Alfred North Whitehead Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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 (1781), in which one of Kant’s primary aims was to explain how arithmetic and geometry, which appear to be self-consistent deductive systems without need of empirical verification, can yet give knowledge that can be reliably applied in the real world. This question was a central theme in much of Whitehead’s own work, though he became disenchanted with Kant’s explanations.

While his mathematics teachers were all of the highest caliber, one in particular, William Davidson Niven, significantly influenced Whitehead’s development by introducing him to the physics of James Clerk Maxwell, whose theories about electromagnetism called into question the all-encompassing explanatory power of the then-reigning Newtonian physics, opening the way to modern physics.

Life’s Work

Whitehead’s high scores on final examinations and his dissertation on Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873) won for him a six-year fellowship, allowing him free room and board at Cambridge and unlimited freedom for mathematical research.

Unlike most research fellows, however, Whitehead did not become immediately productive. By character he was not a piecemeal problem solver who worked in ever narrower and more refined areas of a subject, but rather an explorer seeking a wider and more unified perspective. He discovered and was impressed with the works of Hermann Günther Grassman, an all but forgotten German mathematician who had developed a new kind of algebra. Grassmann’s Die lineale Ausdehnungslehre, ein neuer Zweig der Mathematik (1844), along with George Boole’s The Mathematical Analysis of Logic (1847) and William Hamilton’s The Elements of Quaternions (1866), seemed to Whitehead to portend a whole new field of algebras of logic not limited to number and quantity and with exciting unexplored applications. Whitehead envisioned a work in which all these ideas would be brought together in a general theory that would include giving a spatial interpretation to logic, which would provide a more powerful general theory of geometry. On a visit to his parents in Broadstairs in June of 1890, at a time when his great work did not seem to be going anywhere and he was contemplating conversion to Roman Catholicism, Whitehead was introduced to Evelyn Wade and fell in love. She was twenty-three years old, with black eyes and auburn hair and a vibrant personality. Though English, she spoke French as her native language, having been reared in a convent at Angers. Whitehead wasted no time and proposed to her romantically in a cave under the garden in his father’s vicarage. They were married in December of 1891. Their marriage was to produce three children. The youngest would be tragically killed in aerial combat in 1918. Evelyn loved and cared for Alfred and always made a place where he could work without interruption wherever they lived, but she had no interest in science or mathematics. Yet she perfectly complemented his analytic temperament with a deep...

(The entire section is 2737 words.)