English-born American mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) pioneered in mathematical logic, demonstrating that all mathematics may be derived from a few logical concepts. He also produced a comprehensive philosophical system in accord with contemporary science.
Alfred North Whitehead was born on Feb. 15, 1861, in Kent, England. His father, an Anglican clergyman, had a keen interest in education. Whitehead's character and intellectual orientation were largely shaped by his father's personality. After studying Latin, Greek, and mathematics in Dorsetshire, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1880 as a scholarship student in mathematics. Elected to a fellowship in 1884, Whitehead remained at Cambridge until 1910, rising to the position of senior lecturer.
In 1890 Whitehead married Evelyn Willoughby Wade, to whom he attributed his interests in moral, esthetic, and other humane values. The Whitehead's had three children; the youngest son's death in World War I profoundly affected Whitehead's later reflections on human life.
At Cambridge, Whitehead concentrated on mathematical logic. He sought to develop an abstract (that is, nonnumerical) algebra. For the first volume of A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898) he was elected to the Royal Society. His second volume was never published. Meanwhile, Bertrand Russell had worked independently on the logical foundations of mathematics and published Principles of Mathematics (1903). Whitehead and Russell collaborated for nearly a decade; the result was Principia Mathematica (3 vols., 1910-1913).
Widely recognized as one of the great intellectual achievements of all time, Principia Mathematica sought to demonstrate that mathematics could be deduced from postulates of formal logic. No work in logic since Aristotle's Organon has had a greater impact on the field than Principia Mathematica. Its influence on mathematics has also been considerable, manifest in the teaching of "new mathematics" in American schools today.
In 1910, in London, Whitehead wrote Introduction to Mathematics. In 1911 he began teaching at the University College, London, and in 1914 he became professor at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, subsequently becoming dean of the faculty of science in the University of London. During this period his interests centered on the philosophy of science.
His 1906 paper, "On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World," had shown Whitehead's concern with connecting the formal concepts of a logicomathematical system, such as he conceived geometry to be, with features of the experienced world of space, time, and matter. In Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) he introduced the method of extensive abstraction. This method defines, for example, a formal element, like a point, in terms of a whole convergent set of volumes of a certain shape extending over others of the same shape, like a nest of Chinese boxes.
These investigations were pressed further in The Concept of Nature (1920). Whitehead rejected the prevailing dualism. He defined nature as that which is "disclosed in sense experience"; and he stressed, not our simple awareness of particular sensations, but rather our deep-seated feeling of a spatiotemporally extended passage going on in nature. Moreover, Whitehead analyzed the passage of nature into events and objects. Events are happenings which, while they may overlap, come into being and pass away. Objects, on the contrary, are constant; they are patterns which recur. Whitehead claimed that such a pervasive pattern, an element of permanence in the flux, accounts for nature's uniformity. It is bound up with the categories of space, time, causation, and matter.
Whitehead, keenly interested in Albert Einstein's relativity theory, could not, however, accept it without a revision so radical as to constitute an alternative. The Principle of Relativity (1922) proposed a homaloidal conception of space and an absolutistic conception of measurement. (Physicists, however, have preferred Einstein's version of relativity for experimental reasons.)
In 1924 Whitehead transported his family to America, where he became a philosophy professor at Harvard University. He devoted his Harvard years to elaborating a comprehensive philosophy.
Whitehead's 1925 Lowell Lectures at Harvard, published as Science and the Modern World (1925), immediately appealed to avant-garde thinkers not only in the sciences but also in religion and in the humanities. On the one hand, Whitehead wrote clearly about difficult points in the history of literature and science, such as romantic poetry and the new discoveries in quantum mechanics. On the other hand, he wrote numerous technical paragraphs which invited painstaking exegesis. The work, widely read and discussed, introduced Whitehead's own "philosophy of organism."
In 1926 Whitehead published his influential Religion in the Making. In Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect (1927) he presented his theory of perception, marking his epistemology off from that of the empiricists. He noted two modes of perception: perception by presentational immediacy and perception by causal efficacy. Perception by presentational immediacy is the apprehension of distinct sense data— colors, sounds, shapes, and so on. Empiricists take this mode of perception to be fundamental, whereas Whitehead saw it as derivative from the mode of perception by causal efficacy. This second mode presents the deep-seated pervasive feelings that the perceiving organism has by virtue of its causal relations to other beings. By stressing perception by causal efficacy, Whitehead believed he would escape the subjectivism and skepticism into which traditional empiricism fell.
Process and Reality (1929), probably Whitehead's most famous book in philosophy, presents his system of speculative philosophy, which he called "cosmology." According to Whitehead, speculative philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent set of basic concepts capable of interpreting every item of experience; he unveiled a technical system of 36 categories. It suffices here to cite four: actual entities, eternal objects, nexus, and creativity. Actual entities are the ultimately real things, coming into being and passing away. As momentary entities, they may be equated with the event constituting the leap of an electron from one orbit in its atom to another, or with an occasion of experience. Eternal objects, by contrast, are forms or qualities which recur in the passage of actual entities. A nexus is a society whose components are actual entities. Nexūs, or societies of actual entities, constitute the enduring objects—for example, trees and persons—encountered in ordinary experience. Creativity is the ultimate category, accounting for the novelty, the creative advance in the world. God is a derivative notion; it is an accident of creativity.
Process and Reality is widely considered the final formulation of the evolutionary, process philosophies which, stimulated in the first instance by the scientific achievement of Charles Darwin, were espoused by Herbert Spencer, Henri Bergson, and others.
As a result of his contributions, Whitehead was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1931. In his last major work, Adventures of Ideas (1933), he further clarified his key ideas, relating them to earlier ideas in the history of thought, particularly the basic concepts of Plato. He also offered an interpretation of history and civilization, revealing the extent to which a few leading ideas shape human destiny. Because of its lucidity, profundity, and relevance, Adventures of Ideas is the best introduction to Whitehead's philosophy.
In 1937 Whitehead became emeritus professor of philosophy at Harvard. He stayed on in Cambridge, Mass., continuing discussions with students, former students, colleagues, and friends. A sample of these was published by Lucien Price as The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (1954). In 1945 the British crown awarded Whitehead the Order of Merit, the highest honor it bestows on a man of learning. Whitehead died in Cambridge, Mass., on Dec. 30, 1947.
The basic study of Whitehead is Paul A. Schlipp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1941; 2d ed. 1951). The best guide to Whitehead's thought is Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead (1962). Also noteworthy are Nathaniel Lawrence, Whitehead's Philosophical Development (1956), and Wolfe May, The Philosophy of Whitehead (1959). Special aspects of Whitehead's philosophy are dealt with in Dorothy M. Emmet, Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism (1932; 3d ed. 1966); A. H. Johnson, Whitehead's Theory of Reality (1952) and Whitehead's Philosophy of Civilization (1958); Ivor Leclerc, Whitehead's Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition (1958); Robert M. Palter, Whitehead's Philosophy of Science (1960); Donald Sherburne, A Whiteheadian Aesthetic: Some Implications of Whitehead's Metaphysical Speculation (1961); John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (1965); and Edward Pols, Whitehead's Metaphysics (1967).