A Process perspective on Causality

Tilman Hertz and María Mancilla García

Process philosophy is based on the premise that being is dynamic and that the dynamic nature of being should be the primary focus of any comprehensive philosophical account of reality and our place within it.  (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

  • Foundational references in process philosophy are: Alfred North Whitehead, Henry Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, Gilbert Simondon. 
  • Contemporary references in process philosophy are: Manuel DeLanda, Didier Debaise, Karen Barad, John Dupré, Nicholas Rescher. 

Besides philosophical accounts of a process perspective, there are active communities in anthropology, organizational studies, human geography and gender studies (please contact us for references on these). These perspectives can be more or less radical in terms of whether they argue that reality is only composed of processes and relations, or whether they accept the existence of stable forms, such as entities. We present here the radical perspective, inspired especially by Karen Barad.

A radical process perspective considers our familiar sense of “causality” as a problematic concept. From this perspective, the cause/effect logic is problematic because it presupposes pre-existing entities that can act upon one another. Karen Barad, for example, embraces a world where relations define relata, and puts forward the concept of intra-action, originally invented to speak of co-constitution, where there is no before and after. Intra-action is a concept that comes to question the idea of interaction (which also presupposes existing entities) and as a consequence challenges traditional understandings of causality (Barad 2007). 

The usual notion of interaction assumes that there are individual independently existing entities or agents that preexist their acting upon one another. By contrast, the notion of “intra-action” queers [to challenge, inverte, oppose, refusing existing binary categories and claiming hybridity] the familiar sense of causality (where one or more causal agents precede and produce an effect), and more generally unsettles the metaphysics of individualism (the belief that there are individually constituted agents or entities, as well as times and places). According to my agential realist ontology, or rather ethico-onto-epis-temology (an entanglement of what is usually taken to be the separate considerations of ethics, ontology, and epistemology), “individuals” do not preexist as such but rather materialize in intra-action. That is, intra-action goes to the question of the making of differences, of “individuals,” rather than assuming their independent or prior existence. “Individuals” do not not exist, but are not individually determinate. Rather, “individuals” only exist within phenomena (particular materialized/materializing relations) in their ongoing iteratively intra-active reconfiguring. (Interview to Karen Barad by Adam Kleinman, Mousse 34, 2012).

Individuals materialize in intra-action according to causal agencies at work. Some thinkers inspired by process philosophy use the term causal agency to refer to the capacity to affect that an entanglement, an assemblage, or a hybrid social-ecological-technical-discursive network has. Here, causal agency is an enactment, not something someone has and thus goes beyond and includes everything necessary for the enactment of the causal agency. 

We can understand the interplay between causal agency and intra-action as an ongoing process of Individuation (which can lead to individuals). One way to approach the study of individuation is by focusing on the redefinition of “singularities” that comes to us from process philosophers close to the “new materialism” trend (new materialism is a movement in contemporary philosophy that cuts across science studies, cultural theory and feminism. It is part of the so-called ontological or material turn, which points at limitations of constructionist perspectives and questions the importance given to language, calling for an engagement with the material, see e.g. Dolpijn and van der Tuin 2012). Yet, the concept of singularity precedes this trend. We find it, for example in Simondon’s work as Didier Debaise elaborates:

We can therefore define individuation as the passage from nature to the individual […] Extend the notion of nature. Nature must be conceived as all existing things and realities prior to individuation. These realities prior to individuation, but the  source of all individuation, regardless of the level of complexity, Simondon calls preindividual singularities. What is a preindividual singularity? Any definition is always specific because the very characteristic of a singularity is that it is defined only by its function: it breaks the equilibrium; [6] it creates a transformation or an individuation. It “may be the stone which initiates the dune, the gravel which is the germ of an island in a river carrying alluvium” (Simondon 1964: 36, translator’s translation). We could establish in all domains the singularities of a field from which a situation becomes unstable, transforms itself, follows a new trajectory which spreads (transductive propagation) [7] to the entire field. The characteristic of a singularity is that we cannot define its effects before they are established, that we cannot a priori delimit the space in which these effects will operate (a technical object may cause a rupture in a field and propagate something of its operation in other fields). But these examples have limitations as they return to already constituted realities, while the notion of singularity arises on a “preindividual” level; it is therefore necessary to imagine it as short of the constitution of these examples, that is to say, prior to the grain of sand, the technical object or the stone. [8] Therefore, we distinguish radically the notion of singularity from that of the individual (which implies identity, autonomy and a relative invariance).

Implication for studying causality

Implications for causality focus on explaining via diffraction as a method to understand the space for intra-action. Diffraction is an approach that emerges as a response to the idea of reflection, to argue that as past events are retraced (as a reflective account entails), the person who retraces those events needs to account for their own change and acknowledging that such process leads to a creation of difference, and in turn, by doing so, change is produced yet again. Diffraction is the acknowledgement and account of the processes that create difference. An example of diffractive writing is the piece by Iris van der Tuin, Diffraction as a methodology for feminist onto-epistemology.


Barad, K (2012) Interview to Karen Barad by Adam Kleinman, Mousse 34

Barad, K (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press. 

Debaise, D (2012) What is Relational Thinking?, “Simondon: Milieu, Techniques, Aesthetics” Inflexions 5.

Dolphijn, R, van der Tuin, I (2012) New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Open Humanities Press 

Van der Tuin, I (2014) Diffraction as a methodology for feminist onto-epistemology: On Encountering Chantal Chawaf and Posthuman Interpellation, “Diffracted Worlds – Diffractive Readings: Onto-Epistemologies and the Critical Humanities”, Parallax 20.