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Whiteheadian Theory

A Whiteheadian Theory of Creative, Synthetic Learning

Ronald P. Phipps


The interaction among Process thinkers from the East and West holds great promise to help liberate the creative potentials of our cultures to cooperatively contribute to the advancement of human civilization. The most general expression of this potential resides within the realm of education, which embraces all forms of human inquiry and human curiosity.

My own academic work centers on the philosophy of theoretical physics and the creation of an alternative theory to the reigning dogmas of 20th century physics, namely relativity theory, quantum mechanics, string theory and the big bang theory. Specifically I have developed, under the influence of process philosophy, a vision of an infinite and open universe, infinite and eternal in its spatial and temporal magnitudes and manifesting a dynamic orderliness from which is derivative infinite qualitative variety at the core of being.

In this metaphysics, the quest for causal orderliness amid qualitative variety indeed is primary and reductionism’s quest to suppress and reduce apparent qualitative variety to: 1) qualitative sameness of constituents and 2) immense geometric variety is secondary and limited, though often of philosophic and scientific value. The philosophical hypothesis that both qualitative variety and orderliness are omnipresent and fundamental to the core of Being in an infinite and eternal universe is relevant to the philosophic perspective underlying the theory of creative, synthetic learning.

Today I want to talk about the creative application of process philosophy to educational reform.


Among western Process thinkers, Alfred North Whitehead holds a unique place for the depth of his creative originality and the broad scope of his contributions to intellectual history ranging from:

1) mathematical logic expressed in Whitehead and Russell’s monumental Principia Mathematica which, in the judgment of the great German mathematician David Hilbert, was “history’s crowning achievement of axiomatization of systems,”

2) theoretical physics, where Sir Arthur Eddington, the great British astro-physicist, judged Whitehead to have produced insights more profound than Einstein’s, to

3) metaphysics, where at Harvard, Whitehead developed the most coherent, consistent, creative, comprehensive and challenging philosophic system in human history.

Whitehead, having creatively bridged intellectual disciplines and the continents, attained a position which should warrant our thoughtful attention to his theory of education. Moreover, we should seek to creatively develop and apply Whitehead’s theory to reform and transform current systems wherever such systems restrain the advance of wisdom and understanding.


Whitehead criticizes the uselessness of reforming educational systems without a clear conception of the attributes which you wish to evoke in the living minds of students. The characteristics which must be the aim of meaningful educational reform include:

• Integrity and independence of thought;

• Deep and relentless curiosity;

• Coherency of thought;

• Respect for the collective genius that is the legacy that the past bestows upon the present;

• An abiding sense of romance, adventure and delight in discovery;

• Compassion;

• Integrative thinking;

• A bold, courageous and challenging spirit willing to question entrenched intellectual and cultural presuppositions;

• Ability at problem-solving;

• Creativity;

• Students who are readers and, moreover, thinkers;

• Imagination capable of envisioning novel phenomena, relationships and modes of orderliness.

A copy of Rodin’s great statue The Thinker stands before the library at Stanford University. The Thinker’s hands are not occupied holding books, but it is upon his hands that his head rests, lost in deep contemplation. Reading must be subservient to thinking, for without independent, reflective and contemplative thinking, reading, for Whitehead, degenerates into effete bookishness. Whitehead’s personal assistant at Harvard, the former President of the American Philosophy Association, Professor Henry S. Leonard, challengingly observed “the trouble with American intellectuals is that they read too much and think too little.”

In this talk I want to begin the development of a Whiteheadian Theory of Creative Synthetic Learning. I define this theory as “the guidance and nurturing of students upon journeys of curiosity amid communities of problems, journeys which are resolved in adventures of discovery and generalization of insight.”

The key concepts are:

1) Journeys of curiosity;

2) Communities of problems;

3) Adventures of discovery;

4) Generalization of insight.


Education has two concurrent functions. The first is to transfer into the present the trillions upon trillions of collective acts of discovery throughout the globe and history which form the intellectual legacy which history bestows upon the present. The second function is to instill the lure and the romance felt in the present by living, active students for discoveries and generalization of insight in the future.

If educational systems address only the first function and neglect the second, students are rendered passive and education becomes, in Whitehead’s metaphor, “like a trunk, passively stuffed with articles” or like a passive, caged and force fed Beijing duck – delicious, but without a future. It is the second function that makes education alive, as students become active explorers of future possibilities. Curiosity becomes the engine driving creativity.

It is only under conditions where the roots of curiosity are nurtured and those roots spread widely and penetrate deeply that societies become vigorous, vibrant, creative and innovative.


A Whiteheadian theory of creative and synthetic learning is consistent with Whitehead’s broader philosophic perspectives. Whitehead’s philosophy of process and organism emphasizes that the constituents of the world are processes which exist in interdependent relationality with other events which together constitute still broader, enveloping and interacting communities. Events arise from multiplicities of antecedent events and their characters are developed from multiplicities of variables. Inherent within events are rich and multiple potentialities to influence the character of those succeeding events which will constitute a given event’s causal future. The universe is rich in qualitative variety, orderliness, causal potentiality and openness. Within communities of events there is the perpetual perishing and the perpetual emergence of events, the perpetual frustration and the perpetual realization of potentials for causal efficacy that are compatible for co-existence within, but incompatible for co-realization by, the events constituent of the universe. It is precisely because of the structure of our universe of communities of dynamically interacting events and communities of ideas and forms that synthetic learning is necessary for the advance of knowledge and wisdom.


China’s history is one of immense and glorious contributions to world civilization. Whitehead notes with profound appreciation the creative and innovative role which the people of China have played. The encyclopedic work of Professor Joseph Needham of Cambridge University regarding the history of science and civilization in China describes the breadth and depth of scientific innovation and intellectual creativity which occurred in Chinese history. For a long period of time, however, that creativity has been largely stifled and stagnant. Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, like other observers of intellectual history, notes and ponders this comparative stagnation .

The causes of this phenomenon are both external and internal. China, for several centuries, was the victim of predatory European imperialism and Japanese fascism, and Japan’s and Europe’s talons penetrated deeply into the soul of the Chinese nation. Preceding the time of China’s victimization by external empires, China’s culture also exhibited a national chauvinism which led Chinese scholarship to fixate geographically upon China, conceived as the Middle or Central Kingdom, and temporally upon China’s accomplished past not its creative potentials for the future. The failure to look beyond either its spatial borders or beyond its temporal past, were underlying factors in creating the weakness which allowed the victimization of China, a victimization which brought to its people such immense and heart breaking suffering; poverty and stagnation during the 17th through the 20th centuries.

Following Golden Centuries of discovery, innovation and invention, the comparative stagnation suffered by Chinese society was also a consequence of an entrenched, underlying philosophy and morality based upon hierarchies. Officials were subservient to the Emperor, the people subservient to officialdom, the young to the authority of the old, the female to the male, the student to the teacher, the future to the past and innovative discovery to the feudal Confucian examination system. Progressive and vibrant social development reduces such retrogressive hierarchies. Government is subservient to the people’s interests and democratic dialogue, discussion and decision making processes supercedes the authoritarianism of officialdom, the old exists in service to the positive potentials of the young, the female and male are co-equal, the teacher’s function is to elicit the creativity of the student, the past guides and enriches the future and examination systems are secondary to processes of discovery, curiosity, creativity, innovation, invention and profound and fresh insights.

The transformation of China, beginning in the middle of the 20th Century, is widely acknowledged as an astounding feat in world history. No one talks today of China as “the sick man of Asia.” Despite the impressive achievements of the Chinese people, China’s contributions to path-breaking discoveries and its articulation of new theoretical vistas, are largely underdevelopment or merely nascent. The persistence of this gap between China’s potential and its achievements in respect to original research and path-breaking innovations lingers in the present. This gap harms both China and the larger world to which China may contribute.

China today stands at the crossroads between: i) remaining a largely imitative but powerful economic force, and (ii) restoring its historic position as a world center of creativity, innovation and invention. Whether or not China can integrate systems of creative synthetic learning within its educational processes and, thereby, infuse and inspire students with a deep sense of the intrinsic value and romance of learning will determine if China takes the path of imitativeness or the path of innovation.


This choice is relevant to China but not peculiar to China. Developing meaningful methods to evaluate talent is, of course, relevant to all nations. However, the deeper imperative concerns not the evaluation of talent but the development of creative talent, synthetic thinking and relational understanding. When creative synthetic learning is absent from the ethos and spirit of societies, and their educational systems, those societies either decay or stagnate into mediocrity. In contrast, when creative synthetic learning characterizes and impels a society’s educational system, that society will liberate its positive potentials and contribute to the creative advance of human civilization.

The role of curiosity is fundamental. The great Harvard scientist E. O. Wilson cites curiosity as “the greatest of all human virtues.” Curiosity is indeed intrinsic to, and thus, inherent within, all complex forms of life. The intensity of curiosity differs both among and within species, but the active presence of curiosity is essential to both the survival and advancement of all complex life forms.

The German mathematician of the infinite, George Cantor, centered his doctoral dissertation upon the theme “in mathematics the art of asking questions is more valuable than solving problems.” The German mathematician David Hilbert challenged the world of mathematics in the beginning of the 20th century with “23 fundamental unanswered mathematical problems.” Whitehead, throughout his writings on education, speaks of the evocation of curiosity. He speaks of curiosity as the engine to discovery. Countless discoveries have arisen in human intellectual history because someone asked a question not asked before, someone challenged an entrenched presupposition of thought, someone altered a set of variables, someone synthesized concepts or observations, which previously were detached, fragmented, and, thereby, in Whitehead’s view, inert.


Education, if it is to infuse students and teachers with the lure of future discoveries, must inspire and guide students upon journeys of curiosity. There are 3 types of journeys: One is the solitary, contemplative and reflective journey illustrated in the famous walks of Louis De Broglio, the Nobel Laureate, who developed quantum wave theory. The second type of journey is typified by the collaboration of a team, such as Whitehead and Russell’s collaboration in creating the magnus opus, Principia Mathematica, or that of the young Einstein and his wife in pondering the questions of light that led to relativity theory. The third type of journey is the extensive, broader and often international collaborative effort that is expressed when, for example: 1) hundreds of scientists examine data from particle accelerators; 2) cosmologists simultaneously examine and collect data from astronomical observatories located throughout the globe; 3) data is gathered on global weather patterns and global environmental conditions; or 4) data on the economic trends both within and among the world’s nations is compared. Educational systems can and should expose students to each of these fundamental forms of journeys of curiosity and their ultimate interplay one with another.

While group journeys of curiosity of type 2) and 3) are invaluable, we cannot underestimate the vital role of contemplation, of mulling problems over, of pondering and lingering over data and concepts. Einstein once remarked, “It is not that I am so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Creativity, synthesis of ideas, cogency of thought and discovery necessitate that concepts, axioms, data and theorems deeply enter both conscious and unconscious mental processes. Thus is the valuable lesson to be learned from the contemplative sage.


It should be noted that teachers can and should be co-participants with their students on these journeys of curiosity and adventures of discovery. The teacher may be a guide but need not be a figure of dominance, hierarchy or authoritarianism. Indeed, the student must have the freedom to point out new vistas of beauty and intrigue not previously noted. Whitehead points out that science is almost wholly “the outcome of pleasurable intellectual curiosity.” We should always remember there are no bad questions. What is bad is the suppression of questioning. Even questions that may seem on the surface to be simple may require profound and powerful concepts for their fuller understanding. For example the question why 1 plus 1 equals 2 required the mathematical logic of Principia Mathematica for its deeper understanding and more final elucidation.


The discernment and the cultivation of these creative abilities for discovery are essential. And yet the discernment and cultivation of creative abilities, it must be noted, does not enjoy a direct and consistent correlation with skillfulness at “test taking.” The impulse, the initiative, the ability, the curiosity, the creativity, and what Whitehead stresses as the “passion” for discovery, need to be nurtured and evaluated through multiple modalities not confined to, nor constricted by, skill at taking standardized examinations. This is an important matter for China’s educational system, but also for Western educational systems that are degenerating into an excessive and compulsive obsession with examinations to the sacrifice of the cultivation of curiosity and discovery skills as integral to progressive and effective educational systems. The integration of intellectual skills and active curiosity is an integration absent from many educational systems that emphasize a narrow form of pragmatism as their guiding educational philosophy.


It is important for all cultures, including Chinese culture which has revered the “aged” and the “sage,” to recognize that wisdom, insight, profundity and creativity are not confined to the aged. The capacity for creative synthetic insights is what we must consider in assessing genius, not age. Reverend Martin Luther King proclaimed, “It is by the content of one’s character, not the color of one’s skin that humans should judge each another.” The success of education similarly must be assessed by deeper and more revealing criteria. Experience is of great value but so too are independence of thought and freshness of insight.

Chinese culture, under the weight of Confucianism, revered the learned sage with the “300 li white beard.” Yet Sir Isaac Newton invented both calculus and classic physics by the time he was 25. Einstein invented the Theory of Special Relativity by the time he was 25. Though I disagree with both the logic and narrowness of this theory, Einstein asked questions about the prevailing presuppositions concerning Time, Space and Light that were not asked before. In the asking and challenging of those presuppositions, Einstein opened new vistas on fundamental physical phenomena and processes of transformation among forms of energy that are present in the very structure of the Universe.

Lord Byron composed great poems before he died in his twenties. Mao Zedong challenged Soviet dogma that revolution must arise in the cities and be led by an urban proletariat and instead aroused and conducted a revolution in the countryside that liberated China from foreign and domestic forms of oppression with had caused centuries of heartbreaking poverty. Jesus was crucified at 33 but had already created a body of moral teaching and theology urging our world to greater compassion and humility. Countless examples of youthful genius exist that range across cultures, religions, historic periods and ethnicities.


It is the intellectual spirit and gift of challenging prevailing presuppositions, asking questions not asked before, synthesizing and integrating both phenomena and concepts that were separate, creating new and fresh solutions which educations must value and stimulate in students, teachers and our broader human family. We must do so irrespective of age, gender, race or the moment of time during which curiosity is alive, active and irrepressible.

The emergence of curiosity accompanies the very inception of life for all complex species. The function of education systems and creative synthetic learning is to ensure that educational systems do not stifle or diminish, but instead intensify, deepen and broaden that curiosity already inherent in life during its nascent stages.

Intellectual genius throughout history, and especially during intense periods of intellectual ferment, innovation and discovery, challenged, questioned and overcame prevailing dogmas and prevailing presuppositions of thought. Genius always widens, broadens and deepens the range of phenomena to which new theories apply. In passing from the stage of journeys of curiosity to the stage of adventures of discovery, genius envisions and discerns previously unobserved and unimagined patterns manifested within an increasingly diverse set of phenomena. For example Newton’s classic laws of motion cover all speeds, all weights, all distances and all accelerations or decelerations of speed for all entities with mass. The adventure of discovery leads to higher generalization of insights.

While the main emphasis of the theory of creative synthetic education concerns the achievement of generalization of insight, creative synthetic education also concerns insight into and illumination of particular phenomena. It does so in 2 respects. Firstly, by enhancing human discernment of general patterns we can illuminate the particular. Secondly, Whitehead’s philosophy conceives all concrete phenomena as emerging from antecedent fields of events. Within such causative and generative fields are expressed a multiplicity of variables that collectively, but with diverse relative significance, causally influence the characters of the concrete in its full particularity and individuality.

It is inadequately appreciated that these journeys of curiosity must be taken within the environment of communities of related problems and related phenomena. Whitehead criticizes “teaching small parts of a large number of subjects” and sees such an approach to learning as constituting the passive reception of disconnected ideas not illumined with any spark of vitality. He correctly admonishes that “the main ideas introduced into a child’s education should be few and important, and let them be thrown into every combination possible.” Whitehead’s student at Harvard, Professor Victor Lowe from Johns Hopkins University, comments:

“He stressed getting a living understanding of a few interrelated abstract ideas by using them in a variety of ways so as to develop an intimate sense for their power.”

There is among today’s educational theories growing and proper attention to the possibilities and value of interdisciplinary studies. However, what is lacking is a deeper appreciation and implementation of the need for study of communities of problems within an intra-disciplinary context. When Whitehead speaks of throwing ideas into every possible combination he is talking of changing variables, tweaking variables, altering environments within which similar phenomena occurs. This is the natural process of active curiosity and inquiring minds. It is, furthermore, the phenomenon that allows discovery and generalization of insight. It is the antithesis of detached, isolated, fragmented facts passively absorbed by students.

Whitehead speaks of “the process of discovery as the process of becoming used to curious thoughts, of shaping questions, of seeking for answers, of devising new experiences, of what happens as the result of new ventures.” The new ventures are constituted through the alteration of variables. The shaping of questions concerns the consequences of changing variables and changing the environments within which phenomena develop. This is what constitutes journeys of curiosity amid communities of problems. Whitehead’s metaphysics in all its manifold dimensions, including education, stresses the centrality of community to all concrete and real entities. No entity dwells devoid of community nor in pure, exclusive privacy. The reality of community pertains to both (i) concrete events in the contingencies of their relations and (ii) abstract entities like eternal objects, characteristics and numbers in their necessary, logical and mathematical relations. Community and contrasts of character are integral to all existence.

Therefore, generalization of insight expresses awareness of general patterns exhibited among a plethora of phenomena within which diversity and variability are universally found. Generalization represents abstraction from the concrete, i.e., abstraction from communities of related phenomena.


The advancement of knowledge, we must recognize, requires the continuous discourse between the abstract and the concrete. The discourse with the concrete must be with increasingly open systems within which greater variability is exhibited, allowing modification and refinement of the initial abstractions and the initial generalizations. The creative advance of human knowledge requires this continuous discourse as knowledge must always retain an aspect of tenuousness. Whitehead insists that we understand the relation between abstract concepts and the concrete world from which those abstractions are derived. But those abstractions can only be derived from continuous journeys of curiosity amid wide and open systems of problems, phenomena and variables.


Whitehead, cites the danger “I do not think that it is possible to take a whole class very far along the road of precision without some dulling of the interest. It is the unfortunate dilemma that initiative and training are both necessary, and the training is apt to kill initiative.” It is the thesis of the theory of creative, synthetic education that the solution to this dilemma resides in developing forms and structures so that research becomes part of a continuum of the entire educational process. Research, despite its own challenges, becomes that breath of fresh spring air that relieves the tedium of training. The integration of research and training, of novelty of thought and the absorption of accumulated knowledge, is essential to the joy of education.

Without this rhythmic integration in education, the vitality of education is diminished and the soul and enthusiasm of students are drained. Adventures of discovery and generalization of insight drive research and sustains and nurtures intellectual interest and enthusiasm.

One of the key imperatives of creative synthetic education involves exposing students to the profound distinction between processes of discovery of what is not known versus the learning of that which has already been discovered. Whitehead instructs us: “from the very beginning of his education, the child should experience the joy of discovery, the discovery which he has to make, is that general ideas give an understanding … of that stream of events which pours through his life.”

This theory helps to explicate Whitehead’s more general persuasion that there must be a rhythm to educational processes. He sees this rhythm as vaguely analogous to Hegel’s theory of development through the stages of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Whitehead calls these stages:

• The Stage of Romance

• The Stage of Precision

• The Stage of Generalization

The stage of Romance is constituted by journeys of curiosity amid related problems. The stage of Precision is the stage of adventures of discovery through the gathering and synthesis of concrete data and the variables manifested within that data. The stage of Generalization is when through the creativity of intellect and the gift of intuition, the gathering and synthesis of data eventuates in generalization of insight. If education does not thrust students at all stages of the education experience into the process of discovery, education will deny the student the romance of learning.


It is, we stress, only within a context of creative synthetic education that learning becomes an intrinsic, not an extrinsic factor in a student’s life. Whitehead speaks of the love of a subject in and for itself. Innovative and creative societies depend upon the internalization of the motivation of learning. That internalization depends upon the free reign of curiosity and the romance and adventure of discovery. Whitehead summarizes the significance to historic development of these ideas in the general proposition, “we subdue the forces of nature because we have been lured to discovery by an insatiable curiosity.”

The creative advance of our global community depends upon the internalization of the love of learning and the free, vigorous and relentless pursuit of knowledge and wisdom gained at the successful commencement of journeys of curiosity.

One of the most profound experiences of my education was a class in the Calculus, taught to very gifted mathematical students by a Professor who coached the leading university math team in North America. He thrust upon his students a fundamental question of calculus which had vexed mathematicians and eluded discovery for 2 millennia. For one week students dwelt in a state of ignorance, of trial and error, of advance, retreat and advance again, until, we were able to discern some fundamental techniques of the calculus discovered by Newton and Leibniz in the 17th century. Perhaps this group of students could have learned the relevant techniques in an hour. Instead, we spent a week struggling and searching in our ignorance. This was at once frustrating, exciting and ultimately exhilarating. We tasted the difference between the processes of learning what was discovered and the exhilarating process of discovery itself. Awareness of this distinction is a priceless contribution to the education process. It engenders both respect for the cumulative nature of knowledge and thirst for new and yet more advanced knowledge.

Part of the educational process itself involves deepening students’ awareness that education as a process proceeding stage by stage from lower to higher levels of truth, understanding, wisdom and generality of understanding. Students must come to incorporate the awareness that without the active exploration of communities of problems, generalization and discovery are themselves impossible and without generalization of insight, wisdom eludes attainment.

Whitehead metaphorically describes the continuous discourse between the abstract and the concrete, the data and the generalization, “like angels ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder to heaven.” Only by broadening the range of variables investigated can generalization become both more accurate and powerful.


Whitehead stresses that education should begin and end in research. Similarly he says that “philosophy begins in wonder, and when it does its work well, the wonder remains.”

Our theory of creative, synthetic learning modifies Whitehead’s dictum so that education not only begins and ends in research, but that research should be omnipresent constituting a continuum throughout the entire educational process. The arena within which journeys of curiosity occur is life itself, including schools. The communities of problems differ among subjects and disciplines. They also naturally differ relative to the student’s stage of learning, interests and level of knowledge. Yet the principle remains the same.

The implementation of this theory of creative synthetic learning requires the continuous creation of communities of problems among which students’ curiosity may roam. Schools and teachers must guide the formation of appropriate and compelling communities. The initiative and interest of the students themselves must be welcomed as an essential part of the creation of those communities which: 1) excite the enthusiasm; 2) express the interests; and 3) rouses the initiative of the individual student, the small team of students, or the broader community of students collectively taking those journeys of curiosity aiming at adventures of discovery and generalization of insight. Students and teachers as co-participants can both chart and modify the path of the journey. There should be no great wall separating teacher as authority and student as passive receptor. The journeys must be dynamic and collegial in their conduct.

With colleagues in North America, China and Europe, we are developing illustrative examples of communities of problems appropriate for students of various ages in such fields as mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, botany, literature, history, archeology, environmental studies, metallurgy, civil engineering and aesthetics. The creation of these communities of problems is an area where, Whitehead would insist local autonomy must be exercised by local schools and teachers developing curriculum under specific local conditions. The methods, forms, structures, arenas, systems to generate appropriate communities of problems and ways to guide students on these journeys, allow diverse ways to pursue the general goal in the context of specific local conditions, needs and interests.

Gifted student programs, advanced research classes, research projects, research contests, and/ or special schools oriented towards developing creative synthetic learning and research are among the many forms and methods that need to be systematically integrated in national educational systems. It is not the case that these forms are entirely absent, but neither are they present in substantive, systematic and adequate forms within prevailing educational structures in either the West or the East.

Effective class curricula that achieves the aims of education described earlier cannot be constituted by a mere succession of exercises and facts. Class curricula must be formulated with the awareness that students are living, dynamic, exploring humans opening to the wonders of the universe. Each class must continuously receive the life enhancing breath of curiosity and with regularity experience challenging research processes.

Great teachers have always intuited and applied these general principles and, thereby, inspired a passionate and enduring love of learning among their students. But educational systems need these principles more integrated into, and continuously present within, the educational process from its inception through its maturation.

Creative synthetic education provides the philosophic perspective and the systematic methodologies and modalities to fully liberate the potentials for discovery and therewith the advance of human civilization from lower to higher stages of knowledge and wisdom.


The examples of journeys of curiosity we can provide represent merely a suggestive and infinitesimal set of communities of problems among the broad and infinite domains of communities of problems available for intellectual inquiry. The broader set is limited only by human imagination and the contemporary stage of human understanding and insight.

The American philosopher John Dewey established experimental schools associated with the University of Chicago, so too the theory of creative synthetic learning can be associated with teaching universities in China, Europe, North America, South America, Africa, etc. Such schools and programs can serve as living laboratories.

Teaching universities and affiliated secondary and primary schools can individually or cooperatively develop a variety of forms, structures and systems, and a plethora of communities of problems, in diverse academic fields which can guide and stimulate academic systems to guide students upon intellectual journeys that nurture the curiosity inherent to life and thereby allow curious minds to experience both the elation of discovery and the power of generalized insight.


There is an important distinction to be drawn between Whitehead’s philosophy of the open and infinite, and pragmatic philosophy which has influenced much of American educational theory. Pragmatism, as is often interpreted and applied, ultimately condemns itself, not by its emphasis upon consequences, which emphasis is consistent with Whitehead’s philosophy, but through its emphasis in evaluating consequences based upon closed rather than open systems of events. The evaluation of policies by reference to closed and narrow systems of events often leads to disjunctive economic, educational and social development, realizing negative and discordant potentials among events that are transformed from the potential to the actual as a consequence of the implementation of “pragmatic policies.”

There is a relevant metaphor between the environmental crisis confronting the earth and contemporary educational systems which may be adept at generating groups of great “test takers” but ineffective in developing the collective genius of society. It concerns the difference between the tactical and the neglected strategic goals of economic and/or educational processes.

A century ago, 90% of Americans were farmers, whose lives were conducted within small radii of local communities. The development and popularization of the car utilizing fossil fuels led to the development of a social infrastructure displaying an unprecedented dispersion of home, work, recreation, and shopping. The geographic arena within which individual life occurred was immensely expanded and the dynamic pulsation of that circle became frequent and intense.

Within the closed system of the first decades of this fundamental infrastructural transformation, a sense of individual freedom and power emerged. But now, American working adults spend an enormous amount of their daily time in stressful commutes between home, work, school, shopping and/or recreation. These commutes lead to high annual death rates of about 50,000 per year and many more serious and permanent injuries. With respect to family life, the amount of time fathers spend with children and husbands with wives has been profoundly reduced, leading to great strains on family stability and interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, since carbon dioxide is a heat trapping gas, and this unprecedented infrastructure causes enormous expenditures of fossil based energy needed to move mass, the global atmosphere is becoming saturated with heat-trapping gases. A leading British environmental scientist concluded that global warming is concurrently proceeding at the rate predicted by the worst-case scenario. He also characterized global warming as a real, not a hypothetical, “Weapon of Mass Destruction,” which, furthermore, is a terrorist weapon that strikes with total unpredictability as to the place, time and form of attack: a drought, a flood, a hurricane, a fire, a scorching heat wave or a protracted freeze.

When viewed from a pragmatic, narrow and closed system of events, the fossil fuel car and the dispersed infrastructure it allowed, represented freedom and mobility. From a broader and more open set of events, this change in society’s infrastructure constitutes a strategic danger to the viability of the global environment. The failure to view matters from an open and dynamic perspective rooted in a philosophy of process and relationality results in disjunctive and discordant development rather than integrative and harmonious development. From the perspective of open systems, what appears in the initial stages of development as integrative and harmonious may degenerate into disjunctive and discordant development.

In respect to educational systems that emphasize standardized test taking, we may observe several parallels with the stress resultant upon the changes in society’s infrastructure. Enormous stress arises upon the individual students. Similarly great strain occurs in the relation between parent and child as the parent’s expectation for their child’s future is concentrated in the quality of their performance during a few days testing in the student’s life. There is also too often a correlative “polluting” of the educational environment in which the values of prestige, money, fame and position become the extrinsic motivation of learning overwhelming the purity of the love of learning, the exercise of curiosity, the delight of discovery and the reverence for learning. There are numerous and poignant stories of how Japanese students focus incredible energy to pass tests to gain university admission which, once gained, ironically often leads to insipid efforts and achievements during the university experience. The extrinsic value has replaced the intrinsic value of learning and, therewith, the death knell of creativity sounds.

The absence of research and creative synthetic learning within the continuum of educational processes underlies the reason that many prodigies become intellectually sterile adults and why far too much graduate research constitutes empty, obscure and superficial exercises in pedantry, rather than achievements illuminating intellectually significant topics of research.


Educational systems must “reform the reforms” and new reforms must weave the bright strands of creative, synthetic learning throughout the educational process from its inception to its conclusion. Education will then better perform its dual functions of: (1) first transmitting, with appreciation and respect, the knowledge and wisdom of the past, gained by antecedent adventures of discovery; and (2) allowing the present to feel the lure of future discovery. Educational experiences within which are found the brilliant strands of such learning foster and sustain the enthusiasm for learning and concurrently there is a deepening and purifying among students of the passion for discovery.


The lure which the future exerts in the present upon students and teachers is a lure that should not diminish but rather intensify with time and with increased knowledge. Neither intellectual arrogance, nor smugness has any proper or positive role to play given the complexity and immensity of reality. A five year old child recently asked his father, “Dad, what is infinity minus 100?” The infinite minus any finite number is, of course, infinite. Humanity’s collective genius and knowledge, however dazzling, remains finite and our ignorance remains infinite.


To the extent that methods and modalities of creative synthetic learning intensifies that lure to future exercises of curiosity and discovery, societies are able to contribute to the creative advance of human civilization. There is an ancient Chinese saying “In the heavens above are many stars. On the earth below, one people.” It is increasingly clear that it is to that one integrated, interacting and interdependent global community that the creative advance of human civilization must contribute. With neither the Earth’s environmental nor our educational policies and practices do we want narrow, “pragmatic” and short term bursts of success. We want strategic and integrative modes of development. In education, that means we must liberate humanity’s collective genius.


After Whitehead left Cambridge University and the University of London, Harvard for the first time waived its mandatory retirement policy. There were two things worth noting. In the midst of creating his great philosophic works integrating mathematical logic, theoretical physics and philosophy, students observed that whenever they met Whitehead, he would ask “What are you working on, what are you thinking about?” And secondly, it was said “Though he was the oldest person at Harvard, he was the youngest.” His spirit and mind were the most active, the most vibrant, the most profound, and the most embracing of new inquiries.

China is the world’s oldest continuous civilization and China made enormous contributions to human knowledge, discovery and innovation, as did ancient Greek civilizations, ancient Egyptian civilization, Europe in its Renaissance, India, Persian and Muslim civilization during other historic periods.

The world needs renewal on many fronts, including in the arena of education. The world needs rekindling of the spirit of innovation, boldness and creativity of thought. The world needs synthesis of ideas, fresh generalization of insight and more profound discoveries if the world is to creatively advance. The education reforms of China, India and other ancient cultures must contribute to this liberation of curiosity, freshness of discovery and increase in wisdom. Humanity as a whole needs that freshness, vitality and insatiability of curiosity that characterizes youthfulness, whatever the historic age or whatever the culture which the spirit of insatiable curiosity inhabits.


Synthetic thinking, we must note, is not antagonistic to analytic thinking. Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica is indeed one of history’s most vigorous and monumental works in analytic thinking and Whitehead’s Process and Reality is a monumental example of synthetic thinking. But analytic thinking without synthetic thinking is form without substance.

In contrast, synthetic thinking untempered and unsculpted by analytic thinking is substance without form, clarity, coherency and cogency. At best synthetic thinking devoid of analytic thinking is evocative, but not illuminating of truth. Educational systems need to encourage the integration of analytic and synthetic thinking, the harmony of form and substance.


During the 20th century, analytic thinking dominated much of western philosophic and political thinking. Philosophers, with the exception of Alfred North Whitehead, became immersed in analytic modes of thought and abandoned the synthetic and speculative modes of thought that had historically characterized the philosophic tradition. Philosophy increasingly assumed an acquiescent and passive position towards science. Philosophy became more concerned with the methodologies of science and less with the substance of scientific concepts and premises. Philosophy’s major concern became to interpret and justify science rather than to challenge and offer creative constructive alternatives to the concepts, axioms, theorems and presuppositions underlying contemporary science. It is, however, only by exercising its traditional role of seeking coherency where incoherency prevails, illumination and consistency where the bizarre reigns and breadth of vision where narrowness of perspective prevails that synthetic philosophic insights can help transform science.

When synthetic and creative thinking are active and vital, visions of new phenomena, new relations and new modes of orderliness emerge. While new and more coherent concepts and axioms may help interpret known phenomena and data, the central and creative function is to envision of phenomena, new relations and new laws of nature and order. It reflects the difference between brilliance and creative genius. Creative synthetic learning seeks to provoke and nurture creative genius and the opening of fresh vistas of inquiring and understanding. It is crucial to instill the capacity to see beyond prevailing principles and known phenomena.


It is important for educational systems to be imbued with a sense of the relevance and importance of theory to all fields of intellectual inquiry. The narrow emphasis upon practice and pragmatism misconceives and distorts the relationship between practice and theory.

When concepts, axioms, theorems and presuppositions are critically and constructively examined and transformed to achieve greater coherency, consistency and cogency, and when generalizations of generalizations (theories) are developed that attain greater comprehensiveness, such quantum leaps in theoretical understanding inevitably lead to new practical results, new technical innovations, new engineering applications and the perception and creation of new kinds of phenomena. Theory begets practice. Students should be made keenly aware of the role that the transformation of theoretical understanding plays in transforming practical reality. There are innumerable examples of the power of good theories to transform practice. But refinement in theoretical understanding necessitate the continuous discourse between practice and theory; that discourse in turn requires the pro-active engagement of educators and their students with both the realm of practice and the realm of theory. From the throne of powerful theories constructive transformations of practical reality invariably flow.

The capacity of China and India to contribute to theoretical innovation should be neither neglected nor underestimated. The 21st century will witness the replacement of Great Walls separating theoretical creativity by the erection of Great Bridges allowing the 2-way flow of ideas, data and theories. This global interaction necessitates the appreciation and the arousal of the potential for creative genius in the realm of theory by the East. It also requires that the West experiences the further integration and revival of European genius so that the world does not suffer either a brain drain nor a concentration of intellectual talents within narrow geographic or cultural boundaries.

Whitehead was particularly sensitive to this need. The metaphysics Whitehead developed based upon process and organism, community and relationality, polar contrasts not strict dichotomies, openness not closeness, variety not sameness, is a philosophy very akin to traditional Eastern modes of thought. From a Whiteheadian perspective we anticipate enormous theoretical contributions from the East.

The last two-thirds of the 20th century witnessed disjunctiveness and discordance in economic and social development. Two world conflagrations occurred as did the Great Depression. The Holocausts of both Europe and the East, environmental degradation, cultural decay and other forms of discordance characterized much of world history during the 20th century.

In the realm of theory, the heretical became the new orthodoxy and the new dogmas, like older dogmas, became unassailable. The bizarre and

the incoherent were often taken to the nth degree and the result was mistaken for illumination.

The world in respect to issues of international relations, economic integration, environmental protection and development of fundamental theoretical understanding requires new harmonies and greater coherency. The theory of creative synthetic learning aims to contribute to the arousal of humanity to create new harmonies of harmonies in our cultural, intellectual and practical life.



Journeys of curiosity resolved in adventures of discovery represent experiences that are both intellectual and emotional. It is the depth and purity of curiosity that: 1) impels the lure to discovery and 2) generates and sustains the determination and perseverance needed to overcome obstacles and transverse the twists and turns, rises and falls, dead ends, retreats and advances inevitably encountered in the process of discovery. Communities of problems also provoke a sense of wonder and humility in the conscious presence of the plethora of phenomena constituted by such communities. Adventures of discovery spark exhilaration. The attainment of generalizations of insight evokes that quietude of wisdom that arises when we discern patterns of orderliness among phenomenon, which previously was perceived merely in their randomness and differentiation. Generalizations of insights display the bonding, synthesis and connectedness of phenomenon where mere separateness was first presumed to dwell. In the perception of the bonding, synthesis and relationally of being, reverence for the diversity expressed in creation enters the human soul. Creative, synthetic learning leads students and teachers alike to experience the emotions of wonder, humility, lure, joy, determination, exhilaration and reverence. It is these emotions and cultivated instincts that synthetic creative learning aims to develop and which sustain self-motivation and learning for its intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, value to the human mind, heart and soul.