The following article was originally published in the final issue of Process Perspectives, the news magazine from the Center for Process Studies.
When the age of reason produced the reasoning man, now in possession of the concept of objective knowledge and believing himself to be absolutely reasonable, as superior to the naïveté of the believing man of history, the course was set for the infamous ‘death of God’ to define our epistemic relationality within the rapidly emerging, modern nation state. But the institutional strangulation on those meaningfully unifying questions about existence, causation, and purpose, did not mean the end of metaphysics. Traditional metaphysics were, according to Ulf Schulenberg, “a violent and logically impossible attempt to impose some parochial scheme of values upon the cosmos in order to justify or undermine a set of existing social institutions by a pretended deduction from the nature of Reality” (Schulenberg 2019, 26). The reaction of modern intellectuals to this history then has been to assert that we have progressed beyond the need for metaphysics entirely; and so there has been no greater insult amidst this milieu than to be charged with ‘doing metaphysics.’ The connotation is that metaphysics is ‘God-stuff’ and we can’t have God-stuff in the Western academy, where philosophy departments have been pressured to justify themselves in the eyes of the sciences. Today, however, the sciences can no longer run from a confrontation with the explanatory dead-ends resulting from the longstanding paradigm of logical positivism, and we are beginning to see a reconsideration of our institutional premises, as evidenced by theoretical developments in biology and physics. As we continue to ask questions about the nature of the universe, and human consciousness, some scientists have allowed “metaphysics” to return from its exile as a religious thoughtcrime against science. It turns out that to assert anything about the nature of reality is effectively to make a metaphysical statement. But, Schulenberg also points out that while “the practical and intellectual motives which drive men to ask these metaphysical questions are intelligible, the questions as put, and the answers as given, are not” (26).
A persisting problem of metaphysics is that when a schema is either too abstract, or too concrete, we cannot effectively navigate the reality of our beingin-the-world, neither meaningfully nor modally. We cannot derive a pragmatic scientific method of doing sociology or historiography, and neither can we derive a pragmatic praxis for directing change. In the renewed embrace of metaphysics, process philosophy takes the lead in overcoming this historical problem in our theories of reality, via Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality, with the assertion that reality is ultimately process ontological; neither abstract, nor concrete. Comparing Whitehead and Marx, Anne Fairchild Pomeroy called Whitehead the metaphysician par excellence before proceeding to delineate a point of near identity between Whitehead’s process and Marx’s dialectic. However, Marxists have long asserted that dialectical materialism brings all metaphysics to its conclusion. How could we reconcile this? For metaphysics to have ‘concluded’ with Marx could only be true insofar as we are considering the kinds of metaphysics preceding him, which, in Whiteheadian terminology, committed the error of misplaced concreteness. What appears to Marxists as a ‘conclusion’ may be the very same thing which appears to Whiteheadians as a radical opening. On the one hand, this is merely a semantic difference, depending on whether we are critically looking back at history, or optimistically looking forward to the possibilities of the future. We could say that Marx was actually a metaphysician on par with Whitehead, or we could say that traditional metaphysics also concluded with Whitehead. On the other hand, the semantic difference points to a real difference worth our consideration. I argue that Marx’s process philosophy is uniquely capable of an epistemic critique regarding the interpenetration of human being-knowing-becoming, and so, Marxism can inject a process analysis of the historically contingent structures which constrain our values, perception, and experience into Whitehead’s systems theory of reality. A structural-systemic integration of Marx and Whitehead should be pursued by all who seek a praxis for changing the world in any significant way, such as effectively responding to the urgency of the climate crisis.
Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysical schema, termed philosophy of organism, is justifiably considered a meaningful bridge between religion and science—at least as far as religion and science have been respectively conceived since the Enlightenment and throughout modernity—by structuring a dynamically interconnected relationship between the physical and mental poles of causation. Whitehead uses the word “God” as there is no better word to meaningfully relay the relationality between what is and what becomes; it needs to be a word which evades concretizing in any given moment in time. Such nominalism resonates with the ‘apophatic’ theology of the early Neoplatonist Christians, while Whitehead’s metaphysical statement is that creativity is ultimate, and God is nominally conceived as the open and relational actuality of that ultimate, always outside of our perception of space and time. From theoretical physics we can understand that relative change creates our sense of time, but, much more meaningfully, through Whitehead we can say that novel action is what creates change. Thus, Whitehead gives us a ‘dipolar’ God, knowing all that becomes and does not become, as the super-transcendent factor of novelty in each moment of becoming, which evades our senses of cause and effect. What is meaningful for those of us who have believed in an interventionist creator God is that we get to retain our notion of imago dei; we can always willfully choose to create the good, the just, and the beautiful in each moment, enacting intervention in contrast to the information we inherit through our experience. Whitehead’s philosophy has been singularly useful to Christians in the project of deconstructing from the profaned and alienating institution that Christianity has largely become. However, it may fall short in serving the constructive purposes its proponents attempt to apply it to, such as moving toward an “ecological civilization,” which Marxists would assert requires nothing short of a global socialist revolution.
There is a fundamental disconnection between asserting that what is is not what ought to be, and then effectively doing what ought to be done about it. Bridging this disconnection requires a critically human theory of causation, simultaneously concerning both our perception of what is and our notions of what ought to be, as a mutual interpenetration of the real and the ideal. The Marxist concept of ideology was put most succinctly by Adolph Reed, Jr., as “the mechanism that harmonizes the principles you want to believe you hold with what advances your material interests” (Mackaman 2019). Ideology, as an epistemic mechanism, is not something we are self-consciously aware that we are operating with. So then, let us consider Whitehead’s assertion that “the art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order… The more prolonged the halt in some unrelieved system of order, the greater the crash of the dead society” (Whitehead 1979, 339). However reductive, this serves as evidence that Whitehead’s philosophy readily translates, in the social and political arena, to a kind of liberal appeal to ‘being pragmatic,’ the sophistry of which relays an ideological value judgment: that reform is more reasonable and civilized than revolution. In this respect, Whitehead’s philosophy is easily situated alongside the philosophical school of American pragmatism, typically associated with John Dewey, and yet there are significant differences stemming from his being influenced by William James (see Henning et al., 2015). If we were to lump them all in one category, the American pragmatists, Whitehead, and Marx may all be considered philosophers of living experience. But, just as Whitehead transcends the pragmatists in some ways, Marx surpasses all the rest in a politically significant way, which is the transcendental applicability of his ontological episteme to our structurally produced, and so constrained, ideological notions of what is and ought to be.
It has been positively asserted that Whiteheadians tend to have an affinity for J.S. Mill’s brand of utilitarianism. As one scholar wrote “it is obvious that process-relational thinkers lean toward the vision of John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth-century intellectual who insisted that actions are right or wrong not because of some abstract duty but because they have consequences for people’s lives” (Mesle 2008, 41). This affinity is presented as inevitable on the basis that Whitehead provides a deep, meaningful richness to our relativity as always already interconnected. It is precisely because we are a multiplicity of the same thing (experience), rather than a plurality of different things, that we should promote the greater ‘good’ (albeit in the face of whatever ‘bad’ we are obligated to accept as a natural or organic given). While Whitehead did quote Mill in Process and Reality, his statement on Mill is fairly benign, and even ironic. Citing Mill’s assertion that Ancient Greek thinkers were overly determined by language, Whitehead is actually critical of Mill for not getting to the source of the problem: that language is indeterminate because “every occurrence presupposes some systematic type of environment” (Whitehead 1979, 12). The presupposition of Mill was that answers to questions of political economy flowed from Enlightenment moralism. But the Marxist critique of Mill is, moreover, that he presupposed a systemically ‘logical’ environment, borrowing from the young field of naturalism. J.S. Mill may be considered ‘progressive’ by today’s liberal democratic, class-obscuring standards. For example, Mill was an early promoter of birth control, although his Malthusian motivations for such a position were aimed at curbing the reproduction of the poor. To suggest that Whitehead’s philosophy finds compatibility with J.S. Mill’s utilitarianism is particularly striking for Marxists whose philosophical tradition is steeped in a critique of classical liberalism and its attendant cynicism regarding ‘human nature,’ which has—since the birth of the modern nation state—been used by the state against the poor, and, not coincidentally, in the favor of capital. As Marx said:
Reason has always existed, but not always in a rational form. Hence the critic can take his cue from every existing form of theoretical and practical consciousness and from this ideal and final goal implicit in the actual forms of existing reality he can deduce a true reality. Now as far as real life is concerned, it is precisely the political state which contains the postulates of reason in all its modern forms, even where it has not been the conscious re- pository of socialist requirements. But it does not stop there. It consistently assumes that reason has been realized and just as consistently it becomes embroiled at every point in a conflict between its ideal vocation and its actually existing premises (Marx 1843).
Marx’s statement simultaneously anticipated Francis Fukuyama’s famous thesis that Western liberal democracy marked the ‘end of history,’ and his eventual retraction of that thesis. If Whitehead’s political implications have demonstrably amounted to liberal idealism, then it must be recognized that it is not really the radically liberatory philosophy some might desire it to be.
A digital copy of a Slovak countryside mosaic, unknown author. Located at the hotel Magura in the village of Ždiar.
Comparing pragmatism and Marxism, Schulenberg (2019) shows both to be “philosophies of purposive action and creative intelligence which illuminate that history is made by humans, and not by impersonal forces or hypostatized entities, and that moreover recognize human need as the driving force behind action,” but, he critically states that while “the shared insight of pragmatism and Marxism is that one can never get from logic to lived existence,” the counter-Hegelian point of this “implies the recognition and acceptance of the primary character of change, process, and contingency on every plane of existence” (27). As John Bellamy Foster recently said in a podcast interview, “only in Marx, really, do you have a conception of ecological crisis that’s completely integrated in a dialectical fashion with a critique of the capitalist economy. There is no other theory that does that or has any way of doing that—it’s entirely based on Marx.” The notion of being ‘pragmatic’ also appeals to Marxists insofar as the connotation is to proceed to act in accordance with objective reality; and so, the word need not necessarily be forever wed to liberalism, even if some philosophers of pragmatism had irresponsibly leapt from their theory to promote the status quo as if it were already the practical application of their theory. Here we need to distinguish between pragmatism as the aforementioned philosophy of living experience giving rise to a praxis, and “being pragmatic” as political rhetoric; where promoting ‘nuanced’ or ‘common sense’ gradual reform has historically been a reactionary liberal cudgel against the unknowable and uncontrollable elements which attend radical change.
Ultimately, if liberalism were ever made to fully realize its very own stated ideals, it would spell the end of liberalism itself as the task would require a total resolution of liberalism’s contradictory unity of democracy and capitalism.
The idea of progress, if one follows Rorty, implies the human subject’s realization that everything transcendental and metaphysical is man-made. Progress, in other words, can only be realized when we leave the Platonic world of ideas, turn away from the concept of the transcendental Good, and radically question the notion of correctly representing the intrinsic nature of reality, the essence of things, and the real core of the self. Instead of accepting the imperatives and laws of traditional epistemology and moral philosophy, one should finally come to understand that our only responsibility is to our fellow human beings in the world of praxis (there is no other). The role Marxism might play for this process of emancipation has so far been neglected in discussions of the renaissance of pragmatism (Schulenberg 2019, 7).
The growing interest in Whitehead, beyond the use of his philosophy for American evangelicals and mainline liberal Protestants, is part of this ‘renaissance.’ Richard Rorty, critical of the pragmatists, promoted a holistic pragmatism which “wants to avoid having the natural scientist step into the cultural role which the philosopher-as-superscientist vacated, as if the naturalist world-picture were somehow enough to serve the purposes for which the gods, the Platonic Ideas, and the Hegelian Spirit were invented. It wants that cultural role to remain unfilled” (20). Rorty’s holistic pragmatism resonates with both Marx and Whitehead, where Marx’s historical-dialectical-materialist method is an experimental, logical empiricist, human naturalism, and Whitehead’s speculative methodology avoids determining reality in general. Friedrich Engels described the very problem which Rorty wants to avoid:
The whole Darwinist teaching of the struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to living nature of Hobbes’s doctrine of bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all) and of the bourgeois-economic doctrine of competition together with Malthus’s theory of population. When this conjurer’s trick has been performed… the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved. The puerility of this procedure is so obvious that not a word need be said about it. But if I wanted to go into the matter more thoroughly I should do so by depicting them in the first place as bad economists and only in the second place as bad naturalists and philosophers (Engels 1875).
The philosophies of living experience developed by Whitehead and Marx, as process ontologies, could separately be capable of filling that cultural vacancy in a way which still satisfies Rorty’s need to leave it unfilled, so long as they are each capable of avoiding the error of transference described by Engels. Marx’s philosophy, developed in partnership with Engels, has a built-in mechanism against this error. But Whitehead’s statement on progress and order, as well as the affinity for liberal idealism and utilitarianism demonstrated by Whiteheadians, is evidence that Whitehead’s philosophy is more closely aligned with the kind of pragmatism which Rorty was critical of for equating progress in theoretical knowledge of reality with progress in social, political, and economic reality. However, where Marx’s philosophy avoids the error of transference from nature to human society, Whitehead’s philosophy can fill the cultural role for which ‘the gods, the Platonic Ideas, and the Hegelian Spirit were invented’ and together they could become the holistic pragmatism sought by Rorty.
For Marx, the historical movement of human society occurs through the dialectical resolution of contradiction, but, contrary to Hegel, this resolution doesn’t necessarily move in the direction of progress; at least not in our objective material reality from which experience is abstracted, and so not in our real knowledge of reality either, as far as the pragmatists would have it. Marx said, “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx 1852). Compare this with a line from Whitehead’s Process and Reality, “also in our experience, we essentially arise out of our bodies which are the stubborn facts of the immediate relevant past. We are also carried on by our immediate past of personal experience; we finish a sentence because we have begun it” (Whitehead 1979, 224). Whitehead’s statement here, in a sense, demonstrates Marx’s ‘dialectical materialism:’ our subjectivity arises from the objective material reality of our physical bodies in motion, but this subjectivity then also reproduces itself in a continuity of the movement, becoming another stubborn fact of the immediate relevant past (inextricably linking the subjective and the objective). However, for Whitehead the telos of human activity appears in the continuity of movement: “we finish a sentence because we have begun it.” Absent from Marx’s statement is any such telos, because Marx was more concerned with the process of how we go about justifying the continuity of our action, as a reproduction of that which produced us.
Schulenberg presents a Marxist critique of pragmatism from George Novack, who contends that it is “chameleon-like, frivolous, promiscuous, and avoidant of lasting commitments,” because “consistency can hardly be expected of a method whose cardinal tenet asserts that there is no lawfulness in the movement of things, no intrinsic necessities in nature, society, and the human mentality” (Schulenberg 2019, 38). While this is a critique leveled specifically at the American pragmatists, whom Novack said “did not give theoretical cognition its rightful due in the total process of learning about reality” (Novak quoted in Schulenberg 2019, ibid.), I have not found evidence that Whitehead’s philosophy evades this problem. Where it concerns the unity of sensing and perceiving which make up the experiencing of the human subject, Marx had asserted that “the chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively” (Marx  1978, 250). While Whitehead did overcome the general problem of substance dualism in his ‘grand theory of everything,’ with his theory of panexperientialism giving rise to a process ontology connecting all matter and ‘consciousness’ in continuous movement, he did not pay specific attention to societal formation, continuity, and rupture in the modes of production, which defined human history for Marx. There is continual movement in Marx’s philosophy of living experience, but he was committed to finding some objective lawfulness in the movement of human society and mentality, and so Marx’s position that “there is nothing immutable but the abstraction of the movement” (Marx 1847) refers specifically to the human act of always already abstracting from within the movement of their intersubjective action. According to Reiner Schurmann, who read Marx through the lens of Kant’s transcendental idealism, Marx’s historical-dialectical materialism is best understood as transcendental materialism. Marx’s nominally ‘material’ ontology of reality serves as the objective basis, the historical unity, giving rise to the dialectic which operates polyvalently throughout Marx’s ‘base and superstructure,’ always already transcending substance dualism.
Marx’s nominally materialist ontology is the inextricable unit of the practicing (i.e. laboring) individual; the individual-in-action to meet some need, whether or not that need is real or constructed (Schurmann 2021, 67). It is necessary to understand that the philosophical project of Marx and Engels comprehensively and critically responded to the dominant German ideology spawned in the Enlightenment, where idealist philosophers and materialist anthropologists made dubious metaphysical claims about objective reality due to misplaced universality and concreteness. Marx’s practicing-individual is the universal-concrete material objectively grounding the process of our reproductions of reality, and as such it operates as a real epistemic ‘base’ as well as a transcendentally ideological ‘superstructure’ in our experience of daily life. Now, let us comparatively consider Whitehead’s eternal objects operating in each occasion of concrescence. As Pomeroy (2012) explains, “the eternal objects functioning in the first mode of ingression are forms of the definiteness of the data physically felt as objective; in the second mode, the eternal objects are forms of potential definiteness conceptually felt as possibilities for the subjective valuation” (178). But, the second mode, which is the conceptual/mental pole, also has two phases of operation. Here, we encounter further identity between Whitehead’s process and Marx’s materialism, as both give primacy to material reality as objectively inherited data, and both causally interpenetrate this primary physical pole with the mental/subjective (ideological) pole, which operates secondarily-dialectically. According to Whitehead:
When there is re-enaction there is one eternal object with two-way functioning, namely, as partial deter- minant of objective datum, and as partial determi- nant of the subjective form. In this two-way role, the eternal object is functioning relationally between the initial data on the one hand and the concrescent subject on the other (Whitehead 1979, 238).
Marx’s processual unit of the practicing-individual is analogous to Whitehead’s one eternal object with two-way functioning, relationally between the objective/material and the subjective/ideal.
Man, Controller of the Universe, fresco at Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico city by Diego Rivera, 1933.
Consider that an individual-in-action is material for another individual to sense and perceive, to subjectively objectify and reflexively contemplate in the course of their own action. In this equation, the objective and subjective are inextricably linked through experiencing in constant motion. We cannot ever say definitively who the individual is, nor what their activity is without deriving teleological theories from this open and relational process. What happens when the theory we derive is, for example, that Mankind is a ‘civilized’ creature? Then, do we know ourselves to be civilized because our activity proves it to us, or will our activity continue to appear civilized because we already know ourselves to be civilized? And then, what happens when we take in new information through our sense-perception (experiencing) which contradicts our conception of what ‘civilized’ is and does? Do we interrupt the continuity in the course of our action, or do we derive new theories to preserve the continuity of what produced us? Pomeroy explains that in Whitehead’s schema, novelty enters the world through subjective contrast:
It is, therefore, the eternal objects as actually ingressed in contrastive patterns (aesthetic valuations) and as potentials for ingression in contrastive patterns, which lend to the processive universe both its formal continuity and simultaneously its formal malleability. The detachment of the formal elements of a reproductive actual physical prehension by means of the conceptual pole allows for free self-creation by the subject from out of its actual world (Pomeroy 2012, 178).
But, when our actions are alienated from identity with production to meet real need, which is at once social and material, and of real objective value, rather than the ontogenetically constructed values of commodity fetishism under capitalism, we are compelled to derive and develop theories through our intersubjective experience of this principle contradiction. The compulsion to derive a theory is not only caused by such conditions of alienation, but risks becoming an act of alienation itself insofar as it decouples the intersubjective individual from their intersubjective action. However, in order to pursue our ‘free self-creation,’ we must ‘detach the formal elements;’ so we must, in a sense, actively and logically ‘alienate’ ourselves through contrast in order to move against our current, oppressive alienation, and in the direction of true progress. The practical application of Marx’s philosophy results in detaching the categories of ‘the individual’ and ‘practicing/laboring’ from any idealistic universals in order to purposely rupture the structurally entrenched continuity. Finding that the organization of society under capitalism can be divided into those who produce for alienated value, and those who extract value alienated from that production, we can organize around this logically-empirically determined division by collectively identifying on one side of this objectively shared contradiction and then move in the direction of progress by logicaly-empirically contrasting the material conditions we inherit in our experiencing with our conceptual understanding of the objective cause of those conditions. The result is class war, and this is how Marx sees through to completion the Enlightenment’s philosophical project of bridging moralism and naturalism in the question of how we progress as a society.
Does Whitehead’s grand theory of an open, process-relational reality offer humanity a key to liberation in our current situation, in which we are structurally-systematically destroying ourselves and the planet? As an abstraction from within our present alienation under capitalism, can Whitehead’s philosophy guide us methodically against the continuity of the alienated actions already re-producing us within the capitalist mode of production? Or does it merely offer a poetic conception of our inherent interconnectedness with all living beings? As warm and fuzzy as that realization is, what does it do for us? Even if it doesn’t guide our liberation, it could still help us to at least believe in our potential to become what we’ve never been. While Marx asserted that only a praxis of revolutionary class struggle could redirect the movement from capitalism to communism, he also offered a statement of what it would mean to achieve a successful movement from capitalism to communism:
Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism there- fore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being—a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man—the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution (Marx 1844).
Contrary to popular misconception, Marx’s vision of the fully liberated future is absent any concrete description or prescription; instead, it is ‘open and relational.’ It is left up to us to create, building our social reality in a dialectic with our productive forces.
What Whitehead and the pragmatists seem to miss is how knowledge and experience become structurally alienated from each other, inhibiting our ability to openly, creatively, organically flow from our experiences. Anne Fairchild Pomeroy was correct in her assertion:
Marx needs Whitehead to ground his claims re- garding the proper ethos and telos of human life and it’s productive-processive interaction with, for, and as a part of the world as a relational unity; White- head needs Marx to focus on the destructive aspects of capitalism as a form of world productive-process (Pomeroy 2012, 9).
The metaphysical elements of their philosophies of living experience are nearly identical. However, Whitehead zoomed out from the contemporary naturalism, so fraught with substance dualism, to develop a cosmological picture; accommodating a process-ontological panexperientialism while skipping over the specificities of human experience. Marx focused his ‘human naturalism’ on locating the structural-epistemic causes reproducing and compounding our original alienation from pure experiencing as human species-beings, which, it is worth noting, is what gave rise to ‘misplaced’ metaphysical theories to begin with. Ultimately, it’s unfortunate that Whitehead himself did not take Marx into serious consideration. However, while Marx is best known for Das Kapital, it’s even more unfortunate that the epistemic philosophical underpinnings for his piece de resistance were to be found predominantly in the texts of the “German Ideology, and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”, which were not studied, translated, published, or otherwise made widely available until well into the 20th century, near the end of Whitehead’s life. The Marxist message to Whiteheadians is that the dialectical materialism of Marxism does not preclude the power of ideas, nor do Marxists necessarily deny individual agency, as the dialectical materialist process of living experience is a two-way street; an interpenetration of cause and effect. Marxists and Whiteheadians surely agree that a significant impediment to change is the entrenched notion of separateness we have in the West, but Marxists understand this ideological problem is in a dialectic with the material reality of living in the imperial core of global capitalism. I think Marxists would agree that a strategic dispensation of Whiteheadian process philosophy has the potential to intervene on the popular ideological front, but if it is our social and material relations within the capitalist structure which have given rise to this illusion of separateness in the first place, then Whitehead’s process philosophy, left to its own devices, is going to be paddling upstream while the world burns. An integration of Whiteheadian philosophy and Marxian philosophy may actually dam the river, and in the green stillness of the reservoir we may finally see our true and sacred reflection.
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Corinne Hummel is a second year PhD student at the Claremont School of Theology, studying philosophy of religion with a focus in process studies. She lives in Seattle where she had focused her interests in sustainable urbanism prior to pursuing her studies in philosophy. As a philosophy student, Corinne remains dedicated to thinking about ecological issues, drawing on her past experiences and her continued study of political economy.