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.
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.