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.
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.