NORTH WHITEHEAD: NEW WORLD PHILOSOPHER 1861-1947
courtesy of the Harvard University Archives)
by A. H. Johnson
twentieth century has produced few men 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
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.
courtesy of the Harvard University Archives)
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
courtesy of the Harvard University Archives)
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
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,
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 speculationsthoughts
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
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 yearsthe 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.
the Wit and Wisdom of Alfred North Whitehead,
Beacon Press 1947.
following minute was placed upon the records of
the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
courtesy of the Harvard University Archives)
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 mathematicsgeneralities
with which mathematicians had rarely been concerned.
The Principia Mathematica (credit for which
is due to both Whitehead and Russellin 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
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
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.
courtesy of the Harvard University Archives)
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
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
WALLACE B. DONHAM
I. LEWIS, Chairman
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
"unchanged", and the home of the eternal
forms, objects of his "conceptual feelings"in
so far, like the God of Thomist and other traditional
theologiesbut 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 Whiteheads
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
From An Encyclopedia of Religion edited
by Virgilius Ferm, The Philosophical Library,
New York, 1945.
Alfred North Whitehead
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
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?
view of Harvard's tercentenary celebration by Waldo
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
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?
an address at the Tercentenary of Harvard University,
Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead
as Recorded by Lucian Price (Boston: Little, Brown and
Adventures of Ideas by Alfred Whitehead (New York:
Mamimillian Company, 1933)
Religion in the Making by Alfred North Whitehead
(Cambridge at the University Press, 1926)
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.