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Alfred North Whitehead

, Mathematician/Philosopher
Alfred North Whitehead

  • Born: 15 February 1861
  • Birthplace: Ramsgate, Isle of Thanet, Kent, England
  • Died: 30 December 1947
  • Best Known As: Mathematician who turned to metaphysics and religion

Alfred North Whitehead began teaching mathematics in 1884 at Trinity College in Cambridge, England. Between 1910 and 1913 he published the three-volume work Principia Mathematica with his former student, Bertrand Russell, an attempt to define the logical foundation of science and mathematics. Whitehead taught in England until 1924, when he moved to the United States to accept a chair in philosophy from Harvard University. In 1929 he published Process and Reality, and spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing on what is called process theology.

Scientist: Alfred North Whitehead

British mathematician and philosopher (1861–1947)

Whitehead, who was born at Ramsgate on the south coast of England, obtained his PhD from Cambridge University in 1884. For the next few years he taught there and met Bertrand Russell, who was one of his students and with whom he was later to collaborate. Whitehead was one of a growing section of philosophers of science who criticized the deterministic and materialistic views prevalent in 19th-century science. The main theme of this critique was that scientific theories were patterns derived from our way of measuring and perceiving the world and not innate properties of the underlying reality. While in Cambridge his mathematical work reflected this viewpoint, developed in his book Treatise of Universal Algebra (1898), which treated algebraic structures as objects worthy of study in their own right, independent of their relationship to real quantities. In 1910 he published, with Russell, the first volume of the vast Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles) which was an attempt, inspired by the work of Gottlob Frege and Guiseppe Peano, to clarify the conceptual foundations of mathematics using the formal methods of symbolic logic.

Whitehead then moved to London, where he taught at University College and later became professor at Imperial College. Here he developed his action-at-a-distance theory of relativity, which challenged Einstein's field-theoretic viewpoint but never gained wide acceptance. In 1924 he emigrated to America and worked at Harvard, developing his antimechanistic philosophy of science and a system of metaphysics, until he retired in 1937.

Biography: Alfred North Whitehead

English-born American mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) pioneered in mathematical logic, demonstrating that all mathematics may be derived from a few logical concepts. He also produced a comprehensive philosophical system in accord with contemporary science.

Alfred North Whitehead was born on Feb. 15, 1861, in Kent, England. His father, an Anglican clergyman, had a keen interest in education. Whitehead's character and intellectual orientation were largely shaped by his father's personality. After studying Latin, Greek, and mathematics in Dorsetshire, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1880 as a scholarship student in mathematics. Elected to a fellowship in 1884, Whitehead remained at Cambridge until 1910, rising to the position of senior lecturer.

In 1890 Whitehead married Evelyn Willoughby Wade, to whom he attributed his interests in moral, esthetic, and other humane values. The Whitehead's had three children; the youngest son's death in World War I profoundly affected Whitehead's later reflections on human life.

Early Work

At Cambridge, Whitehead concentrated on mathematical logic. He sought to develop an abstract (that is, nonnumerical) algebra. For the first volume of A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898) he was elected to the Royal Society. His second volume was never published. Meanwhile, Bertrand Russell had worked independently on the logical foundations of mathematics and published Principles of Mathematics (1903). Whitehead and Russell collaborated for nearly a decade; the result was Principia Mathematica (3 vols., 1910-1913).

Widely recognized as one of the great intellectual achievements of all time, Principia Mathematica sought to demonstrate that mathematics could be deduced from postulates of formal logic. No work in logic since Aristotle's Organon has had a greater impact on the field than Principia Mathematica. Its influence on mathematics has also been considerable, manifest in the teaching of "new mathematics" in American schools today.

In 1910, in London, Whitehead wrote Introduction to Mathematics. In 1911 he began teaching at the University College, London, and in 1914 he became professor at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, subsequently becoming dean of the faculty of science in the University of London. During this period his interests centered on the philosophy of science.

Philosophy of Science

His 1906 paper, "On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World," had shown Whitehead's concern with connecting the formal concepts of a logicomathematical system, such as he conceived geometry to be, with features of the experienced world of space, time, and matter. In Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) he introduced the method of extensive abstraction. This method defines, for example, a formal element, like a point, in terms of a whole convergent set of volumes of a certain shape extending over others of the same shape, like a nest of Chinese boxes.

These investigations were pressed further in The Concept of Nature (1920). Whitehead rejected the prevailing dualism. He defined nature as that which is "disclosed in sense experience"; and he stressed, not our simple awareness of particular sensations, but rather our deep-seated feeling of a spatiotemporally extended passage going on in nature. Moreover, Whitehead analyzed the passage of nature into events and objects. Events are happenings which, while they may overlap, come into being and pass away. Objects, on the contrary, are constant; they are patterns which recur. Whitehead claimed that such a pervasive pattern, an element of permanence in the flux, accounts for nature's uniformity. It is bound up with the categories of space, time, causation, and matter.

Whitehead, keenly interested in Albert Einstein's relativity theory, could not, however, accept it without a revision so radical as to constitute an alternative. The Principle of Relativity (1922) proposed a homaloidal conception of space and an absolutistic conception of measurement. (Physicists, however, have preferred Einstein's version of relativity for experimental reasons.)

Move to America

In 1924 Whitehead transported his family to America, where he became a philosophy professor at Harvard University. He devoted his Harvard years to elaborating a comprehensive philosophy.

Whitehead's 1925 Lowell Lectures at Harvard, published as Science and the Modern World (1925), immediately appealed to avant-garde thinkers not only in the sciences but also in religion and in the humanities. On the one hand, Whitehead wrote clearly about difficult points in the history of literature and science, such as romantic poetry and the new discoveries in quantum mechanics. On the other hand, he wrote numerous technical paragraphs which invited painstaking exegesis. The work, widely read and discussed, introduced Whitehead's own "philosophy of organism."

In 1926 Whitehead published his influential Religion in the Making. In Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect (1927) he presented his theory of perception, marking his epistemology off from that of the empiricists. He noted two modes of perception: perception by presentational immediacy and perception by causal efficacy. Perception by presentational immediacy is the apprehension of distinct sense data - colors, sounds, shapes, and so on. Empiricists take this mode of perception to be fundamental, whereas Whitehead saw it as derivative from the mode of perception by causal efficacy. This second mode presents the deep-seated pervasive feelings that the perceiving organism has by virtue of its causal relations to other beings. By stressing perception by causal efficacy, Whitehead believed he would escape the subjectivism and skepticism into which traditional empiricism fell.

Process and Reality

Process and Reality (1929), probably Whitehead's most famous book in philosophy, presents his system of speculative philosophy, which he called "cosmology." According to Whitehead, speculative philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent set of basic concepts capable of interpreting every item of experience; he unveiled a technical system of 36 categories. It suffices here to cite four: actual entities, eternal objects, nexus, and creativity. Actual entities are the ultimately real things, coming into being and passing away. As momentary entities, they may be equated with the event constituting the leap of an electron from one orbit in its atom to another, or with an occasion of experience. Eternal objects, by contrast, are forms or qualities which recur in the passage of actual entities. A nexus is a society whose components are actual entities. Nexūs, or societies of actual entities, constitute the enduring objects - for example, trees and persons - encountered in ordinary experience. Creativity is the ultimate category, accounting for the novelty, the creative advance in the world. God is a derivative notion; it is an accident of creativity.

Process and Reality is widely considered the final formulation of the evolutionary, process philosophies which, stimulated in the first instance by the scientific achievement of Charles Darwin, were espoused by Herbert Spencer, Henri Bergson, and others.

As a result of his contributions, Whitehead was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1931. In his last major work, Adventures of Ideas (1933), he further clarified his key ideas, relating them to earlier ideas in the history of thought, particularly the basic concepts of Plato. He also offered an interpretation of history and civilization, revealing the extent to which a few leading ideas shape human destiny. Because of its lucidity, profundity, and relevance, Adventures of Ideas is the best introduction to Whitehead's philosophy.

In 1937 Whitehead became emeritus professor of philosophy at Harvard. He stayed on in Cambridge, Mass., continuing discussions with students, former students, colleagues, and friends. A sample of these was published by Lucien Price as The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (1954). In 1945 the British crown awarded Whitehead the Order of Merit, the highest honor it bestows on a man of learning. Whitehead died in Cambridge, Mass., on Dec. 30, 1947.

Further Reading

The basic study of Whitehead is Paul A. Schlipp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1941; 2d ed. 1951). The best guide to Whitehead's thought is Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead (1962). Also noteworthy are Nathaniel Lawrence, Whitehead's Philosophical Development (1956), and Wolfe May, The Philosophy of Whitehead (1959). Special aspects of Whitehead's philosophy are dealt with in Dorothy M. Emmet, Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism (1932; 3d ed. 1966); A. H. Johnson, Whitehead's Theory of Reality (1952) and Whitehead's Philosophy of Civilization (1958); Ivor Leclerc, Whitehead's Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition (1958); Robert M. Palter, Whitehead's Philosophy of Science (1960); Donald Sherburne, A Whiteheadian Aesthetic: Some Implications of Whitehead's Metaphysical Speculation (1961); John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (1965); and Edward Pols, Whitehead's Metaphysics (1967).

Britannica Concise Encyclopedia: Alfred North Whitehead

(born Feb. 15, 1861, Ramsgate, Isle of Thanet, Kent, Eng. — died Dec. 30, 1947, Cambridge, Mass., U.S.) British mathematician and philosopher. He taught principally at the University of Cambridge (1885 – 1911) and Harvard University (1924 – 37). His Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898) extended Boolean symbolic logic. He collaborated with Bertrand Russell on the epochal Principia Mathematica (1910 – 13), which attempted to establish the thesis of logicism. In Process and Reality (1929), his major work in metaphysics, he proposed that the universe consists entirely of becomings, each a process of appropriating and integrating the infinity of items provided by the antecedent universe and by God. His other works include "On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World" (1905), An Introduction to Mathematics (1911), Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), The Concept of Nature (1920), Science and the Modern World (1925), and Religion in the Making (1926). He received the Order of Merit in 1945.

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Philosophy Dictionary: Alfred North Whitehead

Whitehead, Alfred North (1861-1947) English mathematician and philosopher. Whitehead was Russell's tutor in Cambridge, where he was Fellow of Trinity from 1884 to 1910, when he moved to London, and then to a chair of philosophy at Harvard in 1924. He collaborated with Russell on Principia Mathematica (1910-13). His own philosophy is an attempt at a systematic metaphysics built in the light of modern logic and science. Whitehead was impressed by the scientific concept of a flux or field of force and energy. Disliking both the atomism of the Newtonian world view, and that of the Humean analysis of experience into distinct perceptions, he sought to analyse such atoms in terms of overlapping sets of larger processes. His ‘method of extensive abstraction’ is that of defining an object such as a point in terms of nested volumes of space; similarly events become nested processes. The general ordering of the processes of the world is the primordial nature of God, represented as the principle of concretion whereby actual processes emerge. His Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and The Concept of Nature (1920) are considerably more accessible than the later Process and Reality (1929).

Columbia Encyclopedia: 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).

Education Encyclopedia: Alfred North Whitehead

One of the twentieth century's most original metaphysicians and a major figure in mathematical logic, Alfred North Whitehead was also an important social and educational philosopher. Born in England, he was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he also taught mathematics from 1884 until 1910. He then moved to London, where he was professor of applied mathematics at the University of London until 1924. Receiving an invitation to join the philosophy department at Harvard University, Whitehead came to the United States and taught at Harvard until 1937. He remained in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the rest of his life.

While Whitehead's metaphysical and logical writings merit his inclusion in any pantheon of twentieth-century philosophers, his work in social and educational philosophy is marked by singular qualities of imagination, profound analysis, and personal commitment. His thought resembles much in the philosophy of John Dewey (1859 - 1952). In the philosophy of higher education, where Dewey wrote very little, Whitehead is probably the most important figure since John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801 - 1890).

The Nature of Education

"Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilisation of knowledge." This simple sentence from Whitehead's introductory essay in his Aims of Education (1929, p. 4), epitomizes one of his central themes: Education cannot be dissected from practice. Whitehead's synthesis of knowledge and application contrasts sharply with educational theories that recommend mental training exclusively. His general philosophical position, which he called "the philosophy of organism," insists upon the ultimate reality of things in relation, changing in time, and arranged in terms of systems of varying complexity, especially living things, including living minds. Whitehead rejected the theory of mind that maintains it is a kind of tool, or dead instrument, needing honing and sharpening. Nor is it a kind of repository for "inert" ideas, stored up in neatly categorized bundles. It is an organic element of an indissoluble mind/body unit, in continuous relationship with the living environment, both social and natural. White-head's philosophy of organism, sometimes called "process philosophy," stands in continuity with his educational thought, both as a general theoretical backdrop for this educational position and as the primary application of his fundamental educational themes.

Educational Development and the Rhythm of Growth

Whitehead's general concept of the nature and aims of education has as its psychological corollary a conception of the rhythm of education that connects him with developmental educators such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778). For Whitehead, education is a temporal, growth-oriented process, in which both student and subject matter move progressively. The concept of rhythm suggests an aesthetic dimension to the process, one analogous to music. Growth then is a part of physical and mental development, with a strong element of style understood as a central driving motif. There are three fundamental stages in this process, which Whitehead called the stage of romance, the stage of precision, and the stage of generalization.

Romance is the first moment in the educational experience. All rich educational experiences begin with an immediate emotional involvement on the part of the learner. The primary acquisition of knowledge involves freshness, enthusiasm, and enjoyment of learning. The natural ferment of the living mind leads it to fix on those objects that strike it pre-reflectively as important for the fulfilling of some felt need on the part of the learner. All early learning experiences are of this kind and a curriculum ought to include appeals to the spirit of inquiry with which all children are natively endowed. The stage of precision concerns "exactness of formulation" (Whitehead 1929, p. 18), rather than the immediacy and breadth of relations involved in the romantic phase. Precision is discipline in the various languages and grammars of discrete subject matters, particularly science and technical subjects, including logic and spoken languages. It is the scholastic phase with which most students and teachers are familiar in organized schools and curricula. In isolation from the romantic impetus of education, precision can be barren, cold, and unfulfilling, and useless in the personal development of children. An educational system excessively dominated by the ideal of precision reverses the myth of Genesis: "In the Garden of Eden Adam saw the animals before he named them: in the traditional system, children named the animals before they saw them" (Whitehead 1925, p. 285). But precision is nevertheless a necessary element in a rich learning experience, and can neither substitute for romance, nor yield its place to romance. Generalization, the last rhythmic element of the learning process, is the incorporation of romance and precision into some general context of serviceable ideas and classifications. It is the moment of educational completeness and fruition, in which general ideas or, one may say, a philosophical outlook, both integrate the feelings and thoughts of the earlier moments of growth, and prepare the way for fresh experiences of excitement and romance, signaling a new beginning to the educational process.

It is important to realize that these three rhythmic moments of the educational process characterize all stages of development, although each is typically associated with one period of growth. So, romance, precision, and generalization characterize the rich educational experience of a young child, the adolescent, and the adult, although the romantic period is more closely associated with infancy and young childhood, the stage of precision with adolescence, and generalization with young and mature adulthood. Education is not uniquely oriented to some future moment, but holds the present in an attitude of almost religious awe. It is "holy ground" (Whitehead 1929, p. 3), and each moment in a person's education ought to include all three rhythmical elements. Similarly, the subjects contained in a comprehensive curriculum need to comprise all three stages, at whatever point they are introduced to the student. Thus the young child can be introduced to language acquisition by a deft combination of appeal to the child's emotional involvement, its need for exactitude in detail, and the philosophical consideration of broad generalizations.

Universities and Professional Training

The pragmatic and progressive aims of education, accompanied by Whitehead's rhythmic developmentalism, have ramifying effects throughout the lifelong educational process, but nowhere more tellingly than in their application to university teaching and research. Whitehead was a university professor throughout his life, and for a time, dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of London. Personal experience makes his analysis of higher studies pointed and relevant. Strikingly, Whitehead chose the modern business school as representative of modern directions in university theory and practice. As a Harvard philosopher, he was in an excellent position to comment on this particular innovation in higher education, since Harvard University was the first school in the United States to have a graduate program in business administration. The novelty of the business school should not be overestimated, since the wedding of theory and practice has been an unspoken motif of higher education since the foundation of the university in the Middle Ages. What has happened is that business has joined the ranks of the learned professions, no longer exclusively comprising theology, law, and medicine. The business school shows that universities are not merely devoted to postsecondary instruction, nor are they merely research institutions. They are both, and the active presence of young learners and mature scholars is necessary to their organic health. "The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning" (Whitehead 1929, p. 93). This community of young and old is a further extension of the organic nature of learning. It makes the university analogous to other living associations, such as the family. The place of imagination in university life illustrates Whitehead's insistence on the aesthetic element in education. Universities are not merely institutions of analytic and intellectual skills, but of their imaginative integration into life. There is a creative element to all university activity (and not merely to the fine arts), a creativity necessary to the survival of life in a world of adventurous change. "Knowledge does not keep any better than fish" (Whitehead 1929, p. 98) and, while universities have a calling to preserve the great cultural achievements of the past, this conservatism must not be allowed to degenerate into a passive and unreflective commitment to inert ideas. "The task of a University is the creation of the future" (Whitehead 1938, p. 233). Ironically perhaps, the modern university, even one containing a business school, should not be managed like a business organization. The necessary freedom and risk, so important to the inventive scholar, requires a polity "beyond all regulation" (Whitehead 1929, p. 99).

Civilization, as Whitehead expresses it in his 1933 book, Adventures of Ideas (pp. 309 - 381), is constituted by five fundamental ideals, namely, beauty, truth, art, adventure, and peace. These five capture the aims, the rhythm, and the living, zestful and ordered progress of education and its institutional forms. They constitute a rich meaning of the term creativity, the ultimate driving source and goal of Whitehead's educational theory and program.


Brumbaugh, Robert S. 1982. Whitehead, Process Philosophy, and Education. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Dunkel, Harold B. 1965. Whitehead on Education. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Johnson, Allison H. 1958. Whitehead's Philosophy of Civilization. Boston: Beacon.

Levi, Albert W. 1937. "The Problem of Higher Education: Whitehead and Hutchins." Harvard Educational Review 7:451 - 465.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1925. Science and the Modern World. New York: Macmillan.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1929. The Aims of Education and Other Essays. New York: Macmillan.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1933. Adventures of Ideas. New York: Macmillan.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1938. Modes of Thought. New York: Macmillan.


Quotes By: Alfred North Whitehead


"But you can catch yourself entertaining habitually certain ideas and setting others aside; and that, I think, is where our personal destinies are largely decided."

"An enormous part of our mature experience cannot not be expressed in words."

"Familiar things happen, and mankind does not bother about them. It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious."

"In every age of well-marked transition, there is the pattern of habitual dumb practice and emotion which is passing and there is oncoming a new complex of habit."

"The vitality of thought is in adventure. Ideas won't keep. Something must be done about them. When the idea is new, its custodians have fervor, live for it, and if need be, die for it."

"Human life is driven forward by its dim apprehension of notions too general for its existing language."

See more famous quotes by Alfred North Whitehead

Wikipedia: Alfred North Whitehead
Western Philosophy
19th-century philosophy
20th-century philosophy


Alfred North Whitehead


February 15 1861(1861--)


October 30 1947 (aged 86)




Kant, Hegel, Bergson

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


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. On Whitehead the mathematician and logician, see Grattan-Guinness (2000, 2002), and Quine's chapter in Schilpp (1941), reprinted in Quine (1995).

Whitehead married Evelyn Wade, an Irish woman from France, in 1891; 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.

Concomitantly, Whitehead developed a keen interest in physics: his fellowship dissertation examined James Clerk Maxwell's views on electricity and magnetism. His attitudes towards 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. Without much prospect of ever attaining a professorship in mathematics, Whitehead left Cambridge just as the first volume of the Principia appeared. The pretext for leaving the alma mater was his protest at the dismissal of a Trinity College colleague because of an adulterous affair.

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.[1]. A more lasting work was his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), a pioneering attempt to synthetize the philosophical underpinnings of physics; the text proved too hermetic to influence professional physicists, 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." He was sixty-three when Henry Osborn Taylor invited him to implement his ideas and teach philosophy at Harvard University. This was a subject he had not previously taught, but was always interested in. The Whiteheads spent the rest of their life in the United States. The aged philosopher did not retire from Harvard until 1937. After his death ten years later, there was no funeral, as his body was cremated.

Despite abstruse mathematical and metaphysical questions associated with his name, 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, reprinted in his (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, 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.[1]

The standard biography is mainly by his Harvard student Victor Lowe; see Lowe (1985) and Lowe and Schneewind (1990). A comprehensive appraisal of Whitehead's work is difficult because (unlike his colleague Russell) 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 attributable to the shocking collapse of the Newtonian physics that he had witnessed. His metaphysical views began to emerge in his 1920 The Concept of Nature and were fully framed in the 1925 treatise 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. Though indebted 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"[2].

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.

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. [3]

The main tenets of Whitehead's metaphysics were summarized in his last and most accessible work, The Adventures of Ideas (1933), which also provides definitions 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. Randall C. Morris claims that "...there is good reason for claiming that Whitehead shared the social and political ideals of the new liberals."[4]

A signal technical feature of Process and Reality is its philosophical use of mereological and topological notions. Bowman Clarke argued in the 1980s that the mereotopology of Process and Reality was seriously flawed, and showed how it could be repaired. Simons (1987) contains an accessible review of Clarke's work. The work of Clarke was criticized in Biacino and Gerla (1991) where one proves that in a model of Clarke's system of axioms the connection relation coincides with the overlapping relation. This is very far from Whitehead's ideas.

The Big Bang cosmology that became canonical about 20 years after Whitehead's death, whereby the universe began a finite time ago in a very simple state and has subsequently grown ever more complex, is a scientific consensus that is compatible with process metaphysics. See also process physics for a fringe theory which claims inspiration in part from Whitehead's ideas.

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:


  1. ^ Skinner, B.F. 1957 Verbal Behavior, appendix
  2. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2006
  3. ^ Whitehead's rejection of mind-body dualism is similar to elements in faith traditions such as Buddhism.
  4. ^ (Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 51, No. 1., pp. 75-92. (p.92))

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

  • Biacino L., Gerla G., 1991. "Connection structures", Notre Dame J. of Formal Logic, 32 242-247.
  • 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.
  • Lowe 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.
  • 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 Uni. 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.
  • Simons, Peter, 1987. Parts. Oxford Uni. Press.
  • Weber, Michel, 2006. Whitehead’s Pancreativism–The Basics. Ontos Verlag
  • Will, Clifford, 1993. Theory and Experiment in Gravitational Physics. Cambridge University Press.

External links

NAME Whitehead, Alfred North
SHORT DESCRIPTION British mathematician and American philosopher
DATE OF BIRTH February 15 1861
PLACE OF BIRTH Ramsgate, Kent, UK
DATE OF DEATH December 30 1947
PLACE OF DEATH Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.

pms:Alfred North Whitehead


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