a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Biographies » Whitehead, Alfred North (1861-1947)

Whitehead, Alfred North (1861-1947)

Alfred North Whitehead

(Photo courtesy of the Harvard University Archives)

Biographical Introduction

The twentieth century has produced few people whose achievements in the fields of mathematics and philosophy can surpass those of Alfred North Whitehead. His is not a mere technical excellence. It is a competence which, on occasion, is adorned by an unexcelled brilliance of vivid expression. In the world of scholarship the name “Whitehead” is widely known and highly respected, but those who are most familiar with him contend that he achieves his supreme excellence in the realm of human association. Learning sits lightly on his firm shoulders; a sparkling, somewhat ironic, humor shines through his discourse. The profound humility of the truly wise dignifies his utterances. To persons in all walks of life he is a rare exemplification of cultured charm and humility.

Alfred North Whitehead was born on February 15, 1861, at Ramsgate England. Many environmental factors contributed to his personality. He grew up in a family which was concerned with education, religion, and local administration. His father and grandfather both had directed a private school. Later his father became a clergyman of the Established Church, holding among other offices that of Honorary Canon of Canterbury. The importance of human initiative was impressed on Whitehead at an early age. Leaders in Church and State visited his home. National and local affairs were frequently discussed in his hearing. His father, as Vicar of St. Peter’s Parish, exerted a very powerful influence in the surrounding districts. His home was located in an area of England studded with historic remains—Roman forts and Norman churches. Here were the beaches where the Saxons had landed. Here St. Augustine had preached his first sermon in England. Here, too, was the great cathedral of Canterbury. Thus, an awareness of the past was ever present in his youthful consciousness. From these various sources Whitehead developed, early in life, a profound and lasting interest in history, religion, education and social problems.

At the age of fifteen he went to the ancient Sherborne school in southwest England. As “head boy” at the school, Whitehead supervised discipline outside the classroom. He participated in the group games then in fashion: cricket, football and fives. Despite these various activities Whitehead found time for private reading. The poetry of Wordsworth and Shelley attracted his special attention. He also read widely in the field of history.

Whitehead

(Photo courtesy of the Harvard University Archives)

In 1880 Whitehead went up to Cambridge University and remained there as a student and a Fellow until 1910. During student days he was most fortunate in his academic and social contacts. He took lectures only in mathematics, but as a member of various student-faculty groups he profited from vigorous “socratic discussions” involving experts in politics, religion, philosophy, and literature. One of the more formal of these groups, called “The Apostles,” met in the rooms of members “from 10 P.M. Saturday to any time next morning…. The active members were eight or ten undergraduates or young B.A.’s, but older members who had ‘taken wings’ often attended.” In this stimulating environment Whitehead was impelled to do what he calls “a large amount of miscellaneous reading.” His later references to Kant are based on work undertaken in this period when he “nearly knew by heart large parts of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.” (He remarks: “I was early disenchanted”). The rather humorous confessions of ignorance concerning Hegel which Whitehead was accustomed to make in his Harvard classroom, were due apparently to his first contacts with that gentleman. “I have never been able to read Hegel: I initiated my attempt by studying some remarks of his on mathematics which struck me as complete nonsense.”

As a Fellow and later as Senior Lecturer, Whitehead continued to enjoy many stimulating contacts with colleagues and students. It should be noted that his adult career at Cambridge was not that of a scholar dwelling in an ivory tower. He participated extensively in the local politics of Grantchester, a village near Cambridge in which he lived for eight years. He gave the newly-formed Labor Party the support of his presence on the platform when Keir Hardie spoke in the Guildhall at Cambridge. The cause of equal rights for women also aroused his genuine interest.

Whiteheads

(Photo courtesy of the Harvard University Archives)

With characteristic charm and gallantry Whitehead acknowledges the profound influence exerted by his wife. “Her vivid life has taught me that beauty, moral and aesthetic, is the aim of existence; and that kindness, and love, and artistic satisfaction are among the modes of its attainment.”

In 1910 Whitehead moved to London and was soon immersed in numerous academic duties at the University of London. He became aware of, and grappled with, problems relating to higher education in modern industrial civilization. As teacher (Professor at the Imperial College of Science) and as administrator (Dean of the Faculty of Science, Chairman of the Academic Council which manages the internal affairs concerned with London education) he enlarged his apprehension of the relevant data which he used so skillfully later, when he at last had an opportunity to deal with pressing philosophical problems. During the years in London he lived through World War I, saw his two sons and one daughter devote themselves to the service of their country. In 1919 he dedicated The Principles of Natural Knowledge to “Eric Alfred Whitehead, Royal Flying Corps: Killed in action over the Foret de Gobain, March 13, 1918.”

The last stage in Whitehead’s academic career began when he accepted an invitation to become Professor of Philosophy at Harvard in 1924. This appointment was transformed into that of Professor Emeritus in 1937. At Harvard Whitehead found time to publish the results of his mature philosophical speculations—thoughts based on years of serious meditation. In the course of private discussion he once remarked: “From twenty on I was interested in philosophy, religion, logic, and history. Harvard gave me a chance to express myself.”

This brief outline of some of the important episodes in Whitehead’s life constitutes a woefully inadequate indication of the variety and depth of experiences which provided the foundation for his outstanding achievements. Yet it should be clear that here is a man uniquely fitted to undertake the great task which he set himself in his later years—the formulation of a philosophy which would do justice to all the rich and varied data of the twentieth-century world. Here, obviously, is a mind profoundly aware of the vast range of problems which confront the modern man. It is a keen and disciplined mind, appreciative of the wisdom of the past but not a victim of blind idolatry. The past provides data for use in the present and the future, but at each moment there is creative activity guided by ideals. Above all, this great man is not an arm-chair philosopher. Like Plato’s “philosopher king” he has mixed theory and practice. The result is unique efficiency in thought and action.

Whitehead’s great and ever-increasing influence flows through two channels: his numerous books and articles, and his direct personal associations with colleagues and students in the university environment.

 Adapted from A. H. Johnson, The Wit and Wisdom of Alfred North Whitehead, Beacon Press, 1947.


Harvard Faculty Minute

The following minute was placed upon the records of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Whitehead and colleagues

(Photo courtesy of the Harvard University Archives)

Alfred North Whitehead came to Harvard as Professor of Philosophy in the autumn of 1924, upon his retirement from the University of London. He was born in Ramsgate, England on February 15, 1861, his father being Canon Alfred Whitehead, Vicar of St. Peter’s, Isle of Thanet. He received his Bachelor’s degree in 1884, the Master’s degree in 1887, and the degree of Doctor of Science in 1905, all at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1890 he married Evelyn Wade, who bore him three children: Eric Alfred, who was killed in the first World War, Thomas North and Jessie Marie, who accompanied him and Mrs. Whitehead to America and have become members of the Harvard community.

From 1885 Whitehead was Fellow and Senior Fellow of Trinity College, where he was Lecturer and later Senior Lecturer on Mathematics from 1885 to 1911. In the latter year he transferred to the University of London and became successively Lecturer on Applied Mathematics and Mechanics and Reader in Geometry at University College, Professor of Applied Mathematics, and Chief Professor of Mathematics at Imperial College. He was also Dean of the Faculty of Science at Imperial College, member of the Senate of the University of London, and otherwise actively engaged in administration. After becoming Professor Emeritus at Harvard in 1936, he continued to live in Cambridge until his death on December 30, 1947.

He was the recipient of many honors, the most notable of which was the Order of Merit, formally bestowed upon him by a representative of the British Crown at a special ceremony held in the Faculty Room at Harvard in 1945.

Whitehead published many books, dealing with mathematics, natural science, metaphysics, theory of knowledge, education, religion, and history; but it is not to be supposed that because his interests were so wide and diverse they were therefore unrelated. There was only one Whitehead. He was essentially a philosopher, with a core of central ideas which, because they were central, radiated to the entire periphery of his thought, and, because they were his own, gave continuity and consistency to his intellectual development. Philosophy as he conceived it, and as he embodied it in his own person, cannot be divorced from life. For, as he said, philosophy expresses “that ultimate good sense which we term civilization” and maintains “an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system.”

Any summary of a philosophy so voluminous and many-sided must be inadequate, and any appraisal of it at this time must reflect the special interest of the judge, and his lack of historical perspective. The Universal Algebra, published in 1898, revealed the author’s interest in the broadest possible generalities of mathematics—generalities with which mathematicians had rarely been concerned. The Principia Mathematica (credit for which is due to both Whitehead and Russell—in what proportions no man can say) appeared in three volumes during the years 1910-1913. It derives mathematics from a few fundamental logical concepts and principles, making use of symbols and exact deductive proof. In the opinion of competent judges, it is one of the intellectual monuments of all time.

In his next series of books published between 1916 and 1922, including his Principles of Natural Knowledge and Concept of Nature, Whitehead moved from mathematics to physical science, and presented a new analysis of its basic concepts in which the ideal fictions of pure mathematics are related to concrete events as limits of approximation, defined by the author’s famous method of “extensive abstraction.”

Whitehead’s gradually maturing metaphysics culminated in his Science and the Modern World, 1925; Process and Reality, 1929, and Adventures of Ideas, 1933. It centered in his “philosophy of organism,” by which he avoided the “bifurcations” which, he believed, had brought earlier philosophy to an impasse: the dualisms of soul and body, of knowing subject and transcendent object, of purpose and mechanism, of thought and feeling, of man and his external environment. Whitehead would restore to us that world of our first intuitions of reality which had been lost sight of when the one world of the natural man was separated into the finite, sensible, and sinful world of sense-perception and the good, the beautiful and really true, which were sent off to live in Plato’s Heaven. Among his central metaphysical ideas, the most notable were his identification of reality with “process,” and of particular entities with “slabs of duration; his definition of mind in terms of “conceptual experience”; his provision for universals as “eternal objects,” ingredient in existence; his insistence upon the all-pervasive interrelations of things, and on the “creative advance” of nature and history. These ideas not only constituted Whitehead’s systematic metaphysics, but found expression in his writings on special subjects, as in his Religion in the Making 1926; his Aims of Education, 1928, and his numerous scattered articles.

Whitehead

(Photo courtesy of the Harvard University Archives)

In spite of the difficulty of his thought and the strangeness of his terminology, Whitehead was a great teacher. His noble phrase that “education consists in the habitual vision of greatness” conveys what he meant to his students. They were educated not merely by the fact that they heard incisive and seminal ideas, but also because they found themselves in the presence of a great man. He seemed to have inexhaustible time to give to his students. He talked with them after class, and his evenings at home became a institution. Students crowded to hear him converse, not only on philosophy but on politics, religion, history, art indeed, on everything under the sun. In the lecture room he gave the appearance of complete spontaneity. He did not deliver a set-piece; his lecture was simply thought in action. The listener had the unique experience of being taken behind the scenes and of witnessing the very process of creative thinking.

The influence of Whitehead was not confined to his department and the subject which he taught, but extended throughout the University. His time, his interest, and his wisdom were made freely available to all his colleagues in this and other faculties; and it would be difficult l make clear the inspiration and the sense of assurance which he could contribute to the solution of intellectual problem. His criticisms were always kindly, never discouraging, a ways challenging to further effort; and his approval, when it came, was always wholehearted and generous.

He was one of the founders of the Society of Fellows and was quite naturally chosen as one of the original Senior Fellows. Until the year of his death, he went regularly to the Monday dinners of the Society, played an active an discerning part in the choosing of Junior Fellows, and made the Society a part of himself. His name is already a legend there. Characteristically, to him is attributed the generous provision made for Junior Fellows who marry; Whitehead, unlike some of his co-founders, had no notion that love is an unfortunate distraction for the scholar. His wit, too, is legendary, and the personal good will with which it was invariably accompanied.

Whitehead remained a British subject, but found himself so in harmony with American thought and feeling that he could live in America with no sense of exile during twenty-three years of social and political change, including war, the memory of war, and the fear of war. This was due not only to the affection which warmed all of his person relations, and to his sympathy with American institutions, but to his universality. He was civilized in his own meaning of the term, as when he said, “Civilized beings are those who survey the world with some large generality of understanding.”

RALPH BARTON PERRY
WALLACE B. DONHAM
RAPHAEL DEMOS
CRANE BRINTON
C. I. LEWIS, Chairman


An Intellectual Portrait

Whitehead, Alfred North (b. 1861) British-American philosopher. Taught mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge, 1911-14, and at University College, London, 1914-24. Professor of philosophy at Harvard University from 1924 until retirement in 1938, during which time his chief philosophical works appeared (earlier writings being either mathematical or near the boundary between mathematics [or physics] and philosophy). Whitehead’s system has been called “the most large-minded synthesis since Hegel” (Lovejoy). It includes a conception of cosmic evolution recalling views of Bergson, Peirce, Alexander, or Lloyd Morgan; a Platonic doctrine of forms or “eternal objects;” a theology which, like much recent Protestant thought, conceives God as receiving enrichment from the world process and so in some sense temporal. But the central and most original feature is the theory of “societies of occasions.” The unit of reality is neither mere being nor mere becoming, but the “experient occasion as a social union of a number of such occasions, and having aspect s both of being and of becoming. Occasions immediately “prehend” or feel other occasions, and this prehension is sympathetic, a “feeling of feeling.” There is no hard core of dead matter, such as could neither have feelings itself nor furnish content to the sympathetic feelings of others. A man, for example, feels his own just past feelings in immediate memory, but he also feels feelings just previously felt by his bodily cells or other entities in his body. All such entities are constituted by streams of experience on some level, however primitive. Each such stream (or “society with personal order”) is made one by its feeling of feelings in its own past. But also, by feeling of feeling it is united to other streams. Self-identity and unity with others do not differ absolutely. Egoism and altruism have the same root in the immediate sympathy of the occasion for other occasions. Time and space are only the relational structures into which the “of” is articulated in the becoming of feelings of feelings. The past consists of occasions prehended in a given occasion A, but not prehending it; the future, of occasions not prehended in A, but such that, if they occur they are bound to prehend A. The non-immanence of future occasions in the present gives freedom or indetermination. Strictly, no future events exist, but only certain potentialities from which events can be created. This holds even for God who knows events as fully determinate only as the events occur, and who himself is in process (or process is in him) of a uniquely perfect kind by which he inherits all the richness of past events. Thus in God our experiences, though they “perish, yet live forevermore.” God is perfect in his power of synthesizing events into the most meaningful whole they are capable of forming, but just what events shall occur as material for this synthesis depends partly upon tbe inherent freedom or self-determination which is the essence of every event-unit of reality. God can set limits to the discords or conflicts resulting from the plurality of freedoms, and in this way he is the “ground of order” or “harmony” in the world. But he cannot destroy freedom, and he does not wish to diminish it below the point at which decreased risk of conflict would mean an equally increased risk of the opposite evil, namely “tedium”, loss of “zest” in the occasions. God has two natures, 1 ) the Primordial, which is “infinite,” “unconditioned”, “unchanged”, and the home of the eternal forms, objects of his “conceptual feelings”—in so far, like the God of Thomist and other traditional theologies—but is not “eminent in actuality”, rather by itself is “abstract,” “deficient in actuality”; 2) the Consequent Nature which is finite, “conditioned by the creative advance of the world,” and thus “fluent”, “in a sense temporal,” “concrete,” “conscious”. It is by the consequent nature that there is a “reaction of the world upon God.” Thus God illustrates the chief categories of the system, in that his actuality, like all actuality, is essentially a sympathetic union of experiences responsive to the feelings of others and literally prehending them; and in that he consists neither of mere being nor of mere becoming, but of a) indeterminate but determinable future potentialities, b) the process of creative advance from determinable to determinate occasions, and c) the treasury of past becomings, past events, as “living forevermore,” “immortal” in their indestructible being. The units of change do not change, events do not alter, they only become, but having become they belong always thereafter to the wealth of reality, which is enriched’ never diminished, with temporal passage. The final tragedy is not loss of what has been actual, but rather the occurrence of suffering as actual, and also the non-occurrence of what might have been actual had the various freedoms been more fortunately exercised. Such tragedy is inherited by the consequent nature of God to whom it is “profane” to attribute “arbitrary power [see omnipotence] or mere happiness.” Rather, God is the “fellow sufferer who understands”, whose joy has an “heroic” tinge, since it involves sharing in our sorrows. See infinite time.

Principal works: A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898) (with Bertrand Russell) Principia Mathematica (1910- 1913) Religion in the Making (1926); Process and Reality (1929) The Aims of Education (1929); Adventures of Ideas (1933) Model of Thought (1938). The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1941) ed. by P. A. Schilpp contains Whitehead’s Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality and Lecture on the Good, also essays by various authors on Whitehead’s philosophy, including Whitehead’s Philosophy of Religion by J. S. Bixler and Whitehead’s Idea of God by C. Hartshorne. Probably for most readers Adventures of Ideas (especially parts Three and Four) is the best account of the Whiteheadian philosophy though for the theology the final chapter of Process and Reality is essential.

 Excerpted from Charles Hartshorne, An Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Virgilius Ferm, The Philosophical Library, New York, 1945.


VeritasHarvard: The FutureHarvard

by Alfred North Whitehead

About twenty-five years for a man and about three hundred years for a university are the periods required for the attainment of mature stature. The history of Harvard is no longer to be construed primarily in terms of growth, but in terms of effectiveness.

Civilization haunts the borders of waterways. The North American shores of the Atlantic are in the central position to influence the adventures of mankind, from East to West and from North to South. What is the influence of Harvard to mean in the immediate future, originating thought and feeling during the next fifty years, or during the next one hundred and fifty years? Harvard is one of the outstanding universities in the very center of human activity. At present it is magnificently equipped. A new epoch is opening in the world. What is the task before Harvard?

Harvard's tercentenary celebration

A view of Harvard’s tercentenary celebration by Waldo Peirce.

The word “Harvard” is to be taken partly in its precise designation of a particular institution and partly as a symbolic reference to the university system through this country. Each of these institutions has the age of the group, as moulded by this cultural impulse. The fate of the intellectual civilization of the world is today in the hands of this group – for such time as it can effectively retain the sceptre. And today there is no rival. The Aegean coast line had its chance and made use of it; France, England, Germany, had their chance and made use of it. Today the American states have their chance. What use will they make of it? The question has two answers. Once Babylon had its chance, and produced the Tower of Babel. The University of Paris fashioned the intellect of the Middle Ages. Will Harvard fashion the intellect of the twentieth century?

Today Harvard is the greatest of existing cultural institutions. The opportunity is analogous to that of Greece after Marathon, to that of Rome in the reign of Augustus, to that of Christian institutions amid the decay of civilization. Each of these examples recalls tragic failure. But in each there is success which has secured enrichment of human life. If Greece had never been, if Augustan Rome had never been, if Institutional Christianity had never been, if the University of Paris had never been, human life would now be functioning on a lower level, nearer to its animal origins. Will Harvard rise to its opportunity, and in the modern world repeat the brilliant leadership of medieval Paris?

— From an address at the Tercentenary of Harvard University, 1936.


A Note on Unitarian Connections

Whitehead’s formative series of Lowell Lectures, Science and the Modern World and Religion in the Making, were delivered at King’s Chapel, the very earliest Unitarian Church in the United States. The Lowell Institute was endowed in 1836 by a Unitarian, John Lowell, Jr., and for a century it was part of the New England cultural complex which was led by Unitarians. They had key roles in such institutions as Harvard University and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Unitarian philosopher Charles Hartshorne was a major interpreter of Whitehead’s thought.

Alfred North Whitehead was a notable friend whom Lucian Price recorded as having said “the Unitarians come the nearest to having found a way to adapt the Christian ideas to the world we live in”.


Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Alfred North Whitehead: God

The Idea of Creativity in American Philosophy

A New World and a New World View

God and the World

The Biography of Charles Hartshorne


 


Notable in UU History

Spear, Charles (1801-1863)

An important Universalist leader in the movement to reform prisons, Spear was born in Boston, and ... Read More

Shinn, Quillen Hamilton (1845-1907)

The greatest Universalist domestic missionary in the post-Civil War period, Shinn was born on January 1, ... Read More

Foote, Henry Wilder (1875-1964)

Henry Wilder Foote's 50th Anniversary Report to the Harvard University Class of 1897 Foote, the son ... Read More
Frederic Melcher

Melcher, Frederic G. (1879-1963)

Below are two biographical perspectives on Frederic G. Melcher, the first penned by his son, Daniel ... Read More