Alfred North Whitehead Biography

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Biography

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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Article abstract: Striving for a more comprehensive and unified system of human knowledge, Whitehead made major contributions to mathematical logic and produced a wholly original and modern metaphysics.

Early Life

Alfred North Whitehead was born on February 15, 1861, in the town of Ramsgate on the Isle of Thanet, County of Kent, England. He was the last of four children born to Alfred Whitehead, a schoolmaster and clergyman, and Maria Sarah Buckmaster. Whitehead’s father was a typical Victorian country vicar who tirelessly tended to the needs of the people of the island and was well loved by them. His grandfather, Thomas Whitehead, was more remarkable intellectually. The son of a prosperous farmer, he had single-handedly created a successful boys’ school at Ramsgate, unusual for its time in its emphasis on mathematics and science.

Ramsgate was a small, close-knit community in which history was a physical presence in the form of many ancient ruins, including Norman and medieval churches and Richborough Castle, built by the Romans when they occupied Britain. The surrounding waters were notoriously treacherous, and Whitehead remembered as a child hearing at night the booming of cannon and seeing rockets rise in the night sky, signaling a ship in distress. He believed that over the generations this environment instilled in the people an obstinacy and a tendency toward lonely thought.

Because he was small for his age and appeared frail, young Whitehead was not allowed to attend school or participate in children’s games. Instead, his father tutored him in Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Whitehead learned his lessons quickly and had free time for periods of solitary thought and rambles through the wild coastal countryside with its mysterious ruins.

In 1875, Whitehead left home and entered Sherborne in Dorsetshire, a well-regarded public school from which both of his brothers had been graduated. He had grown to love mathematics, and he excelled at it enough to be excused from some of the standard courses in classical languages and literature in order to study it more deeply. Ignoring his “frailty” he took up Rugby, developing his athletic skills with seriousness and tenacity. As captain of the team he compensated for his size with intelligence and leadership and became one of the best forwards in the history of the school. Later in life he said that being tackled in a Rugby game was an excellent paradigm for the “Real” as he meant the term philosophically.

Before his last year at Sherborne, he chose to take the grueling six-day scholarship examination for Trinity College, Cambridge, an examination that would determine not only entry and the needed financial assistance but, more important, eligibility for a fellowship and, therefore, his hopes for a career in mathematics. Whitehead took the examination a year earlier than he needed to, and passed.

Whitehead entered Trinity College in the autumn of 1880 as a participant in a special honors program which allowed him to study in his area of specialty, mathematics, exclusively for the full three years of undergraduate work. In the Cambridge of that time, however, perhaps more than today, important education also took place outside the classroom in lively, spontaneous discussions with other students, an experience which Whitehead described as being like “a daily Platonic Dialogue,” and which sometimes ran late into the night and into the early morning, ranging over politics, history, philosophy, science, and the arts. For a time, Whitehead became intensely interested in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

(The entire section is 2,737 words.)