Philosophical Education and Global Citizenship: Tapping Into the Process Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead

By Dr.Felix Okechukwu Ugwuozor


This paper outlines how ethics and democracy can be conceived procedurally within the context of education for global citizenship, using the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead as a starting point. Education for global citizenship aims to create active individual consciousness within a community and a commitment to build upon values and practices. As this paper presents, Whitehead’s rejection of systematized, scientific rationalism formed the basis for his theory of internal relatedness. While scientific rationalism promotes the idea that things and individuals are distinct and discreet from each other, Whitehead’s process theory advances the idea that things and persons are internally related to each other. The nature of epistemology in Whitehead’s system of thought shines a spotlight on the immense richness of process theory as well as on the limits of the standard scientific rationalism.

Alfred North Whitehead (Author of Process and Reality)
Alfred North Whitehead

The paper, while highlighting the flaws of Kant’s basis for global citizenship, explores Whitehead’s reconstruction of metaphysics and rationality within the framework of process metaphysics. In addition it indicates the sociopolitical and educational implications of process thought. The paper concludes by discussing how Lipman’s Philosophy for Children is related to Whitehead’s process philosophy and, in fact, could actualize Whitehead’s educational philosophy that students should be interactive and creative participants in learning. It also demonstrates how Whitehead’s process thought and Lipman’s Philosophy for Children both share education beliefs that promote the values, skills, culture, and attitude needed for global citizenship.


Modernity is marked historically, albeit not exclusively, by the rise of scientific materialism. The perennial metaphysical questions that previously enjoyed a central place in the Western philosophical tradition were “demystified” by the work of physics, which usurped their place unchallenged. As Brumbaugh (1982) notes, “the elegance and success of the explanatory ideas of physics led to their being transformed into principles of metaphysics [and] this transformation takes the concepts of physics to be the description of the whole of reality” (p. 3). This scientific paradigm, taken as such, can and has led to mistaken assumptions regarding the nature of our fundamental relationship to reality. These assumptions are manifest in all spheres, including the development of the self, sociopolitical life, and, not surprisingly, education. Scientific materialism focuses on cause and effect and ignores the existence of purpose and experience. It isolates individuals, therefore, from the natural setting of external influences. Consequently, in the educational sector, scientific materialism leads to experimentation without a learner’s context by treating the human mind as a passive recipient of information. It is crucial, then, to reconsider the process of education by evaluating Alfred North Whitehead’s argument of process philosophy.

We begin by examining metaphysics from the framework of Whitehead’s process thought, which is inexorably linked to rethinking our fundamental notion of reality. As Whitehead (1978) noted, previous notions of metaphysics are misleading. They presume a world in which things, people, and events are discrete, irreducible, and fundamentally remain the same throughout time; any changes are secondary. Such thinking, he continued, has formed the foundation of our social, political, and educational thought and must be reconsidered before undertaking any foundational transformation.

Reexamining these metaphysical questions also demands that we scrutinize traditional theories of epistemology and concepts of rationality. Criticism of the traditional scientific and philosophical models of universal and objective truth has led to reformulating epistemology as inquiry and dialogue (Buber, 1970). Philosophical pragmatism (Dewey, 1958) marks the accompanying epistemological shift necessary for a metaphysical shift, but is codependent. In outlining this connection, the paper also outlines its implications for social and educational endeavors.

Rationale of the Paper

             The educational system of the contemporary globalized world is criticized in some nations. Developing countries have borne the brunt of these critiques. The educational system in developing, and in some developed countries such as the United States, is evaluated by state or nationwide skill-based testing, which leads to poor student performance when compared internationally. The most affected areas are reasoning and problem solving, which means students can graduate without developing much competence as thinkers (Riffert, 2005). In traditional epistemology, the physical layout of educational settings—classrooms where the teacher is in front of a class, desks are well arranged in rows, there is no unauthorized talking, and an extrinsic reward is encouraged—insulates students from the reality of their experience, and focuses primarily on intellectual development to the detriment of physical training (Stolz, 2014). The limitations of the current educational system, which are inherited and rely on traditional theories of epistemology, do not reflect cosmopolitan realities. At best they mirror reality, including that of human beings as discreet, de-socialized entities and reinforce the mind–body subject–object divide. It is beneficial to understand how Whitehead’s process philosophy applies to education. This paper aims to show the importance of Whitehead’s process philosophy on the educational sector, and will attempt to identify the possible implications Whitehead’s process philosophy has for politics, society, and the environment.

Whitehead and Process Philosophy

 Process philosophy provides a starting point for this discussion. The basis of Whitehead’s argument is a critique of the Newtonian view of the world and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Newton viewed the world as composed of linear time and constant mass (Hernes, 2008). Whitehead, however, argued that nature and its elements are intertwined; he aimed to forge a broader perspective through which human beings can understand themselves. In his work, Science and the Modern World, Whitehead (1925) clarifies the problem thus

There persist. . .[a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself, such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call scientific materialism. Also it is this assumption, which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have arrived. (p. 17) Whitehead (1933), further recognizing the shortcomings of scientific materialism and the philosophical trend away from metaphysical speculation, quite pointedly argued that

. . .[philosophers] accepted these generalized emotions as ultimate moral intuitions, a clear matter of fact, requiring no justification or ultimate understanding of their relations to the rest of [reality]. They discarded metaphysics. They were mistaken in thinking they found a clear foundation for morals, religion, or legislation to the exclusion of all ultimate cosmological principles. (p. 38)

            Clearly, Whitehead’s argument is twofold. First, he argues against the assumption that physics alone can replace metaphysical speculation. The atomistic and materialist cosmology underlying scientific rationalism was taken to explain the whole of existence. As a corollary, the rise of Hobbesian political philosophy, with its emphasis on the individual, mirrored the atomistic scientific prejudices of the 17th century. Modern epistemology, fueled by Cartesianism (Descartes’ mind–body divide), marked the philosophical shift toward the isolated subject as the locus of all knowledge, separate and distinct from “external” reality. Whitehead (1978) expressly rejects this systemization, arguing that

One aim of philosophy is to challenge the half-truths constituting the scientific first principles. The systemization of knowledge cannot be conducted in watertight compartments. . .a proposition can embody partial truth because it only demands a certain type of systematic environment, which is presupposed in its meaning. It does not refer to the universe in all its detail. (pp. 10–11)

Second, Whitehead rejects the enduring and unchanging universals of philosophy, as formulated in a fixed, or rather substance-centered, metaphysics and the isolated bits of matter of Newtonian physics, as being insufficient to provide metaphysical explanations of the universe. On the contrary, he argues that these “enduring substances” are derivative of process and relation, and remain the ultimate cosmological principles. Hence, in this much more process-centered metaphysics, what we perceive as fixed universals, such as the self or society, are no more than patterns of internal relatedness that mirror these cosmological principles of process. Whitehead calls this an “actual occasion.” In Process and Reality (Whitehead, 1978) he argues that

The ultimate metaphysical principle is the advance from disjunction to conjunction, creating a novel entity [that] is at once the togetherness of the “many” which it finds, and also it is one among the disjunctive “many” which it leaves. … In their natures, entities are disjunctively “many” in process of passage into conjunctive unity. This Category of the Ultimate replaces [the] category of primary substance. (p. 21)

            For Whitehead, cosmology is governed by the “laws” of plurality, potential, and creativity. The actual entity (which he also called the actual occasion and the perceived “one”) is a pattern of togetherness, a “nexus,” that honors the plurality and process of the universe through space and time. As Whitehead (1978) puts it, “every actual entity is present in every other actual entity” (p. 50). His departure from scientific materialism is marked precisely by a unique interpretation of space and time, where enduring atoms do not merely exist insulated and unchanging in space, but are more properly understood by principles of internal relatedness. As he noted “each actual entity is a throb of experience including the actual world within its scope. It is a process of feeling the many data, so as to absorb them into the unity of one individual satisfaction (Whitehead, 1978, p. 290). On a micro and macrocosmic scale, the perceived actual entities “involve each other by reason of their prehensions [or feelings] of each other,” and each entity “appropriates elements of the universe, which in themselves are other than the subject and absorbs these elements into the real internal constitution of its subject by synthesizing them in a unity” (Whitehead, 1978, p. 20). In his view, an entity is literally no-thing apart from its relations, an analysis, or rather a theory suggestive for sociopolitical developmental enterprise. What this means, significantly, is that all things are interconnected from the inside out.

            Arguably, the principle of internal relatedness seems to underlie Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. He devotes most of his argument in Process and Reality to outlining his cosmology and refuting scientific materialism. One may ask, how does a cosmological schematic such as the one he calls “actual entity” apply to our world? As Whitehead (1978) explains, the individual self and societies are “complex actual entities that share a special strand of unity within the more general unity of nature” (p. 58). Personal or social unity is the “thing” that involves all experiences, although we know that the “thing” is not a fixed substance as previously supposed; it is invisible, formless, and all-receptive, a dynamic intertwining of all experiences. The self and society are always grounded within historical space and time, not as fixed units, but what I would call patterns of extension where competing forces of “individual absoluteness and individual relativity” unravel (Whitehead, 1978, p. 58). Sturm (1988) explains further that reality and self, instead of being understood as isolated bits of unconnected substances, have a social component:

The human self is profoundly social. . . .The irreducible individuality that characterizes each self is not an isolated or merely private individuality; it is public in its dependency and in its implication. The possibilities of the self are heavily dependent on its forms of social inheritance and the determinations of the self constitute a legacy to a social future. The self’s identity cannot be comprehended apart from its past or its future, its given environment or its creative formation. (p. 41)

The self, society, nations, and the world are composed of complex patterns of organization and creativity and are necessarily interdependent. To speak of self-abstraction in a larger social context is, for Whitehead (1978), a metaphysical impossibility. Personal identity, social custom, institutions, and culture manifest themselves in a plurality of patterns built up through history—the creative advance and “concrescence” of ideas. Our essential relatedness to others and the world comes from the fact that we mirror the very principles of the process that comprise the universe. Bracken (2001) quoted Whitehead (1978) as follows:

There is no society in isolation. . . . Every society requires a social background, of which it is itself a part. In reference to any given society, the world . . . is to be conceived as forming a background in layers of social order, the defining characteristics becoming wider and more general as we widen the background. (p. 147)

            It is important to note that society has a different interpretation for Whitehead. His philosophy of organism can be conceived of as a hierarchy of societies, starting from the most general principles of organization of matter and energy down to complex and specialized patterns such as what we formally call self or society. However, this hierarchy is not mutually exclusive; each layer of Whitehead’s social order presupposes a wider background, but the whole is always moving in related and mirroring processes.

Process Philosophy and Epistemology

            Process philosophy is an approach to metaphysics that focuses on the dynamism of being; understanding the philosophical account of reality and the context of man within that reality requires a focus on the dynamic nature of being. Whitehead’s process philosophy differs from those of other Western philosophers, which are based on the premise that being is static or its dynamism is a mere appearance or secondary. Process philosophy aligns with Whitehead’s conclusion that objects are fields with spatial and temporal extensions (Riffert, 2005). As such, the metaphysical status of objects is that of abstractions; however, abstractions may be deceitful for conceptualizing the world, but they are necessary for understanding experiences. Since objects are abstractions, they are in a continuous process of becoming. Rather, nothing is ever what it is perceived to be nor will it become what a person wants it to be because it is in a continuous process of becoming (Hernes, 2008). Whitehead applied this process philosophy in education by criticizing the traditional views of learning, which emphasized compartmentalization of subjects, linear noncyclic education, and mechanist assumptions of learning. Whitehead concisely explains that learning is an active assimilation process that integrates new elements to preexisting cognitive structures. Students also should be free to think either rightly or wrongly because making mistakes creates opportunities for gaining new knowledge (Riffert, 2005).

            With this very rudimentary sketch of process metaphysics, the question now turns to epistemology. The epistemology of scientific rationalism is detached, observational, and quantifiable—a necessity in a traditional metaphysical framework. It presupposes a “given” world, external to us, that can be dissected through precise analysis. Modern epistemology has been plagued by various dualisms that are seemingly irreconcilable within this framework, namely subject–object, fact–value, and mind–body. For example, the fact–value dualism arises from the 18th-century enlightenment view that values cannot be derived from facts; there is no possibility of deriving what ought to be from what is. When such rigid distinctions between subject–object and mind–body are applied to education, there is the tendency to present a curriculum, or learning, that is embroiled or punctuated with isolated and unrelated facts that do not penetrate the deeper meaning of the world, the self, other selves, and their activities and omits the richer dimensions of importance, value, and others. Within Whitehead’s metaphysics, the marked epistemological shift moves away from “objective” knowledge toward what Whitehead calls “appreciative consciousness” or what I would call an aesthetic understanding. Appreciative consciousness entails “…receptivity to the other, rapport with the other, and release of energies toward the creation of new forces of interaction with the other…” (Sturm, 1998, p. 14). I perceive this when I identify with another man or woman going through difficult times, when I see the life of a child in Haiti being starved, of a child subjected to hard labor in far-away Africa, and in the suffering of immigrants in Italy or Copenhagen. Strictly speaking, there is no knower–known epistemological relationship for Whitehead, for that would assume a fixed subject that passively observes an external reality. As Sturm (1988) points out, “the [epistemological] dualities that seem so clear in scientific materialism between mind and matter, value and fact, theory and practice are blurred in the philosophy of organism” (p. 35). All actual entities or occasions—even complex and conscious entities such as individuals—are mirrored processes of becoming, each requiring the “other” for its existence. Human knowledge, therefore, is just a specialized mode of “prehension,” or feeling, and “is perspectival [and] value laden” (p. 35). According to Cobbs, Jr. (1965) prehension is a process that connects actual entities to eternal objects. This means that prehension describes the development of the complexity of organisms by combining past experiences, or actual entities, to potential or eternal entities. Realizing prehension involves gathering objects in unity. The world is essentially experiential and actual entities do not perceive experience in a purely rational way.

Hence, the standard scientific model of rationality is limited to certain contexts and may not be applicable in the human world. Although Whitehead realized both the value and the limitation of scientific knowledge, he was still expressly critical of the correlating scientific notions of nature and mind as lifeless, quantifiable, and meaningless and was critical of “inert ideas” or static knowledge. The philosophy of organism is a holistic system, requiring a holistic conception of knowledge. It is precisely here that dialogue and inquiry as epistemological models could complement the variety and value of Whitehead’s metaphysical picture.

In the spirit of dialogue and inquiry, reconstructing metaphysics requires reconstructing rationality itself. The following section examines what the sociopolitical and educational implications are for such reconstruction—an exploration of whether such reconstruction would be of any relevance to a deeply divided sociopolitical space. In order to address the issue, Kant’s (1917) idea of cosmopolitanism is evaluated. A review of philosophic education, specifically Philosophy for Children—called a “reflective paradigm of critical practice”—is explained (Lipman, 2003, p. 18). Philosophy for Children is a practical representation of the pedagogical reconstruction that not only complements process metaphysics and epistemology, but also educational practices likely to equip the younger generation with skills, values, and the attitude needed to live actively in a global world as global citizens—men and women who, despite their distance from each other, are conscious of their interconnectedness and are committed to building the values and practices that define them as one community.

Kant’s Idea of Cosmopolitanism

Kant’s idea of cosmopolitanism is perceived as the basis of modern cosmopolitan thought. Radically shifting from his predecessors’ ideas of cosmopolitanism, Kant argued that individuals are rational and that all rational beings belong to one moral community. This same understanding can be replicated at a national level where citizens of a republic share characteristics of independence, equality, and freedom; they also subject themselves to the common law. Kant advocated for a cosmopolitan law by suggesting that, apart from constitutional and international laws, every individual should adhere to cosmopolitan law or the law of world citizens (Papastephanou, 2016). Whereas cosmopolitanism operates within boundaries, those boundaries are not impervious. Based on Kant’s idea of cosmopolitanism, particularly moral cosmopolitanism, it can be applied in educational spheres by understanding nature as moral facilitator (Kleingeld, 2016). 

Process Philosophy and Political Life

            Kant’s (1917) formulation of a cosmopolitan ideal requires the recognition of a universal moral law grasped through the universal capacities of reason. Kant rightly understood the metaphysical groundings of moral action; however, the justification for his cosmopolitan ideal can only be grounded in a transcendental metaphysics, arguably a metaphysics that is flawed and impracticable, which has nevertheless affected all spheres of life, including politics.

Recent philosophers have ignored metaphysical questions in social and political discourse by favoring questions of epistemology (Ayer, 1936; Dewey, 1934a; Rorty, 1979). Indeed, debunking “eternal” universals has dominated most modern and postmodern thought, thereby leaving us to speak of metaphysical and epistemological uncertainty. Metaphysical speculation, however, is a vital option and is germane for adequate and fuller understanding of reality. Process philosophy provides a rich starting point for social and political reconstruction. The societal relevance and implications of the process metaphysical framework are examined in the following section.

The core principle of process philosophy (i.e., internal relatedness) is both metaphysical and moral (Whitehead, 1978, p. 9). Thus, expanding upon one of Whitehead’s central criticisms of scientific materialism—the fallacy of simple location—Sturm (1988) argues that this fallacy, taken as a paradigm, has led to misconceptions of what it means to be a person or a nation. According to Sturm (1988),

Central to scientific materialism is the principle of simple location according to which entities are taken to exist in definite regions and for definite durations. Their essential meaning requires no reference to other regions or durations. Save as they suffer from interference from other entities external to themselves, they exist in blissful isolation. (p. 33)

            Although internal relatedness is antithetical to this view, the notion of isolated individuals or nations existing in one place or time with no essential relation to one another is a metaphysical illusion. At best, such a view of reality could provoke strife and competition; at worst, it has led to an ego-logical relationship of the self to the world. Politically, it has been translated into aggrandizing and often oppressive ideas of national sovereignty. On the contrary, process thought opens a wide form of relationships based on interdependence and mutual participation. Such a relationship begins with the metaphysical realization that the self and world are necessarily intertwined. The self always presupposes a wider social context, different tribes or ethnic groups presuppose a wider national context, nations presuppose a wider global context, and the world presupposes a wider cosmological context. It is this realization upon which we can base our ethical and political actions. In seeking to bring about such new and better social and political arrangements, we need a new structure of knowledge. Sturm (1988) argues:

The ultimate aim . . . would be to effect an emancipation that is directed towards a community of belonging. Perhaps the most that can be expected is the initiation of an elementary community of discourse, a dialogic process cutting across customary disciplinary lines and focused on the meaning and problem of being a responsible citizen. That, in itself, might epitomize the possibility of reconstructing public life. (p. 30)

            Whereas Sturm’s sentiments are acceptable, it is ideal to critique how he views a community of discourse as “the most that can be expected” (Sturm, 1988, p. 30). From the point of view of epistemology, dialogue and inquiry are a mandate, some kind of catalyst for the unfolding and discovery of the multiplicity of value and meaning to be found in the world among one another as selves and citizens. As Whitehead (1933) notes,

            …all points of view, reasonably coherent and in some sense with an application have         something to contribute to our understandings of the universe. . . . The duty of tolerance             is our finite homage to the abundance of inexhaustible novelty which is awaiting the    future. (p. 53)

In this sense, our communicative processes are not mere window dressing or social niceties; they are crucial to the realization of our essential relatedness, especially within the emergent historical context of globalization.

Process Philosophy and Philosophy for Children

            This epistemic state of reasonableness and emphasis on critical dialogue are central to the educational paradigm that philosophical education, or rather Philosophy for Children, represents. Moreover, Philosophy for Children presents a more holistic conception of rationality, which need not be divorced from metaphysical speculation, but can complement a process metaphysic. In The Aims of Education, Whitehead (1929) expands upon and applies his metaphysical thinking within the context of pedagogy. Although he does not develop a methodological theory of dialogue and inquiry as Dewey (1916) or Lipman (2003) did, Whitehead nevertheless remains firmly within the pragmatic circle that sought the reconstruction of our epistemological understanding and viewed the school as the primary social institution in which to implement this process.

Whitehead (1929) was expressly critical of the dominant assumptions of knowledge that pervade education; most important, the false assumption that the mind is a “dead instrument” and passive receptacle of transmitted information. According to Whitehead (1929, p. 6), the mind “is a perpetual activity, delicate, receptive, and responsive to stimulus.” The presentation of subject matter as a finished product, with little or no emphasis on process, leads to inert knowledge that has no meaning to the student or for that matter, the advance of civilization. Education, then, should concern itself with the “utilization of ideas . . . to that stream compounded of sense perceptions, feelings, hopes, desires and of mental activities adjusting thought to thought, which forms our life” (Whitehead, 1929, p. 3). The student is always within the world, not apart from it, so learning should be primarily an experiential process rather than a fixed product. Therefore, one of Whitehead’s main contributions to educational thought is his emphasis on aesthetic understanding as a crucial dimension of learning and knowledge. Although he leaves us to “fill in the blanks,” I find Philosophy for Children a reflective paradigm of critical educational practice comparable to the pedagogical expression of Whitehead’s educational thought. For one thing, both rejected the subject–object, mind–body divide of the traditional theories that preceded them. For Whitehead, as for Lipman, the human mind is not a dead tool needing revival but an active element in a continuous relationship with social and natural surroundings. In addition, they both seem to share the idea that education cannot be dissected from practice. In a sense, Whitehead (1929) insists that “The aim of education is the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge” (p.4). Education that is meaningful is more than “content as it is a process of exploration in which the past is integrated with the present, the abstract to the concrete, and theory to action” (Whitehead, 1929, p. v). In another work, Whitehead (1968) emphasizes that education should focus on “the marriage of thought and action” (p. 127). 

In Thinking in Education, Lipman (2003) outlines a tridimensional conception of thinking that encompasses the critical, the caring, and the creative. This concept “aims at a balance between the cognitive and the affective, between the perceptual and the conceptual, between the physical and the mental, the rule governed and the non-rule governed” (pp. 199–200). Apparently, Lipman’s (2003) analysis of critical, creative, and caring thinking as an essential component of education is at the heart of Whitehead’s teaching that education should be a holistic experience—an experience that has physical, intellectual, and emotional/aesthetic dimensions. For Whitehead (1933) there is deep connection between the physical, intellectual, emotional, or aesthetic in life and education. He notes “Mankind is an animal at head of the primates, and cannot escape habits of mind which cling closely to habits of body” (Whitehead, 1933, p. 58).

Aesthetic understanding (AU) or appreciative consciousness (AC) is perhaps Whitehead’s central contribution to education. AU or AC simply implies that the student has the ability to seize the datum or every bit of his experience and recreate the datum to his own experience. As Sherburne (1963) observes, it is one in which the individual recreates the performance of his own experience. It indicates a sense or awareness that beauty in everything we see and hear works hand in hand, and as Whitehead (1929) notes, “what education has to impact is an intimate sense of the power of ideas, for the beauty of ideas” (p. 18). Aesthetic understanding is a necessity for deepening one’s self-understanding and learning. In Whitehead’s (1933) words, “Once young people are grasped by the beauty within knowledge, a certain self-surrender occurs” (p. 370). There seem to be some connections between Lipman’s triad—critical, creative, and caring thinking—and Whitehead’s aesthetic consciousness. Lipman (2003) clearly notes that creativity is based on aesthetics. Indeed, creative capacity is not tenable without aesthetics and assessment of creativity always requires a judgment of beauty. While aesthetics is not the goal of creative thinking, it is its essential component (Dewey, 1934b).

Reminiscent of Whitehead’s thoughts on aesthetic understanding or appreciative consciousness of the world around us, the emphasis on the three dimensions of thinking as an irreducible and intertwining process of good thinking is instructive; both could support the educational paradigm or a core curriculum agenda in educational practice. Lipman’s three dimensions of thinking share a similar subtle process and goal of Whitehead’s aesthetic understanding, and follow the same schematic procedure of Whitehead’s aesthetic understanding. In a way, both seem to bring a sense of reality to bear in student learning. Additionally, both seem to bring to mind the skill of an artist and evoke the idea of creativity, which could lead to creation of new insights—“the impact of this sense of reality [and idea of creativity] add energy to our experience and makes the difference between actively engaged learning and detached passive encounters” (Evan, 1998, p. 89). Also, both seem to share similar goals—as educational tools—to create and recreate conscious experience, which can be applied to aspects of life—social, political, economic, and environmental.   

A traditional educational curriculum encourages, if not forces, teachers to teach isolated scraps of knowledge due to its epistemological subject–object division. Such instructional designs, according to Keller (1988), are likely to deprive [students] of the five human capacities of creativity, empathy, transient, humor and wisdom” (p.141), and are generally not adequately based on Gagne’s conditions of learning and Skinnerian psychology (Riffert, 2005). Ideally, a method of educational instruction should encourage, or rather provide, an educational practice that helps learners to discover themselves, discover their world, and become part of the solution to its socioeconomic, political, and environmental problems.  

Philosophy for Children provides such deliberative practice within its community of inquiry pedagogy and promotes a holistic reconstruction of epistemology via the tripartite— critical, creative, and caring educational dimensions. A community of inquiry provides a wider social context for the student in the learning process, a crucial detail that traditional education ignores. The traditional classroom “space” and dominant epistemological practices are designed to mirror the atomism of scientific rationalism more closely, where students sit, for long periods of time, in isolation from each other with no apparent relationship, save the one binding external relation to the locus of it all—the teacher. In addition, the traditional epistemologies “are far too much occupied with intellectual analysis, and with the acquirement of formularized information…neglect to strengthen habits of concrete appreciation of the individual facts in their full interplay of emergent values, and …merely emphasize abstract formulations which ignore this aspect of the interplay of diverse values” (Whitehead, 1929, p. 198).

The community of inquiry, by contrast, is a pedagogy that embodies Whitehead’s principle of internal relatedness, both in form and in practice. The “space” that the community of inquiry assumes is inclusive, situates the student and the teacher in a wider social context, and provides the experience of belonging to a community. The practice of inquiry through dialogue is required to fulfill the criteria of critical, creative, and caring thinking that Philosophy for Children establishes. Students, through dialogical and distributive practice, come to reflect upon and internalize the relationship between subjects of inquiry, the relationships among individuals, and ultimately their relationship to the world around them. It is this type of practice that schools, as a primary social institution, must undertake if we aim to defuse the “we versus they” attitude or the kind of ethnic sentiments that inhibit democratic growth and pursue a more inclusive vision—one that encompasses the tolerance and critical engagement needed to equip children with the skills, values, and attitude to live with others nationally and globally.

Whitehead’s process philosophy, by contrast to atomism or scientific rationalism, promotes modes of thought that could empower children to become self-reflective and internalize their relationship to others and to the world around them. While I do not have a space for an exhaustive discussion on these modes of thought, it is imperative to at least mention modes of thought that are compatible with process thought. This includes, but is not limited to, creative thinking, concrete thinking, critical thinking, and holistic thinking. These modes of thought encompass the processes and practices needed to prepare children to live alongside others locally, nationally, or globally.      

Implications of Whitehead’s Process Philosophy

            Whitehead’s internal relatedness—that things are ontologically related to one another—has some wide-ranging implications. First, it is clear that for Whitehead, all of nature has value; the living and the nonliving, humans as well as animals and trees appear in totality as one “great chain of being…held like a spider’s web of which no single thread can be caused to vibrate without shaking the whole network” (Placid, 1959, p. 41). While this relates so easily to concepts such as an ecosystem—in which human beings find themselves as organisms among other organisms, and where organisms inherit from and contribute to each other, where they reveal about the other (Merleau-Ponty, 1962), and creatures of value depend on each other, one subject emerges from the world of others, I from the we (Mead, 1934)—there are some aesthetics in an intricately interrelated world. This notion of an ecosystem can be integrated into the school curriculum to create better awareness of our connectedness—an appreciative consciousness likely to enhance students’ cognitive development and observational skills (Pyle, 2002). In schools this might aid children in maintaining a balance between excessive electronic attachments to the exclusion of other learning methods (Louv, 2005). It also may encourage children to start living and not simply to exist in their environment, to understand their surroundings and to shape their behavior to limit destruction. Furthermore, it is quite likely to encourage them to appreciate the existence of other things around them (trees, animals, human beings), rather than how they might be changed to meet their personal needs. When a child becomes aware of his or her connectedness to other children and has developed some sense of appreciation of others, it is likely that he or she will treat others with respect. Such a disposition is likely to reduce or eliminate bullying (Malone & Tranter, 2003). Such thinking, woven into a school curriculum, can become an integral element in communicating sustainability values. When I feel connected to someone or something, I am most likely going to work hard to secure and preserve it.    

            In education, Whitehead’s doctrine of internal relatedness can be integrated into the school curriculum to encourage children to make an in-depth study of the geology and ecology of their part of the world. The doctrine encourages learners to be involved in the overall campaign against discord that takes the form of aesthetic destruction, unnecessary waste, destruction of life and property, and pollution. Self-inflicted pain, suicide, mass killing, use of harmful drugs, and murder among youth are likely to decline if deeper reflection and greater awareness of a world of interrelated organisms become part of their core educational experience. When children or adolescents know they have the potential to be an element in the growth and development of others, they are more likely to pay attention to their lives and the lives of those around them.

The idea of prehension within process thought can explain this further. This is not an abstract principle, but an active way of living and experiencing that is both personal and communal, requiring participation in and assuming responsibility for one’s personal world as part of the greater world. Rather than the Cartesian or the Aristotelian self-subsisting attitude of “this body is mine,” process thought embodies an attitude or thinking likely to encourage people to see the world also as theirs—“My process of being myself is the origination from my possession of the world” (Whitehead, 1978, p. 81). In a way, the interconnectedness of all things through their prehension of one another vaguely implies that everything has the potential to be an element in the growth and development of other things. Such thinking places others above oneself and is likely to encourage an integrated coexistence that breaks down walls of demarcation between gender, sex, color, and the like. It rejects the tendency of parochialism and xenophobia that seemingly characterized preceding Cartesian thought in the form of a spatial relationship that embodies inclusiveness and openness to global perspectives. The ability to think beyond oneself, to think globally, presumes some social and political implications, which I will explain shortly.

            In the environmental sphere, Whitehead not only agrees with environmentalists’ emphasis on protecting rural wilderness—trees, forests, landscapes, and rural villages, among others—but he also values factories, cityscapes, and urban areas. The doctrine of connectedness shows the necessity to link the natural environment to the built environment without compromising either one. Importantly, the inner reflections that arise from a holistic approach in education enable proper ecological and economic balance to occur.

            In social and political spheres, Whitehead’s metaphysics could appeal to the idea of global citizenship. Every entity, he says, is a web of relationships, a potential continuum by its connectedness to other entities. Certainly much has been done to advance global citizenship, yet there is still an increasing tendency to divide individuals along ethnic, regional, or national categories—a simple location, where each bit of matter is separate and occupies a definite limited region in an instant of time. With this perspective, these regions have only spatial, or perhaps, economic relationships. Ethnic Group or Nation A is related to Ethnic Group or Nation B only because Nation A or B is situated in a certain position in space, or connected for economic gain. For Whitehead (1933), such localization does not provide insight into the deeper meaning of the world and its activities, and invariably precludes the richer dimensions of importance, value, and enjoyment. On the contrary Whitehead (1933) notes, “the characters of relevant things in nature are the outcome of their interconnections and their interconnections are the outcome of their characters. This involves some doctrine of internal relations” (p. 201). Simply stated, the activities or the actions of a mechanic in Copenhagen have some impact on the life of an ordinary man in Iowa. In other words, the world of a person, plant, or animal, is what it is as a whole because of the interrelated and determining relation of each thing to every other thing in the world. Mesle (2009), a Whitehead scholar, makes the above argument more clearly when he says, “There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integrated parts, so that all of our choices and actions have consequences for the world around us” (p. 9).


            The primary focus of this paper has been on the educational system, which has always been one of the primary modes of transmitting the intellectual spirit and social values of a particular moment in history. Today’s educational system is no exception. We have inherited, and are still experiencing, the primary intellectual paradigm of modernity: scientific materialism. The evolution of science has no doubt been a prolific source of progress that paradoxically has prevented us from asking the very question that it presumed to answer in its entirety: What is reality? It is this question that I have proposed reopening under a process metaphor.

The work of rethinking metaphysics is, admittedly, an enormous task, one I cannot hope to accomplish in this paper alone. However, insulating students as unthinking bodies who are passive recipients of education ignores the reality and the overlap that exists between their education and the new knowledge. As Whitehead advocates, learning should occur in interweaving cycles with the goal of achieving new possibilities. It is important that the teacher–learner interaction account for eccentricities and failures due to limits on the efficiency of teaching. Based on Whitehead’s conclusions, it is clear that there should be a paradigm shift from traditional epistemology to contemporary process-oriented pedagogical strategies.

Although process thought is not without its critics (Bertocci, 1972; Edwards, 1975; Johnson, 1952; Wilbur, 1938), it appears to offer a platform or a theoretical basis for philosophy of education that could affect a deeply divided education sector. In theory, process thought draws strength from its close links to Philosophy for Children, which has proven so far to be a vital education paradigm for democracy and global citizenship.

To be sure, process thought is an unfinished project, its implications drawing interest in the disciplines of theology and in science, quantum physics, and chaos theory. However, Whitehead’s potential has yet to be fully explored and developed in philosophy, social science, and education. Within the sphere of education, Philosophy for Children represents the evolutionary potential that process thought holds. It is hoped that this paper will contribute to the inquiry.


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Dr. Felix Okechukwu Ugwuozor is a lecturer in University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu State, Nigeria.

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