Whitehead’s Philosophy of Education: Its Promise and Relationship to the Philosophy of Organism

1. Main Themes of Education

The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929) is a series of lectures delivered primarily in England before, during, and after the First World War.[1] Whitehead envisages an egalitarian society in which a reenergized liberal education strengthens the imaginative capacities of students from every social class.[2] His views still resonate with us almost a century later.

“The whole book,” he writes, “is a protest against dead knowledge, that is to say against inert ideas” (AE v). Indeed, “the problem of keeping knowledge alive, of preventing it from becoming inert […] is the central problem of education” (AE 5). Inert ideas are those “ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations” (AE 1). Where knowledge is transmitted to a passive learner unable to use ideas in a practical way or relate them to her own experience, the result is a “useless” waste of time. By utilizing an idea, Whitehead means “[…] relating it to that stream, compounded of sense perceptions, feelings, hopes, desires, and of mental activities, adjusting thought to thought, which forms our life” (AE 3). The life of the learner, like that of all human beings, is a stream flowing from the past through the present to the future, one in which all events are connected to each another. The stream is a fluid mix of emotions, desires, hopes, feelings, and sense perceptions. Mental activity consists of relating one idea to another in novel and creative ways.[3] This is why inert ideas are so “harmful”: they stultify the “self-development,” or growth, of “students [who] are alive” (AE v).

As a mathematician, Whitehead was especially concerned with the “inclusion of mathematics in a liberal education” so as “to train the pupils to handle abstract ideas.” In order for such ideas to come to life, students taking elementary courses should be spared the drudgery and “pointless accumulation of details,” since the “general use of mathematics should be the simple study of a few general truths, well illustrated by practical examples” (AE 80, 81). The examples he has in mind have become standard fare in teaching the subject: a train passing several stations in a certain amount of time can illustrate continuous and discontinuous functions; a train can also help to explain the differential calculus; and vectors as straight lines are graphically illustrated by someone walking across the deck of a moving steamer (IM 111-12, 167, 37).

“Another way in which the students” ideas can be generalized,” Whitehead claims, “is by the use of the History of Mathematics” (AE 84). In An Introduction to Mathematics (1911), he gives the example of Archimedes jumping from his bath, running naked in the streets and shouting “Eureka!” when he first realized that a body immersed in water is pressed upwards by a force equal to the weight of the water it displaces. “This day,” writes Whitehead, “ought to be celebrated as the birthday of mathematical physics” (IM 24) and taught to students as part of their mathematical education. The influence of the Chinese on the introduction of the compass into Europe more than three thousand years after they had first used it; Galileo’s dropping of weights from the tower of Pisa in order to show that bodies of a different weight fall from the same height in the same time; and the dispute between Newton and Leibniz about who had invented the calculus (IM 19-20, 27-8, 163-4) all provide a rich source for bringing abstract ideas to life.[4] By means of historical examples illustrating the importance of mathematical ideas when they were first advanced, Whitehead believed it possible for students to learn “the precise connection between this world [of abstract ideas] and the feelings of actual experience” (AE 106).

Arguably the most important contribution Whitehead made to educational thought is the rhythmic cycles of growth. The process of self-development, which lies at the base of all learning, is a natural one to which educators should pay close attention. He claims that “life is essentially periodic” with its “alternations of work and play, of activity and of sleep” punctuated by “subtler periods of mental growth with their cyclic recurrences, yet always different as we pass from cycle to cycle” (AE 17). Learning passes through a threefold cycle of romance (“adventure” and “the joy of discovery”), precision (the “self discipline” required to master any discipline) and generalization (“a return to romanticism” coupled with a broad understanding) (AE 33, 2, 35, 19). The cycles can overlap with one another and are conjoined in a repetitive, or more accurately reiterative, process of growth that is lifelong.[5]

According to Whitehead, “the rhythmic pulses of life” comprise a “difference within a framework of repetition” or, put differently, “an alternation of dominance” (AE 25, 17, 28) in which freedom and discipline complement each other in a creative dance of contrasting patterns.[6] The cycle of romance is characterized by the freedom of the learner in “a process of discovery […that] is both natural and of absorbing interest” (AE 32). Romance is arguably the most important of the cycles, since it allows the student to pursue her own interests unconstrained by the demands of others, for “its essence is browsing and the encouragement of vivid freshness.” This initial phase is too often neglected, resulting in an inertia in which the learner regards knowledge as one would “the dryness of the Sahara” (AE 22, 17).

Once romance has run its course and “been properly guided another craving grows […for] the enlightenment that comes from precise knowledge.” The discipline required for the cycle of precision is important, because “there are right ways and wrong ways, and definite truths to be known,” but it is also capable of stifling romance (“training is apt to kill initiative”). Teachers and learners need “pace, pace, pace. Get your knowledge quickly, and then use it. If you can use it, you will retain it” (AE 33-6). The freedom experienced in the cycle of generalization is built upon both the adventure of romance and the discipline of precision. Now, however, the learner can dispense with “the precise knowledge of details […] in favour of the active application of principles, the details retreating into subconscious habits.” This ability to relate general principles to the concrete facts of experience is “the final possession of wisdom” (AE 37). It enables one to recognize the practical implications of theoretical knowledge and the possibilities for more coordinated forms of human thought and action (AI 66-7).

Generalization is the main goal of university education, though it is not limited to this level. The University should be imbued with imagination in the form of “a contagious disease […] communicated by a faculty whose members wear their learning with imagination.” Only then will faculty and students work together as “a band of imaginative scholars,” who recognize that “the learned and imaginative life is a way of living, and is not an article of commerce.” For Whitehead, unless the imagination infects the University in this manner, faculty are likely to become “a faculty of very efficient pedants and dullards” (AE 97, 100, 97, 99) and their students pale reflections of their professors.[7]

2. A History of Scholarship on the Relationship between Whitehead’s Philosophy of Education
and the Philosophy of Organism

Over the last half century, scholars have debated whether or not Whitehead had a fully thought out and systematic philosophy of education. Some of his many essays pertaining to education were reprinted in The Aims of Education and a handful of others published posthumously in Essays in Science and Philosophy (1948). But these essays are all capable of “standing on their own,” because they are not necessarily linked to each other or to an overall philosophical framework. For this reason, some scholars have concluded that Whitehead never wrote systematically on education. Nevertheless, it is widely held that Whitehead’s Process and Reality (1929) is his magnum opus, and many scholars have asked whether or not we may interpret or apply the concepts and ideas therein for the purposes of setting forth a more systematic Whiteheadian philosophy of education.

In his 1951 essay, “Whitehead’s Views on Education,” Henry Holmes notes that Whitehead has “not written about education extensively” and that “neither Process and Reality nor Adventures of Ideas contains direct references to education as a process.” Holmes concentrates mostly on the Aims of Education and provides little evidence of how one may link Whitehead’s educational thought to his other works. However, Holmes does predict that “it is not unlikely that his influence on education will have to come in part by indirection—through interpretation of his general theory” (1951, 622, 626). Hence, from Holmes’ perspective, Whitehead’s philosophical writings may eventually prove to inform his views on education.

Likewise, in 1957, Frank Wegener notes the same problem of linking Whitehead’s respective writings on education and cosmology. Wegener writes that “although Whitehead did write and lecture on aspects of education, he did not apply his basic philosophical conceptions in the overt formulation of a systematic organic philosophy of education” (1957, 43-44). In the introduction to his much overlooked book, The Organic Philosophy of Education, Wegener raises the question of whether or not one may utilize Whitehead’s philosophy of organism for the purposes of elucidating his pedagogical views. Particularly, he asks if one logically turned

the question around it might be asked “to what extent would the Philosophy of Organism be in agreement with the Organic Philosophy of Education?” It should be clearly understood that discrepancies of interpretation, application, and emphasis would no doubt be very evident (1957, 36).

In such a case, for Wegener, there is an asymmetrical relationship in which Whitehead’s speculative metaphysics can be said to ground his philosophy of education, but not vice-versa. However, we think that there are several themes in Whitehead’s philosophy of education which may inform his cosmology, such as the interpretation of the notion of the rhythms of education as reverberating throughout nature. But, Wegener does take quite a bold approach with respect to the idea of using Whitehead’s complex philosophical notions towards the construction of an organic, “process” pedagogy. He utilizes the complex cosmological notions of Process and Reality, such as “creativity,” “prehension,” “concrescence,” “subjective aim,” and “self-realization,” in the construction of a truly novel and organic philosophy of education. At the same time, he maintains that while “the Organic Philosophy of Education is in substantial agreement with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism,” he makes no “intimation […] to convert the philosophy of organism directly into an equivalent educational philosophy” (1957, 35). In any case, Wegener uses Whiteheadian concepts in order to improve upon those previous theories of education which maintained rigid separations between the various notions of education; for example, between “teacher” and “student,” “authority” and “freedom,” and “academic” and “experiential.”[8] Wegener posits Whitehead’s cosmological notions as coextensive with education since he believes that life and experience comprise the real “classroom” of learning. Specifically, for Wegener, “education involves the blending of systematic “schooling” and “life-experience” in the total educational process” (1957, 89).

Wegener’s stance is admirable in its depiction of the connection between education and the rest of the organic universe. But, it might be argued, scholarship demands more clarity regarding the boundaries between what is practical in education and what is not. Later in the book, Wegener claims that

by and large there is an educational philosophy implicit in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. Yet in order to make this philosophy of education explicit, one must bring a knowledge of the unique problems and content of the field of education, realized from one’s study and experience, to the general philosophy in question (1957, 324-25).

It would seem, following from Wegener’s reflections, that a philosophy of education is contained within Whitehead’s general philosophical writings, but not vice-versa. Any consideration of education in light of the theory of prehensions should appeal to one’s own experiences in education. Later, we shall consider these important notions further.

In the mid-1960s, in his book, Whitehead on Education, Harold Dunkel further raised the issue of the relationship between Whitehead’s writings on education and his general philosophizing. According to Dunkel, Whitehead’s interest in education

stemmed from being an educator in the same sense as are all professors who are sincere and conscientious about their professional duties. His educational writings are scattered essays. He never attempted to publish a specific philosophy of education or to train teachers in it. […] One may then ask why, apart from certain brief essays on Whitehead’s educational position, no extended attempt has been made to use his general philosophy as a basis for educational thought and action (1965, 7-8).

According to Dunkel, Whitehead himself made little attempt to link his views on education with his cosmology and made few references to the theory of prehensions in his writings on education. The question, then, is why scholars would want to attempt to make the connection. Dunkel goes on to write that since Whitehead

never presented his educational ideas in one organized, coherent statement […there is the] question whether his views on education represent only scattered insights and comments or whether they actually form a coherent whole. […] The question[s] immediately arise […] whether the views expressed in these earlier educational essays are congruent with (or even related in any way to) his more mature philosophic doctrines […], whether there is any relation possible between general philosophic theory, on the one hand, and educational theory, ideas, and practice, on the other […and] whether there is any significant connection [between them] (1965, 9-10).

With these problems in mind, Dunkel carefully maintains a focus primarily on The Aims of Education, while at the same time making reference to many of the key philosophical themes of Whitehead’s other writings. Education, for Dunkel, is connected with the processes Whitehead describes in his general philosophizing, and tends “to have moments or aspects [that] correspond to parts of this process.” Specifically, Dunkel points to the process of learning as “self-development,” which may be analogous to the process of concrescence of an actual entity, described by Whitehead in Process and Reality. Since the purpose of education in general is to assist such self-development, Dunkel believes that Whiteheadian cosmology offers a “comprehensive conceptual matrix” within which a philosophy of education could be elaborated. And he argues that educators should become more interested in philosophy so as to carry out this task. Dunkel concludes that “the correspondence between Whitehead’s philosophic doctrine and his educational views appears both extensive and fundamental” (1965, 102, 20, 170). But Dunkel is more reserved than Wegener in merging Whitehead’s views on education with his cosmology.

More recently, Malcolm Evans, in Whitehead and Philosophy of Education has raised similar questions regarding the possible use of Whitehead’s general philosophy for the purposes of education:

in much of his formal philosophy, Whitehead is writing about ideas that are indispensably relevant to the universe. What are the ideas in his metaphysics that are indispensably relevant to our lesser universe—education and schooling? […] Do such ideas as creativity […], prehension, concrescence, satisfaction, etc. […] fit into education? (1998, 98).

In attempting to answer these questions, Evans’ book serves as a useful introduction to understanding Whitehead’s perspectives on education. He outlines many previous commentators’ approaches to the question of the possible connection between the philosophy of organism and the philosophy of education, and uses Whitehead’s formal technical vocabulary in his discourse about the latter. From Evans’ perspective, Whitehead’s writings on education and philosophy must be joined together, for “those who would seek Whitehead, philosopher of education, must examine all of his writings.” In this direction, Evans endeavors to “tap both formal and informal philosophies for the rich insight they provide and to draw out the implicit philosophy of education found there.” He recommends that we read Whitehead’s formal,” or more systematic writings with a view to applying them to education since “Whitehead’s metaphysical writings, although far removed from traditional educational theory, provide a new and necessary frame for thinking about education and its societal setting” (1998, 34, 34, 49; emphasis added). Whitehead’s metaphysical writings provide a cosmological framework within which a philosophy of education may be situated. But, for him, the task of constructing a more complete Whiteheadian philosophy of education or of “unpacking” (2000, 5) one from Whitehead’s speculative metaphysical writings are tasks which have yet to be carried out. Evans’ book provides an excellent preparation for such an endeavor.

These four writers do not represent the whole history of scholarship on the question of the connections between Whitehead’s philosophy of education and his philosophy of organism. Many others have pondered the question extensively and have made valuable contributions on the issue.[9] However, from this particular sampling of scholars, it is evident that there is a general disagreement about the question of the putative link between Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and his views of education. While some try to connect Whitehead’s writings on education with his general philosophizing, others are more hesitant about making such links.

In summary, there are three major reasons why connecting Whitehead’s cosmology and his philosophy of education might be said to be problematic. First, Whitehead’s writings on education do not form a systematic conceptual whole, and he does not explicitly spell out the relationship between his views on education and his general philosophy. Second, the technical vocabulary employed in his philosophy of organism is a deterrent to many scholars of his philosophy of education, and especially to those who feel that such concepts have little to do with the concrete states of affairs in classrooms, schools, and universities. Third, education does not seem to have much to do with the biological or organic processes in nature at the core of his cosmology. However, we have argued that the project to merge the two in a systematic way constitutes an important advance in theoretical scholarship in the area of Whiteheadian philosophy of education. Historically speaking, since most of Whitehead’s philosophy of education is to be found in addresses and writings from 1912-1922, before his mature philosophical works were written, there is need for a reconsideration of his philosophy of education in light of his cosmological works. In short, any attempt to “put his philosophy of organism back into” Whitehead’s philosophy of education demonstrates the compatibility of both frameworks.

3. Integrating Whitehead’s Philosophies
of Education and Organism

There are several key ways in which Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and his philosophy of education complement one another. First, although his account of education does not seem to be related to the organic processes in nature described in his general philosophy, both exhibit a concern for life. As Whitehead himself explains,

education is the guidance towards a comprehension of the art of life; and by art of life I mean the most complete achievement of varied activity expressing the potentialities of that living creature in the face of its actual environment. […] Each individual embodies an adventure of existence. The art of life is the guidance of this adventure (AE 39).

The “art of life” is a journey filled with adventure in which education provides the lure that enables the learner’s self-development or self-realization. The fulfillment of this process is the actualization of the many life-possibilities of which s/he is capable in a more “comprehensive life-range,”[10] namely, a wider range of feeling, thought, and action. As such, educational institutions are a main vehicle for enhancing those organic processes and activities of appropriation, creation, self-realization, and self-enjoyment that Whitehead describes in his speculative writings.

Second, Whitehead insists that his philosophy of organism is applicable to many domains of thought. At the outset of Process and Reality, Whitehead writes that “the true method of philosophical construction is to frame a scheme of ideas, the best that one can, and unflinchingly […] explore the interpretation of experience in terms of that scheme” (PR xiv). Furthermore, he states that a speculative scheme of ideas should “in respect to its interpretation, [be] applicable and adequate” (PR 3), such that many forms of experience, including educational experience, should be interpretable through it. This suggests an implicit connection between his speculative cosmology and education.

Third, in The Aims of Education, Whitehead provides a possible analogy between education and his theory of prehensions. He writes,

education is not the process of packing articles in a trunk. Such a simile is entirely inapplicable. […Rather] its nearest analogue is the assimilation of food by a living organism: and we all know how necessary to health palatable food is under suitable conditions. When you have put your boots in a trunk, they will stay there till you take them out again; but this is not at all the case if you feed a child with the wrong food (AE 33).

Both the process of education and the notion of a “prehension” are defined as the “assimilation” or the “appropriation” of food by an organism. Whereas “assimilation” designates “taking something in and making it part of the thing it has joined,” a “prehension” designates an organism’s “uncognitive apprehension” and “selective appropriation” of the elements in its environment for the sake of its own existence. To be sure, Whitehead explains that “for the foundation of its own existence” an organism feels and appropriates “the various elements of the universe out of which it arises” which, in his speculative terminology, means that “each [such] process of appropriation of a particular element is termed a prehension” (PR, 219). The notion of a prehension as an appropriation, parallels a student’s selective reception of a lecture, taking down only those parts s/he finds of interest and importance. It is reasonable to infer that Whitehead considers learning as a similar process to an organism’s feeling and absorption of the multifarious data in the environment.

Fourth, Whitehead conceives of the theory of prehensions as primarily a “theory of feelings.” Feelings and emotions provide the ground from which cognition grows and their importance cannot be ignored as though it were some kind of encumbrance to rational thought. As such, the theory of prehensions can be favorably compared with cognitivist and behaviorist theories, both of which underestimate the importance of “affect” in learning. Jean Piaget, for example, emphasizes cognitive development as the exclusive goal of education in which the learner acquires “the critical attitude of the mind, objectivity, and discursive reflection” (1969b, 180). However noble these attributes may be as integral to an emerging critical consciousness, Piaget considers them in abstraction from the emotions and feelings of the learner. If, as Whitehead argues, our primary awareness as human beings is “emotional feeling, felt in its relevance to a world beyond” (PR 163), then any attempt to develop a theory of cognition that does not take this concrete experience into account will “fail to explain the relationship between bodily feelings, emotions, and higher forms of consciousness in human beings” (Flynn 1995, 378). On the other hand, behaviorists of Whitehead’s day, such as J. B. Watson, reduced human beings to stimulus-response mechanisms whose “measurable behaviors” could be changed by means of classical conditioning. They gave no account of the interior lives of human beings at all, since they were part of a “black box” whose mysteries could be ignored as non-scientific. While more recent behaviorists like B. F. Skinner have proposed “operant conditioning” as a process of rewards in which “a bit of behavior is followed by a certain kind of consequence” so that “it is more likely to occur again,” their neglect of the emotions is no less striking.[11]

By way of contrast, the theory of prehensions depicts the non-linear process of intellectual development, starting from primitive bodily feelings and emotions, and ending with consciousness and self-consciousness. According to Whitehead, while feelings and emotions are more primitive than consciousness, the latter is a high level of experience belonging to high-grade organisms like human beings, but it is fraught with the problems of abstraction. The theory of prehensions describes the process by which consciousness develops from our basic feelings and emotions on the basis of which we appropriate and assimilate the data in our environment. Moreover, it speaks of the interrelation of body and mind, as well as the need to enhance our pre-conscious awareness of the world through feelings and emotions.

Fifth, Whitehead’s conception of the cyclical stages of educational growth of education (romance, precision, and generalization) has a remarkably similar structure to the theory of prehensions. Whitehead’s rhythms of education are a general articulation of the natural phases of learning, to which teachers must be attentive if they are to provide an environment conducive to learning. While each of the stages cannot be said to be rigidly separate from the others, learning is a process, which in general flows in a cyclical manner from one phase to the next. Without permitting the flow from phase to phase, and by neglecting this natural pattern in the variance of methods of presentation of a subject-matter, teachers may stunt the learning of their pupils.

The original stage of romance involves a first-step into intellectual inquiry. It is the stage of “first apprehension,” of potentiality, wonder, curiosity, and the joy of discovery, as well as of interrogative and imaginative stirrings in the body and mind regarding a particular subject-matter to be learned. Romance builds upon “the creative impulse toward growth [which] comes from within” (AE, 39) by strengthening the emotions of the child in her love of learning. Next, the stage of precision involves an analytic engagement with the specific principles of a subject-matter, and the coming to conscious awareness of the conceptual divisions within a domain of investigation. It is the stage of self-discipline, and the development of a specialized knowledge of a subject-matter, through analysis, negation, elimination, critique, and selectivity, which, as Whitehead maintains, are intrinsic to the development of consciousness. Last, the stage of generalization is the application of the specific conceptual divisions learned in the stage of precision, creatively modifying them, and applying them to actuality. It is the stage of satisfaction, aesthetic experience, synthesis, and the awareness of logical contrasts. The stage of generalization also involves the merging and comparison of the feelings originally experienced in the stage of romance with the conscious awareness of the subject-matter attained through the stage of precision. According to Whitehead, the stage of generalization also leads to “a return to Romanticism” (AE 19) after the acquisition of specialized knowledge, leading to a new cycle of learning. These rhythms of education correspond to a learner’s process of educational self-realization (of research and discovery in learning) are akin to Whitehead’s analogy of the creative process as the flight of an airplane, with a take-off, a flight, and a landing:

The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation (PR 5).

The structure of Whitehead’s theory of prehensions also mirrors that of his cyclic rhythms of education. There is, at first, experience characterized by the broad physical feeling of the interconnected environment as well as the emotions. Through integrations and eliminations of felt data, chiefly involving negation, selectivity, and eventually judgment, the prehending subject’s (e.g. the learner’s) awareness of an object in its environment (or a subject-matter) is then raised to consciousness. Subsequently, having experienced the conceptual wealth of higher conscious experience, the prehending subject overcomes the abstractions of consciousness, attains some measure of satisfaction, and “steps back” down to the level of feelings in order to begin the prehensive process anew. Thus, Whitehead’s theory of prehensions offers a more precise and comprehensive way of understanding the rhythms of education, one in which these stages are reflected as an integral part of the unfolding of the organic universe.

Sixth, there is a general correspondence between the underlying meaning of “education” and Whitehead’s notion of “concrescence.” According to the Canadian philosopher John McMurtry, the true etymological root of the word “education” is not, as is commonly held, the Latin word educere, “to lead out,” but rather educare, “to enable to grow” (1988, 39).[12] Education, defined as “enabling a learner to grow” or as authentically assisting the flourishing and self-development of learners, resonates with Whitehead’s theory of prehensions in its chief notion of “concrescence” or the “growing together” of organisms. As Dunkel explains, “the student is engaged in a process of self-development, which is more than merely analogous to the general process of concrescence described in [Whitehead’s] cosmological works” and the role of the teacher is “to guide and foster this process” (1965, 149, 269). One final similarity is that in describing a subject who is engaged in an “activity of other-formation” (AI 193), Whitehead coins the term “subject-superject,” a notion which is consistent with the role of a teacher in enabling the learner’s growth or self-development. In short, all these connections suggest that education is an organic process consisting in the mutual “growing together” of teachers and students, in which students learn from teachers and teachers learn from students in a fusion of horizons. Moreover, as a whole, they confirm that much of Whitehead’s philosophical terminology is exemplified in education, which can indeed be interpreted through his speculative scheme.

4. Whitehead’s Contribution to Educational Thought

Of all Whitehead’s contributions to educational thought, his views on technical education are particularly striking.[13] Technical education should be integrated with the rest of the curriculum to promote a liberal education in which all students can relate knowledge to their concrete experience.

Whitehead defines technical education as “a training in the art of utilizing knowledge for the manufacture of material products,” for which are needed “manual skill, and the coordinated action of hand and eye, and judgment in the process of construction.” The process of “hand-craft” involves “a reciprocal influence between brain activity and material creative activity” in which “the hands are peculiarly important.” Students learn to put their ideas into practice by making objects with an increasing dexterity for, as he puts it, “If you want to understand anything, make it yourself” (AE, 49-53). In the modern world, there is an overwhelming need for craftspeople, who create beautiful objects in wood and metal, as well as farmers and cooks freed from the fetters of industrialization (AE 55-6).

In order for hand-craft to be successful, however, some scientific knowledge is required in the form of an understanding of “those natural processes of which the manufacture is the utilization.” Scientific education, which is “primarily a training in the art of observing natural phenomena, and in the knowledge and deduction of laws concerning the sequence of such phenomena” provides a theoretical base for the activities of technical education. At the same time, technical education can overcome “the narrow specialism” too often found in “a study of science” (AE 50, 49). Once again, the interrelationship of theory and practice enables knowledge to remain fresh in students’ minds.

The full integration of the curriculum is only possible with the inclusion of literary studies, or “the study of language,” its structure, techniques of verbal expression, and relationship to intellectual feelings. Indeed, it is “the subtle relations of language to feeling […which] lead to keen aesthetic appreciations being aroused by the successful employment of language.” The language of poetry or prose appeals to “the sense organs” and fosters their “high development” as a channel for the expression of feeling in aesthetic and constructive ways. Analogously, it is “bodily feeling[s] […] focused in the eyes, the ears, the voice, the hands” which provide the “reciprocal influence between brain activity and material creative activity” at the base of technical education (AE 49-50). On the one hand, the artistic use of language emancipates the thoughts and feelings of the speaker; on the other, the bodily feelings of the craftsperson are liberated though the creative practice of the plastic arts. The two forms of education complement one another, which is why “geometry and poetry are as essential as turning lathes” (AE 45).

Whitehead is arguing for a kind of “spiral curriculum” (Entwistle 1970, 115) in which there is an alternating emphasis upon the literary, the scientific, and the technical. The goal is to achieve a balanced education better suited to the needs of modern (and postmodern) society than the classical education of an English gentleman of yesteryear. Just as the cycles of romance, precision, and generalization constitute the general rhythm of education, so “the problem of education is to retain the dominant emphasis, whether literary, scientific, or technical and without loss of coordination to infuse into each way of education something of the other two” (AE 54). This alternating emphasis, or rhythm, integrates all three spirals, producing a “seamless coat of learning” that imparts “an intimate sense for the power of ideas, the beauty of ideas, and for the structure of ideas” (AE 11-12). Nor should technical education be “conceived as a maimed alternative to the perfect Platonic education.” One of “the evil side[s] of the Platonic culture has been its total neglect of technical education,” stemming from the dualism of mind and matter” (AE 54, 50).

The Platonic belief in “disinterested intellectual appreciation” as the goal of education and life should be replaced by an emphasis on “action and our implication in the transition of events amid the inevitable bond of cause to effect” (AE 47). Students learn to bring about change by creating objects of beauty through a combination of thought (“headwork”) and action (“handwork”). They thereby come to appreciate the importance of “causal efficacy,” or “the “withness” of the body […] that makes the starting point for our knowledge of the circumambient world” (PR 81). The bodily feelings expressed in the unity of mental and manual labor provide a direct epistemological connection between the learner and reality.

Education and work must both allow for the creative expression of bodily feelings. A restructuring of the workplace is required in order to overcome the alienation of labor. “Is it likely,” Whitehead asks, “that a tired, bored workman [sic], however skillful his hands, will produce a large output of first-class work?” Greed and the “desire for money” among employers is a destructive force which “will produce hard-fistedness and not enterprise.” This deadening of the purposes of life infects the whole of society, heightening class conflict, for “there can be no prospect of industrial peace so long as masters and men in the mass conceive themselves as engaged in a soulless operation of extracting money from the public.” In order to ensure “a large supply of skilled workmen, men [sic] with inventive genius […] and employers who enjoy their work,” the entire process should be “transfused with intellectual and moral vision and thereby turned into a joy” (AE 44, 45, 44). The Benedictine approach to communal work, “stripped of its theological trappings,” provides the basis for such a vision. Since “the nation has need of a fluidity of labour,” a new breed of skilled workers should be educated to move freely “not merely from place to place, but […] from one special type of work to another” (AE 44, 55). This vision of work as joyful, creative, non-specialized activity capable of overcoming humanity’s alienation as a species being is reminiscent of the early Marx.[14]

The craft exemplified in the human capacity for skilled work is no different in kind from that in painting, sculpture or music. The creative impulse finds its full expression in the “aesthetic emotions” at the base and forefront of Art in this most general sense. Aesthetic emotions provide students and workers alike with “the sense of value, the sense of importance […] the sense of beauty, the aesthetic sense of realized perfection” with which their own work is imbued (AE 40). It would be quite easy, Whitehead argues, to educate an artistic population with a sense of their own potentiality for constructive and coordinated action. As men and women work together creatively, they learn to appreciate the growing “strength of beauty” in their interior lives. “The beauty of the soul,” as John Cobb calls it, enables people to work with others and share in the accomplishments of the community so that “all will understand that their achievements are products of the group and contributions to the group” (1998, 107).

This Utopian vision of a just and equitable society (AE 41) is strengthened by the humanizing power of Art articulated in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.[15] Unlike scientific materialism, whose “assumption of the bare valuelessness of mere matter led to a lack of reverence in the treatment of natural or artistic beauty” so that “art was treated as a frivolity,” the goal of an organic philosophy of education is “to strengthen habits of concrete appreciation of the individual facts in their full interplay of emergent values” (SMW 196, 198). Only where students appreciate the beauty in nature and human artifacts, and the panoply of changing values inherent in both, will they learn “the art of life,” namely “(i) to live, (ii) to live well, (iii) to live better.” Art and aesthetic appreciation enable human beings to lead civilized lives in which they strive “towards the attainment of an end realized in imagination but not in fact” (FR 4, 8). At the same time, art brings the potentiality of the imagination into the actuality of everyday life. Artists, like craftspeople, are engaged in a bodily activity in which they create tangible objects expressive of human perfection, “a finite fragment of human effort achieving its own perfection within its own limits.” As a result, “Art heightens the sense of humanity. It gives an elation of feeling which is supernatural […]. It requires Art to evoke into consciousness the finite perfections which lie ready for human achievement” (AI 270, 271). Art enables us to recognize the perfection of which humanity is capable. It acts as a lure to consciousness in discriminating between what is worthwhile in human life and what is not. It is for this reason that Whitehead regards “the use of art as a condition of healthy life […] analogous to sunshine in the physical world” (AE 58).


[1] We wish to thank the other members of the University of Saskatchewan Process Philosophy Research Unit—Mark Flynn, Bob Regnier, and Ed Thompson—for their continuing support and collegiality.

[2] Whitehead’s vision of a liberal education is similar to that of Russell in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916, Chapter 5) except that Russell places a greater emphasis on education for peace. For a comparison of the educational thought of Russell, Whitehead, and Dewey, see Woodhouse 1983.

[3] This is similar to Dewey’s principle of the continuity of experience (1959, 26-27).

[4] Whitehead’s influence can be seen today in such works as de Berg 1992, Thompson 1997, and Ernst 2000.

[5] This contrasts with Piaget who conceives of the stages of learning as linear, discrete, invariant, and sequential (1969a, 123). For a full account of Whitehead’s rhythmic cycles of growth, see Entwistle 1970, 212-17.

[6] For a connection between the rhythmic cycles of growth and the “characteristics of life,” see Woodhouse 1995. For a similar connection, based on the notion of concrescence, see Garland 2005.

[7] See Woodhouse 1999 and 2005c, and Regnier 2005.

[8] According to Wegener, “existing conflicts between educational theories—formal versus informal, conservative versus progressive, classic versus subjective, liberal versus practical, realistic versus idealistic, academic versus pragmatic, logical versus psychological, external versus internal, and many others—are really complementary and reciprocal when viewed organically” (1957, 29).

[9] See for example Mellert 1998: “the third chapter of The Aims of Education, entitled, ‘The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline,’ is where I find the essence of Whitehead’s educational philosophy. This philosophy, I shall argue, is simply a reiteration in educational language of the core principles of his general philosophy as stated in Process and Reality and in Science and the Modern World.” Hendley quotes a letter from Whitehead stating that working in Harvard’s philosophy department would provide him with “a welcome opportunity of developing in systematic form my ideas on Logic, the Philosophy of Science, Metaphysics, and some more general questions, half philosophical and half practical, such as Education” (1986, 80). Breuvart writes: “Whitehead’s reflection about the educative process ought to be first found in his book The Aims of Education. But my point in this paper is to prove that one could find a more complete conception through a closer examination of Process and Reality’s Categoreal Scheme. For we could find in it a conception of responsibility which is more relevant for a theory of educational process, and for a practice as well, in the sense of a more effective commitment in the educative process” (2001, 286). See also Cobb 1998, which takes up some of the work of Woodhouse and Regnier; and Flynn 1995 and 2005, which relate Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to his philosophy and psychology of education.

[10] Woodhouse 2001, 223. For Whitehead’s cosmological explanation of the notion of “the art of life,” see FR, 4.

[11] See Skinner 1972, 5, 147-48, 27. For a critique of behaviorism, see Woodhouse 2005b, 399-401.

[12] Cf. Woodhouse 2001b, 224.

[13] See Hendley 1986, 87-88; Allan 1999; Collins 1996, 70-71, 82.

[14] See Marx 1972; Spring 1994, 11-12; Nivens 2005. Johnson claims that Whitehead believed in strict limits to the freedom of craftspeople who would simply add the “finishing touches” to mass-produced articles (1962, 92).

[15] Cf. Taggart 2004.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Breuvart, J.-M. 2001. “How Could Be Related Ethics and Education in Whitehead’s Process Philosophy?” Proceedings of the Whitehead and China in the New Millenium Conference.

Cobb, J. B., Jr. 1998. “Beyond Essays,” Interchange, 29, 1, 105-110.

Dewey, J. 1959. Experience and Education (New York, MacMillan).

Dunkel, H. B. 1965. Whitehead on Education (Ohio, Ohio State University Press).

Evans, M. 1998. Whitehead and Philosophy of Education (Atlanta, Rodopi).

Evans, M. 2000. “Process, Teaching, and Learning,” Process Perspectives, Winter. 3, 225-41.

Entwistle, H. 1970. Child-Centred Education (London, Methuen).

Flynn, M. 1995. “Conflicting Views on the Importance of Emotion to Human Development and Growth: Piaget and Whitehead,” Interchange, 26, 4, 365-381.

Hendley, B. 1986. Dewey, Russell, and Whitehead: Philosophers as Educators (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University).

Holmes, H. 1951. “Whitehead’s Views on Education,” in The Library of Living Philosophers, Volume 3: The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, edited by P.A. Schilpp (New York, Tudor Publishing), 621-40.

Johnson, A. H. 1962. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Civilization (New York, Dover Publications).

Marx, K. 1972. “The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by R.C. Tucker (New York, W.W. Norton), 56-65

McMurtry, J. 1988. “The History of Inquiry and Social Reproduction: Educating for Critical Thought,” Interchange, 19, 1.

Nivens, P. 2005. “Gramsci and Whitehead Rate Consent in Politics,” in Chromatikon 1: Annuaire de la philosophie en procès, edited by M. Weber, M. and D. D’Epremesnil (Louvain-la-Neuve, Presses universitaires de Louvain), 177-93.

Piaget, J. 1969a. Psychology of Intelligence (Totowa, N.J., Littlefield, Adams).

Piaget, J. 1969b. Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child (New York, Penguin Books).

Russell, B. 1916. Principles of Social Reconstruction (London, George Allen and Unwin).

Taggart, G. 2004. “Whitehead and Marcuse: Teaching the ‘Art of Life’,” Process Papers, 8, 53-67.

Wegener, F. C. 1957. The Organic Philosophy of Education (Dubuque, Wm.C. Brown). “Whitehead’s Philosophy and Education,” Special Issue, Process Studies, 34, 2, 2005.

Author Information

Adam Scarfe
Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies
California State University, Bakersfield, 9001 Stockdale Hwy, Bakersfield, California, 93311 U.S.A.

Howard Woodhouse
Department of Educational Foundations
University of Saskatchewan, 28 Campus Drive, Saskatoon, SK S7N 0V6, Canada

How to Cite this Article

Scarfe, Adam, and Howard Woodhouse, “Whitehead’s Philosophy of Education: Its Promise and Relationship to the Philosophy of Organism”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/thematic/education/whiteheads-philosophy-of-education/>.