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Home » Biographies » Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead

The Harvard Square God

By Herbert F. Vetter

Part IV

Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead

William Ernest Hocking was a member of the Department of Philosophy at Harvard which invited Alfred North Whitehead, the British mathematician and philosopher of natural sciences, to come to these shores in 1924. He received word that he was being asked to teach not mathematics—which had been the subject he had taught for 40 years—but philosophy, the field of his concentrated thought expressed in such of his books as The Philosophy of Physical Nature. To his wife, Whitehead exclaimed, “There is nothing in the world that I would rather do.” When they arrived in the Harvard Square community in 1924, an astonishing transformation took place with respect to his productivity. He delivered a series of Lowell Lectures on Science and the Modern World in 1925. Following this classic work, he delivered in the very next year Lowell Lectures onReligion in the Making. This little book abounds with aphoristic wisdom and insight, containing phrases such as the movement from God the Void, to God the Enemy, to God the Companion. The following year saw the publication of Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. Only two years later, in 1929, his magnum opus arrived: Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. In the very same year, two other volumes by him were published: The Function of Reason is one; the other is a gathering of essays on The Aims of Education. Other works followed.

Born in 1861, Alfred was the son of an Anglican clergyman who was head of a private school. He was educated in the classical mode: ancient languages, classical authors, mathematics and the Bible, which was read in Greek. In addition to his formal courses at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, his higher education was vigorously advanced by membership in an undergraduate group called The Apostles, which engaged in incessant conversation on matters pertaining to the whole of cultural life. Started by Tennyson in 1820, The Apostles met at 10 on Saturday evening and continued to anytime Sunday morning.

Whitehead’s marriage to Evelyn Willoughby added immensely to his aesthetic sensitivity; she taught him that beauty is the aim of existence. A biography of Bertrand Russell describes Russell’s enduring but unrequited love for Evelyn Whitehead. The Whiteheads had three children, one of whom was shot down during World War I. Their daughter long was a familiar sight in Harvard Square. The other son taught at the Harvard Business School, and Mrs. T. North Whitehead, his wife, is a person with whom I worked as a member and officer of the Cambridge Historical Society.

Alfred North Whitehead’s thought, as seen in his published writings, falls into three main periods. Mathematics and logic engaged his primary attention from the end of the nineteenth century to World War I. He wrote A Treatise on Universal Algebra, then the monumental Principia Mathematica with Russell—”a landmark in the study of logic”—as well as a popular University Library Introduction to Mathematics.

From 1917 until he left for Harvard, Whitehead’s focus was the philosophy of physical nature. He wrote The Organization of Thought: Educational and Scientific, An Enquiry Concerning tho Principles of Natural Knowledge, The Concept of Nature, and The Principle of Relativity.

His third period, the Harvard years, dealt with cosmology, metaphysics and civilization. What Whitehead’s thought has contributed to civilization may be surmised by the concluding sentence of Charles Hartshorne’s interpretation of Whitehead’s metaphysics:

The basic principles of our knowledge and experience, physical, biological, sociological, aesthetic, religious, are in this philosophy given an intellectual integration such as only a thousand years or ten thousand years of further reflection and inquiry seem likely to exhaust or adequately evaluate, but whose wide relevance and, in many respects, at least comparative accuracy some of us think can already be discerned.

As you contemplate the wisdom offered to us by Alfred North Whitehead, listen to a few of his bold words concerning God:

God is the ideal companion, the mirror which discloses to every creature its own greatness.

God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. God is their chief exmplification.

God is the beginning and the end.

God is dipolar.

It is as true to say that God is one and the World many, as that the World is one and God many .

It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.

God is the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands.

We find here the final application of the doctrine of objective immortality. Our immediate actions perish and yet live for evermore.

God is in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts.

Creation is a continuing process. Insofar as we partake of this creative process we partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is our immortality. Our true destiny as cocreator in the universe is our dignity and grandeur.

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