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Alfred North Whitehead

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Alfred North Whitehead
Alfred North Whitehead
(Photograph from Harvard University, c. 1924)

Alfred North Whitehead (AKA A. N. Whitehead) (1861 - 1947) was a British mathematician, logician and philosopher.

He is considered one of the founding figures of Analytic Philosophy, and he contributed significantly to 20th Century Logic, especially the new symbolic type of Logic he developed in the epochal "Principia Mathematica", along with co-author Bertrand Russell.

He also developed a fresh approach to Metaphysics, which he originally called Philosophy of Organism (or Organic Realism) and which has come to be known as Process Philosophy.

In addition he made contributions to algebra, the foundations of mathematics, physics, Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Education. He managed to combine a staggering complexity of thought with a literary but very readable quality of writing.


Whitehead was born on 15 February 1861 in Ramsgate, Kent, England. His father, also named Alfred Whitehead, was an Anglican clergyman; his mother was Maria Sarah Buckmaster. He was the youngest of four siblings, with two older brothers and an older sister. His family was firmly anchored in the Church of England (his father and uncles were vicars, while his brother would become Bishop of Madras).

He was educated at home by his father until he was 14, because his over-protective parents thought that he was too delicate to go to school (in fact his health was quite robust). From 1875, he attended Sherborne Independent School in Dorset, then considered one of the best public schools in the country, and where his oldest brother was a teacher. The syllabus was heavy on the classics, but Whitehead excelled in sports and mathematics in particular, and he was Head Boy and Captain of Games in his final year.

He won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1880, where he studied mathematics. He was elected a Fellow in Mathematics in 1884 and then took up an assistant lectureship to teach applied mathematics. He had also developed a keen interest in physics, and his fellowship dissertation examined James Clerk Maxwell's views on electricity and magnetism. He was promoted to a full lectureship at Trinity in 1888, and took up additional teaching duties by accepting a teaching position at Girton College.

At the end of 1890, he married Evelyn Wade, an active and outgoing Catholic Irish woman brought up in France. They were to have a daughter and two sons (one of the sons died in action during World War I). He had become interested in pure mathematics and he started work on the "Treatise on Universal Algebra" in 1891, with Evelyn's encouragement, just weeks after his marriage (the work would take him seven years to complete, and was finally published in 1898).

Although his father was an Anglican vicar and he had been brought up as an Anglican, he began to move towards the Roman Catholic Church (perhaps due to his wife's influence), although in the end he chose neither and embraced Agnosticism around the mid-1890s (partly in view of the rapid developments in science during that time).

Bertrand Russell had entered Cambridge in 1890 and, as examiner for the entrance examinations, Whitehead had immediately spotted Russell's brilliance, and took him on as his student and protegé. Near the end of 1900, after learning about the work done on the foundations of mathematics by the Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano (1858 - 1932) at the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, Whitehead and Russell began to collaborate. They worked throughout the 1900s on what was to become their groundbreaking "Principia Mathematica". Whitehead even abandoned the second volume of his own work on algebra in order to concentrate on the collaboration project, with Russell supplying most of the philosophical expertise and Whitehead largely supplying the mathematics.

During the ten years or so that Russell and Whitehead spent on the "Principia", draft after draft was begun and abandoned as Russell constantly re-thought his basic premises. Eventually, Whitehead insisted on publication of the work, even if it was not (and might never be) complete, although they were forced to publish it at their own expense as no commercial publishers would touch it. The first volume of "Principia Mathematica" was published in 1910, the second in 1912, and the third in 1913.

In 1903, he had been promoted to the new position of Senior Lecturer at Cambridge, but he resigned his teaching position at Trinity College in 1910, partly to protest the unfair dismissal of a colleague but also partly because of the slim prospects of his ever attaining a professorship in mathematics there. He moved to London in the summer of 1910 with no job to go to and, after four years without a proper position, he became Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London in 1914.

During World War I, Russell spent a significant spell in prison for his pacifist activities and, although Whitehead visited him in prison, he did not take his pacifism seriously, and after the war the two seldom interacted, and Whitehead contributed nothing to the 1925 second edition of "Principia Mathematica".

As the "Principia Mathematica" project neared completion, and exasperated with Russell's constant re-thinking of his most basic principles, Whitehead turned his attention to physics, the Philosophy of Science and the Philosophy of Education. He articulated a rival doctrine to Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity (which he later published later as "The Principle of Relativity" in 1922), although his theory of gravitation is now discredited. Likewise, his "Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge" of 1919, while a more lasting work and a pioneering attempt to synthesize the philosophical underpinnings of physics, has little influenced the course of modern physics. His address "The Aims of Education" of 1916 pointedly criticized the formalistic approach of modern British teachers who, he claimed, did not care about the culture and self-education of their students.

In 1924, Whitehead (then 63) was invited by Henry Osborn Taylor (1856 - 1941) to teach philosophy at Harvard University. Philosophy was a subject that fascinated Whitehead but that he had also not previously studied in any depth or taught, but he accepted the post and the Whiteheads were to spend the rest of their lives in the United States. His "Science and the Modern World" of 1925, based on a series of lectures given in the United States, served as an introduction to his later Metaphysics. His most important book, "Process and Reality" (1929), took this theory to a level of even greater generality. He finally retired from teaching in 1937 at the age of 74.

Whitehead received many honours throughout his career. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1903. He was appointed president of the Aristotelian Society from 1922 to 1923. He was elected to the British Academy in 1931, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1945. Many universities awarded him honorary degrees, including Manchester, St. Andrews, Wisconsin, Harvard, Yale and Montreal.

Whitehead died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 30 December 1947, aged 86. There was no funeral, and his body was cremated. His family carried out his instructions that all of his papers be destroyed after his death, and there was no critical edition of his writings until the 1978 edition of "Process and Reality" and the more recent "Whitehead Research Project".

Work Back to Top

Whitehead's intellectual life is often divided into three main periods. During his early period at Cambridge (from 1884 to 1910) he worked mainly on mathematics and Logic. His intermediate period in London (from 1910 to 1924) dealt largely with issues of Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Education. His later period at Harvard (from 1924 onwards) saw him work on more general issues in philosophy, including the development of a comprehensive metaphysical system which came to be known as Process Philosophy. Over the course of his lifetime, Whitehead published roughly two dozen books.

The first period of Whitehead's activities, then, was devoted to mathematics and Logic. It began with "Universal Algebra", published in 1898 after seven years of work, continued with "Mathematical Concepts of the Material World" (1905), and culminated in the monumental "Principia Mathematica" (1910 - 1913) written in collaboration with Bertrand Russell. Their work was an extension of the Logicism of the late 19th Century German mathematician and logician Gottlob Frege, which was based on the premise that mathematics itself is just an extension of Logic, and therefore that some or all mathematics is reducible to Logic.

The new concepts of Symbolic Logic introduced in the work turned the prevailing assertion of Immanuel Kant (that the valid inferences of Logic followed from the structural features of judgements) on its head. Their new Logic was much broader in scope than traditional Aristotelian Logic, and even contained classical Logic within it, albeit as a minor part. It resembled more a mathematical calculus and dealt with the relations of symbols to each other.

In his second period, Whitehead was preoccupied with a Philosophy of Science without metaphysical exposition, and his work included "An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge" (1919), "The Concept of Nature" (1920), "The Principle of Relativity" (1922) and "Science and the Modern World" (1925). The latter mentioned the idea of a metaphysical synthesis of existence, but did not yet attempt it.

The genesis of Whitehead's Process Philosophy during this third period may be attributed to the shocking collapse of Newtonian physics in the aftermath of Albert Einstein's work. His speculative metaphysical views started to emerge with his 1920 "The Concept of Nature" and expanded in his 1925 "Science and the Modern World". His 1927 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh were published in 1929 as "Process and Reality", the book that founded Process Philosophy as a major contribution to Western Metaphysics. The main tenets were summarized in his last and most accessible work, "The Adventures of Ideas" (1933).

Whitehead firmly believed that the sharp division between nature and mind, established by Descartes, had "poisoned all subsequent philosophy", and held that in reality "we cannot determine with what molecules the brain begins and the rest of the body ends". He deemed human experience to be "an act of self-origination including the whole of nature, limited to the perspective of a focal region, located within the body, but not necessarily persisting in any fixed coordination within a definite part of the brain". Upon this concept of human experience, Whitehead founded his new metaphysical "philosophy of the organism", his cosmology, his defense of speculative reason, his ideas on the process of nature and his rational approach to God.

In his Philosophy of Organism or Organic Realism, now usually known as Process Philosophy, he posited subjective forms to complement Plato's eternal objects (or Forms). The theory identified metaphysical reality with change and dynamism, and held that change in not illusory or purely accidental to the substance, but rather the very cornerstone of reality or Being. His view of God, as the source of the universe, was therefore as growing and changing, just as the entire universe is in constant flow and change (essentially a kind of Theism, although his God differs essentially from the revealed God of Abrahamic religion). Later process philosophers, including Charles Hartshorne (1897 - 2000), John B. Cobb Jr. (1925 - ) and David Ray Griffin (1939 - ), developed the theory further into a full-blown Process Theology. Whitehead's rejection of mind-body Dualism was similar to elements in Buddhism, although many Christians and Jews have found Process Theology a fruitful way of understanding God and the universe.

Whitehead believed that "there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths". His political views sometimes appear to be very close to Libertarianism, although he never used the label, and many Whitehead scholars have read his work as providing a philosophical foundation for the Social Liberalism of the New Liberal of the first half of the 20th Century.

Alfred North Whitehead Books Back to Top

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