Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead

[hwahyt-hed, wahyt-]
Whitehead, Alfred North, 1861-1947, English mathematician and philosopher, grad. Trinity College, Cambridge, 1884. There he was a lecturer in mathematics until 1911. At the Univ. of London he was a lecturer in applied mathematics and mechanics (1911-14) and professor of mathematics (1914-24). From 1924 he was professor of philosophy at Harvard. Whitehead's distinction rests upon his contributions to mathematics and logic, the philosophy of science, and the study of metaphysics. In the field of mathematics Whitehead extended the range of algebraic procedures and, in collaboration with Bertrand Russell, wrote Principia Mathematica (3 vol., 1910-13), a landmark in the study of logic. His inquiries into the structure of science provided the background for his metaphysical writings. He criticized traditional categories of philosophy for their failure to convey the essential interrelation of matter, space, and time. For this reason he invented a special vocabulary to communicate his concept of reality, which he called the philosophy of organism. He formulated a system of ultimate and universal ideas and justified them by their fruitful interpretation of observable experience. His philosophic construction as applied to religion offered a concept of God as interdependent with the world and developing with it; he rejected the notion of a perfect and omnipotent God. In 1945 he received the Order of Merit. His works include The Organisation of Thought (1916), Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), The Concept of Nature (1920), The Principle of Relativity (1922), Science and the Modern World (1925), Religion in the Making (1926), Symbolism (1927), The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929), Process and Reality (1929), Adventures of Ideas (1933), and Essays in Science and Philosophy (1947).

See J. W. Blyth, Whitehead's Theory of Knowledge (1941, repr. 1973); P. A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (2d ed. 1951, repr. 1971); A. H. Johnson, Whitehead's Philosophy of Civilization (1958, repr. 1962); V. A. Lowe, Understanding Whitehead (1962); D. M. Emmett, Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism (1966); C. Hartshorne, Whitehead's Philosophy: Selected Essays, 1935-1970 (1972); D. L. Hall, The Civilization of Experience (1973); V. Lowe, Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, 1861-1910 (1985).

Alfred North Whitehead, OM (February 15 1861, Ramsgate, Kent, EnglandDecember 30 1947, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.) was an English mathematician who became a philosopher. He wrote on algebra, logic, foundations of mathematics, philosophy of science, physics, metaphysics, and education. He co-authored the epochal Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell.


Although his grandfather, Thomas Whitehead, was known for having founded Chatham House Academy, a fairly successful school for boys, Alfred North was educated at Sherborne School, Dorset, then considered one of the best public schools in the country. His childhood was described as over-protected, but when at school he excelled in sports, mathematics and was head prefect of his class.

Between 1880 and 1910, Whitehead studied, taught, and wrote mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, spending the 1890s writing his Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898) and the 1900s collaborating with his former pupil, Russell, on the first edition of Principia Mathematica.

Without much prospect of ever attaining a professorship in mathematics, Whitehead left Cambridge just as the first volume of the Principia appeared. In 1910, he resigned his position at Trinity College to protest the dismissal of a colleague because of an adulterous affair. He also ran afoul of a Cambridge by-law limiting the term of a Senior Lecturer to 25 years.

In 1891, Whitehead married Evelyn Wade, an Irish woman reared in France; they had a daughter and two sons. One son died in action while serving in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I. Meanwhile, Russell spent much of 1918 in prison because of his pacifist activities. Although Whitehead visited his co-author in prison, he did not take his pacifism seriously, while Russell sneered at Whitehead's later speculative Platonism and panpsychism. After the war, Russell and Whitehead seldom interacted, and Whitehead contributed nothing to the 1925 second edition of Principia Mathematica.

Whitehead was always interested in theology, especially in the 1890s. This may be explained by the fact that his family was firmly anchored in the Church of England: his father and uncles were vicars, while his brother would become bishop of Madras. Perhaps influenced by his wife and the writings of Cardinal Newman, Whitehead leaned towards Roman Catholicism. Prior to the Great War, he considered himself an agnostic. Later he returned to religion, without formally joining any church. Unitarians claim him as a friend.

Concomitantly, Whitehead developed a keen interest in physics: his fellowship dissertation examined James Clerk Maxwell's views on electricity and magnetism. His outlook on mathematics and physics were more philosophical than purely scientific; he was more concerned about their scope and nature, rather than about particular tenets and paradigms.

He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1922 to 1923.

The period between 1910 and 1924 was mostly spent at University College London and Imperial College London, where he taught and wrote on physics, the philosophy of science, and the theory and practice of education. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society since 1903 and was elected to the British Academy in 1931. In physics, Whitehead articulated a rival doctrine to Einstein's general relativity. His theory of gravitation is now discredited because its predicted variability of the gravitational constant G disagrees with experimental findings. A more lasting work was his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), a pioneering attempt to synthetize the philosophical underpinnings of physics. It has little influenced the course of modern physics, however.

Whitehead's address The Aims of Education (1916) pointedly criticized the formalistic approach of modern British teachers who do not care about culture and self-education of their disciples: "Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it."

In 1924, Henry Osborn Taylor invited Whitehead, who was then 63, to implement his ideas and teach philosophy at Harvard University. This was a subject that fascinated Whitehead but that he had also not previously studied or taught. The Whiteheads spent the rest of their lives in the United States. He retired from teaching in 1937. When he died in 1947, there was no funeral, and his body was cremated.

Whitehead had wise and witty opinions about a vast range of human endeavour. These opinions pepper the many essays and speeches he gave on various topics between 1915 and his death (1917, 1925a, 1927, 1929a, 1929b, 1933, 1938). His Harvard lectures (1924-37) are studded with quotations from his favourite poets, Wordsworth and Shelley. Most Sunday afternoons when they were in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Whiteheads hosted an open house to which all Harvard students were welcome, and during which talk flowed freely. Some of the obiter dicta Whitehead spoke on these occasions were recorded by Lucien Price, a Boston journalist, who published them in 1954. That book also includes a remarkable picture of Whitehead as the aged sage holding court. It was at one of these open houses that the young Harvard student B.F. Skinner credits a discussion with Whitehead as providing the inspiration for his work Verbal Behavior in which language is analyzed from a behaviorist perspective.

The standard biography is Lowe (1985) and Lowe and Schneewind (1990); Lowe studied under Whitehead at Harvard. A comprehensive appraisal of Whitehead's work is difficult because Whitehead left no Nachlass; his family carried out his instructions that all of his papers be destroyed after his death. There is also no critical edition of Whitehead's writings.

Process philosophy

The genesis of Whitehead's process philosophy may be attributed to his having witnessed the shocking collapse of Newtonian physics, due mainly to Einstein's work. His metaphysical views emerged in his 1920 The Concept of Nature and expanded in his 1925 Science and the Modern World, also an important study in the history of ideas, and the role of science and mathematics in the rise of Western civilization. Indebted as he was to Henri Bergson's philosophy of change, Whitehead was also a Platonist who "saw the definite character of events as due to the "ingression" of timeless entities.

In 1927, Whitehead was asked to give the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. These were published in 1929 as Process and Reality, the book that founded process philosophy, a major contribution to Western metaphysics. Able exponents of process philosophy include Charles Hartshorne and Nicholas Rescher, and his ideas have been taken up by French philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gilles Deleuze.

Process and Reality is famous for its defense of theism, although Whitehead's God differs essentially from the revealed God of Abrahamic religion. Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism gave rise to process theology, thanks to Hartshorne, John B. Cobb, Jr, and David Ray Griffin. Some Christians and Jews find process theology a fruitful way of understanding God and the universe. Just as the entire universe is in constant flow and change, God, as source of the universe, is viewed as growing and changing. Whitehead's rejection of mind-body dualism is similar to elements in faith traditions such as Buddhism.

The main tenets of Whitehead's metaphysics were summarized in his last and most accessible work, Adventures of Ideas (1933), where he also defines his conceptions of beauty, truth, art, adventure, and peace. He believed that "there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil. Whitehead's political views sometimes appear to be libertarianism without the label. He wrote: "Now the intercourse between individuals and between social groups takes one of two forms, force or persuasion. Commerce is the great example of intercourse by way of persuasion. War, slavery, and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force. On the other hand, many Whitehead scholars read his work as providing a philosophical foundation for the social liberalism of the New Liberal movement that was prominent throughout Whitehead's adult life. Morris wrote that "...there is good reason for claiming that Whitehead shared the social and political ideals of the new liberals.


See also


Works by Whitehead

  • 1898. A Treatise on Universal Algebra with Applications. Cambridge Uni. Press. 1960 reprint, Hafner.
  • 1911. An Introduction to Mathematics. Oxford Univ. Press. 1990 paperback, ISBN 0-19-500211-3. Vol. 56 of the Great Books of the Western World series.
  • 1917. The Organization of Thought Educational and Scientific. Lippincott.
  • 1920. The Concept of Nature. Cambridge Uni. Press. 2004 paperback, Prometheus Books, ISBN 1-59102-214-2. Being the 1919 Tarner Lectures delivered at Trinity College.
  • 1922. The Principle of Relativity with Applications to Physical Science. Cambridge Uni. Press.
  • 1925 (1910-13), with Bertrand Russell. Principia Mathematica, in 3 vols. Cambridge Uni. Press. Vol. 1 to *56 is available as a CUP paperback.
  • 1925a. Science and the Modern World. 1997 paperback, Free Press (Simon & Schuster), ISBN 0-684-83639-4. Vol. 55 of the Great Books of the Western World series.
  • 1925b (1919). An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. Cambridge Uni. Press.
  • 1926. Religion in the Making. 1974, New American Library. 1996, with introduction by Judith A. Jones, Fordham Univ. Press.
  • 1927. Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect. The 1927 Barbour-Page Lectures, given at the University of Virginia. 1985 paperback, Fordham University Press.
  • 1929. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. 1979 corrected edition, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, Free Press. (Part V. Final Interpretation)
  • 1929a. The Aims of Education and Other Essays. 1985 paperback, Free Press, ISBN 0-02-935180-4.
  • 1929b. Function of Reason. 1971 paperback, Beacon Press, ISBN 0-8070-1573-3.
  • 1933. Adventures of Ideas. 1967 paperback, Free Press, ISBN 0-02-935170-7.
  • 1934. Nature and Life. University of Chicago Press.
  • 1938. Modes of Thought. 1968 paperback, Free Press, ISBN 0-02-935210-X.
  • 1947. Essays in Science and Philosophy. Runes, Dagobert, ed. Philosophical Library.
  • 1947. The Wit and Wisdom of Whitehead. Beacon Press.
  • 1951. "Mathematics and the Good" in Schilpp, P. A., ed., 1951. The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, 2nd. ed. New York, Tudor Publishing Company: 666-81. Also printed in:
    • in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, 1941, P. A. Schilpp, Ed.;
    • in Science & Philosophy; Philosophical Library, 1948.
  • 1953. A. N. Whitehead: An Anthology. Northrop, F.S.C., and Gross, M.W., eds. Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Price, Lucien, 1954. Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, with Introduction by Sir Ross David. Reprinted 1977, Greenwood Press Reprint, ISBN 0-8371-9341-9, and 2001 with Foreword by Caldwell Titcomb, David R. Godine Publisher, ISBN 1-56792-129-9.

Works about Whitehead and his thought

  • Browning, Douglas and Myers, William T., eds., 1998. Philosophers of Process. Fordham Univ Press. ISBN 0-8232-1879-1, contains some primary texts including:
    • "Critique of Scientific Materialism"
    • "Process"
    • "Fact and Form"
    • "Objects and Subjects"
    • "The Grouping of Occasions"
  • Durand G., 2007. "Des événements aux objets. La méthode de l'abstraction extensive chez A. N. Whitehead". Ontos Verlag.
  • Ivor Grattan-Guinness, 2000. The Search for Mathematical Roots 1870-1940. Princeton Uni. Press.
  • ------, 2002, "Algebras, Projective Geometry, Mathematical Logic, and Constructing the World: Intersections in the Philosophy of Mathematics of A. N. Whitehead," Historia Mathematica 29: 427-62. Many references.
  • Charles Hartshorne, 1972. Whitehead's Philosophy: Selected Essays, 1935-1970. University of Nebraska Press
  • Kneebone, G., 2001, (1963). Mathematical Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics. Dover reprint: ISBN 0-486-41712-3. The final chapter is a lucid introduction to some of the ideas in Whitehead (1919, 1925b, 1929).
  • LeClerc, Ivor, ed., 1961. The Relevance of Whitehead. Allen & Unwin.
  • Lowe, Victor, 1962. Understanding Whitehead. Johns Hopkins Uni. Press.
  • ------, 1985. A. N. Whitehead: The Man and His Work, Vol. 1. Johns Hopkins U. Press.
  • ------, and Schneewind, J. B., 1990. A. N. Whitehead: The Man and His Work, Vol. 2. Johns Hopkins U. Press.
  • Richard Milton Martin, 1974. Whitehead's Categorial Scheme and Other Essays. Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Mays, Wolfgang, 1959. The Philosophy of Whitehead. Allen & Unwin.
  • ------, 1977. Whitehead's Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics: An Introduction to his Thought. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Mesle, C. Robert, 2008. Process-Relational Philosophy: An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead," Templeton foundation Press. ISBN 978-1-59947-132-7
  • Nobo, Jorge L., 1986. Whitehead's Metaphysics of Extension and Solidarity. SUNY Press.
  • Willard Quine, 1941, "Whitehead and the rise of modern logic" in Schilpp (1941). Reprinted in his 1995 Selected Logic Papers. Harvard Univ. Press.
  • Nicholas Rescher, 1995. Process Metaphysics. SUNY Press.
  • ------, 2001. Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues. Univ. of Pittsburg Press.
  • Schilpp, Paul A., ed., 1941. The Philosophy of A. N. Whitehead (The Library of Living Philosophers). New York: Tudor.
  • Weber, Michel, 2006. Whitehead’s Pancreativism–The Basics. Ontos Verlag
  • Will, Clifford, 1993. Theory and Experiment in Gravitational Physics. Cambridge University Press.

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