Why Whitehead?

by Robert S. Brumbaugh

Robert S. Brumbaugh is professor of philosophy at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 72-77, 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.


Whitehead and process thought offer new theoretical foundations and common sense warnings and applications, and they also directs new attention to feeling as an essential part of intellectual experience thus bridging the gap between philosophic principles and the everyday world of teaching and learning.

Ideas applied from process thought, A. N. Whitehead’s in particular, suggest that our contemporary view of education is framed in a far too narrow philosophic context. The result is a misplaced emphasis on proposed practical reform which will, unfortunately, have an effect just the opposite of what is intended. Meant to develop socially effective technicians who are also perceptive and creative human beings, these tactics will do neither.

Whitehead’s ideas bridge the gap between philosophic principles and the everyday world of teaching and learning. They are applicable to, and offer reasons for, the behavior that we usually find presented, but unexplained, in descriptive anecdotes or statistical tabulations. There are reasons, for example, and reasons based on principles, that explain not only why classroom furniture should not be bolted to the floor, but why maps should not have political frontiers drawn in darker ink than other lines, and why epic poetry should be introduced by reading selections in their original language. And there are also philosophical reasons that show why living teachers can’t be replaced by hardware, and why a "no nonsense" program of discipline will never sustain interest or produce mature human beings.

There are also new criticisms to be made of old and misleading educational metaphors. For example, the equating of "intellectual capacity" with the volume of a milk jug has managed to survive past criticism and still to misdirect some popular educational projects today. Expert educational theorists have long since dismissed such models as that of "filling minds with ideas" as "dead," but their ghosts still haunt common sense and popular practice, and we must be thankful for any new help in exorcising them.1

Not only does process thought offer new theoretical foundations and common sense warnings and applications, but it also directs new attention to feeling as an essential part of intellectual experience. That attention comes at a particularly apt time, as feminist critics argue that society tends to discourage "nurturing" attitudes in favor of the "domination" stance that runs through Bacon and Descartes, and seems inescapably built in to modern pragmatism. (Built in because, if the function of intelligence is not taken to be modifying the organism’s environment, while nurturing may make sense, pragmatism won’t.)

In spite of its increasing technical difficulty, we can’t dispense with Whitehead’s later work, since it is here that there are some of the most spectacular potentialities for educational application. One elegant example is an account of time that combines the precision of science with the creativity and freedom we presuppose in the humanities. This analysis also gives reasons, by extension, for the conclusion Whitehead anticipated earlier: that there is a single best pattern for realistic and effective teaching and learning, and that we can specify what the stages and sequence of that pattern are. And one consequence that follows from this discussion is particularly relevant today. That consequence is that learning will not be improved simply by technical "re-structuring," however radical. By "re-structuring" I mean such changes as altering the length of school year, the time allocated for class periods, or the number of required science or "literacy" courses. And a vision of time in the unfolding periods of history, or in cosmology with its current theories poised for revision, can also be an extension of this insight from Whitehead’s "technical" philosophy.

From his early work to late, however, Whitehead has a theme that I consider his most important practical contribution, and the place where he adds a dimension to Dewey. This is, that aesthetic appreciation gives experience its full impact, and brings with it a sense of reality which neither abstract classification nor practical manipulation will convey. The impact of this sense of reality gives energy to our experience, and makes the difference between actively engaged learning and detached and passive encounter. As I have argued, sheer single-minded operation on things -- transforming walnuts into ice-cream topping, pepper-grass into impromptu salad -- is not equivalent to full attentive engagement, however much energy it expends. The best example that occurs to me, offhand, of the alternative way I have in mind is what has happened when I have brought a fifth-century BC. Athenian tetradrachma to any of my college seminars. This makes the world of ancient Greece tangible and present, with its strange combination of exact formal design and inept mint technology, and present in a way that words and photographs do not. And contrary to what a dogmatic pragmatist might expect, the questions "what would this buy?," and "what does a coin like that cost today?," come quite late in class conversation.

It may be, however, that this judgment of relative importance is only my own. For Whitehead himself comes to focus more on the problem of reconciling a "scientific" picture of nature dead, mechanical, devoid of quality, and the world of humanism that "science" dismisses as a wistful pathetic fallacy. That duality sets the stage for a dramatized nightmare. For if we, the teachers, can’t fit the forcibly divorced domains of real fact/imaginary value, actual causes/fanciful ideals, feeling/form, concrete/abstract, together, how do we expect our students, shuttled between worlds without transition as they flow between classrooms through school corridors, to do the job? It is amazing that they remain as balanced as most of them do. And Whitehead’s conciliation, needed here, may be even more important than his stress on concrete appreciation, which Nathaniel Lawrence and I singled out for special contemporary attention.

Whitehead’s ideas developed progressively, along with his awareness of their implications for education. As early as 1917 he was protesting against a then-current model of students as portmanteaux, to be packed with "inert ideas," which were then unpacked on occasions of external examinations3 (The contents, on that theory, were the mental images which have passed since Locke as "ideas" in the British empiricist tradition.) This was a challenge to the still recurrent basic metaphor of "intellectual capacity" as something modeled on quarts and pints, and yielding minds "well-stocked with ideas." As early as 1912, Whitehead had begun this crusade from a different direction, when he attempted to interest the nation’s learned academies in the isolation and clear articulation of truly fundamental foundational concepts of mathematics and science. The purpose of this was to be an improvement of elementary education, an aim learned societies have traditionally let strictly alone. He himself had practiced what he was preaching, however, in his Introduction to Mathematics in 1911. In 1917, in an informal lecture, Whitehead offered the suggestion that aesthetic appreciation is central to education ("Aesthetics, but not in the usual sense"). Not in the usual sense since this appreciation was to take in the "wonder" of London’s harbors, warehouses, and places of trade. And he suggested, even in the midst of World War I, that the vocational school students he was addressing should get reproductions, study, and take sides in, the controversy then going on in France over the new Oriental influences in French painting. Later, in 1925, he gave the full rationale for this recommendation, namely that concrete appreciation is our only means of direct encounter with full-bodied, vital reality.

The earlier essays on The Aims of Education had already tended to emphasize the fact that students have bodies, which they bring to class with them. Some of the comments are almost ancient Greek in their appreciation of athletics. ("Being tackled at rugby; that is the Real!") Again, in Whitehead’s later philosophical writings we find the explicit rationale for this earlier attention: the sole "external world" that we inhabit is our own bodies entertaining feelings that include an efficacy that seems to come from "the outside." In a different way, this is again the theme of abstract versus concrete; but the abstraction involved is a selective attention by our senses that has developed over eons of evolution.

Whitehead’s work in education and science and philosophy continued in parallel. In 1921 -- perhaps because of a tactless lecture remark in 1919 that "the classics have had their chance, and they have failed" -- he was appointed to a Commission on the Place of Classics in Education. His experience there led him to generalize his educational ideas to cover the humanities as well as the sciences. Conventional as his defense of classics seems to readers today, Whitehead was far from an uncritical believer in them. In an article on the subject in 1921, he expresses his firm belief that "there are no glories of Latin literature," His final iconoclastic judgment that English is a better philosophic language than classical Latin or ancient Greek did not find its way into print, however, until 1925. On the positive side, in his 1921 article he suggests the inclusion in classical study of the history of science and of technology. That suggestion may in fact be a key to teaching elementary science as though it were important and good for something, as well as a step toward breaking down the class lines between liberal and vocational studies, curricula, and occupations.

In 1922, Whitehead generalized his educational ideas in a pamphlet, "The Rhythm of Education." This rhythm is a sequence of three stages which effective learning (and therefore effective teaching) must include, and include in a definite order. These stages Whitehead called Romance, Precision, and Mastery (or, sometimes, Generalization or Satisfaction). The first stage gives the interest and energy needed to carry through the second -- if the precision of the second stage is not disconnected violently from the initial interest. Whitehead here takes sides with the Platonic thought that "students should be taught in play" and enjoy learning, against the Aristotelian observation that "all learning is a painful process," and the later Kantian notion that the main reason for sending children to elementary school is to teach them to sit still. The final stage, by whatever name it is called, must include an awareness on the student’s part that something has been accomplished -- mastery of negative numbers or the route of march of the Greek mercenaries with Cyrus toward the battle of Cunaxa. Interestingly enough, by 1929 Whitehead had concluded that three similar stages constitute the "life cycle" of the organic "actual occasions" which are his elemental units of reality. There is, for each, a momentary phase of encounter, a displacement; then a moment of selective adaptation; and a final completion that marks a passage into "objective immortality" of the completed event as a datum for the future. He himself never remarked on the relation of these two triads, but it seems clear that the stages of learning are in fact grounded in the more elementary three-phase structure of reality. Here, as elsewhere, Whitehead’s talk about education turns out not to be mere casual conjecture, but part of a philosophy that shows why practice, if it is to be realistic, must take place in a certain way.

In moving from the rhythm of education (1922) to the phases of concrescence (1929), I have jumped over Science and the Modern World (1925). It may be Whitehead’s best known book; it is clearly and elegantly written, and continues to enjoy wide popularity. In this book, Whitehead traces the origin of modern natural science as it generalized laws of nature from new observations of aggregates -- cannon-balls, stars, grains of sand -- and then assumed these laws to apply to individual organisms as well. The success of the seventeenth century in physics led to a generalization of its territory to metaphysics -- the claim to explain all of reality -- in the following centuries, This extension left no room for life, beauty, value, or even perceived qualities in the supposed "real" world it defined. This was natural enough since the range of data the new science was originally intended to explain was limited to space, time, mass, matter, and motion. But it was historically disastrous that what had been perfectly acceptable, and brilliant, generalizations covering the phenomena of physics were taken as exclusive cosmic principles. The historical timing of this mistaken notion that the selected data ("abstractions") of physical science exhausted the concrete could hardly have been worse, coming as it did just when the industrial revolution and new political revolutions should have been based on the most precise attention to relevant value. The final chapter of this book gives Whitehead’s reasons for thinking that social progress depends on a new educational system, one that will give equal importance to "appreciation of the concrete" and "facility with abstractions."3 It is here that we find out why the passing applications of this notion of attention to aesthetics and concreteness that I have cited are much more than tactical chance observations. They are rather conclusions that follow from an account of reality which guarantees that they are "realistic," not merely fanciful.

If this last point seems vague and general, let us take my earlier remark about political boundary lines on a map as a concrete illustration. These, if dark enough, reinforce the sense that space is an insulator, so that things in (or "inside") different places are out of relationship with one another. That idea worked well for the postulated hard particles of pure physics; but it certainly leads to mischief when it inspires the notion of supposedly separate "sovereign states," each within its own body (a "body politic") marked off from the rest by the sharp lines defining their collision. Nor does this spatial notion do more justice to the individuals that make up a nation -- or those that make up a more modest classroom full of students. The ideal of one "proper place" per student -- in earlier classrooms, often a proper place bolted to the floor -- projects this philosophic error, which Whitehead proposes to correct, of treating all space as insulating, all places as solipsistic enclosures.

It would be easier to explain the applications of Whitehead’s insights if they had stopped in 1925, with nothing substantially new added in his later philosophical writing. But the appearance of Process and Reality, in 1929, adds new ideas that are important. The difficulty is that this time the ideas are offered in a new unfamiliar language and a system difficult to appreciate and apply. The first of these new ideas carries forward a suggestion from earlier works, that science should postulate small organisms as its units of reality. Then, given this proposal, and guided by the theory of evolution, we can see what such units must be like by tracing in reverse the emergence of complex thought, specialized organization, sensitive sense-experience, from a level of primordial "feeling." One corollary of this account is a cosmology in which all "nature" is alive; aim, feeling, life are not accidental epiphenomena, but built into the very foundation of things. And feeling, moving from relatively passive grasping to awareness of imagined "propositional" alternatives of response, is prior in this scheme to thought. In fact, it is shared feeling that binds all nature together into a community. (The ecology of the last half-century can be seen as one selective application of this insight; the implications for education still need to be made more evident.)

A further set of ideas in Process and Reality that we have seen before, and that we can’t overlook in our educational theory, is the claim that the three phases making up the life of an elementary organism are different. This difference creates a time that is "atomic," unlike the "equable flow" of time in Newton. In the atomic time, the past appears as data, dead, fixed, definite, necessitated. But the present is rather a locus of indecision and still indeterminate adaptation: it is not definite, not necessary in outcome, nor determinate in observable objective structure. The future is a complex set of intertwined possibilities. (By attending to the characteristics of just one phase, and generalizing it, one can get a logical empiricism based on science, an existentialism based on present decision-making, or a pragmatism based on past and present as tools for shaping the future.) This analysis clears up two questions of particular educational interest. First, it shows why our collections of data show no trace of creativity or freedom. Second, it explains in depth the magical sense of presence (or co-presence) which is so important in teaching and learning experience, and which has proven so evasive of attempts at explanation. ("Never wear the same necktie twice," was the prescription given one of my teachers by his mentor as the key to evoking this magic of shared communication. It may work, but I must confess that even with Whitehead’s theories to help I can’t spell out any necessary demonstration that presence coimplies a change of necktie!)

Finally, the cosmology of Whitehead’s work from 1929 through his last lectures, "Mathematics and the Good" and "Immortality," extends the vision of a new philosophy of organism to a universe in which every human individual is important, is at home, and has a share of immortality. If we seem to be digressing or regressing somehow when we find Whitehead in this context saying that "all education is religious," the impression is corrected by his definition of religion. Religiousness consists in "duty and reverence. In that sense, the vision of the cosmos whose future we must create and whose present we now admire and share surely applies to both conservative sectarian religion and the most liberal secular humanism. The main lesson here is that we must not only teach and learn about a "new heaven and a new earth," but must create in our classrooms and activities the kind of small-scale cosmos where these are more nearly realized and approached. In that setting, reason can attain its proper tripartite aim: "living; living well; and living better" (FR 8). This is the aim, as well, of education.

This concludes my brief survey of Whitehead’s philosophy as it becomes and implies a full-scale theory of education. It is important and relevant, and I hope that the group of us who are presently committed to its study will be joined by many other educators and philosophers, and that -- as Plato’s hope ends his Republic -- "we shall fare well." Why Whitehead? I have offered a partial answer to the question. If it is a correct answer, it implies that we must support such organized efforts as that of the APPE4 to deflect current educational momentum into other channels than a mere reshifting of the same materials and approaches, putting forward of dead models as new panaceas, or the temptation to begin with precise discipline where in fact learning should start in a different way. The modesty of our associational effort so far is no measure of its importance.



1Hearing Dr. Mortimer Adler use these outmoded metaphors to defend the Great Books on a recent Sunday television program made me question those books’ effectiveness. He began by comparing human capacities to jars to be filled, a metaphor most of the great authors would not have thought very apt. He then went on, overlooking the implications of Bacon’s rather better slogan that reading provides food for thought, to argue that the Great Books were good curriculum independent of capacity. We should, he thought, fill all the jars with "equally rich cream." Even without the discovery of milk allergies, this could be seen as a pretty good formula for widespread mental indigestion.

2That this caution is still relevant was the theme of President Hannah Gray’s address to the entering University of Chicago freshman class in 1987.

3E. D. Hirsch’s "cultural literacy," which consists in a general recognition of "shared schemata," brings out the poverty of a passing, everyday acquaintance with words and phrases, and by implication the importance of Whitehead’s stress on the non-schematic concrete. "Ninth (Beethoven’s)" should conjure up more than "music -- orchestral -- important," and "ninth (inning)" more than some vague nostalgic notion that we are "about to leave the ballpark." Without more counterweight, cultural literacy is just the wasteland of Heidegger’s "time’s everydayness."

4The Association for Process Philosophy of Education was founded in 1987 to apply Whitehead’s process philosophy to current educational problems. Its materials are available from Malcolm Evans, 85 De Hart Drive, Belle Mead, NJ 08502.