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Alfred North Whitehead Essays In Science And Philosophy Of Yoga

1. Whitehead's Chronology

A short chronology of the major events in Whitehead's life is as follows:

  • (1861) Born February 15 in Ramsgate, Isle of Thanet, Kent, England.
  • (1880) Enters Trinity College, Cambridge, with a scholarship in mathematics.
  • (1884) Elected to the Apostles, the elite discussion club founded by Tennyson in the 1820s; graduates with a B.A. in Mathematics; elected a Fellow in Mathematics at Trinity.
  • (1890) Meets Russell; marries Evelyn Wade.
  • (1903) Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society as a result of his work on universal algebra, symbolic logic and the foundations of mathematics.
  • (1910) Resigns from Cambridge and moves to London.
  • (1911) Appointed Lecturer at University College London.
  • (1914) Appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology.
  • (1922) Elected President of the Aristotelian Society.
  • (1924) Appointed Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University.
  • (1931) Elected a Fellow of the British Academy.
  • (1937) Retires from Harvard.
  • (1945) Awarded Order of Merit.
  • (1947) Dies December 30 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

The son of an Anglican clergyman, Whitehead graduated from Cambridge in 1884 and was elected a Fellow of Trinity College that same year. His marriage to Evelyn Wade six years later was largely a happy one and together they had a daughter and three sons, one of whom sadly died at birth. After moving to London, Whitehead served as president of the Aristotelian Society from 1922 to 1923. After moving to Harvard, he was elected to the British Academy in 1931. His moves to both London and Harvard were prompted in part by institutional regulations requiring mandatory retirement, although his resignation from Cambridge was also done partly in protest over how the University had chosen to discipline Andrew Forsyth, a friend and colleague whose affair with a married woman had become something of a local scandal.

As fellowship examiner for Bertrand Russell and academic supervisor for Willard Van Orman Quine, Whitehead exerted enormous influence on the development of twentieth-century philosophy. This is true even though his main philosophical doctrine – that the world is composed of deeply interdependent processes and events, rather than mostly independent material things or objects – turned out to be largely the opposite of Russell's doctrine of logical atomism.

More detailed information about Whitehead's life can be found in the comprehensive two-volume biography A.N. Whitehead: The Man and His Work (1985, 1990) by Victor Lowe and J.B. Schneewind. Paul Schilpp's The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1941; 2nd edn 1951) also includes a short autobiographical essay, in addition to providing a comprehensive critical overview of Whitehead's thought and a detailed bibliography of his writings.

Other helpful introductions to Whitehead's work include Victor Lowe's Understanding Whitehead (1962), Nathaniel Lawrence's Whitehead's Philosophical Development (1956), Wolfe Mays' The Philosophy of Whitehead (1959) and Michael Epperson's Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (2004). For a chronology of Whitehead's major publications, readers are encouraged to consult the Primary Literature section of the Bibliography below.

Attempts to sum up Whitehead's life and influence are complicated by the fact that, following his death and in accordance with his instructions, all his papers were destroyed. As a result, there is no nachlass, except for papers retained by his colleagues and correspondents. Even so, it is instructive to recall the words of the late Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Felix Frankfurter: “From knowledge gained through the years of the personalities who in our day have affected American university life, I have for some time been convinced that no single figure has had such a pervasive influence as the late Professor Alfred North Whitehead” (Letter, New York Times, January 8, 1948).

Today Whitehead's ideas continue to be felt in varying degrees in all four of the main areas in which he worked: logic and mathematics, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of education and metaphysics. A critical edition of his work is currently in the process of being prepared.

2. Whitehead on Mathematics and Logic

Whitehead began his academic career at Trinity College, Cambridge where, starting in 1884, he taught for a quarter of a century. In 1890, Bertrand Russell arrived as a student and during the 1890s the two men came into regular contact with one another. According to Russell, “Whitehead was extraordinarily perfect as a teacher. He took a personal interest in those with whom he had to deal and knew both their strong and their weak points. He would elicit from a pupil the best of which a pupil was capable. He was never repressive, or sarcastic, or superior, or any of the things that inferior teachers like to be. I think that in all the abler young men with whom he came in contact he inspired, as he did in me, a very real and lasting affection” (1967, 129–130).

By the early 1900s, both Whitehead and Russell had completed books on the foundations of mathematics. Whitehead's 1898 A Treatise on Universal Algebra had resulted in his election to the Royal Society. Russell's 1903 The Principles of Mathematics had expanded on several themes initially developed by Whitehead. Russell's book also represented a decisive break from the neo-Kantian approach to mathematics Russell had developed six years earlier in his Essay on the Foundations of Geometry. Since the research for a proposed second volume of Russell's Principles overlapped considerably with Whitehead's own research for a planned second volume of his Universal Algebra, the two men began collaboration on what eventually would become Principia Mathematica (1910, 1912, 1913). According to Whitehead, they initially expected the research to take about a year to complete. In the end, they worked together on the project for a decade.

Logicism, the theory that mathematics is in some important sense reducible to logic, consists of two main theses. The first is that all mathematical truths can be translated into logical truths or, in other words, that the vocabulary of mathematics constitutes a proper subset of the vocabulary of logic. The second is that all mathematical proofs can be recast as logical proofs or, in other words, that the theorems of mathematics constitute a proper subset of the theorems of logic.

Like Gottlob Frege, Whitehead and Russell immediately saw the advantages of such a reduction. Statements such as “There are at least two books” would be recast as “There is a book, x, and there is a book, y, and x is not identical to y.” Statements such as “There are exactly two books” would be recast as “There is a book, x, and there is a book, y, and x is not identical to y, and if there is a book, z, then z is identical to either x or y.” Number-theoretic operations could then be explained in terms of set-theoretic operations such as intersection, union, and difference. In Principia Mathematica, Whitehead and Russell were able to provide many detailed derivations of major theorems in set theory, finite and transfinite arithmetic, and elementary measure theory. They were also able to develop a sophisticated theory of logical relations and a unique method of defining the real numbers. Even so, the issue of whether set theory itself could be said to have been successfully reduced to logic remained controversial. (For additional discussion, see the entry on Principia Mathematica, as well as George and Velleman (2002).)

Following the completion of Principia, Whitehead and Russell began to go their separate ways. Perhaps inevitably, Russell's anti-war activities and Whitehead's loss of his youngest son during World War I led to something of a split between the two men. Nevertheless, the two remained on relatively good terms for the rest of their lives. To his credit, Russell comments in his Autobiography that when it came to their political differences, Whitehead “was more tolerant than I was, and it was much more my fault than his that these differences caused a diminution in the closeness of our friendship” (1967, 127).

3. Whitehead on the Philosophy of Science

In London, Whitehead turned his attention primarily to issues in the philosophy of science. Of particular note was his rejection of the idea that each physical object has a simple spatial or temporal location. Instead, Whitehead came to the conclusion that all objects should be understood as fields having both temporal and spatial extensions. For example, just as we cannot perceive a Euclidean point that is said to have position but no magnitude, or a line that is said to have length but no breadth, it is impossible, says Whitehead, to conceive of a simple spatial or temporal location. To think that we can do so involves what he called “The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness,” the error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete (1925, 64, 72).

As Whitehead describes his position,

among the primary elements of nature as apprehended in our immediate experience, there is no element whatever which possesses this character of simple location. … [Instead,] I hold that by a process of constructive abstraction we can arrive at abstractions which are the simply located bits of material, and at other abstractions which are the minds included in the scientific scheme. (1925, 72; cf. 1919, Pt 3)

Whitehead's basic thought was that we obtain the abstract idea of a spatial point by considering the limit of a real-life series of volumes extending over each other in much the same way that we might consider a nested series of Russian dolls or a nested series of pots and pans. However, it would be a mistake to think of a spatial point as being anything more than an abstraction; instead, real positions involve the entire series of extended volumes. As Whitehead puts it, “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” (1925, 114).

According to Whitehead, every real-life object may then be understood as a similarly constructed series of events and processes. It is this latter idea that Whitehead systematically elaborates in his Process and Reality (1929c), concluding that it is process, rather than substance, that should be taken as the most fundamental metaphysical constituent of the world:

That ‘all things flow’ is the first vague generalization which the unsystematized, barely analysed, intuition of men has produced. … Without doubt, if we are to go back to that ultimate, integral experience, unwarped by the sophistications of theory, that experience whose elucidation is the final aim of philosophy, the flux of things is one ultimate generalization around which we must weave our philosophical system. (1929c, 317)

Underlying Whitehead's work was also the idea that, if philosophy is to be successful, it must explain the connection between our objective, scientific and logical descriptions of the world and the more everyday world of subjective experience. As Whitehead writes,

Nature is nothing else than the deliverance of sense-awareness. … Our knowledge of nature is an experience of activity (or passage). The things previously observed are active entities, the ‘events.’ They are chunks in the life of nature. (1920, 185)

For this reason it is one of Whitehead's core beliefs that “We must avoid vicious bifurcation” (1920, 185). In other words, we must avoid dividing the world into separate categories of mind and matter, or into nature as it is apprehended in awareness and nature as the cause of that awareness. As Whitehead explains,

The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature. (1920, 31)

Ultimately, says Whitehead, all experience is a part of nature: “We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon” (1920, 29; cf. 1929c, Pt 2, Ch. 9, sec. 2).

4. Whitehead on the Philosophy of Education

While in London, Whitehead became involved in many practical aspects of tertiary education, serving as Dean of the Faculty of Science at Imperial College and holding several other administrative posts. Many of his essays about education date from this time and appear in his book, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929a). It was also during this time that Whitehead published several of his less well-known books, including An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), The Concept of Nature (1920) and The Principle of Relativity (1922).

At its core, Whitehead's philosophy of education emphasizes the idea that a good life is most profitably thought of as an educated or civilized life, two terms which Whitehead often uses interchangeably. As we think, we live. Thus it is only as we improve our thoughts that we improve our lives. The result, says Whitehead, is that “There is only one subject matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations” (1929a, 10). This view in turn has corollaries for both the content of education and its method of delivery.

With regard to delivery, Whitehead emphasizes the importance of remembering that a “pupil's mind is a growing organism ... it is not a box to be ruthlessly packed with alien ideas” (1929a, 47). Instead, it is the purpose of education to stimulate and guide each student's self-development. It is not the job of the educator simply to insert into his students' minds little chunks of knowledge.

With regard to content, Whitehead holds that any adequate education must include a literary component, a scientific component and a technical component. The first includes, not just the study of language, but also the study of high achievement in human thought and writing. The second includes practice in the observation of natural phenomena as well as exposure to the testing of theories and of the presumed law-like connections we find in the natural world. The third focuses primarily on the “art of utilizing knowledge” (1929a, 77), especially in the production of goods but also in any area of so-called knowledge application. Although all three components are essential for a proper education, varying degrees of emphasis will be required, depending on a student's interests and abilities. (For additional discussion, see Johnson 1946.)

The result, says Whitehead, is that the commonly made distinction between technical education and liberal education “is fallacious. There can be no adequate technical education which is not liberal, and no liberal education which is not technical: that is, no education which does not impart both technique and intellectual vision” (1929a, 74). The good life requires, not just accomplishment, but also the stimulus to create, and participate in, an improved, more civilized society.

Whitehead's contrast here is with Plato, whose theory of education, Whitehead claims, focuses almost exclusively on the theoretical and the veridical at the expense of the practical, and which results only in commands, rather than in growing capacities of self-awareness and self-guidance. (Other scholars have sometimes chosen to differ.) In contrast, Whitehead sees education as necessarily encouraging the marriage of thought with action. As he puts it, “No man of science wants merely to know. He acquires knowledge to appease his passion for discovery” (1929a, 74). As a result, the “insistence in the Platonic culture on disinterested intellectual appreciation is a psychological error” (1929a, 73), an observation that Philip Jourdain concludes is “of the first importance” (1918, 244) for any successful theory of education.

5. Whitehead on Metaphysics

Facing mandatory retirement in London, and upon being offered an appointment at Harvard, Whitehead moved to the United States in 1924. Given his prior training in mathematics, it was sometimes joked that the first philosophy lectures he ever attended were those he himself delivered in his new role as Professor of Philosophy. As Russell comments, “In England, Whitehead was regarded only as a mathematician, and it was left to America to discover him as a philosopher” (1952, 93).

A year after his arrival, he delivered Harvard's prestigious Lowell Lectures. The lectures formed the basis for Science and the Modern World (1925). The 1927/28 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh followed shortly afterwards and resulted in the publication of Whitehead's most comprehensive (but difficult to penetrate) metaphysical work, Process and Reality (1929c). Together, his three books The Concept of Nature (1920), Science and the Modern World (1925) and Process and Reality (1929c) provide a relatively complete statement of Whitehead's mature metaphysical system.

Within this system, rather than assuming substance as the basic metaphysical category, Whitehead understands nature to be composed ultimately of events. Events include among their ingredients what we normally think of as objects. As Whitehead writes,

An object is an ingredient in the character of some event. In fact the character of an event is nothing but the objects which are ingredient in it and the ways in which those objects make their ingression into the event. Thus the theory of objects is the theory of the comparison of events. Events are only comparable because they body forth permanences. We are comparing objects in events whenever we can say, ‘There it is again.’ Objects are the elements in nature which can ‘be again.’ (1920, 143-4)

Thus, while “The most concrete fact capable of separate discrimination is the event” (1920, 189), for Whitehead objects, unlike events, “do not pass” (1920, 143).

Later, Whitehead introduces a new metaphysically primitive notion which he calls an actual occasion. For Whitehead, an actual occasion (or actual entity) is not an enduring substance, but a process of becoming. As Whitehead puts it, actual occasions are the “final real things of which the world is made up”, they are “drops of experience, complex and interdependent” (1929c, Pt 1, Ch. 2, sec. 1, p. 27).

As Donald Sherburne explains, “It is customary to compare an actual occasion with a Leibnizian monad, with the caveat that whereas a monad is windowless, an actual occasion is ‘all window.’ It is as though one were to take Aristotle's system of categories and ask what would result if the category of substance were displaced from its preeminence by the category of relation …” (Sherburne 1995, 852). As Whitehead himself tells us, his “philosophy of organism is the inversion of Kant's philosophy … For Kant, the world emerges from the subject; for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from the world” (quoted in Sherburne 1995, 852).

Significantly, many of these key aspects of Whitehead's metaphysics run counter to the traditional view of material substance: “There persists,” says Whitehead, a

fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ‘scientific materialism.’ Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived. (1925, 22)

The assumption of scientific materialism is effective in many contexts, says Whitehead, only because it directs our attention to a certain class of problems that lend themselves to analysis within this framework. However, scientific materialism is less successful when addressing issues of teleology (or purpose) and when trying to develop a comprehensive, integrated picture of the universe as a whole.

According to Whitehead, recognition that the world is organic rather than materialistic is essential for anyone wanting to develop a comprehensive account of nature, and this change in viewpoint can result as easily from attempts to understand human psychology and teleology as from attempts to understand modern physics. Says Whitehead, “Mathematical physics presumes in the first place an electromagnetic field of activity pervading space and time. The laws which condition this field are nothing else than the conditions observed by the general activity of the flux of the world, as it individualises itself in the events” (1925, 190). The result is that nature is no longer thought to be simply atoms in the void, but instead “a structure of evolving processes. The reality is the process” (1925, 90).

6. Whitehead's Influence

Unlike the logical apparatus Whitehead developed with Russell, Whitehead's attempt to provide a metaphysical unification of space, time, matter, events and teleology has been less than enthusiastically embraced by members of the broader philosophical community. In part, this may be because of the connections Whitehead saw between his metaphysics and traditional theism. According to Whitehead, religion is concerned with permanence amid change, and can be found in the ordering we find within nature, something he sometimes calls the “primordial nature of God” (1929c, 31, 32; cf. Pt 5, Ch. 2, secs 1-7).

As early as his writing of Religion in the Making (1926), Whitehead had been interested in promoting the idea that religion helps make sense of permanence amid change. Despite the fact that the world is composed of events and processes (rather than of unchanging objects), on Whitehead's view God still provides the world with a kind of permanence. Thinkers who have been influenced by this aspect of Whitehead's work include John B. Cobb Jr, Charles Hartshorne, Norman Pittenger and Marjorie Suchocki.

Whitehead's emphasis on change has also led some theologians to conclude that, rather than being seen as the traditional unmoved mover, God should be seen as being influenced as much by the world as the world is influenced by God. As a result of books such as Cobb's Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology (1971), some contemporary theories of ecology have also been influenced by Whitehead's ideas.

Thus, although not especially influential among many Anglo-American secular philosophers, Whitehead's metaphysical ideas continue to have influence among some theologians and philosophers of religion.


Primary Literature

A comprehensive list of Whitehead's publications appears in Paul Schilpp's The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1941; 2nd edn 1951).

His most influential writings include the following:

  • 1898, A Treatise on Universal Algebra, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 1902, “On Cardinal Numbers,” American Journal of Mathematics, 24: 367–394.
  • 1906a, The Axioms of Projective Geometry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 1906b, “On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series A, 205 (1906): 465–525.
  • 1907, The Axioms of Descriptive Geometry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 1910, 1912, 1913 (with Bertrand Russell), Principia Mathematica, 3 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2nd edn, 1925 (Vol. 1), 1927 (Vols 2, 3); abridged as Principia Mathematica to *56, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
  • 1911, An Introduction to Mathematics, London: Williams and Norgate.
  • 1917, The Organisation of Thought, Educational and Scientific, London: Williams & Norgate.
  • 1919, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 1920, The Concept of Nature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; reissued Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004.
  • 1922, The Principle of Relativity with Applications to Physical Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 1925, Science and the Modern World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926.
  • 1926, Religion in the Making, New York: Macmillan.
  • 1927, Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect, New York: Macmillan.
  • 1929a, The Aims of Education and Other Essays, New York: The Macmillan Company; repr. 1959.
  • 1929b, The Function of Reason, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • 1929c, Process and Reality, New York: Macmillan.
  • 1933, Adventures of Ideas, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; New York: Macmillan.
  • 1934, Nature and Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • 1938, Modes of Thought, New York: Macmillan.
  • 1947a, Essays in Science and Philosophy, New York: Philosophical Library.
  • 1947b, The Wit and Wisdom of Whitehead, A.H. Johnson (ed.), Boston: Beacon Press.
  • 1953, A.N. Whitehead: An Anthology, F.S.C. Northrop and M.W. Gross (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; New York: Macmillan.

Secondary Literature

  • Alcantara, Jean-Pascal, 2011, “On Internal Relations in Leibniz, British Neo-realism, and Whitehead,” Logique et Analyse, 54: 173–209.
  • Allan, George, 2010, “In Defense of Secularizing Whitehead,” Process Studies, 39: 319–333.
  • Armour, Leslie, 2010, “Looking for Whitehead,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 18: 925–939.
  • Athearn, Daniel, 2011, “Physics and Whitehead: An Alternative Approach,” Process Studies, 40: 80–90.
  • Basile, Pierfrancesco, 2009, Leibniz, Whitehead and the Metaphysics of Causation, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Bostock, David, 2010, “Whitehead and Russell on Points,” Philosophia Mathematica, 18: 1–52.
  • Bright, Laurence, 1958, Whitehead's Philosophy of Physics, London: Sheed and Ward.
  • Cobb, John B., 1965, A Christian Natural Theology, Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead, Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
  • –––, 1971, Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology, Beverly Hills, CA: Bruce.
  • Connelly, Robert Joseph, 1981, Whitehead vs Hartshorne, Washington, D.C.: University Press of America.
  • Desmet, Ronny, 2008, “How did Whitehead become Einstein's Antagonist? On Poincaré and Whitehead,” Process Studies, 37: 5–23.
  • –––, 2010, “Principia Mathematica Centenary,” Process Studies, 39: 225–263.
  • ––– and Bogdan Rusu, 2012, “Whitehead, Russell, and Moore: Three Analytic Philosophers,” Process Studies, 41: 214–234.
  • ––– and Michel Weber, 2010, Whitehead: The Algebra of Metaphysics, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Les Éditions Chromatika.
  • Dunkel, Harold Baker, 1965, Whitehead on Education, Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
  • Eastman, Timothy E., and Hank Keeton (eds.), 2004, Physics and Whitehead: Quantum, Process and Experience, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Emmet, Dorothy Mary, 1932, Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism, London: Macmillan; 2nd edn, 1966.
  • Epperson, Michael, 2004, Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, New York: Fordham University Press.
  • Gabbay, Dov M., and John Woods (eds.), 2009, Handbook of the History of Logic: Volume 5—Logic From Russell to Church, Amsterdam: Elsevier/North Holland.
  • George, Alexander and Daniel J. Velleman, 2002, Philosophy of Mathematics, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Griffin, Nicholas, and Bernard Linsky (eds.), 2013, The Palgrave Centenary Companion to Principia Mathematica, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Griffin, Nicholas, and Bernard Linsky and Kenneth Blackwell (eds.), 2011, Principia Mathematica at 100, Hamilton, ON: Bertrand Russell Research Centre; also published as Special Issue vol. 31, no. 1 of Russell: The Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies.
  • Hall, David, 1973, The Civilization of Experience, New York: Fordham University Press.
  • Henning, Brian G., Adam Scarfe, and Dorion Sagan (eds.), 2013, Beyond Mechanism, Lanham: Lexington Books.
  • Holmgren, Christine and Leemon McHenry, 2012, “Quine and Whitehead on Ontological Reduction: Properties Reconsidered,” Process Studies, 41: 261–286.
  • Hurtubise, Denis, 2001, “One, Two, or Three Concepts of God in Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality?” Process Studies, 30: 78–100.
  • Hartshorne, Charles, 1972, Whitehead's Philosophy: Selected Essays, 1935-1970, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Irvine, A.D. (ed.), 2009, Philosophy of Mathematics, Amsterdam: Elsevier/North Holland.
  • Johnson, A.H., 1946, “Whitehead's Discussion of Education,” Education, 66 (10): 1–19.
  • –––, 1952, Whitehead's Theory of Reality, Boston: Beacon Press.
  • –––, 1958, Whitehead's Philosophy of Civilization, Boston: Beacon Press.
  • –––, 1969, “Whitehead as Teacher and Philosopher,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 29: 351–376.
  • –––, 1973, Experiential Realism, London: George Allen and Unwin.
  • Jourdain, Philip E.B., 1918, Review of A.N. Whitehead's The Organisation of Thought, Educational and Scientific, Mind, 27: 244–247.
  • Kline, George Louis, 1963, Alfred North Whitehead, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
  • Lango, John W., 1972, Whitehead's Ontology, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Lawrence, Nathaniel Morris, 1956, Whitehead's Philosophical Development, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Leclerc, Ivor, 1958, Whitehead's Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition, London: Allen and Unwin; New York: Macmillan.
  • Leclercq, Bruno, 2011, “Looking for New Mathematical Concepts for the Material World: Whitehead's Investigations into Formal Ontology,” Logique et Analyse, 54: 211–224.
  • Lowe, Victor, 1962, Understanding Whitehead, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • –––, 1985, A.N. Whitehead: The Man and His Work, Vol. 1: 1861–1910, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • ––– and Schneewind, J.B., 1990, A.N. Whitehead: The Man and His Work, Vol. 2: 1910–1947, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Lucas, George R., 1989, The Rehabilitation of Whitehead, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Lutskanov, Rosen, 2011, “Whitehead's Early Philosophy of Mathematics and the Development of Formalism,” Logique et Analyse, 54: 161–172.
  • Mays, Wolfgang, 1959, The Philosophy of Whitehead, London: Allen & Unwin.
  • –––, 1977, Whitehead's Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics: An Introduction to his Thought, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Mesle, C. Robert, 2008, Process-Relational Philosophy: An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead, Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.
  • Nobo, Jorge Luis, 1986, Whitehead's Metaphysics of Extension and Solidarity, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Onwuegbusi, Martin O., 2010, “The Concept of the Person in Whitehead's Process Metaphysics,” Philosophia, 39: 159–176.
  • –––, 2013, “God in Whitehead's Process Metaphysics,” Philosophia, 14: 247–262.
  • Palter, Robert M., 1960, Whitehead's Philosophy of Science, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Pittenger, W. Norman, 1969, Alfred North Whitehead, Richmond: John Knox Press.
  • Pols, Edward, 1967, Whitehead's Metaphysics, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Price, Lucien (ed.), 1954, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, Boston: Little, Brown.
  • Quine, Willard Van Orman, 1941, “Whitehead and the Rise of Modern Logic,” in Paul Arthur Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, La Salle: Open Court, 125–164.
  • Riche, Jacques, 2011, “Logic in Whitehead's Universal Algebra,” Logique et Analyse, 54: 135–159.
  • Riffert, Franz, 2012, “Analytic Philosophy, Whitehead, and Theory Construction,” Process Studies, 41: 235–260.
  • Ross, Stephen David, 1983, Perspective in Whitehead's Metaphysics, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Russell, Bertrand, 1903, The Principles of Mathematics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 1948, “Whitehead and Principia Mathematica,” Mind, 57: 137–138.
  • –––, 1952, “Alfred North Whitehead,” The Listener, 48 (July): 51-52; revised and repr. in Bertrand Russell, Portraits From Memory, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956, 99-104; and repr. in Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 1, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1967, 127-130.
  • –––, 1967–1969, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 3 vols, London: George Allen and Unwin; Boston: Little Brown and Company (Vols 1 and 2), New York: Simon and Schuster (Vol. 3).
  • –––, 1988, Essays on Language, Mind and Matter, 1919–26, Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Volume 9, London: Unwin Hyman.
  • –––, 1997, Last Philosophical Testament, 1943–68, Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Volume 11, London and New York: Routledge.
  • Schilpp, Paul Arthur (ed.), 1941, The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, La Salle: Open Court; 2nd edn, 1951.
  • Shapiro, Stewart (ed.), 2005, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sherburne, Donald W., 1961, A Whiteheadian Aesthetic, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • –––, 1966, A Key to Whitehead's Process and Reality, New York: Macmillan.
  • –––, 1995, “Whitehead, Alfred North,” in Robert Audi (ed.), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 851–853.
  • Shields, George W., 2012, “Whitehead and Analytic Philosophy of Mind,” Process Studies, 41: 287–336.
  • Sieroka, Norman, 2000, “One Whitehead, Not Three,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 31A (4): 721–730.
  • Stengers, Isabelle, 2011, Thinking with Whitehead, Michael Chase (trans.), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Weekes, Anderson, 2012, “The Mind-Body Problem and Whitehead's Non-reductive Monism,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 19: 40–66.


Thanks are due to Kenneth Blackwell, Fred Kroon, Jim Robinson and several anonymous referees for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this material.

Alfred North Whitehead
Born(1861-02-15)15 February 1861
Ramsgate, Kent, United Kingdom
Died30 December 1947(1947-12-30) (aged 86)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
EducationTrinity College, Cambridge (BA, 1884)
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolProcess philosophy
Process theology
InstitutionsImperial College London (University of London)
Harvard University
Academic advisorsEdward John Routh[1]
Doctoral studentsW. V. O. Quine
Charles Hartshorne
Paul Weiss
Gregory Vlastos
Raphael Demos
Susanne Langer
Bertrand Russell

Main interests

Metaphysics, mathematics

Notable ideas

Process philosophy
Process theology


  • Aristotle,[2]Henri Bergson,[3]Francis Herbert Bradley[4]John Dewey,[3]David Hume,[2]William James,[3]Immanuel Kant,[5]Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz,[6]John Locke,[5]Isaac Newton,[6]Plato,[2]George Santayana[6]


  • Wilfred Eade Agar,[7]David Bohm,[7]C. D. Broad,[8]Milič Čapek,[7]Gilles Deleuze,[9]Susanne Langer,[10]Ervin László,[11]Maurice Merleau-Ponty,[8]F. S. C. Northrop,[10]Talcott Parsons,[12]Ilya Prigogine,[8]W. V. O. Quine,[13]Bertrand Russell,[6]B. F. Skinner,[14]Wolfgang Smith,[15]John Lighton Synge,[7]Jules Vuillemin,[8]Conrad Hal Waddington,[7]Michel Weber,[16]Sewall Wright,[17]Eric Voegelin[18]


Alfred North WhiteheadOMFRSFBA (15 February 1861 – 30 December 1947) was an English mathematician and philosopher. He is best known as the defining figure of the philosophical school known as process philosophy,[19] which today has found application to a wide variety of disciplines, including ecology, theology, education, physics, biology, economics, and psychology, among other areas.

In his early career Whitehead wrote primarily on mathematics, logic, and physics. His most notable work in these fields is the three-volume Principia Mathematica (1910–13), which he wrote with former student Bertrand Russell. Principia Mathematica is considered one of the twentieth century's most important works in mathematical logic, and placed 23rd in a list of the top 100 English-language nonfiction books of the twentieth century by Modern Library.[20]

Beginning in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Whitehead gradually turned his attention from mathematics to philosophy of science, and finally to metaphysics. He developed a comprehensive metaphysical system which radically departed from most of western philosophy. Whitehead argued that reality consists of processes rather than material objects, and that processes are best defined by their relations with other processes, thus rejecting the theory that reality is fundamentally constructed by bits of matter that exist independently of one another.[21] Today Whitehead's philosophical works – particularly Process and Reality – are regarded as the foundational texts of process philosophy.

Whitehead's process philosophy argues that "there is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have consequences for the world around us."[21] For this reason, one of the most promising applications of Whitehead's thought in recent years has been in the area of ecological civilization and environmental ethics pioneered by John B. Cobb, Jr.[22]


Childhood, education[edit]

Alfred North Whitehead was born in Ramsgate, Kent, England, in 1861.[23] His father, Alfred Whitehead, was a minister and schoolmaster of Chatham House Academy, a school for boys established by Thomas Whitehead, Alfred North's grandfather.[24] Whitehead himself recalled both of them as being very successful schoolmasters, but that his grandfather was the more extraordinary man.[24] Whitehead's mother was Maria Sarah Whitehead, formerly Maria Sarah Buckmaster. Whitehead was apparently not particularly close with his mother, as he never mentioned her in any of his writings, and there is evidence that Whitehead's wife, Evelyn, had a low opinion of her.[25]

Whitehead was educated at Sherborne School, Dorset, then considered one of the best public schools in the country.[26] His childhood was described as over-protected,[27] but when at school he excelled in sports and mathematics[28] and was head prefect of his class.[29]

In 1880, Whitehead began attending Trinity College, Cambridge, and studied mathematics.[30] His academic advisor was Edward John Routh.[1] He earned his BA from Trinity in 1884, and graduated as fourth wrangler.[31]


Elected a fellow of Trinity in 1884, Whitehead would teach and write on mathematics and physics at the college until 1910, spending the 1890s writing his Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898), and the 1900s collaborating with his former pupil, Bertrand Russell, on the first edition of Principia Mathematica.[32] He was a Cambridge Apostle.[33]

In 1890, Whitehead married Evelyn Wade, an Irish woman raised in France; they had a daughter, Jessie Whitehead, and two sons, Thomas North Whitehead and Eric Whitehead.[29] Eric Whitehead died in action at the age of 19, while serving in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I.[34]

In 1910, Whitehead resigned his senior lectureship in mathematics at Trinity and moved to London without first lining up another job.[35] After being unemployed for a year, Whitehead accepted a position as lecturer in applied mathematics and mechanics at University College London, but was passed over a year later for the Goldsmid Chair of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics, a position for which he had hoped to be seriously considered.[36]

In 1914 Whitehead accepted a position as professor of applied mathematics at the newly chartered Imperial College London, where his old friend Andrew Forsyth had recently been appointed chief professor of mathematics.[37]

In 1918 Whitehead's academic responsibilities began to seriously expand as he accepted a number of high administrative positions within the University of London system, of which Imperial College London was a member at the time. He was elected dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of London in late 1918 (a post he held for four years), a member of the University of London's Senate in 1919, and chairman of the Senate's Academic (leadership) Council in 1920, a post which he held until he departed for America in 1924.[37] Whitehead was able to exert his newfound influence to successfully lobby for a new history of science department, help establish a Bachelor of Science degree (previously only Bachelor of Arts degrees had been offered), and make the school more accessible to less wealthy students.[38]

Toward the end of his time in England, Whitehead turned his attention to philosophy. Though he had no advanced training in philosophy, his philosophical work soon became highly regarded. After publishing The Concept of Nature in 1920, he served as president of the Aristotelian Society from 1922 to 1923.[39]

Move to the US, 1924[edit]

In 1924, Henry Osborn Taylor invited the 63-year-old Whitehead to join the faculty at Harvard University as a professor of philosophy.[40]

During his time at Harvard, Whitehead produced his most important philosophical contributions. In 1925, he wrote Science and the Modern World, which was immediately hailed as an alternative to the Cartesiandualism that plagued popular science.[41] Lectures from 1927–28, were published in 1929 as a book named Process and Reality, which has been compared (both in importance and difficulty) to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.[22]

The Whiteheads spent the rest of their lives in the United States. Alfred North retired from Harvard in 1937 and remained in Cambridge, Massachusetts until his death on 30 December 1947.[42]

The two volume biography of Whitehead by Victor Lowe[43] is the most definitive presentation of the life of Whitehead. However, many details of Whitehead's life remain obscure because he left no Nachlass; his family carried out his instructions that all of his papers be destroyed after his death.[44] Additionally, Whitehead was known for his "almost fanatical belief in the right to privacy", and for writing very few personal letters of the kind that would help to gain insight on his life.[44] This led to Lowe himself remarking on the first page of Whitehead's biography, "No professional biographer in his right mind would touch him."[23]

As of 2013, the Whitehead Research Project of the Center for Process Studies is currently working on a critical edition of Whitehead's writings.[45]

Mathematics and logic[edit]

In addition to numerous articles on mathematics, Whitehead wrote three major books on the subject: A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898), Principia Mathematica (co-written with Bertrand Russell and published in three volumes between 1910 and 1913), and An Introduction to Mathematics (1911). The former two books were aimed exclusively at professional mathematicians, while the latter book was intended for a larger audience, covering the history of mathematics and its philosophical foundations.[46]Principia Mathematica in particular is regarded as one of the most important works in mathematical logic of the 20th century.

In addition to his legacy as a co-writer of Principia Mathematica, Whitehead's theory of "extensive abstraction" is considered foundational for the branch of ontology and computer science known as "mereotopology", a theory describing spatial relations among wholes, parts, parts of parts, and the boundaries between parts.[47]

A Treatise on Universal Algebra[edit]

In A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898) the term "universal algebra" had essentially the same meaning that it has today: the study of algebraic structures themselves, rather than examples ("models") of algebraic structures.[48] Whitehead credits William Rowan Hamilton and Augustus De Morgan as originators of the subject matter, and James Joseph Sylvester with coining the term itself.[48][49]

At the time structures such as Lie algebras and hyperbolic quaternions drew attention to the need to expand algebraic structures beyond the associatively multiplicative class. In a review Alexander Macfarlane wrote: "The main idea of the work is not unification of the several methods, nor generalization of ordinary algebra so as to include them, but rather the comparative study of their several structures."[50] In a separate review, G. B. Mathews wrote, "It possesses a unity of design which is really remarkable, considering the variety of its themes."[51]

A Treatise on Universal Algebra sought to examine Hermann Grassmann's theory of extension ("Ausdehnungslehre"), Boole's algebra of logic, and Hamilton's quaternions (this last number system was to be taken up in Volume II, which was never finished due to Whitehead's work on Principia Mathematica).[52] Whitehead wrote in the preface:

"Such algebras have an intrinsic value for separate detailed study; also they are worthy of comparative study, for the sake of the light thereby thrown on the general theory of symbolic reasoning, and on algebraic symbolism in particular ... The idea of a generalized conception of space has been made prominent, in the belief that the properties and operations involved in it can be made to form a uniform method of interpretation of the various algebras."[53]

Whitehead, however, had no results of a general nature.[48] His hope of "form[ing] a uniform method of interpretation of the various algebras" presumably would have been developed in Volume II, had Whitehead completed it. Further work on the subject was minimal until the early 1930s, when Garrett Birkhoff and Øystein Ore began publishing on universal algebras.[54]

Principia Mathematica[edit]

Principia Mathematica (1910–1913) is Whitehead's most famous mathematical work. Co-written with former student Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica is considered one of the twentieth century's most important works in mathematics, and placed 23rd in a list of the top 100 English-language nonfiction books of the twentieth century by Modern Library.[20]

Principia Mathematica's purpose was to describe a set of axioms and inference rules in symbolic logic from which all mathematical truths could in principle be proven. Whitehead and Russell were working on such a foundational level of mathematics and logic that it took them until page 86 of Volume II to prove that 1+1=2, a proof humorously accompanied by the comment, "The above proposition is occasionally useful."[55]

Whitehead and Russell had thought originally that Principia Mathematica would take a year to complete; it ended up taking them ten years.[56] When it came time for publication, the three-volume work was so long (more than 2,000 pages) and its audience so narrow (professional mathematicians) that it was initially published at a loss of 600 pounds, 300 of which was paid by Cambridge University Press, 200 by the Royal Society of London, and 50 apiece by Whitehead and Russell themselves.[56] Despite the initial loss, today there is likely no major academic library in the world which does not hold a copy of Principia Mathematica.[57]

The ultimate substantive legacy of Principia Mathematica is mixed. It is generally accepted that Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem of 1931 definitively demonstrated that for any set of axioms and inference rules proposed to encapsulate mathematics, there would in fact be some truths of mathematics which could not be deduced from them, and hence that Principia Mathematica could never achieve its aims.[58] However, Gödel could not have come to this conclusion without Whitehead and Russell's book. In this way, Principia Mathematica's legacy might be described as its key role in disproving the possibility of achieving its own stated goals.[59] But beyond this somewhat ironic legacy, the book popularized modern mathematical logic and drew important connections between logic, epistemology, and metaphysics.[60]

An Introduction to Mathematics[edit]

Unlike Whitehead's previous two books on mathematics, An Introduction to Mathematics (1911) was not aimed exclusively at professional mathematicians, but was intended for a larger audience. The book covered the nature of mathematics, its unity and internal structure, and its applicability to nature.[46] Whitehead wrote in the opening chapter:

"The object of the following Chapters is not to teach mathematics, but to enable students from the very beginning of their course to know what the science is about, and why it is necessarily the foundation of exact thought as applied to natural phenomena."[61]

The book can be seen as an attempt to understand the growth in unity and interconnection of mathematics as a whole, as well as an examination of the mutual influence of mathematics and philosophy, language, and physics.[62] Although the book is little-read, in some ways it prefigures certain points of Whitehead's later work in philosophy and metaphysics.[63]

Views on education[edit]

Whitehead showed a deep concern for educational reform at all levels. In addition to his numerous individually written works on the subject, Whitehead was appointed by Britain's Prime MinisterDavid Lloyd George as part of a 20-person committee to investigate the educational systems and practices of the UK in 1921 and recommend reform.[64]

Whitehead's most complete work on education is the 1929 book The Aims of Education and Other Essays, which collected numerous essays and addresses by Whitehead on the subject published between 1912 and 1927. The essay from which Aims of Education derived its name was delivered as an address in 1916 when Whitehead was president of the London Branch of the Mathematical Association. In it, he cautioned against the teaching of what he called "inert ideas" – ideas that are disconnected scraps of information, with no application to real life or culture. He opined that "education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful."[65]

Rather than teach small parts of a large number of subjects, Whitehead advocated teaching a relatively few important concepts that the student could organically link to many different areas of knowledge, discovering their application in actual life.[66] For Whitehead, education should be the exact opposite of the multidisciplinary, value-free school model[65][67] – it should be transdisciplinary, and laden with values and general principles that provide students with a bedrock of wisdom and help them to make connections between areas of knowledge that are usually regarded as separate.

In order to make this sort of teaching a reality, however, Whitehead pointed to the need to minimize the importance of (or radically alter) standard examinations for school entrance. Whitehead writes:

"Every school is bound on pain of extinction to train its boys for a small set of definite examinations. No headmaster has a free hand to develop his general education or his specialist studies in accordance with the opportunities of his school, which are created by its staff, its environment, its class of boys, and its endowments. I suggest that no system of external tests which aims primarily at examining individual scholars can result in anything but educational waste."[68]

Whitehead argued that curriculum should be developed specifically for its own students by its own staff, or else risk total stagnation, interrupted only by occasional movements from one group of inert ideas to another.

Above all else in his educational writings, Whitehead emphasized the importance of imagination and the free play of ideas. In his essay "Universities and Their Function", Whitehead writes provocatively on imagination:

"Imagination is not to be divorced from the facts: it is a way of illuminating the facts. It works by eliciting the general principles which apply to the facts, as they exist, and then by an intellectual survey of alternative possibilities which are consistent with those principles. It enables men to construct an intellectual vision of a new world."[69]

Whitehead's philosophy of education might adequately be summarized in his statement that "knowledge does not keep any better than fish."[70] In other words, bits of disconnected knowledge are meaningless; all knowledge must find some imaginative application to the students' own lives, or else it becomes so much useless trivia, and the students themselves become good at parroting facts but not thinking for themselves.

Philosophy and metaphysics[edit]

Whitehead did not begin his career as a philosopher.[23] In fact, he never had any formal training in philosophy beyond his undergraduate education. Early in his life he showed great interest in and respect for philosophy and metaphysics, but it is evident that he considered himself a rank amateur. In one letter to his friend and former student Bertrand Russell, after discussing whether science aimed to be explanatory or merely descriptive, he wrote: "This further question lands us in the ocean of metaphysic, onto which my profound ignorance of that science forbids me to enter."[72] Ironically, in later life Whitehead would become one of the 20th century's foremost metaphysicians.

However, interest in metaphysics – the philosophical investigation of the nature of the universe and existence – had become unfashionable by the time Whitehead began writing in earnest about it in the 1920s. The ever-more impressive accomplishments of empirical science had led to a general consensus in academia that the development of comprehensive metaphysical systems was a waste of time because they were not subject to empirical testing.[73]

Whitehead was unimpressed by this objection. In the notes of one of his students for a 1927 class, Whitehead was quoted as saying: "Every scientific man in order to preserve his reputation has to say he dislikes metaphysics. What he means is he dislikes having his metaphysics criticized."[74] In Whitehead's view, scientists and philosophers make metaphysical assumptions about how the universe works all the time, but such assumptions are not easily seen precisely because they remain unexamined and unquestioned. While Whitehead acknowledged that "philosophers can never hope finally to formulate these metaphysical first principles,"[75] he argued that people need to continually re-imagine their basic assumptions about how the universe works if philosophy and science are to make any real progress, even if that progress remains permanently asymptotic. For this reason Whitehead regarded metaphysical investigations as essential to both good science and good philosophy.[76]

Perhaps foremost among what Whitehead considered faulty metaphysical assumptions was the Cartesian idea that reality is fundamentally constructed of bits of matter that exist totally independently of one another, which he rejected in favor of an event-based or "process" ontology in which events are primary and are fundamentally interrelated and dependent on one another.[77] He also argued that the most basic elements of reality can all be regarded as experiential, indeed that everything is constituted by its experience. He used the term "experience" very broadly, so that even inanimate processes such as electron collisions are said to manifest some degree of experience. In this, he went against Descartes' separation of two different kinds of real existence, either exclusively material or else exclusively mental.[78] Whitehead referred to his metaphysical system as "philosophy of organism", but it would become known more widely as "process philosophy."[78]

Whitehead's philosophy was highly original, and soon garnered interest in philosophical circles. After publishing The Concept of Nature in 1920, he served as president of the Aristotelian Society from 1922 to 1923, and Henri Bergson was quoted as saying that Whitehead was "the best philosopher writing in English."[79] So impressive and different was Whitehead's philosophy that in 1924 he was invited to join the faculty at Harvard University as a professor of philosophy at 63 years of age.[40]

This is not to say that Whitehead's thought was widely accepted or even well understood. His philosophical work is generally considered to be among the most difficult to understand in all of the western canon.[22] Even professional philosophers struggled to follow Whitehead's writings. One famous story illustrating the level of difficulty of Whitehead's philosophy centers around the delivery of Whitehead's Gifford lectures in 1927–28 – following Arthur Eddington's lectures of the year previous – which Whitehead would later publish as Process and Reality:

Eddington was a marvellous popular lecturer who had enthralled an audience of 600 for his entire course. The same audience turned up to Whitehead's first lecture but it was completely unintelligible, not merely to the world at large but to the elect. My father remarked to me afterwards that if he had not known Whitehead well he would have suspected that it was an imposter making it up as he went along ... The audience at subsequent lectures was only about half a dozen in all.[81]

Indeed, it may not be inappropriate to speculate that some fair portion of the respect generally shown to Whitehead by his philosophical peers at the time arose from their sheer bafflement. Distinguished University of Chicago Divinity SchooltheologianShailer Mathews once remarked of Whitehead's 1926 book Religion in the Making: "It is infuriating, and I must say embarrassing as well, to read page after page of relatively familiar words without understanding a single sentence."[82]

However, Mathews' frustration with Whitehead's books did not negatively affect his interest. In fact, there were numerous philosophers and theologians at Chicago's Divinity School that perceived the importance of what Whitehead was doing without fully grasping all of the details and implications. In 1927 they invited one of America's only Whitehead experts – Henry Nelson Wieman – to Chicago to give a lecture explaining Whitehead's thought.[82] Wieman's lecture was so brilliant that he was promptly hired to the faculty and taught there for twenty years, and for at least thirty years afterward Chicago's Divinity School was closely associated with Whitehead's thought.[80]

Shortly after Whitehead's book Process and Reality appeared in 1929, Wieman famously wrote in his 1930 review:

"Not many people will read Whitehead's recent book in this generation; not many will read it in any generation. But its influence will radiate through concentric circles of popularization until the common man will think and work in the light of it, not knowing whence the light came. After a few decades of discussion and analysis one will be able to understand it more readily than can now be done."[83]

Wieman's words proved prophetic. Though Process and Reality has been called "arguably the most impressive single metaphysical text of the twentieth century,"[84] it has been little-read and little-understood, partly because it demands – as Isabelle Stengers puts it – "that its readers accept the adventure of the questions that will separate them from every consensus."[85] Whitehead questioned western philosophy's most dearly held assumptions about how the universe works, but in doing so he managed to anticipate a number of 21st century scientific and philosophical problems and provide novel solutions.[86]

Whitehead's conception of reality[edit]

Whitehead was convinced that the scientific notion of matter was misleading as a way of describing the ultimate nature of things. In his 1925 book Science and the Modern World, he wrote that

"There persists ... [a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call 'scientific materialism.' Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived."[77]

In Whitehead's view, there are a number of problems with this notion of "irreducible brute matter." First, it obscures and minimizes the importance of change. By thinking of any material thing (like a rock, or a person) as being fundamentally the same thing throughout time, with any changes to it being secondary to its "nature", scientific materialism hides the fact that nothing ever stays the same. For Whitehead, change is fundamental and inescapable; he emphasizes that "all things flow."[87]

In Whitehead's view, then, concepts such as "quality", "matter", and "form" are problematic. These "classical" concepts fail to adequately account for change, and overlook the active and experiential nature of the most basic elements of the world. They are useful abstractions, but are not the world's basic building blocks.[88] What is ordinarily conceived of as a single person, for instance, is philosophically described as a continuum of overlapping events.[89] After all, people change all the time, if only because they have aged by another second and had some further experience. These occasions of experience are logically distinct, but are progressively connected in what Whitehead calls a "society" of events.[90] By assuming that enduring objects are the most real and fundamental things in the universe, materialists have mistaken the abstract for the concrete (what Whitehead calls the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness").[78][91]

To put it another way, a thing or person is often seen as having a "defining essence" or a "core identity" that is unchanging, and describes what the thing or person really is. In this way of thinking, things and people are seen as fundamentally the same through time, with any changes being qualitative and secondary to their core identity (e.g. "Mark's hair has turned gray as he has gotten older, but he is still the same person"). But in Whitehead's cosmology, the only fundamentally existent things are discrete "occasions of experience" that overlap one another in time and space, and jointly make up the enduring person or thing. On the other hand, what ordinary thinking often regards as "the essence of a thing" or "the identity/core of a person" is an abstract generalization of what is regarded as that person or thing's most important or salient features across time. Identities do not define people, people define identities. Everything changes from moment to moment, and to think of anything as having an "enduring essence" misses the fact that "all things flow", though it is often a useful way of speaking.

Whitehead pointed to the limitations of language as one of the main culprits in maintaining a materialistic way of thinking, and acknowledged that it may be difficult to ever wholly move past such ideas in everyday speech.[92] After all, each moment of each person's life can hardly be given a different proper name, and it is easy and convenient to think of people and objects as remaining fundamentally the same things, rather than constantly keeping in mind that each thing is a different thing from what it was a moment ago. Yet the limitations of everyday living and everyday speech should not prevent people from realizing that "material substances" or "essences" are a convenient generalized description of a continuum of particular, concrete processes. No one questions that a ten-year-old person is quite different by the time he or she turns thirty years old, and in many ways is not the same person at all; Whitehead points out that it is not philosophically or ontologically sound to think that a person is the same from one second to the next.

A second problem with materialism is that it obscures the importance of relations. It sees every object as distinct and discrete from all other objects. Each object is simply an inert clump of matter that is only externally related to other things. The idea of matter as primary makes people think of objects as being fundamentally separate in time and space, and not necessarily related to anything. But in Whitehead's view, relations take a primary role, perhaps even more important than the relata themselves.[93] A student taking notes in one of Whitehead's fall 1924 classes wrote that:

"Reality applies to connections, and only relatively to the things connected. (A) is real for (B), and (B) is real for (A), but [they are] not absolutely real independent of each other."[94]

In fact, Whitehead describes any entity as in some sense nothing more and nothing less than the sum of its relations to other entities – its synthesis of and reaction to the world around it.[95] A real thing is just that which forces the rest of the universe to in some way conform to it; that is to say, if theoretically a thing made strictly no difference to any other entity (i.e. it was not related to any other entity), it could not be said to really exist.[96] Relations are not secondary to what a thing is, they are what the thing is.

It must be emphasized[why?], however, that an entity is not merely a sum of its relations, but also a valuation of them and reaction to them.[97] For Whitehead, creativity is the absolute principle of existence, and every entity (whether it is a human being, a tree, or an electron) has some degree of novelty in how it responds to other entities, and is not fully determined by causal or mechanistic laws.[98] Of course, most entities do not have consciousness.[99] As a human being's actions cannot always be predicted, the same can be said of where a tree's roots will grow, or how an electron will move, or whether it will rain tomorrow. Moreover, inability to predict an electron's movement (for instance) is not due to faulty understanding or inadequate technology; rather, the fundamental creativity/freedom of all entities means that there will always remain phenomena that are unpredictable.[100]

The other side of creativity/freedom as the absolute principle is that every entity is constrained by the social structure of existence (i.e., its relations) – each actual entity must conform to the settled conditions of the world around it.[96] Freedom always exists within limits. But an entity's uniqueness and individuality arise from its own self-determination as to just how it will take account of the world within the limits that have been set for it.[101]

In summary, Whitehead rejects the idea of separate and unchanging bits of matter as the most basic building blocks of reality, in favor of the idea of reality as interrelated events in process. He conceives of reality as composed of processes of dynamic "becoming" rather than static "being", emphasizing that all physical things change and evolve, and that changeless "essences" such as matter are mere abstractions from the interrelated events that are the final real things that make up the world.[78]

Theory of perception[edit]

Since Whitehead's metaphysics described a universe in which all entities experience, he needed a new way of describing perception that was not limited to living, self-conscious beings. The term he coined was "prehension", which comes from the Latin prehensio, meaning "to seize."[102] The term is meant to indicate a kind of perception that can be conscious or unconscious, applying to people as well as electrons. It is also intended to make clear Whitehead's rejection of the theory of representative perception, in which the mind only has private ideas about other entities.[102] For Whitehead, the term "prehension" indicates that the perceiver actually incorporates aspects of the perceived thing into itself.[102] In this way, entities are constituted by their perceptions and relations, rather than being independent of them. Further, Whitehead regards perception as occurring in two modes, causal efficacy (or "physical prehension") and presentational immediacy (or "conceptual prehension").[99]

Whitehead describes causal efficacy as "the experience dominating the primitive living organisms, which have a sense for the fate from which they have emerged, and the fate towards which they go."[103] It is, in other words, the sense of causal relations between entities, a feeling of being influenced and affected by the surrounding environment, unmediated by the senses. Presentational immediacy, on the other hand, is what is usually referred to as "pure sense perception", unmediated by any causal or symbolicinterpretation, even unconscious interpretation. In other words, it is pure appearance, which may or may not be delusive (e.g. mistaking an image in a mirror for "the real thing").[104]

In higher organisms (like people), these two modes of perception combine into what Whitehead terms "symbolic reference", which links appearance with causation in a process that is so automatic that both people and animals have difficulty refraining from it. By way of illustration, Whitehead uses the example of a person's encounter with a chair. An ordinary person looks up, sees a colored shape, and immediately infers that it is a chair. However, an artist, Whitehead supposes, "might not have jumped to the notion of a chair", but instead "might have stopped at the mere contemplation of a beautiful color and a beautiful shape."[105] This is not the normal human reaction; most people place objects in categories by habit and instinct, without even thinking about it. Moreover, animals do the same thing. Using the same example, Whitehead points out that a dog "would have acted immediately on the hypothesis of a chair and would have jumped onto it by way of using it as such."[106] In this way symbolic reference is a fusion of pure sense perceptions on the one hand and causal relations on the other, and that it is in fact the causal relationships that dominate the more basic mentality (as the dog illustrates), while it is the sense perceptions which indicate a higher grade mentality (as the artist illustrates).[107]

Evolution and value[edit]

Whitehead believed that when asking questions about the basic facts of existence, questions about value and purpose can never be fully escaped. This is borne out in his thoughts on abiogenesis, or the hypothetical natural process by which life arises from simple organic compounds.

Whitehead makes the startling observation that "life is comparatively deficient in survival value."[108] If humans can only exist for about a hundred years, and rocks for eight hundred million, then one is forced to ask why complex organisms ever evolved in the first place; as Whitehead humorously notes, "they certainly did not appear because they were better at that game than the rocks around them."[109] He then observes that the mark of higher forms of life is that they are actively engaged in modifying their environment, an activity which he theorizes is directed toward the three-fold goal of living, living well, and living better.[110] In other words, Whitehead sees life as directed toward the purpose of increasing its own satisfaction. Without such a goal, he sees the rise of life as totally unintelligible.

For Whitehead, there is no such thing as wholly inert matter. Instead, all things have some measure of freedom or creativity, however small, which allows them to be at least partly self-directed. Process philosopherDavid Ray Griffin coined the term "panexperientialism" (the idea that all entities experience) to describe Whitehead's view, and to distinguish it from panpsychism (the idea that all matter has consciousness).[111]


Whitehead's idea of God differs from traditional monotheistic notions.[112] Perhaps his most famous and pointed criticism of the Christian conception of God is that "the Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar."[113] Here Whitehead is criticizing Christianity for defining God as primarily a divine king who imposes his will on the world, and whose most important attribute is power. As opposed to the most widely accepted forms of Christianity, Whitehead emphasized an idea of God that he called "the brief Galilean vision of humility":

"It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operates by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present."[114]

It should be emphasized that for Whitehead, God is not necessarily tied to religion.[115] Rather than springing primarily from religious faith, Whitehead saw God as necessary for his metaphysical system.[115] His system required that an order exist among possibilities, an order that allowed for novelty in the world and provided an aim to all entities. Whitehead posited that these ordered potentials exist in what he called the primordial nature of God. However, Whitehead was also interested in religious experience. This led him to reflect more intensively on what he saw as the second nature of God, the consequent nature. Whitehead's conception of God as a "dipolar"[116] entity has called for fresh theological thinking.

The primordial nature he described as "the unlimited conceptual realization of the absolute wealth of potentiality,"[114] i.e., the unlimited possibility of the universe. This primordial nature is eternal and unchanging, providing entities in the universe with possibilities for realization. Whitehead also calls this primordial aspect "the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire,"[117] pulling the entities in the universe toward as-yet unrealized possibilities.

God's consequent nature, on the other hand, is anything but unchanging – it is God's reception of the world's activity. As Whitehead puts it, "[God] saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of his own life. It is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved."[118] In other words, God saves and cherishes all experiences forever, and those experiences go on to change the way God interacts with the world. In this way, God is really changed by what happens in the world and the wider universe, lending the actions of finite creatures an eternal significance.

Whitehead thus sees God and the world as fulfilling one another. He sees entities in the world as fluent and changing things that yearn for a permanence which only God can provide by taking them into God's self, thereafter changing God and affecting the rest of the universe throughout time. On the other hand, he sees God as permanent but as deficient in actuality and change: alone, God is merely eternally unrealized possibilities, and requires the world to actualize them. God gives creatures permanence, while the creatures give God actuality and change. Here it is worthwhile to quote Whitehead at length:

"In this way God is completed by the individual, fluent satisfactions of finite fact, and the temporal occasions are completed by their everlasting union with their transformed selves, purged into conformation with the eternal order which is the final absolute 'wisdom.' The final summary can only be expressed in terms of a group of antitheses, whose apparent self-contradictions depend on neglect of the diverse categories of existence. In each antithesis there is a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast.

"It is as true to say that God is permanent and the World fluent, as that the World is permanent and God is fluent.

"It is as true to say that God is one and the World many, as that the World is one and God many.

"It is as true to say that, in comparison with the World, God is actual eminently, as that, in comparison with God, the World is actual eminently.

"It is as true to say that the World is immanent in God, as that God is immanent in the World.

"It is as true to say that God transcends the World, as that the World transcends God.

"It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God ...

"What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world ... In this sense, God is the great companion – the fellow-sufferer who understands."[119]

The above is some of Whitehead's most evocative writing about God, and was powerful enough to inspire the movement known as process theology, a vibrant theological school of thought that continues to thrive today.[120][121]


For Whitehead the core of religion was individual. While he acknowledged that individuals cannot ever be fully separated from their society, he argued that life is an internal fact for its own sake before it is an external fact relating to others.[122] His most famous remark on religion is that "religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness ... and if you are never solitary, you are never religious."[123] Whitehead saw religion as a system of general truths that transformed a person's character.[124] He took special care to note that while religion is often a good influence, it is not necessarily good – an idea which he called a "dangerous delusion" (e.g., a religion might encourage the violent extermination of a rival religion's adherents).[125]

However, while Whitehead saw religion as beginning in solitariness, he also saw religion as necessarily expanding beyond the individual. In keeping with his process metaphysics in which relations are primary, he wrote that religion necessitates the realization of "the value of the objective world which is a community derivative from the interrelations of its component individuals."[126] In other words, the universe is a community which makes itself whole through the relatedness of each individual entity to all the others – meaning and value do not exist for the individual alone, but only in the context of the universal community. Whitehead writes further that each entity "can find no such value till it has merged its individual claim with that of the objective universe. Religion is world-loyalty. The spirit at once surrenders itself to this universal claim and appropriates it for itself."[127] In this way the individual and universal/social aspects of religion are mutually dependent.

Whitehead also described religion more technically as "an ultimate craving to infuse into the insistent particularity of emotion that non-temporal generality which primarily belongs to conceptual thought alone."[128] In other words, religion takes deeply felt emotions and contextualizes them within a system of general truths about the world, helping people to identify their wider meaning and significance. For Whitehead, religion served as a kind of bridge between philosophy and the emotions and purposes of a particular society.[129] It is the task of religion to make philosophy applicable to the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Influence and legacy[edit]

Isabelle Stengers wrote that "Whiteheadians are recruited among both philosophers and theologians, and the palette has been enriched by practitioners from the most diverse horizons, from ecology to feminism, practices that unite political struggle and spirituality with the sciences of education."[85]

Whewell's Court north range at Trinity College, Cambridge. Whitehead spent thirty years at Trinity, five as a student and twenty-five as a senior lecturer.
Bertrand Russell in 1907. Russell was a student of Whitehead's at Trinity College, and a longtime collaborator and friend.
The title page of the shortened version of the Principia Mathematica to *56
Richard Rummell's 1906 watercolor landscape view of Harvard University, facing northeast.[71] Whitehead taught at Harvard from 1924 to 1937.

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