Robert Brumbaugh: Towards a Process Philosophy of Education

by Brian Hendley

Brian Hendley is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy, University of Waterloo Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1,Canada. He is the author of Dewey, Russell, and Whitehead: Philosophers Educators (Southern Illinois University Press, 1986) and the editor of Plato, Time, and Education: Essays in Honor of Robert S. Brumbaugh (SUNY Press, 1987).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 227-231, Vol. 17, Number 4, Winter 1988. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author shows that Brumbaugh deals with what is one of the central difficulties of modern pedigogy, what Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, where abstractions or excerpted aspects of the fuller deeper occasions are treated as actual.

According to Robert Brumbaugh, Whitehead’s mature philosophy has important implications for education. With his criticism of current commonsense ideas of space and time and the influence of seventeenth-century physics on twentieth-century metaphysics, Whitehead pointed the way toward a new realistic theory of education. "It is an obvious but important theme in his writings," says Brumbaugh, "that if education -- or anything else -- is to be realistic, it must rest on a correct notion of reality" (WPP 1). In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead offered a brief sketch of his project for revising American educational theory and practice, but he never completed the projected work and left its applications to later scholars.

In his book on Whitehead, Process Philosophy, and Education, Robert Brumbaugh takes up the Whiteheadian challenge and in so doing sees himself working "in the tradition of Platonic metaphysics that includes the new emphasis on the concrete introduced by process thought" (WPP 2). Like Whitehead, he criticizes the unthinking acceptance of the seventeenth-century notion of space as a perfect insulator and physical things as located in a Cartesian pure space. The educational ramifications of such a view can be seen in the physical layout of the typical school classroom: desks in neat rows, sometimes even nailed to the floor, teacher at the front, everything in its proper insulated space. Classroom behavior mirrors this physical layout: no unauthorized talking is allowed, lesson plans are prepared a week in advance, competition for grades and extrinsic rewards is encouraged, wandering about the halls during class time is severely discouraged. As a fitting final touch, discipline is often enforced by the "punishment" of being required to remain in school after hours. All of this reminds me of Dewey’s lament at being unable to find the right desks for his Laboratory School and the remark he quotes from one dealer: "I am afraid we have not what you want. You want something at which the children may work; these are all for listening" (SS 21).

Brumbaugh agrees with Whitehead that it is a mistake to treat students as stupid particles in an insulating vacuum. He advocates instead a process view of reality in which each entity in space has a center of identity which holds together or "prehends" its aspects or perspectives that spread out into the places of other persons and things. Things extend out from centers of identity and overlap and influence each other in various ways, depending on "(1) the intensity of each property a thing has, (2) the relevant distance between centers in a field, and (3) the resistance or conductivity of the field in question" (WPP 28). Such an alternative view of students in classroom space would call for more, not less interaction, cooperation in tasks rather than competition, a dynamic give and take instead of a unilateral telling and listening. This is what Whitehead has in mind when he calls for ideas to be utilized, thrown into fresh combinations, put to the test, and when he urges teachers to give their students something to do or to make, so that their ideas can gain "that reality that comes from seeing the limits of their application" (AE 54). In this view, classroom space becomes the place for a creative interplay of forces, where ideas, as well as teachers and students, come alive.

Brumbaugh also calls for the reexamination of our commonsense notions of time. He lists four distinct analyses of time in Western philosophy: "(I) time as a space-like extended dimension, or as an actual series; (2) time as recurrent periodic motion; (3) time as progressive maturity or age; and (4) time as a distention of the soul, awareness of the sequences of states and events that make up our subjective experience" (WPP 65). According to a process view of reality, existence in time is dynamic, directed, irreversible, and takes place in successive "phases of concrescence." All actualization follows a fixed order of phases or sequences: an initial encounter, a phase of readjustment, and a final stabilization. "If all learning is to be an integral part of a student’s existence and growth," says Brumbaugh, "it must follow the three-stage pattern in which growth and concrescence take place" (WPP 4).1

The message for educators is that learning should take place in interweaving cycles of stages, beginning with the stage of romance or excitement at the realization of new possibilities. With this initial motivation, the student will seek the precise tools necessary to sort out and understand these possibilities, leading on to the next stage of generalization where general principles are used to range over a wide variety of details and still further exciting possibilities are uncovered. Whitehead refers to the case of a small child learning to speak, a formidable task which gets accomplished, by and large, because we follow the natural order of stages or phases of growth and concrescence, moving from romance through precision on to generalization.

Brumbaugh explains how these stages can get out of proper order, leaving the student stuck at one stage from which nothing else follows. He cites educators who seek excitement without precision (contemporary freeschoolers come to mind), precision but no satisfaction (the call to go back to the basics), satisfaction but no precision (most college survey courses in Western civilization). For the proper sequence of teaching and learning, he turns to role models from the history of Philosophy. Socrates patiently, yet persistently questions Meno and gets him to recognize his ignorance and join in the inquiry. There is a noticeable improvement in Meno’s motivation for learning. Aquinas discusses "whether a man can be taught by an angel," and Brumbaugh relates this to the question of how to design a new symbolism for the direct presentation of ideas and whether the new media necessarily enhance precision in learning. Whitehead’s lecture on "Immortality" is seen as an example of the kind of cosmic view that comes from the generalization provided by a realistic system of education.

These are but a few samples of Brumbaugh’s ventures in "applied metaphysics," starting with basic metaphysical principles and following through their practical applications to education. Two of the metaphysical principles that he deals with in this way are taken from the Greeks: the principle of limitation and the principle of plenitude. According to the principle of limitation, "to be is to be something; and to be something is to have defining properties that constitute an identity, and locate an individual within a kind or type" (WPP 10). This is the principle that is at work in traditional views of the value of a liberal education with its emphasis on the appreciation of form and logical order. Recent defenses of the Greek ideal of liberal education are couched in terms of "forms of knowledge" or publicly distinguishable ways of understanding and organizing experience that are structured around distinctive sets of concepts, statements, and tests against experience (LE 113-118). E. D. Hirsch, Jr. proceeds along the same lines with his emphasis on the function of schemata in achieving literacy (CL) .2

But Brumbaugh argues for an equally valid metaphysical principle, the principle of plenitude which stresses that "concrete individuals are more than mere type-outlines in space and time, infinitely more, and that this greater complexity gives them an added dimension of aesthetic interest" (WPP 10). Useful as it may be to abstract types of things from the welter of everyday experience, we must not commit what Whitehead called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness" whereby these abstractions are treated as if they were the actual realities under consideration. This is not only to be avoided with the subjects chosen for study, which should not be presented as isolated bits of information forever fixed in time; it is even more the case with our students, who are not to be identified as personality types or classified according to I.Q. without keeping in mind that they are living, changing individuals who encounter the subject-matter in highly idiosyncratic ways. We must take care to treat students as worthy of our respect and special concern, and we should not neglect to teach them to see themselves and others concretely as well.

Seeing things concretely is described by Brumbaugh as the "marvelous seeing by a bracketing that cuts out any impulse to classify or manipulate [and] offers new interest and reveals new vividness and beauty in unexpected places" (WPP 87). It is the ability to appreciate things in their own right, not as type-specimens, commodities, or tools. Such aesthetic sensitivity, he suggests, can be learned, although it cannot be taught in the ordinary sense of teaching. In what he admits is "more tentative and exploratory than any other part of my discussion of metaphysics and education" (WPP 86), Brumbaugh attempts to convey some of the elements in this new vision of the aesthetically interesting.

We can elicit concrete seeing by looking at things framed, as in a display case or pragmatic insulator. We can come to recognize abstract pattern hidden beneath everyday construction. We can gain a sense of rhythmic sequences exhibiting periodicity and contrast. Brumbaugh gives illustrative examples from modem art and contemporary music. Most imaginatively of all, he claims that "the basic categories of art appreciation, importance, interest, contrast, and novelty, are also the basic categories of mutual human appreciation" (WPP 95). As persons with contrasting qualities, we are aesthetically interesting. We need to teach our students about types and logical specimens, but their education is by no means complete unless they can also attain a certain facility for concrete appreciation of things in their own right.

One means to this end is through a shared, creative present time with our students. This cannot be fully duplicated by listening to a tape, watching TV, or working at a computer terminal. For Brumbaugh, teacher and student should interact as individual human beings in a shared enterprise that may well include eccentricities and failures. There are limits to efficiency in teaching that seem part and parcel of any human encounter. As Brumbaugh expresses it, "no film or written text records the kind of jeopardy that present creative communication faces. And if periodic failures occur, so more frequently do successes" (WPP 115). From this encounter should come the romantic excitement that supplies motivation for learning precision in order to achieve generalization and satisfaction. Throughout the process of teaching and learning, we should acknowledge completed steps by our students, give them a feeling of accomplishment for having grasped the point, solved the problem, parsed the sentence correctly, rendered the accents properly, and so on. This sense of completion should spur the student on to further effort.

The final stage of satisfaction, in life as well as in learning, stems from the fact that we bring value into the world, that each of us has a unique contribution to make to the overall scheme of things. Brumbaugh observes that "it is by an appreciation of value as future, selection of it as present, and conservation of it as past, that we as individuals achieve our cosmic importance" (WPP 128). Concrete seeing culminates in the awareness of ourselves and others as cosmically important. Whitehead said that the essence of education was that it be religious. Brumbaugh sees process cosmology supplying a final vision of ourselves and the world "which reaches beyond science and the practical, and which should be the final satisfaction that concludes our education" (WPP 123). We are free, creative agents who can decide what the world will become and what humanity will become in it. Our individual experience and life style has an aesthetic quality and we can see ourselves concretely as spatially and temporally at home in the cosmos. This is the source of our importance and our immortality.

This is as far as Brumbaugh can take me in his quest for a realistic theory of education. I must confess to being caught up in a whorl of exciting possibilities; nonetheless, I feel I must raise two points of further clarification before moving on to the final satisfaction that Brumbaugh so eloquently describes. My first question has to do with metaphysical hypotheses like those of Whitehead and Brumbaugh -- how are they to be judged for adequacy and accuracy? Whitehead himself urged us to discard a metaphysics based on an outmoded seventeenth-century physics. How are we to know that process philosophy provides us with a correct view of reality? Brumbaugh admits that as of 1978 he could name only a few American theorists working with Whitehead’s ideas in education, physics, or the philosophy of science. We clearly need to follow his lead in crossing disciplinary boundaries, challenging uncritically accepted paradigms in science and education, getting others to join us in the complex task of trying to determine how things really are. We must be careful not to take our Whitehead in any less of a critical fashion than he took his own predecessors.

My second question follows from the first and reflects my own efforts at concrete seeing: how do we apply metaphysical principles to education? Plato developed a cosmology that translated into a political theory, an epistemology, an ethics, and a theory of education. Dewey did the same, although proceeding from very different principles. For Whitehead, the connection is not as clear; we have to largely surmise what his social or political theory would look like. This raises the danger of trying to generate an ought from an is, that is, of moving from a cosmology (a view of the way things really are) directly to an educational theory (a view of what should be taught, how it should be taught, and why). I suggest that more work needs to be done to develop a process view of the goals of society. the nature of the individual, what knowledge is of most worth, whether virtue can be taught, and what is the meaning of life.

On a more practical level, there is the problem of actually putting philosophical ideas to work in the classroom. Dewey and Russell had mixed results in running schools based on their educational ideas. Whitehead took another tack and concentrated on university administration, local and national education committees, and lecturing teachers on how to teach mathematics (see DRW). He would likely have welcomed the recent formation of an association for process philosophy of education, so long as its membership included teachers, scientists, artists, school administrators, as well as philosophy professors. He would certainly have endorsed many of the challenging ideas set forth by Brumbaugh. For Whitehead, William James epitomized the imaginative scholar of his day with his blend of scholarly discipline and intellectual adventure. For me, Bob Brumbaugh fills this role today and we are all m his debt for showing us the exciting possibilities of a process philosophy of education. Let us join him in the task of moving from romance to greater precision in developing a view of education based on a correct notion of reality.3



AE -- Alfred North Whitehead. The Aims of Education. New York: Free Press, 1967.

CL -- F. D. Hirsch, Jr. Cultural Literacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

DRW -- Brian Hendley. Dewey, Russell, Whitehead: Philosophers as Educators Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

LE – Paul Hirst. "Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge." Philosophical Analysis and Education. Ed. R. D. Archambault. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.

SS – John Dewey. The School and Society. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980.

WPP -- Robert S. Brumbaugh. Whitehead, Process Philosophy, and Education Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1982.



1 For more on Brumbaugh’s views of time, see his Unreality and Time (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1984).

2A similar yearning to return to a fixed form and order in the content of education can be found in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987). Brumbaugh provides a compelling alternative view of education to that expressed by Hirsch and Bloom.

3As a step in this direction, see Plato, Time and Education: Essays in Honor of Robert S. Brumbaugh (Ed. Brian P. Hendley; Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1987).