Study Guide

Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead Essay - Critical Essays

Whitehead, Alfred North

Introduction

Alfred North Whitehead 1861–-1947

English philosopher, mathematician, and essayist.

Whitehead is counted among the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century. His philosophy of organism is recognized as an outstanding contribution to Western thought. Whitehead's most complete statement of this systematic speculative philosophy appears in his Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929), which describes the universe as an endless series of interrelated events and views material objects as abstractions within the spatio-temporal flow of occurrences. In several of his works, particularly Science and the Modern World (1925), Whitehead studied the history of science and criticized the fundamental assumptions of scientific materialism. In place of mechanistic theories, Whitehead proposed his dynamic, event-based system. A noted mathematician, Whitehead is also remembered for his fruitful collaboration with mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell on their Principia Mathematica (1910-1913).

Biographical Information

Whitehead was born in Ramsgate, Kent, England, in 1861 to Alfred Whitehead, an Anglican priest and headmaster, and Maria Sarah Buckmaster, the daughter of an affluent London businessman. Whitehead was schooled in Ramsgate and later attended the Sherborne school in Dorset. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1880. Whitehead began his career as a lecturer in mathematics at Trinity in 1885 and published his first text on mathematics, A Treatise on Universal Algebra, in 1898. By 1910 Whitehead's collaboration with his former student Bertrand Russell had culminated in the first of three volumes of their Principia Mathematica, a work of symbolic logic that established the reputations of both philosophers. After departing from Trinity College, Whitehead became a lecturer in applied mathematics and mechanics in 1911 at University College, London. In 1914 he accepted a professorship in applied mathematics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London, where he remained for the next decade, and acceded to the position of Chief Professor in mathematics. By the early 1920s Whitehead's interests had begun to shift toward the philosophy of science and to metaphysics. He left England to teach philosophy at Harvard University in 1924 and remained primarily in the United States for rest of his life. During his time at Harvard and as a guest lecturer in Britain, Whitehead produced his principal works of systematic philosophy, including Science and the Modern World and Process and Reality. Whitehead received numerous awards and honors for his philosophical work in the latter portion of his life. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1947.

Major Works

In addition to his collaborative Principia Mathematica, Whitehead is highly regarded for his philosophical texts, the majority of which were derived from his scholarly lectures. Three related works, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), The Concept of Nature (1920), and The Principle of Relativity, with Applications to Physical Science (1922), detail Whitehead's philosophy of science. The Concept of Nature contains Whitehead's Trinity College Tarner Lectures. It features a critique of scientific materialism—which holds that all physical entities are constituted of some basic but unknowable material substance—the idea having been contradicted in the twentieth century by the relativistic theories of Albert Einstein. The Concept of Nature also questions what Whitehead called the philosophical bifurcation of nature, the barrier between what an observer perceives to be real and what may be its actual nature—the mind/matter dichotomy that has troubled epistemologists for centuries. Another significant concept in these works deals with the interrelated and abstract nature of space-time and material substance. These texts also introduce Whitehead's metaphysics—his theory of reality as a continuous flow of occurrences or events. Science and the Modern World expands Whitehead's earlier critique of modern scientific materialism. Surveying the principles of scientific thought since Greek antiquity, Whitehead questioned the mechanistic assumptions upon which an empirical understanding of the universe is based. He continued by forwarding his theory of an organic mechanism as a substitute for traditional materialism. The theory bears similarities to the concept of relativity, especially in terms of what Whitehead called the “percipient event”—a key feature of this metaphysical system that visualizes events as “prehending” one another in a joint continuum. Explaining the concept in Science and the Modern World Whitehead wrote, “In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world.” Religion in the Making (1926) and Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (1927) extend the ethical and theological components of Whitehead's system by presenting his notions of value, creativity, and the divine. Process and Reality details Whitehead's philosophy of organism and view of God as an abiding entity and the source of concrete actuality. In it Whitehead elaborated his concept of reality as composed of events—what he called “actual entities.” Three later works, The Function of Reason (1929), Adventures of Ideas (1933), and Modes of Thought (1938), consider a variety of topics and applications of Whitehead's philosophy to cultural and social issues. Additionally, Adventures of Ideas contains Whitehead's metaphysical proof of the existence of God. Among his other works, Whitehead's lectures urging reform in all arenas of education and the removal of “inert ideas” that cloud the process of learning are included in The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929).

Critical Reception

Describing the encompassing nature of his philosophical project, Whitehead observed that “Speculative Philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” In many respects, Whitehead's critics have acknowledged his success in this effort. Still, commentators have viewed his thought as dense and have noted that his brilliant ideas are sometimes obstructed by flaws of organization and style in his writings. Additionally, since it was Whitehead's contention that ordinary language was often inadequate to express the concepts of his metaphysics—and indeed that the object-predicate nature of language ran counter to his theory—his frequent use of neologisms and expanded definitions for existing words has contributed to this perception. Other critics have avowed the scope and comprehensiveness of Whitehead's system but have observed that his thought has sometimes failed to receive the attention it deserves. And while several scholars have considered Whitehead's philosophical debt to prior thinkers—William James and Henri Bergson among them—most have found his work to be strikingly innovative and original. When not explicating varied aspects of Whitehead's philosophy, many contemporary critics have also gauged its affinities to other modes of knowledge, including the spiritual teachings of Buddhism and the poetic insights of William Wordsworth, Gertrude Stein, Rainer Maria Rilke, and others.

Principal Works

A Treatise on Universal Algebra (nonfiction) 1898

The Axioms of Projective Geometry (nonfiction) 1906

The Axioms of Descriptive Geometry (nonfiction) 1907

Principia Mathematica. 3 vols. [with Bertrand Russell] (nonfiction) 1910-13

An Introduction to Mathematics (nonfiction) 1911

The Organization of Thought, Educational and Scientific (philosophy) 1917

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (philosophy) 1919

The Concept of Nature (philosophy) 1920

The Principle of Relativity, with Applications to Physical Science (philosophy) 1922

Science and the Modern World (philosophy) 1925

Relgion in the Making (philosophy) 1926

Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (philosophy) 1927

The Aims of Education and Other Essays (essays) 1929

The Function of Reason (lecture) 1929

Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (philosophy) 1929

Adventures of Ideas (philosophy) 1933

Nature and Life (philosophy) 1934

Modes of Thought (philosophy) 1938

Essays in Science and Philosophy (essays) 1947

The Wit and Wisdom of Alfred North Whitehead (selections) 1947

Alfred North Whitehead: An Anthology [edited by F. S. C. Northrop and Mason W. Gross] (philosophy) 1953

Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, as Recorded by Lucien Price (conversations) 1954

The Interpretation of Science: Selected Essays [edited by A. H. Johnson] (essays) 1961

Criticism

Edmund Wilson (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: “A. N. Whitehead: Physicist and Prophet,” in From the Uncollected Edmund Wilson, Ohio University Press, 1995, pp. 56-72.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1927, Wilson evaluates Whitehead's philosophy, calling Whitehead “perhaps one of the greatest creative minds of our day.”]

Alfred North Whitehead was born in 1861, the son of Canon Whitehead, Vicar of St. Peter's on the Isle of Thanet. In the current number of the Atlantic Monthly, he has given some account of his childhood and of that region of the Kentish coast from which he comes. The characteristics of the people who have to cope with the currents, fogs, and storms of the...

(The entire section is 4729 words.)

John Dewey (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: “Whitehead's Philosophy,” in Problems of Men, Philosophical Library, 1946, pp. 410-18.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1937, Dewey examines the basic method of Whitehead's philosophy.]

Mr. Whitehead's philosophy is so comprehensive that it invites discussion from a number of points of view. One may consider one of the many special topics he has treated with so much illumination or one may choose for discussion his basic method. Since the latter point is basic and since it seems to me to present his enduring contribution to philosophy, I shall confine myself to it.

Mr. Whitehead says that the task of philosophy is to...

(The entire section is 3050 words.)

John Dewey (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: “The Philosophy of Whitehead,” in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, Northwestern University, 1941, pp. 643-61.

[In the following essay, Dewey explicates the fundamental structure of Whitehead's philosophy of experience.]

I

It was long the fashion for philosophers to base their doctrines upon what each one happened to regard as “first principles,” the latter being “premises” in their capacity of coming logically first. When the principles were regarded, under the influence of Aristotelianism, as axioms or self-evident truths, apart from which there was no demonstration of other truths (and without demonstration no...

(The entire section is 6695 words.)

Victor Lowe (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: “The Philosophy of Whitehead,” in The Antioch Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1948, pp. 223-39.

[In the following essay, Lowe surveys Whitehead's systematic philosophy, assessing it favorably.]

Philosophy is the product of wonder. The effort after the general characterization of the world around us is the romance of human thought. The correct statement seems so easy, so obvious, and yet it is always eluding us. We inherit the traditional doctrine: we can detect the oversights, the superstitions, the rash generalizations of the past ages. We know so well what we mean and yet we remain so curiously uncertain about the formulation of any...

(The entire section is 6761 words.)

Howard W. Hintz (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: “A. N. Whitehead and the Philosophical Synthesis,” in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. LII, No. 9, April 28, 1955, pp. 225-43.

[In the following essay, Hintz studies Whitehead's philosophy of religion.]

At the time of Whitehead's death in 1947, a contemporary American philosopher appraised Whitehead's achievement as follows: “It would be absurd to claim that he solved all philosophical problems. Yet, when one sees among the followers of Whitehead, logicians and metaphysicians, scientists and theologians, Bergsonians and intellectualists, one is compelled to admit that he stands almost unique among recent philosophers in the way in which he reconciled...

(The entire section is 7811 words.)

Bertrand Russell (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: “Alfred North Whitehead,” in Portraits From Memory, and Other Essays, Simon and Schuster, 1956, pp. 99-104.

[In the following essay, Russell, co-author with Whitehead of the Principia Mathematica, offers a personal remembrance of his colleague.]

My first contact with Whitehead, or rather with his father, was in 1877. I had been told that the earth is round, but trusting to the evidence of the senses, I refused to believe it. The vicar of the parish, who happened to be Whitehead's father, was called in to persuade me. Clerical authority so far prevailed as to make me think an experimental test worth while, and I started to dig a hole in the hopes of...

(The entire section is 1908 words.)

Charles Hartshorne (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: “Whitehead and Berdyaev: Is there Tragedy in God?,” in The Journal of Religion, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, April, 1957, pp. 71-84.

[In the following essay, Hartshorne traces affinities in the ethical thought and philosophies of religion of Whitehead and Nicolas Berdyaev.]

The obvious differences between A. N. Whitehead and Nicolas Berdyaev seem to have obscured their remarkable similarities. Thus, while one was logician and mathematician, the other was theologian and historian of culture. The one aimed at technical precision and appealed mainly to the secular intelligence; the other frankly employed partly mythical language and appealed mainly to the Christian...

(The entire section is 7905 words.)

Harry Campbell (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: “Emerson and Whitehead,” in PMLA, Vol. LXXV, No. 5, December, 1960, pp. 577-82.

[In the following essay, Campbell considers similarities in the views of Whitehead and Ralph Waldo Emerson concerning “man's relation to Nature and God.”]

In his discerning book entitled Emerson's Angle of Vision, Sherman Paul has pointed out two fundamental ways in which Whitehead, in spite of some obvious differences, is like Emerson. Both Emerson and Whitehead, says Paul, exalted the moral, ethical, and imaginative science of the seventeenth century over the analytical rationalism of the eighteenth century, and, as a logical consequence of this emphasis, both...

(The entire section is 4712 words.)

Herbert W. Wendler (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “Alfred North Whitehead: A Shift of Emphasis,” in The Texas Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Spring, 1965, pp. 39-45.

[In the following essay, Wendler discusses Whitehead's significant contribution to the shift in contemporary thought from an emphasis on substance to a focus on process.]

The world according to ordinary human experience is a world of objects which for all practical purposes are separate, distinct, and individual. The classic statement of this view—arrived at by a quite natural extension of the presuppositions of simple human practice—is able to be found in the works of the philosopher Aristotle, who placed discrete substances and their modes...

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Edward H. Madden and Peter H. Hare (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “Evil and Unlimited Power,” in The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. XX, No. 2, December, 1966, pp. 278-89.

[In the following essay, Madden and Hare point out internal contradictions in Whitehead's conception of God.]

The classical problem of evil arises because God's unlimited power and goodness, on the one hand, and the existence of apparently gratuitous evil, on the other, seem to be incompatible. In this statement of the problem, the notion of “gratuitous” is important. The critic of theism, after all, is not simply lamenting the fact that the world is not perfect. He admits that some evil serves good ends. He insists, however, that some evil resists...

(The entire section is 4136 words.)

Howard Press (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “Whitehead's Ethic of Feeling,” in Ethics, Vol. 81, No. 2, January, 1971, pp. 161-68.

[In the following essay, Press characterizes Whitehead's metaphysics as based upon a moral philosophy of aestheticism.]

I

At the root of Whitehead's metaphysics, I shall maintain, is a moral philosophy, a philosophy of the good, and this moral philosophy is an aestheticism. For it is Whitehead's belief that the metaphysical order is constituted by “‘Value’ is the name I use for the intrinsic reality of an event”1—and his evident conviction that aesthetic experience contains the dominant value of life. Thus Whitehead writes that...

(The entire section is 3630 words.)

David R. Griffin (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Buddhist Thought and Whitehead's Philosophy,” in International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. XIV, No. 3, September, 1974, pp. 261-84.

[In the following essay, Griffin explores parallels between Whitehead's thought and the doctrines of Buddhism.]

The idea behind this paper is that both Buddhist and Christian thought and existence can be enriched by appropriating elements from each other, and that the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead can serve as the basis for this mutual enrichment by providing a “higher synthesis” of traditional Buddhist and Christian modes of thought.1 However, the focus of the essay is primarily on Buddhism's relation...

(The entire section is 11099 words.)

Charles Hartshorne (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Whitehead's Differences from Buddhism,” in Philosophy East and West, Vol. XXV, No. 4, October, 1975, pp. 407-13.

[In the following essay, Hartshorne focuses on the differences between Whitehead's theories and Buddhist belief, particularly in relation to Whitehead's views on causal asymmetry.]

Whitehead has profound points of agreement with Buddhism. It is almost harder to state the important differences than the aspects of agreement. This is the more remarkable in that evidences of actual influence of Buddhist works upon him are slight. For the Western thinker, as for the great Asiatic tradition, concrete entities are momentary, and change is successive...

(The entire section is 3566 words.)

James A. Keller (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Some Basic Differences between Classical and Process Metaphysics and Their Implications for the Concept of God,” in International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. XXII, No. 85, March, 1982, pp. 3-20.

[In the following essay, Keller analyzes several fundamental areas of disagreement between proponents of classical and process metaphysics—the latter group represented by Whitehead. Considering the opposing natures of primary substance, causation, and value held by these two camps, Keller examines consequent differences in their conceptions of God.]

In recent year one topic of sustained attention among philosophers of religion, at least among those with a...

(The entire section is 10672 words.)

Frank Burch Brown (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Poetry and the Possibility of Theology: Whitehead's ‘Views Reconsidered,’” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. L, No. 4, December, 1982, pp. 507-20.

[In the following essay, Brown examines Whitehead's views on “poetry's connection with theology and metaphysics.”]

Important as Whitehead has been to much contemporary theology, few students of theology (and still fewer of philosophy) have given careful consideration to various aspects of Whitehead's thought lying outside his metaphysical system per se. Even scholars like Bernard Meland (1969, 1976) and Lyman Lundeen (1972), while emphasizing that there is more to Whitehead than a...

(The entire section is 6089 words.)

Mark Johnson (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Robert Duncan's ‘Momentous Inconclusions,’” in Sagetrieb, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall, 1983, pp. 71-84.

[In the following essay, Johnson considers Robert Duncan's poetry in relation to Whitehead's process philosophy.]

I'd cut the warp
to weave that web
                              in the air
                    and here
let image perish in image,
                              leave writer and reader
          up in the air
               to draw
                              momentous
...

(The entire section is 5378 words.)

Charles Hartshorne (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Russell and Whitehead: A Comparison,” in Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers, State University of New York Press, 1983, pp. 255-68.

[In the following essay, Hartshorne compares the thought of Bertrand Russell and Whitehead, judging Whitehead the greater philosopher.]

Russell is the most gifted Englishman alive.
Russell doesn't understand the importance of the past, or of tradition,
and—he won't qualify.
Bertie says that I am muddle headed, but I say that he is simple minded.
Seek simplicity and mistrust it.

Alfred North Whitehead

As a teacher I regard Whitehead as perfect.
Asymmetrical relations are the most...

(The entire section is 5545 words.)

Alexander P. Cappon (essay date 1984-85)

SOURCE: “Wordsworth's Summer Vacation Reflection: Its Connection with Alfred N. Whitehead's Thought,” in New Letters, Vol. 51, No. 2, Winter, 1984-5, pp. 119-26.

[In the following essay, Cappon discusses the relationship between Whitehead and William Wordsworth as inheritors of the ancient Greek philosophy of flux originated by Heraclitus.]

Is it true that in our lives there can be moments of very special significance? Something like this belief seemed to occur to Wordsworth when, after returning home from college to the cottage where he had lived, he stepped out in the evening to roam the surrounding fields. Are such special moments possible for us to attain...

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Lewis S. Ford (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Ramifications of Whitehead's Theory of Experience,” in The Monist, Vol. 68, No. 4, October, 1985, pp. 439-50.

[In the following essay, Ford studies Whitehead's concept of experience “as a unification of many past actualities.”]

Whitehead's philosophy is thought by many to be a modern-day rationalism, yet the rationalistic criteria of logical consistency and coherence are balanced by the empirical criteria of applicability and adequacy. He understands metaphysics to be “the endeavour to frame a … necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted. … Here ‘applicable’ means that some items...

(The entire section is 5261 words.)

Linda Mizejewski (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Gertrude Stein: The Pattern moves, the Woman behind Shakes It,” in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 and 2, 1986, pp. 33-47.

[In the following essay, Mizejewski explores the Whiteheadian consciousness of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons.]

Since Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons was published in 1914, its colorful chunks of language and imagery have been shaken in the kaleidoscopes of a dozen critical modes to produce a myriad of readings, designs, and explanations. The multitude of critical approaches attests to its brilliance and obscurity at once: readers presented with this wild, semi-verbless appraisal of objects, food,...

(The entire section is 5330 words.)

Robert E. Doud (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “From Buddha to Orpheus: Rainer Maria Rilke's Quest for Internal Relations,” in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. LXXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 149-67.

[In the following essay, Doud investigates correspondences between Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry and Whitehead's metaphysics.]

As early as The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge it had been the concern of Rainer Maria Rilke to distinguish between authentic death and inauthentic death (1985,9-16). How we die is the quintessential human question. To die a death of one's own is to have lived a life of one's own. To die merely clinically after a life devoid of originality and empty of the...

(The entire section is 6959 words.)

Bruce Holsapple (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Williams, Whitehead and the Embodiment of Knowledge: ‘A New Order of Knowing,’” Sagetrieb, Vol. 9, No. 3, Winter, 1990, pp. 57-95.

[In the following essay, Holsapple regards the correlation between Whitehead's ideas in Science and the Modern World and William Carlos Williams's in The Embodiment of Knowledge.]

1.

Returning to Rutherford, New Jersey, aboard the S.S. Pennland in September, 1927, William Carlos Williams wrote a series of letters to his wife, Floss, who had stayed in Europe with the two boys. In those letters, Williams discussed how he anticipated returning to work and how he hoped to develop five or...

(The entire section is 12874 words.)

John B. Cobb, Jr. (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Alfred North Whitehead,” in Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 165-95.

[In the following essay, Cobb presents a detailed survey of Whitehead's speculative philosophy.]

I. SPECULATIVE POSTMODERNISM

Although Whitehead (1861-1947) never used the term “postmodern,” the way he spoke of the modern has a definite postmodern tone. Especially in his book Science and the Modern World, the modern is objectified and its salient characteristics are described. Whitehead is appreciative of the accomplishments of the modern world, but he clearly recognizes its limitations as...

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Gordon Treash (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Nature of Nature: Kant and Whitehead,” in Metaphysics as Foundation, edited by Paul A. Bogaard and Gordon Treash, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 42-58.

[In the following essay, Treash compares Whitehead's philosophy of organism to the modern, Kantian conception of nature.]

If Whitehead's philosophy of organism marks the beginning of either a revival of concern for the philosophy of nature or a substantiative contemporary metaphysics, then it is quite true that from its outset this movement has been intimately concerned with the problem of how nature is conceived. Neither is it an exaggeration to suggest that by the time he wrote...

(The entire section is 7296 words.)

Donald W. Sherburne (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Some Reflections on Sartre's Nothingness and Whitehead's Perishing,” in The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. XLVIII, No. 1, September, 1994, pp. 3-17.

[In the following essay, Sherburne discusses Whitehead's notions of metaphysical perishing and relatedness as they compare with Jean-Paul Sartre's idea of “nothingness.”]

Three philosophers do justice to man as a part of nature: Aristotle, Hegel, and Whitehead.

Paul Weiss

Paul Weiss's observation points directly and succinctly to the very heart of the metaphysical enterprise as I understand it, which is to develop categories that do...

(The entire section is 6217 words.)