapter of the effective altruist group The Life You Can Save. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily express those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Pounding on a Tub: A Short Essay on Zhuangzi, Death, and the Logos by Ryan V. Stewart

Zhuangzi Butterfly Dream by Ike no Taiga, Japan, 1723-1776, Public domain via Wikimedia CommonsTaoism, to my mind, is one of the world’s most intriguing philosophical and religious traditions. Uniquely Chinese, and yet deeply universal in its message, Taoism, perhaps more than any other mystical system, emphasizes simplicity, mystery, awe, tranquility, spontaneity, and naturalness. (Though Zen Buddhism, as well as Stoicism—granted, not a form of mysticism per se—would give it a run for its money.)

In the past few centuries, growing intrigue in this tradition has brought about a slew of inquiries from spiritually-conflicted Westerners and Orientalist anthropologists, as well as mystics and philosophers then-unfamiliar with, and those still curious about, Taoist and Chinese thought. This includes the general barrage of “big questions” that the world’s religions so often provide answers for: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What happens when I die?

It is this last question—What happens when I die?—that I’d like to focus on here, including, for consideration, the perspective of a very famous—and this is unsurprising—Taoist.

Alongside Laozi—said to be the author of the eponymous Laozi, or Tao Te Ching—there is one other great philosopher who shaped the development of Taoist philosophy: This is Chuang-tzu (or Zhuangzi, as his name is also transliterated), regarded by many as the penultimate thinker or sage in the current of philosophical Taoism. Chuang-tzu’s book, often (as with Laozi) titled after his own name, reads as a series of parables and short stories—many humorous—whereas Laozi’s text is more of a work of verse or creative prose, steeped in obscure symbolism. Either way, the Chuangzu, like its earlier counterpart, touches on both metaphysics and ethics, laying out the way in which action—namely action which is virtuous (de) and “effortless” (wu wei)—follows from a deep understanding of the fundamental nature of oneself and the cosmos, both reifying and stemming from an existence marked by tranquility and happiness. To the individual who has realized the nature of things, being at peace, time and change present no problem. And thus death, an aspect of life so many of us are even wary of discussing, is—as with all things appropriate to nature in its own element—nothing perturbing, and merely a transformation.

On that note, Chuang-tzu’s views on death are perhaps best articulated in a parable concerning his wife’s passing:

The parable, set after the death of Chuang-tzu’s wife, tells us that the sage’s friend, Hui Shih, has come to Chuang-tzu to offer his condolences. To his surprise, Hui Shih—expecting to see a man in mourning—finds Chuang-tzu celebrating by singing and pounding on a tub.

Hui Shih, understandably surprised, asks Chuang-tzu about his apparent dispassion towards his wife’s passing, saying, “You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old. It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing—this is going too far, isn’t it?”

Chuang-tzu then replies, “You’re wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.

Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.” (Zhuangzi, 191-192.)

Chuang-tzu’s reply is consistent with the overall passivity of Taoist thought. In Taoism, emphasis is placed on the acceptance of natural order, and of understanding and living in accordance with the actual nature of things, as opposed to one’s judgments of, or mental impositions upon, the world. (On this note, Chuang-tzu’s “If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate,” is sometimes translated as “for me to go about weeping and wailing would be to proclaim myself ignorant of the natural laws.”) Part of this order is the universe’s constant state of flux and, as such, death for Chuang-tzu is more so a transformation than a stopping point—merging, and becoming inseparable from the world, rather than merely dissolving. (The “vast room,” as Chuang-tzu calls it, is sometimes translated as “the great mansion of the universe.”)

Thus we see Chuang-tzu’s exemplification of the Taoist master as an individual who accepts the world on its own terms. The master is also one who, in some manner, observes or experiences the constant principle—the ineffable Tao, or “Way”—which remains behind the mundane state of transience, being its source, essence, and end. Nature (in all its transitions), here represented by the four seasons, performs different operations—albeit indifferently—its cyclical nature a symbol of something greater than mere beginnings and passings away. Hence, aware of the union of the metaphysical and the purely natural, a Taoist sage (zhenren or shengren) is at ease in the world.

Such a perspective seems so simple, and yet pervasive, that one could consider it almost perennial. Another strain of metaphysics in which we observe the wholesale acceptance of change (and a kind of mysterious monism to complement it) is that of the ever-obscure Heraclitus, whose Logos(“Word” or “the Word”) is in certain ways a sort of Western (or Greek) Tao. While Heraclitus in many ways remains as much a legend as, and his sayings even more disorganized than those of, Laozi, the principle of the Logos is the main feature of his philosophy, and provides a parallel to the Tao. To this effect Heraclitus famously states, “This logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this logos, humans are like the inexperienced… distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is.” (Heraclitus, 98.) Chuang-tzu, exemplifying the impartial and natural philosophy of a Taoist sage, shows us how, in understanding the nature of change and death, one follows and lives in accordance with a perennial understanding, not bound by particular traditions, but available through a common reasoning and intuition regarding the operations of the universe. Through such common reasoning, Heraclitus was not far off the mark, if at all.

Heraclitus’s Logos, moreover, implies not only an order to be found in the natural world, but in human action, as well. Humans are, after all, just as much part of the Logos as anything else. (Similarly, in Taoism, a human being is considered a microcosm of the universe, and in Marcus Aurelius’s Stoicism the individual is treated as a subset of “the Whole.”) Thus, on the topic of human conduct, Heraclitus notes, “Speaking with understanding they must hold fast to what is shared by all, as a city holds to its law, and even more firmly. For all human laws are nourished by a divine one. It prevails as it wills and suffices for all and is more than enough.” (Heraclitus, 43.) Heraclitus also delves more deeply, into the constituents of human wellbeing, on which topic he contends that “Thinking well is the greatest excellence: to act and speak what is true, perceiving things according to their nature,” (Heraclitus, 43) and that “Wantonness needs putting out, even more than a house on fire.” Together these passages suggest that wisdom and goodness consist of perceiving things truthfully, as they are, and that one’s acceptance of and contentment with nature leads to real happiness.

Chuang-tzu, as a Taoist, maintains a similar position, though with a twist: The sage’s passivity, part of his deep appreciation for the reality of change—as demonstrated in the parable of his wife’s death—can be understood as an example of the aforementioned wu-wei, or “non-doing.” (Roughly.) Wu-wei implies an action, behavior, or process which is “effortless,” supremely efficient by virtue of avoiding all that is needless. Any obstacle or struggle is rendered a non-concern when one acts in terms of wu-wei—thus in accordance with the Tao. Hence, all the simplest things in life exemplify the principle of wu-wei by virtue of their doing, and doing-with, so little.

As is noted in section 18 of the text of the Zhuangzi, Chuang-tzu says, “I take inaction to be true happiness, but ordinary people think it is a bitter thing. I say: perfect happiness knows no happiness, perfect praise knows no praise. The world can’t decide what is right and what is wrong. And yet inaction can decide this. Perfect happiness, keeping alive—only inaction gets you close to this.

“Let me try putting it this way: The inaction of Heaven is its purity, the inaction of earth is its peace…” (Zhuangzi, 191.)

Note here that wu-wei—“inaction”—is sometimes translated (more accurately) as “actionless action,” and that the first two lines of Chuang-tzu’s poem (after “Let me try putting it this way…”) has more recently been rendered as “Heaven does without through its purity, / Earth does without through its calmness…”

Heaven and earth, primordial elements of the Chinese mythological cosmos, are at ease in their ancient perfection, achieved through nothing and achieving everything without effort. The sage, in seeking to emulate the Tao as it is presented in and by the world, becomes indifferent, as the universe is indifferent, and thus has no trepidations in regards to death. The sage understands that he, and those individuals around him, are merely manifestations of the absolute Way. Thus, what can death be to him who is indifferent toward change, however great or small? Death, for the sage, is merely “the beginning,” and a continuation of the “life” of the cosmos and, indeed, the Tao—the Way.

About the author ~ Ryan V. Stewart is a writer and student from Connecticut. He has been actively writing since 2006, and blogs about everything from mysticism and philosophy to environmental issues, the arts, and personal peeves at The Grand Tangent. He’s interested in the intersection of mysticism, comparative religion, and philosophical analysis (among other things). 

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


  • The Complete Works of Zhuangzi. Trans. Burton Watson. New York, NY: Columbia UP, 1968. Print.
  • The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary. Trans. Charles H. Kahn. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1979. Print.