Alfred North Whitehead Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.