A student in my course this semester asked a great question recently: “How is Whitehead’s cosmology related to his pedagogy?” Many commentators find it strange that Whitehead decided to include (and indeed to conclude) his book Aims of Education with a few chapters on relativistic space and time. What on earth does his alternative interpretation of Einstein’s relativity theory have to do with education?

Whitehead’s critique of modern education is that it tends to produce well-informed experts with atrophied feeling, deadened receptivity to beauty, and less capacity for animated and imaginative thought than was present when students first enter school as untutored children. In other words, our schools have been designed to fill the active minds of children with inert ideas, eventually leading to specialized knowledge in some narrow field in which they will eventually seek employment. Narrowness wins out over breadth and depth.

Of course, Whitehead does not argue that educational systems cease teaching important knowledge. He insists that these ideas, whether general or specialized, never be handed over to children in frozen, shrink-wrapped form, but rather in such a way that they can be immediately utilized, tested, and recombined in fresh ways. If the child does not, from the first, experience education as the joy of discovery, then mental dryrot sets in and the future vitality of human culture is endangered. Whitehead: “Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful” (AoE, 1-2).

How is Whitehead’s rather common critique of modern industrial/factory-style education related to cosmology? Whitehead’s critique of Einstein has to do with the way an a priori geometrical scheme, entirely disconnected from experience, is made the foundation of the physical world. Whitehead says that “the most extraordinary fact of human life is that all beings seem to form their judgements of spatial quantity according to the same metrical system” (AoE, 160-161). But, he adds, this is “only true within the limits of accuracy obtained by human observation.” Einstein’s contribution was to make science inescapably aware of the fact that “diverse spatio-temporal systems of measurement are relevant to the behavior of things” (161). But how do these diverse metrical systems hang together as part of a common external world? Einstein approached this problem via a mathematical conception of space and time as a single continuous manifold. But again, how is his “space-time continuum” related to human experience? Nobody lives in such a continuum. Rather, we live “in a set of fragmentary experiences” (AoE, 162). Whitehead articulated what he called the “method of extensive abstraction” so as to reconnect the fragmentary worlds of our experience to a common world of mathematical conceptions.

One of the purposes of education is to allow human beings, from unique backgrounds and with fragmentary perspectives and special talents, to join in the common project of culture-formation. Whitehead’s critique of standard renderings of relativity theory is that these renderings take the unity of a mathematical abstraction as fundamental and given while reducing away as illusory the concrete experiences from which all mathematical abstraction derives. This is akin to treating the conveyance of information as of primary importance in education, rather than the growth of human beings. Whitehead protests against the idea of an objective, pre-given space-time continuum for the same reason he protests again the idea of an objective, pre-given encyclopedia of knowledge. “Students are alive, and the purpose of education is to stimulate and guide their self-development” (AoE, v).

The aim of education, like the aim of Whitehead’s critique of Einsteinian relativity, is to find a way to lift “the broken limited experiences” of our individual lives, to inspire us each from where we stand to contribute in our unique ways to the sustenance of “that connected infinite world in which in our thoughts we live” (AoE, 164). Whitehead concludes Aims of Education with the lines “Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world” (165). In other words, whether in theories of space and time or in theories of education, we must guard against the deadly temptation to make idols out of our abstractions. The world is a community of experiences. It has, we hope, a uniform texture, a texture approached by the most advanced thinking activity a culture can produce. Abstractions are not the enemy, they are of vital importance to civilized life! But when we neglect the process by which we arrive at them by building up from concrete particular experiences, we make a terrible mess of the whole human endeavor, and indeed, of the world itself. We arrive at the abstract uniformity of the texture of experience not through violently explaining away the uniqueness of each of our points of view. Rather, we start where we are as living and aspiring organisms and, keeping our feet firmly placed on the ground, reach from there to the stars.

Next weekend, CIIS is hosting a conference called “1968 Revisited.”

I’ll be presenting on a panel on Saturday, September 29th at 10am called “Pedagogy and Experimental Philosophy” with Jacob Sherman and Joshua Ramey (moderated by Debashish Banerji).

Below is a draft of my panel presentation, titled “From Final Knowledge to Infinite Learning, with Chaudhuri, Whitehead, and Deleuze.”

California Institute of Integral Studies was founded in 1968 by the integral philosopher Haridas Chaudhuri. Dr. Chaudhuri’s integral vision will function for me today as an invitation to re-envision education as an ongoing process whereby the the human and the cosmos are brought into ever-more intimate relation with one another:

“The more we understand the essential structure of the universe as a whole, the more we gain insight into the structure of [humanity]. The obverse is also true. The more we understand the essential structure of [the human], the more we gain insight into the unfathomable mystery of Being.” (The Evolution of Integral Consciousness, 85)

For the purposes of our panel on Experimental Philosophy and Pedagogy, I will interpret Dr. Chaudhuri’s insight in the following way: As integral philosophers, we must match our evolutionary cosmology with an evolutionary epistemology. And as integral educators, we must ground our epistemology in pedagogy. If we claim to know something as philosophers, how is it that we came to know it, and how are we to share and review this knowledge and our method of arriving at it with colleagues and with students? And as spiritual practitioners embedded in learning communities, how do we adapt our educational activities and our theory of learning to the fact of an ensouled, evolving cosmos? What is the purpose of the university in an evolutionary universe like ours?

In accepting Dr. Chaudhuri’s invitation to re-envision education in more integral terms, I turn for help to the philosophies of education of two other 20th century thinkers, Alfred North Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze. In what follows I summarize each of their perspectives and attempted answers to these questions.

Almost thirty years ago, Deleuze described the transition from a “disciplinary society” where individuals were ruled by “environments of enclosure”—factories, hospitals, schools, prisons, etc.—to a “control society” wherein power is no longer localized in institutions but distributed across networks. We now have more access to information than ever before, but our every move is tracked by increasingly invasive surveillance technologies. We are surrounded by screens whose media content is tailored specifically to our desires. Pop-up ads appear on our smartphone before we even become conscious of our desire for the product being sold to us. We are no longer free individuals, but nodes in vast corporate-owned relational databases. Questions of the fragility of human freedom and of liberal democracy have come to the fore. In a recent op-ed in The Guardian, Yuval Noah Harari argues that in this new context, the idea of liberal freedom, the foundation of the modern West’s political and educational institutions, is make-believe and must be discarded. What we put in its place is not entirely clear. If the individual freedom imagined by liberalism has become an impossible fiction, how might we re-imagine our human potentials in the context of a new, more networked environment? How are educators to respond to this situation?

Whitehead articulated his pedagogical theory a century ago, when the coming collapse of disciplinary society was not yet fully apparent. Universities remained among the most powerful and important institutions in the world, a source of great hope for the future of the species. Times have changed, but his ideas for reforming education, which, as we will see, cannot be separated from his ideas for reforming metaphysics and cosmology, remain as relevant as ever. While at Harvard, he witnessed the founding of one of America’s first business schools. He suggested at the time that a great function awaiting American universities was to “civilize business” by cultivating “socially constructive” motives in business students. This, he hoped, would shape their motives such that the amassing of fortunes would be pursued not as an end in itself but as a means to the betterment of humankind. Things have not panned out as he’d hoped. As Deleuze put it in his essay on the rise of control societies, today’s schools have been delivered over to corporations to serve as perpetual training facilities. Their sole purpose is now to prepare children to join the workforce.

In our historical moment, Whitehead’s pedagogical theory serves as an act of resistance against the corporate takeover of education. His theory is motivated by two related premises: (1) students are alive, and (2) the purpose of education is to stimulate and guide their self-development. Such development would naturally feed the growth of the species as a whole. But not only that. For Whitehead, “social construction” is not just a human activity, it is the aim of the universe, which is to say it functions at all levels—physical, biological, psychological, and even theological—to further the evolutionary adventure of cosmogenesis. Education works on our motives, builds our values. It is not just about memorizing rules, facts, and figures, and certainly, it is not just about job training. It is about intensifying our capacity to consciously participate in the realization of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Whitehead’s theory of education is a protest against dead knowledge and inert ideas. Inert ideas are merely received into the mind without having been tested, utilized, or brought into fresh combination. Education in inert ideas is not only useless, it is harmful. It assumes that the human mind is a dead instrument awaiting information, an assumption that ends up forming dead minds. Learning often requires rigor but should never become a chore. Learning is intrinsically enjoyable because the general ideas it engenders in us can bring understanding of that stream of events which pours through our life, which is our life. “There is only one subject-matter for education,” Whitehead tells us, “and that is Life in all its manifestations.”

Whitehead describes education as a recurring cycle of romantic allurement, precise specialization, and free generalization. “We should banish the idea of a mythical, far-ff end of education,” he tells us. Education is not only a life-long but an infinite task. In Whitehead’s universe, if there is to be any immortality, it is only through profound education that we might become adequate to it. There is no final system to memorize because we do not inhabit a finished cosmos. Ours is a cosmogenesis. Whitehead’s novel process-relational ontology, ensouled cosmology, and imaginative pedagogical theory all arose together out the revolutions in 20th century mathematics and physics. The material world is not determined by eternal laws. The fact of the matter is that matter is an act. Which is not to say that it is an illusion; rather, matter is the result of an ongoing expressive activity. Here it becomes clear that Whitehead’s theory of education cannot be separated from his process-relational ontology. He is no idealist or “social constructionist,” as this term is usually understood; for him, construction is a cosmological activity rooted in a creative principle that precedes human beings and that we participate in. It follows that education is a cosmic activity, something the universe is doing through us, and simultaneously something that we as conscious beings are doing to the universe. As the Romantic philosopher-poet Novalis put it, “our vocation is the education of the earth.”

There is no end to education. It is an infinite task. Whitehead thus believed education should coincide with the cultivation of a reverence for the eternal present. “The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future.” “The foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity” (The Aims of Education).

In 1968, Deleuze published Difference and Repetition, a text that attempts to transform Kant’s transcendental method, which had claimed to provide a priori knowledge of the general form of all possible experience, into an initiatory approach to open-ended learning and concept creation that is responsive to actual occasions of experience. “It is from ‘learning,’” Deleuze tells us, “not from knowledge, that the transcendental conditions of thought must be drawn” (DR 166).

“When something occurs,” Deleuze and his coauthor Guattari elaborate elsewhere, “the self that awaited it is already dead, or the one that would await it has not yet arrived” (A Thousand Plateaus 198-199). There is thus, according to Deleuze, something both “fatal” and “amorous” about the learning process (DR 23). Education can be both destructive and productive of subjectivity. We are not the same subject before and after an occasion of learning. Learning is transformative.

Learning is thus more than mere imitation, more than a pre-established subject’s attempt to mirror a prefabricated knowledge. Imitation can be helpful in a secondary corrective way, but only after the learning process has already been initiated. How precisely this initiation occurs is difficult to spell out. Deleuze suggests that learning is instigated semiotically, by way of an encounter with signs. Learning is the interpretation of and response to signs, where the response does not resemble the sign but rather actively unfolds what is enveloped within it. We learn through differential repetition and not reproduction of the same, since each new encounter with a sign invokes a novel conceptual constellation in the learner aiming to unfold whatever the sign is enfolding. Deleuze gives the example of learning to swim: “the movements of the swimming instructor which we reproduce on the sand bear no relation to the movements of the wave, which we learn to deal with only by grasping the former in practice as signs” (DR 23). Learning is as much a practical sensory-motor task as it is an intellectual or theoretical one. We learn only by transforming ourselves, body and soul. In learning, we are always becoming something else. Our faculties are pushed beyond their limits and forced to overcome themselves, synesthetically spilling into one another. Thinking conceives problems whose solutions can only be kinesthetically enacted (e.g., learning to swim), just as sensation presents problems whose solutions can only be thought (e.g., a child’s first encounter with a mirror). Thoughts become sensible; sensations become thinkable. Thus, Deleuze tells us, “learning always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind” (DR 165).

As with Whitehead’s thought, Deleuze’s pedagogical insights cannot be separated from his metaphysical and epistemological innovations. Deleuze laments the way the philosophic tradition has tended to subordinate the learning process to the product of knowledge. Learning has been treated as a mere means, an intermediary leading us from ignorance toward its final cause: wisdom. The learner is likened to a rat in a maze, where the end goal is predetermined rather than needing to be invented anew in each pedagogical participant’s encounter with a problematic field. Learning intercedes only because the supposedly simple a priori essence of knowledge cannot be immediately recollected. For this orthodox philosophical tradition, it would be preferable if knowledge were transparently available from the start. Even Hegel, whose Phenomenology of Spirit recounts the “extraordinary apprenticeship” of the learning process, nonetheless ends up subordinating this process to the absolute knowledge produced at the end. Deleuze points to Plato as an exception, as he is a transitional figure in the history of philosophy who, despite being tempted by the traditional dogmatic image of thought, still insisted that learning is an infinite rather than a merely preparatory task. Learning is for Plato the true transcendental condition of thought. Learning is initiatory, but not in a merely preparatory way. The initiatory trial of learning is always ongoing, always requiring the differential repetition of what has been learned: never the rote application of rules but always the novel unfolding of signs. Each wave is unique, requiring creative kinesthetic responses from our embodied minds. A seasoned surfer has not mastered the application of universal rules, but has become familiar with the profound synchronicity that unconsciously binds their bodily movements to the ocean’s rhythms.

What is education becoming in today’s networked control society? What is the role of the university in our increasingly imperiled planetary civilization? These are huge questions that I cannot pretend to have answered today. If universities are going to be vaporized into virtual campuses, can so-called “online education” successfully enact the integral pedagogical approach briefly explored here? I don’t know, but there are at least some positive signs.

Universities have long been driven by the desire to preserve and pass on the flame of knowledge won by past luminaries. This remains a noble and important responsibility, but perhaps today our most urgent task as university educators is to inspire hope by imagining and working to build futures worth living in. However, in so doing we must also cultivate a reverence for the present, for the eternal moment, for we can never leave this moment as if to inhabit some past golden age or future utopia. Integral philosophers like Chaudhuri, Whitehead, and Deleuze invite us to inhabit the profound and generative mystery of the learning process here and now. Everywhere and always learning remains an infinite task. Integral education is a life-long practice of participation in the creative energy of the cosmos. There is no final exam, though as Deleuze as well as Socrates and Plato knew, part of this participation is also learning to die. If education is preparation for anything we can only say that it is preparation for death. And the best way to prepare to die is to discover the best way of living well. This is the end that education should serve.

The search for final knowledge becomes a practice of infinite learning when knowing is placed back in the context of the eternal cosmic (re)cycle of life (and death). The human mind is not an instrument to be sharpened, a wax tablet to be informed, or a bird cage to be tamed. Each mind is rather a unique living personality seeking creative expression. Life itself is fundamentally a process of learning. It is creative rhythm, differential repetition, fractal reproduction. Life syncs with death, as death beats bodies into form, generating by eliminating what does not serve the growth of Life. Learning is the he(art) of Life.


Works Cited

Chaudhuri, H. (1977). The evolution of integral consciousness. Wheaton IL: Theosophical Publishing House.

Deleuze, Gilles. (1968/1994). Difference and Repetition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. (Winter, 1992). “Postscript on the Societies of Control” in October, Vol. 59, pp. 3-7.

Deleuze, Gilles. Felix Guattari. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Whitehead, Alfred North. (1929). The Aims of Education. New York: The Free Press.

Adam/Knowledge-Ecology and I interviewed the integral philosopher William Irwin Thompson a while back. He recently posted a transcription of part of that encounter on his blog. Here’s a sample:

So imagine in a noetic polity that a girl is born, the very fact that she is a member of that polity would empower her to get an education, to go to a good school, to not starve on the street, to participate in the economic exchange of values with the idea that she’ll go on to contribute to her culture by creating Apple computers or new kinds of art or philosophy or technology, and that rather than being seen as a drain on the system, she makes a contribution. Recall that Reagan used to like to talk about welfare mothers in Chicago driving Cadillacs and living well while doing nothing but watching TV. This image comes from Reagan’s postwar TV culture of illusion and deception—Death Valley Days and Westerns. But in a post-television, post-national, post-market world, the culture would not be about passive consumption but participation in noetic polities through the growth of consciousness. Education becomes a primary institution of exchange in the same way that monasteries were in the Dark Ages.

One has to look at religion, economics and political structures as all part of this transition. Unfortunately, we’re living in the transition-state and we’re out of the event-horizon of the old basin of attraction, and we’ve entered the turbulent zone between two event-horizons, so we’re in for a very bumpy ride, because we haven’t yet entered the event horizon of the new cultural ecology of noetic polities. This transition probably won’t come easily, but will be characterized by die backs, pandemics, and ecological catastrophes, because for the past 40 years we’ve made all the wrong decisions, as you guys are aware. When Gore did not contest his plurality, but let the Supreme Court interfere with the election by supporting George W. Bush, we lost our last chance to avoid a catastrophic transition. Bush and the Neocons gave us the two trillion dollar war of Iraq and blocked the transition from economics to ecology as the governing science of a new planetary culture.

President Coolidge said that the business of America is business. Now most college kids want to get a job and make their education mean something as an investment from their parents.  They want to get an MBA from Harvard or Wharton, so our culture is still based upon  the business model of economics. Congress is still filled with businessmen and lawyers. The governing politicians now won’t accept ecological science, hence their denial of global warming, despite the fact that every major scientist in the prestigious journal Nature affirms that global warming is real and not a plot of Euro-intellectuals to introduce Socialism. Climate change is real. David Orr even goes so far as to call our situation one of climate collapse.  But Good ol’ Republican businessmen still insist that it is all a fraud, a scam. So our politicians are still trying to run this system with market theory and economics with good old-fashioned common business sense.  They’re now trying to run universities as profit-making systems, and thus they are getting rid of the humanities the way they got rid of the classics 40 years ago.  They are trying to get rid of intellectuals to mass-produce business, economics, and government majors. And to keep the Plebs happy, they invest more in sports and their required facilities than they do in the Humanities. So they are getting rid of literature, philosophy, and English—the kind of majors that encourage thinking instead of consuming. But here too, things are changing, because Creative Writing is now a consumers’ market and has been absorbed by the publishing and media industries. There are now literary journals that have no other purpose than to publish these artificial academic works in order to secure tenure for their A List writers. Creative Writing literature is like a yeast infection: it is a surface colony that parasitizes the reproductive system and gets in the way of the real thing. Writers should know things, so they should major in another subject from Astronomy to Zoology. The kind of liberal arts college education in which I studied anthropology, philosophy, and literature at Pomona College fifty years ago is now no longer available or valued. You’re not going to get it at the Iowa Writers Workshop.


So that’s a big change in the notion of an educated citizenry. All the people who are now part of the government are the wrong kind of people for our global crisis. People like the McConnells and the Boehners–they don’t know what the hell is going on. So we are going to learn the hard way.


If we had listened to the first prophetic warnings in the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies–in all the work that Lindisfarne did 30 to 40 years ago–and even before that to Earth Day stuff in 1968, then we might have had leaders that were more open to a new world-view. Jerry Brown, when he was governor of California the first time, did listen and did come to some of our Lindisfarne meetings. Brown appointed  people like Gregory Bateson, Sim Van der Ryn, and Rusty Schweickart  who introduced new ways of thinking and new technologies of solar and wind and organic farming. Brown made the green architect Sim Van der Ryn to be state architect; so Brown did try to energize new ideas, but he was dismissed as “Governor Moonbeam” by the popular press–which is, of course, owned by the media corporations, of folks like Rupert Murdoch.  Jerry Brown would go to a Zen monastery like Tassajara and meditate, and so the popular press ridiculed him. Jerry has a lot of problems, like the rest of us, but he did have a political sense that these issues were the wave of the future, so it will be interesting to see now that he is governor again how he handles this transition we are in.


But for sure the concreteness of markets, solid gold currency–all of these instruments are inadequate and are an application of the wrong geometry to the behavior of the system we’re in. So often times it is outlaws, poets, mystics, and philosophers who get a sense of what the new thing is—as Bucky Fuller with his global-thinking pirates pointed out.


Remember even when science was replacing religion at the time of Newton, most of those guys were Rosicrucians and hermetic mystics (in the way Francis Yates has explored), and they were pretty wacky and really far-out kind of guys. They weren’t just classical scientific materialists– that came later with materialists like Lavoisier. So there is often a whole lunatic fringe, or cutting edge group of people, out there who are beginning to express the transition, but they are not the people who are governing us, so there is a time lag.