Alfred North Whitehead
Victor Lowe’s purpose in writing this, the first volume of a projected two-volume biography of the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, is to present the adventures of the mind of a significant modern thinker—one who, Lowe believes, is neither well understood nor properly appreciated. Whitehead apparently inspired affection in all with whom he came in contact; this certainly includes Lowe, who was White-head’s student after Whitehead came to be professor of philosophy at Harvard University. Lowe, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, is widely regarded as the outstanding authority on the philosophy of Whitehead. He has produced not a generalized memoir of the man but a truly objective biography. The work has been twenty years in the making, and it is to be hoped that the second volume will appear soon.
Whitehead’s life is fairly easily summarized. Born in 1861, he was educated at home, in Kent, until 1875, when he became a student at Sherborne School in Somerset. He matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1880, took his degree in 1884, became a Fellow of Trinity in the same year, and remained at Cambridge as a teacher and scholar in mathematics until 1910, when he moved to the University of London. He retired in 1924 and accepted a position as professor of philosophy at Harvard, from which he again retired in 1939; he died in 1947. Until 1910, his concerns were almost entirely mathematical; after his removal to London, he engaged more in educational theory, religion, and philosophy.
In retailing the details of this life, such as they are, Lowe suffers under two handicaps, neither of which is his fault in any way, and both of which are probably ultimately insurmountable. The first handicap is the paucity of documentary materials. On Whitehead’s instructions, all of his papers, all the manuscripts of his published work, and any letters he had received were destroyed by his wife. He apparently kept no sort of diary, and he was not much of a letter writer; apparently he destroyed any letters that he received. The biography thus leans heavily upon a few brief biographical statements by Whitehead and upon the memoirs and reminiscences of some of those who knew him. One of the frustrating patterns in the book, both for the reader and for the author, is that just when Whitehead reaches some major moment or decision in his life, the author must say that unfortunately there exists no evidence about what Whitehead thought or felt at the time. Thus, for example, one has no idea why Whitehead decided to make math his specialty at Cambridge. In the early 1900’s, the reader learns that White-head was attracted to or interested in Roman Catholicism—but one does not know why, and one does not know why he quit being interested. Nor does one know the name of the man who coached Whitehead for the all-important Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge, though Lowe makes an educated guess. One does not know exactly why, at age fifty, Whitehead decided to leave Cambridge after thirty years and move to London—and one does not know how he felt about leaving Cambridge. For these and many other major moments in Whitehead’s life, Lowe makes reasonable suggestions and draws probably legitimate inferences, but he is rarely able to say clearly and definitely exactly why Whitehead did what he did or what White-head thought about something.
The second handicap under which both Lowe and the reader labor is simply the plain fact that Whitehead was a dull person. He may have been a good man, as Lowe insists, he may have been a good father to his children, he may have been universally beloved—but he comes across to the reader as dull. Even Lowe is forced to admit that Whitehead’s life lacked spice. The fact that Whitehead was a very private person runs through the whole book, like a response to a litany. If he had much in the way of personal troubles, the reader is unable to discover anything about them. He confided in no one, he had no hobbies or recreations, save walking; he worked at his mathematics to the exclusion of almost anything else.
As a result, Whitehead never really comes alive to the reader. He remains a dim figure, rather in the background of the book than in its center. The reader knows what the man did publicly, where he lived, what he published, when he married. Yet one does not discover his motives or his feelings or his responses to events outside himself. What Whitehead wrote and accomplished is set forth clearly; Whitehead the man rarely captures one’s eye, rarely stands forth as a creature of blood and bones with thoughts and feelings.
It is, however, to the credit of Lowe that however dull and private a person Whitehead may have been, the book is not dull. Perhaps the main reason that the book does not suffer the fate of its subject is Lowe’s skill at filling in the background. If he cannot make his subject very interesting, he certainly can re-create the milieus within which Whitehead can occasionally be seen moving. Thus the reader is treated to many set pieces, which almost...
(The entire section is 2071 words.)