Daniel A. DOMBROWSKI. Whitehead’s Religious Thought: From Mechanism to Organism, from Force to Persuasion. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2017): pp.xviii, 184. ISBN 9781438464299 (hardcover) $85.00. Reviewed by Joseph A. BRACKEN, S.J. , Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH 45207.


As he indicates in his brief Introduction, Daniel Dombrowski,  Professor of Philosophy at Seattle University and current editor of Process Studies, wants to highlight two key themes in the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead that serve as the basis for the latter’s religious (and ethical) thought. The first theme is that Whitehead shifted from a mechanistic to an organismic understanding of physical reality.  That is, the ultimate units of reality are mini-organisms capable of self-organization in response to environmental factors rather than inanimate mini-things, e.g., subatomic “particles” that are moved around by purely external forces, e.g., gravity, electromagnetism etc. The second theme is that persuasion rather than force governs God’s relation with creatures and should govern our human relations with one another.  To that end, he analyzes the implicit or explicit influence of these two basic
Whiteheadian themes on the writings of six different authors. 

The first author is David Ray Griffin with his claim that Whitehead’s philosophy with its emphasis on an organismic rather than a mechanistic approach to physical reality is “perennial philosophy” with its claim to priority over all other philosophies.  The second is Dombrowski’s critique of the work of another process-oriented, Isabelle Stengers, who is very critical of Whitehead’s theism. She has doubts about the existence of God and believes that Whitehead’s work better serves as a naturalistic philosophical cosmology than as a systematic theology from a process perspective.  

Chapter Three deals with political liberalism or acceptance of multiple possibilities for achieving common goals and values.  Both Whitehead and his chief disciple Charles Hartshorne are political liberals as opposed to non-liberals who espouse one view of what is good and try to repress other views of the good.

Chapter Four deals with pacifism and notes that in Hartshorne’s view pacifism should be reasonable, that is, limited by the need to resist a greater evil or preserve a greater good through forceful resistance.  Dombrowski also discusses the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and concludes that in both cases military intervention was not needed and produced a bitter harvest for all parties concerned.

Chapter Five deals with Judith Butler’s notion of “grievable lives,” lives over which to grieve when life is lost, and Whitehead’s notion of continuity in the process of becoming whereby the loss of non-human animal life as well as the loss of human life can be “grievable.” For Dombrowski, the key issue is the possession of a central nervous system whereby the organism feels pain as a whole, as an individual sentient being.   So one should grieve over the butchering of animals as meat for human consumption as well as over the abortion of late-term fetuses and the criminal abuse of intellectually impaired humans, but not over plant life and early-term human fetuses, 

The sixth and last chapter deals with the Romantic reaction in Western Europe as represented by the poetry of William Wordsworth and its influence on Whitehead’s conviction that Nature is alive, a world constituted by organisms rather than inanimate things. 

This book is in my judgment too complex in its argument and multiple references so as to be used in most undergraduate classrooms but at the graduate level it could be the subject of animated discussion. As a strictly personal aside, let me add that, while I too am a student of Whitehead’s thought, I am uncomfortable with any reference to Whitehead’s philosophy as a philosophia perennis.  In line with contemporary scientific method, I prefer to see every philosophical system as inherently time-bound and provisional. I am comforted that Whitehead in the opening pages of Process and Reality likewise claims that all philosophical systems (his own included) are never conclusive but instead represent an “imaginative leap” into what can never be fully comprehended.