The Process Perspective as Context for Educational Evaluation

by Donald W. Sherburne

Donald W Sherburne is Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 78-85, Vol. 20, Number 2, Summer, 1991. 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.


Dr. Sherburne agrees with Whitehead that a fundamental weakness in modern education is its failure to exploit the value for education of exposure to the arts.

(Originally presented at the meeting of the Association for Process Philosophy of Education in Chicago, April 1989)

This symposium, like its title, has two parts. That title is: "Educational Evaluation in Process Perspective." It is my task to focus on the second half of the title, on the character of that process perspective which our other panelists will then work away from as they bear down on the issue of educational evaluation. I have been asked to highlight the theory of value that emerges from the process perspective, and while I will certainly do that, I will begin my paper by standing back from the specific topic of the nature of value and speaking to the prior question, why Whitehead? Why is his process philosophy so important that a group would organize as we have here to explore the implications of the Whiteheadian orientation for educational evaluation? It will turn out that this introductory reflection will also serve to direct our steps as we enter into the process perspective in order to grasp the understanding of value which it embodies.

As I entertain it, the process perspective involves a certain reading of the high points in the history of philosophy. In spite of Whitehead’s well-known quip in Process and Reality that "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato," my Whiteheadian reading of the history of thought begins with Aristotle. The achievement of Aristotle which bears essentially upon my understanding of the importance of Whitehead is the incredibly subtle and suggestive manner in which Aristotle succeeds in doing justice to human being as a part of nature. In Aristotle’s magnificent system, the same categories that organize nature for our understanding also serve to provide our understanding of human nature. Now there are a number of important footnotes to Aristotle, but I simply wish to draw attention to the point of culmination of the tradition, that period bridging the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that saw the production of the grand synthesis of the Angelic Doctor, Saint Thomas Aquinas, as well as its poetic embodiment in The Divine Comedy of Dante. Here human nature was at home in the world for one last glorious moment, and then it was all over -- the point of culmination was the eve of disintegration.

The Copernican Revolution, the new science, wiped away the old science, and in wiping it away took with it the conceptuality which had bound together the account of nature and the account of human nature. The Aristotelian categories had simultaneously achieved three things: they had done justice to nature, they had done justice to human nature, and most importantly they had done justice to human being as a part of nature. The brilliant work of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and many others radically transformed the Aristotelian outlook in such a way that the earlier synthesis of human nature within nature totally broke down. Galileo’s rethinking of the idea of motion, his idea that motion was a natural state for matter, did wonders for the attempt to understand acceleration and the behavior of projectiles, but it certainly raised hob with the Aristotelian account of events in the heavens. If motion is viewed as a natural state, then there is no need for an Unmoved Mover to keep the whole heavenly system turning, and no need for spirits or intelligences to strive after the perfection of the Unmoved Mover. If telescopes make it clear that heavenly bodies are not perfectly spherical and furthermore reveal moons rotating around a planet, then the old notion of the æther, a refined fifth element admitting only the potentiality for perfect circular motion on the part of perfectly spherical bodies, no longer has a role to play. Heavenly bodies suddenly seem remarkably like lumps of clay, and the laws of motion and gravitation articulated to make intelligible the motion of matter here on earth are found to apply most suitably to the motion of matter in the heavens. Gone with the Unmoved Mover and the intelligences is the need for final causation as a scientific concept, and with the departure of all these Aristotelian notions, gone, too, is the ability to grasp human being as a part of nature -- gone is the ability to do justice to human being in terms of those concepts used to explain the world about us.

The challenge to the human intellect from the seventeenth century onward has been the challenge of completing the Copernican Revolution. What would it be to complete the Copernican Revolution? It would be to do for the modern era what Aristotle succeeded in doing for an earlier age -- it would be to find a way, given the modern world’s understanding of nature, to do justice to human being as a part of nature so understood. Thomas Hobbes was a seventeenth-century thinker who saw the problem clearly. During his several long enforced vacations on the continent, Hobbes the political refugee learned a great deal about the emerging new science. Right at the beginning, Hobbes made a valiant effort to complete the Copernican Revolution. He understood the notions about the world which the new science gave him to work with, and he understood that to complete the revolution he would have to paint a picture of human being using the notions about the world available to him from within the vocabulary of the new science. The first hundred and fifty or so pages of his Leviathan show forth his attempt to paint that portrait of human being, but by almost universal agreement, he failed -- that is, he could not both present human being as a part of the new nature and at the same time do justice to our direct experience of what it is to be human. Throughout the centuries, others have attempted to carry out Hobbes’s project; the attempt to understand the human mind in terms of the structure and functions of computers is but one of the more recent strategies for completing the Copernican Revolution along the lines charted by Hobbes.

Blaise Pascal, brilliant French mathematician, philosopher, and contemporary of Hobbes, saw the modern problem as clearly as did the Englishman. Pascal the scientist experienced a profound disquiet when he encountered from inside science the unmistakably precarious status that the new science thrust upon the human beings clustered inside nature’s blind, mechanical workings. Pascal sounds like the original homeless person when he poignantly says: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me. I tremble." Pascal longed to build a home for human beings in the world he inherited, he burned "with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite" -- that is, to construct a poem like that of Dante which would locate human being in the new scheme of things. But when he tries, his "whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses." Pascal is left split between l’esprit de geometrie and l‘esprit de finesse, between the scientific mind and the intuitive mind, and they remain in an absolute disjunction. In our century existentialist thinkers like Camus and Sartre loudly, shockingly, and dramatically remind us that, as Pascal experienced with such anguish, human kind is not at home in the nature of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. With a certain glee the existentialists turn their back on science, on l‘esprit de geometrie, and letting the chips fall where they may as far as the scientific enterprise is concerned, they work to articulate the structures of human being, to do justice to human being. But with them there is no question of doing justice to human being as a part of nature -- as Heidegger articulates the point, from their perspective human beings are "thrown" into an alien world. They do a profoundly important job of exploring human being, but they do not complete the Copernican Revolution by showing how human being so revealed is as one with that world that begets and nourishes it.

The third and final seventeenth-century figure whom we need to mention as we set up our understanding of the Whiteheadian enterprise is, of course, Descartes. Descartes, saddled with a conception of nature that he perceived as inadequate for the inclusion of mind, opted for the dualistic doctrine that has set the agenda for most subsequent philosophizing. His doctrine of two separate substances, extended matter and thinking mind, each sort of substance requiring, with God bracketed out of the picture, nothing other than itself in order to exist, rather unceremoniously threw mind, that is, distinctively human being, out of nature and left philosophy with the hopeless task of trying to figure out how a mind outside of nature, a mind not of nature, could ever really come to know nature. The image which is currently popular as a way of expressing this excluded-from-the-world-of-nature status of mind is the image of a mirror; as something outside nature mind could only be related externally to nature as a mirror is related to the objects which it reflects. As a consequence, epistemology, theory of knowledge, the attempt to show how an excluded mind is related to the nature from which it is excluded, has dominated philosophy since the time of Descartes. It is a popular stance in some quarters of the philosophical community right now to identify philosophy with this epistemological quest, to then opine that the last three hundred years of epistemological puzzlement has finally shown that the philosophical task so conceived can never be completed, and to conclude that we have consequently arrived at the end of philosophy.

The very first sentence of Whitehead’s major philosophical work, Process and Reality, shows clearly that Whitehead presupposed a situation such as I have just described. He there writes: "These lectures are based upon a recurrence to that phase of philosophic thought which began with Descartes and ended with Hume." Whether one thinks that this particular phase of thought ended with Hume, with Santayana, or with Sellars, Quine, and Davidson is of little matter. The main point is that Whitehead sees himself as writing at the end, not of philosophy, but, as he says, of a phase of philosophy. His strategy, which he refers to as a "recurrence" to this phase of philosophic thought, is to back up to the point where he is sitting there cheek to jowl with Descartes, and then to start all over again, this time avoiding the hopeless dualism which has kept Descartes, and the whole tradition which constitutes the phase of thought in question, from completing the Copernican Revolution.

Whitehead can start over, not because he is smarter than Descartes, but because the notion of nature we now have in the twentieth century is very different from the notion of nature which confronted Descartes. In Descartes’ day, nature was held to be composed of inert stuff with force viewed as something external to that stuff, something mechanically applied to dead bits of matter from the outside. The scientific revolution of the twentieth century has totally revamped the notion of the matter which constitutes nature -- matter is now viewed as internally dynamic, suffused with energy, this being the relation between matter and energy so vividly apparent when an atom bomb goes off. The overarching strategy of Whitehead’s most popular book, Science and the Modern World, is first to argue that modern philosophy has been based on a conceptuality derived from seventeenth-century science, oblivious to the fact that the subtle shifts in science over the last three centuries have gradually undermined the foundations of that conceptuality, and then to demonstrate that since our modern scientific notions will no longer support the seventeenth-century philosophical conceptions, we need a new philosophical conceptuality.

Science and the Modern World showed that the developments in science require corresponding developments in philosophy; Process and Reality is Whitehead’s effort to provide us with such a reconstruction in philosophy, which is what he means when he says he must start with a "recurrence to that phase of philosophic thought which began with Descartes" -- he means that that mode of philosophic thought must be replaced!

Now we have before us the background which will let us grasp the significance of the way that Whitehead approaches the notion of value. Whitehead is trying to complete the Copernican Revolution; he is trying to construct a conceptuality which is firmly rooted in the developments of modern science, which at the same time will enable him to do justice to human beings, and yet will enable him to exhibit that human being as rooted in nature.

There are two conditions that any such conceptual scheme must meet if it is going to be adequate to the task of doing justice to human being as a part of nature. Whitehead himself spells out the first condition very clearly: he writes, "One task of a sound metaphysics is to exhibit final and efficient causes in their proper relation to each other" (PR 84). A contemporary philosophy cannot, of course, deal with final causation in the same way Aristotle did. But deal with it we must. Somewhere Whitehead comments wryly on thinkers motivated by the purpose of showing that there is no purpose! Such an approach is absurd; all of us who came to this symposium with the end in mind of learning something about Whitehead and something about educational evaluation are proof of that. The second condition is equally fundamental. Any adequate metaphysics must overcome the fact/value bifurcation. If value is once separated from fact, the two will never again be joined. Whitehead emphasizes this point in a frequently quoted sentence: " ‘Value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event" (SMW 93). If we pursue the significance of these two conditions, i.e., the marriage of final and efficient causation and the marriage of fact and value, we will learn a good bit about Whitehead’s theory of value at the same time that we acquire some sense of just how Whitehead goes about the task of completing the Copernican Revolution.

The vehicle in terms of which Whitehead reconciles both final and efficient causation and fact and value is the concept of an actual entity, or actual occasion. Whitehead’s metaphysics is atomistic and it is monistic. "Actual entity" is the name he gives to his atoms, and actual entities are all that there is -- everything that is is either an actual entity, a component of actual entities, or a collection of actual entities, called a nexus, or a society. An actual entity is very small, microcosmic; the things we encounter in the world about us, and indeed we ourselves as human beings, are societies of actual entities, and indeed societies of societies of societies of actual entities.

Aristotle described human being as a layered hierarchy of informed matter, the elements fusing together under the impress of a higher-level form to compose tissues, tissues serving as the proximate matter for a yet more complex organizing form at the level of organs, and organs bound into the active, dynamic organism by the yet higher form of soul. Whitehead’s vision of human being possesses certain similarities to that of Aristotle. The building block electronic and protonic actual occasions are, in the case of human beings, swept into vastly more complex, Chinese box-like sets of containing societies within which there are social levels that can be identified with cells, others which answer to Aristotle’s levels of tissues and organs, and which finally are presided over by what Whitehead refers to as the regnant nexus, a social thread of complex temporal inheritance which, Whitehead suggests, wanders from part to part of the brain, is the seat of conscious direction of the organism as a whole, and answers to what in Plato and Aristotle is called the soul. But this is no dualism -- the regnant nexus is made up of actual entities just like every other nexus or society. A fundamental difference from Aristotle, though, is that each actual entity is very short as well as very small; each actual entity is a process of becoming whose completion is its perishing. Aristotle’s philosophy is built upon substances which endure through time; Whitehead’s philosophy is built upon perishing, nonenduring actual entities so that it is only societies which have temporal stretch, not actual entities.

Do we ever encounter single, particular actual entities in our experience? Certainly not in our experience of the world around us. But it is central to the plausibility of Whitehead’s philosophy that we do have one unfailing source of direct contact with individual actual entities. That source is memory. As the memory of my immediate past bears in on me, I encounter it as given and face the necessity of absorbing it into the unit of experience, that is, the actual occasion, which is my immediate subjective awareness. That past bearing in upon me is my direct, immediate, unmediated encounter with a unique individual actual entity, namely, myself as I was an instant ago. This is the sort of experience Whitehead is referring to when he writes: "In describing the capacities, realized or unrealized, of an actual occasion, we have, with Locke, tacitly taken human experience as an example upon which to found the generalized description required for metaphysics" (PR 112).

Founding the generalized description upon human experience requires that we make an imaginative descent of the scale of organic being. Starting with full rich human experience, imagine what it is that is lost when we descend to the level of apes, then rabbits, then beetles, then amoebae, then viruses. Descending the scale of organic being is an exercise during which we peel off layer after layer of human "capacities," during which we watch the distinctively human fade from realization into irrelevance. What seems doggedly to persist is a taking into account of factors in the environment -- the amoeba has pseudopodia constantly reaching out to, constantly testing, the environment. Whitehead’s strategy is a classic example of philosophizing in the shadow of the theory of evolution. Darwinian evolution, augmented by contemporary biochemical dating of genetic development, assures us that the organic domain arose out of the primordial ooze that constituted the state of the inorganic billions of years ago. Whitehead is giving an account of the most primitive type of "taking account of," the kind exemplified in iron filings and the movement of the tides. The trick is to describe the simplest actual entities, the generic actual occasions, so that (a) the laws of physics are an exemplification of their primitive form of "taking into account," and yet (b) in their stark simplicity they contain the potentiality of the sort of progressive complexification which corresponds to the increasingly sophisticated forms of "taking into account" which we find as we ascend back up the scale of organic being, as we trace the upward path of evolution. This is the strategy which puts "mind" back into nature, which leads to a metaphysics which does justice to human being as a part of nature!

But now to the generic structures of all actual entities. Every actual entity has a conformal phase and a responsive, or supplemental phase. Its conformal phase is its moment of appropriating the past, its moment of taking the past into account -- in Whitehead’s language, its moment of prehending its past. This conformal phase is the moment of efficient causation. The past is given; it is a brute fact that cannot be ignored, but must be taken into account. The past impinges on the present. The responsive, or supplemental, phase is the phase of subjective reaction to that which is given, it is the manner in which the past is appropriated. In primitive actual entities this response is absolutely minimal -- in Whitehead’s words, "So far as we can see, inorganic entities are vehicles for receiving, for storing in a napkin, and for restoring without loss or gain" (PR 177). But in more sophisticated actual entities, in entities higher up the scale of organic being which inherit positively a richer and more variegated set of data from the past, the responsive, supplemental phase is a process of sorting out the data, modifying and reorganizing it to arrive at a complex unity of subjective feeling. This sorting, modifying, and reorganizing is goal-directed activity carried out under the aegis of an aim of arriving at an intensity and quality of feeling which will be maximal given that past and the real potentialities available to that particular actual entity. This reactive moment of response is the moment of final causation. The conformal phase and efficient causation plus the responsive phase and final causation -- in working out the account of how these phases are integrated in the process of becoming, called concrescence, of each actual occasion, Whitehead is carrying out what he designated as a task for a sound metaphysics, namely, exhibiting "final and efficient causes in their proper relation to each other" (PR 84).

And here we are, finally, face to face with Whitehead’s account of value. Value, as the intrinsic reality of an event, as the intrinsic reality of an actual entity, is just the character of that feeling which wraps up the actual entity in what Whitehead calls its satisfaction, or completion. In its very nature an actual entity strives, in its responsive phase, toward that integration of the elements present in its experience which will result in the richest, that is, most valuable, feeling of satisfaction. The value is the character of that particular feeling.

I may bring together the elements of a particular experience so that I feel them in anger. The anger is a form of definiteness which I allow to characterize my experience; it is what Whitehead calls an eternal object. I can be angry in many different circumstances, you can be angry, a mob can be angry -- anger is a potentiality for making experience definite and occurs in many different contexts. Anger as an eternal object is not a value; it is this particular instance of anger as characterizing this particular unit of feeling which is a value. For Whitehead value is not something which exists off in a Platonic heaven, off in a realm of form. Rather, in a more Aristotelian mode, value is something right here in this world of becoming -- it is, as he says, the intrinsic reality of an event, which is how that event or entity concretely feels or experiences.

Every actual entity is a struggle toward value, a process of concrescence that culminates in the satisfaction of feeling felt as a value. As Whitehead says, "An intense experience is an aesthetic fact, and its categoreal conditions are to be generalized from aesthetic laws in particular arts" (PR 279). An experience, like a painting, strives after a perfection that Whitehead characterizes as a perfection of harmony, which he further describes as the due coordination of chaos, vagueness, narrowness, width, and depth (PR 112). In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead offers another description of harmony: perfection of harmony is defined in terms of perfection of the subjective form of the satisfaction of an actual entity; and perfection of subjective form is defined in terms of strength, which has two components, massiveness and intensity (AI 253). In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead tends to refer to harmony as Beauty, the "mutual adaptation of the several factors in an occasion of experience" (AI 252). In summary, the universe in its very essence, at the heart of the actual entities which compose it, is a striving after harmony, after Beauty, after value.

A corollary of all this that is crucial for Whitehead’s reflections on education is the idea that a life led on the level of human existence that is mere dull repetition of value realized in earlier experience is less than fully human. His two favorite words in this context are "zest" and "adventure." Apart from creative novelty and its associated zest, risk, adventure, and beauty, life sinks into hopelessly boring monotony. The very nature of being, present in each and every actual entity, is the struggle after value – "Aesthetic attainment is interwoven in the texture of realization" (SMW 94). Or again: ". . . while the harmony of logic lies upon the universe as an iron necessity, the aesthetic harmony stands before it as a living ideal molding the general flux in its broken progress toward finer, subtler issues" (SMW 18).

There is a sentence in The Aims of Education which deposits these ideas directly on the doorstep of education. Whitehead writes: "The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning" (AE 93). Without the generation of value in the mode of zest and adventure, education will fail. And it will fail because of what we are, it will fail because the deepest structures of our being demand, as an integral part of their satisfaction, the realization of the intensity and harmony of feeling which is realized value. Whitehead’s well-known notion of the Stage of Romance in education gets its power from the fundamental aesthetic need of the human organism for novelty and zest in experience. Each of the "minor cycles which form eddies in the great romance" (AE 22) must begin with wonder, with curiosity, with the vision of exciting possibilities for new syntheses of feeling.

But each Stage of Romance must give way to the appropriate Stage of Precision precisely because the range of value feeling open to each actual entity is a function of the way that its past experience is ordered and structured. Without order in the background from which it inherits, an actual entity cannot, in its responsive, supplemental phase, hope to attain to that depth and richness of value to which it aspires. So the Stage of Romance gives way to the Precision necessary to create the generalized understanding (Whitehead’s Stage of Generalization) that will permit the satisfaction of the prior romantic longing to tame the new, the unexplored, the inviting.

When Whitehead looks at education as it in fact occurs, he sees far too much dull precision in domains that are isolated from one another, domains that are not brought together in that sort of unity that would produce a satisfying vision of the harmonious connectedness of things. Each actual entity that is a component in the history of a human being has a conformal phase and a responsive phase. Education must insure that the drive for richness of attainment in the responsive phase never dies out, and that the order and structure of the inheritance in the conformal phase is solid enough to reward and renew the zest for ever expanding adventures.

These considerations led Whitehead to suggest that a fundamental weakness in modern education is its failure to exploit the value for education of exposure to the arts. I think he is dead right; this insight is as valid for the 1980s as it was for the 1920s.

I will complete my remarks by reading an extended passage from Whitehead which presupposes the technical matters I have tried to clarify and which gives something of the flavor of what Whitehead himself might have wanted to contribute to a symposium on evaluating education.

The ultimate motive power, alike in science, in morality, and in religion, is the sense of value, the sense of importance. It takes the various forms of wonder, of curiosity, of reverence, or worship, of tumultuous desire for merging personality in something beyond itself. This sense of value imposes on life incredible labors, and apart from it life sinks back into the passivity of its lower types. The most penetrating exhibition of this force is the sense of beauty, the aesthetic sense of realized perfection. This thought leads me to ask, whether in our modern education we emphasize sufficiently the functions of art. . . . You cannot, without loss, ignore in the life of the spirit so great a factor as art. Our aesthetic emotions provide us with vivid apprehensions of value. If you maim these, you weaken the force of the whole system of spiritual apprehensions. (AE 40.)