by Victor Lowe
Victor Lowe is professor emeritus of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University.
The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 137-147, Vol. 12, Number 3, Fall, 1982. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Whitehead he did not keep a diary, and was famous for not writing letters; they took too much time from his work. His talk was witty. In criticism he was truthful. A devastating comment was made with the utmost gentleness. He had a tendency to be ironic; but there was no malice in his irony.
The attempt to write a life of Whitehead is something one should not wish on one’s worst enemy. The kinds of private documents a biographer needs are almost nonexistent. Whitehead did not keep a diary, and he was famous for not writing letters; they took too much time from his work. Natural letter-writers, like Bertrand Russell or Virginia Woolf, write mainly to express themselves; Whitehead had little of that interest. There are some family letters, but those to his parents and brothers have not been preserved. In his will he directed that his letters to his wife be destroyed; that makes a great gap, for she is easily the most important person in his biography. The fact is that Whitehead was as keen on privacy as Russell was on publicity.
Nevertheless, his son North, back in 1965, gave me the strongest possible encouragement to attempt a biography. When I objected that his father would not have wanted one, the answer was: A. N. W. believed that there should be biographies of great men, but never thought of himself as in that class. So I went ahead, collecting official records and sending out countless inquiries, to which the most usual answer was, "I wish I could help you, but I have no letters, and only a few memories of times long past." It was my conviction that, as no professional biographer in his right mind would touch Whitehead, someone who knew him and his work should write as much about this great man’s life as the scanty materials allowed; not a memoir, mind you, but an objective partial biography. The length of time it is taking me is due mainly to this amateur’s complete inefficiency in biographical research and writing.
It is not only Whitehead’s personal life for which there is too little documentation. As he had requested, his widow destroyed (along with letters he had received) his unpublished papers and the manuscripts of his books. He idealized youth and wanted young thinkers to develop their own ideas, not spend their best years on a Nachlass. Hence Whitehead’s intellectual biography, so far as we can be certain about it, depends mainly on the external facts of his life and the prefaces to his books. A valiant endeavor to discover, from the texts of his metaphysical publications, just how they were written, has been made with great ingenuity by Lewis Ford.
I do not propose to deal tonight with influences on Whitehead, but I should like to say something about the first influence on him, that of the Whitehead men: his grandfather, father, two uncles, and oldest brother, Henry. They should receive individual descriptions; I must be content to say that together, as forward-looking, incredibly hard-working middle-class Victorians who did much good in their churches and schools, and in local administration (and did it without antagonizing people), they gave Alfred North Whitehead a model of a dedicated, useful Christian life and of firm moral character. Although Whitehead in his thirties ceased to be an orthodox Christian, in other respects he was faithful to the model all his life. His friends and pupils at Harvard should not have been surprised to discover that although he was a tolerant man, his morals, in the main, were conventional Victorian morals. Since Whitehead was nearly forty when the Queen died in 1901, we should see him as a man of the Victorian age whose intellect bore its best fruit a quarter of a century later.
Whitehead began to teach and write philosophy after he had devoted forty years to mathematics. Nowadays the mathematician is usually remembered only as Russell’s collaborator on Principia Mathematica. That is unfair to Whitehead. In 1890, when Russell was his freshman pupil at Trinity College, Cambridge, Whitehead conceived a large scheme of mathematical work, which he pursued for decades. I have described it elsewhere1 and will here say only that his ultimate aim was to exhibit the most powerful systems of algebraic symbolism for exploring the physical world. He did not reach this goal. Volume I of his underestimated Treatise on Universal Algebra2 was the first product of his pursuit of it. The second was the memoir, "On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World."3 Then came the three volumes of the Principia.4 They were to be followed by a fourth, on geometry, written by Whitehead alone, hut he never finished it.
Whitehead was a good mathematician; no one would call him a great one. It was in philosophy that he achieved greatness. He told me, when he was seventy-five, that he had been philosophizing, in an amateurish way, since he was twenty-three. I found that in May of that year, when he was a graduate student at Cambridge, he was elected to a small discussion club. This was the secret, and famous, Cambridge Conversazione Society, known to outsiders as the "Apostles" It met on Saturday nights, not for formal debate, but for free and perfectly frank discussion of ideas, following the reading of a paper. A later Apostle, Professor R. B. Braithwaite, allowed me to see the Society’s book for the years when Whitehead was an active member, 1884 to 1888. So far as I know, this is the only document from which anything can be learned about Whitehead’s early philosophical views. Thanks to Professor Braithwaite, I can tell you a little about them; a little, because the minutes are not records of the discussions, but only of titles of papers read, of stands taken in a vote at the end of each meeting, and of such very short comments as members chose to write into the book as they voted. I shall limit myself to Whitehead’s outlook on the universe, his philosophy of life, and his religious views.
A meeting which broke up in the early hours of Whitehead’s twenty-fourth birthday concluded with a vote on the question, "Does the devil exist, or is he merely loathsome?" Whitehead voted, Yes, the devil exists; and he wrote in the book, "He is the Homogeneous." Two weeks later Whitehead read a paper on the question, "Is it now as it was in the beginning?" It is unlikely that at this time -- 1885 -- any of the Apostles rejected Darwinian evolution. But the idea of homogeneity again came to the fore in the final question, "Is a homogeneous universe a failure?" Whitehead and two others voted Yes; four voted No. The discussion might have been partly about Herbert Spencer’s conception of evolution, but is more likely -- Whitehead’s discussion especially -- to have been about the speculative application of the second law of thermodynamics to the physical universe as a whole, with its prospect of a final state of perfect equilibrium. The talk at the next meeting was also about the process of the universe. The question at its close was, "Democritus or Heraclitus?" Whitehead gave the nod to Heraclitus. This is a bit of evidence of his early preference for a rich, "thick" metaphysics over a reductionist materialism. Unfortunately, the Apostles’ book during these years includes no reference to Platonic metaphysics.
The records of these three meetings strongly suggest -- I do not say, demonstrate -- this about the general outlook of the young mathematician Whitehead: he had a positive attitude toward change, tension, the multifariousness of things and qualities; his hackles rose over the notion of unrelieved uniformity; and he rejected Democritus’s "spatialization" of change. I use Bergson’s word because I want to make a point. When Whitehead’s readers find such features in the philosophy of science that he began to write thirty years later, they often assume that these are Whitehead’s response to his reading of Bergson. My point is that in 1885 Bergson was just beginning to find his philosophy, and none of it had been published.
On various issues in human life, the stands that Whitehead took were similar in kind. He answered No to the question, "Shall we truckle to our environment?" That was the most natural answer, but the question was not an idle one, for the conservative, easy-going Apostle, J. K. Stephen, voted Yes. Three years later a meeting ended with a division on a question loaded the other way: "Shall we run our heads against brick walls?" Yes, said Whitehead. Throughout his Apostolic years he took a position on the side of diversity and adventure whenever the question concerned their contrast with uniformity and the status quo. He voted that the world ought not to agree about tastes; on another occasion, that we should not "be normal." To "What shall we do with social experiments; encourage, make, discourage?" Whitehead answered, "Encourage"; this was in June, 1884; he was not enough of an activist to say, Make them." His was a philosophy of change, but -- as appeared in another vote -- without the belief that we have a criterion of progress.
The contrast between thought and feeling came up several times. "Shall we cut off the tail?" was a way of asking whether we should try to be purely rational beings. Whitehead voted against cutting off the tail, and wrote, "The operation is too dangerous." (Readers of Adventures of Ideas know how hard-headed rationalism evoked his skepticism and alarm.) In the autumn of 1886, when he read a paper entitled, "Is the playwright the best historian?" the closing question was, "Facts or feelings?" "Feelings" he said. The idea that feeling is central, and can itself be cognitive, is a major theme in his mature philosophy.
In October, 1887, a paper by Lowes Dickinson gave rise to the question," Shall we read Hegel?" At this time Dickinson was reading Hegel’s Logic with McTaggart. Whitehead wrote in the minute book, "Urge others to (10 50 and to read other metaphysicians as well." Note that he urged others to read Hegel; if Whitehead himself had tried, he had looked only at Hegel’s remarks on mathematics and had been turned off.
In their religious views, the Apostles of 1884 to 1888 were a mixture of believers and nonbelievers, with the former in the majority. "Do we believe in God?" was the closing question on May 2, 1885. Five Apostles said they did not: Whitehead was one of nine who declared that they did.5 Two years later, there was a division on whether a personal God is a satisfactory explanation of the universe. McTaggart and two others said it was not; Whitehead and one other voted Yes. Young Whitehead believed in God the Creator.
Some weeks after the vote on belief in God, Whitehead, answering Yes to the question, Shall we transcend our limitations?" wrote in the book, "I want to see God." The beatific vision was important to him. The following October he gave a paper on the question, "Is one life enough?" The question voted on was, "Do we desire immortality?" Whitehead accompanied his affirmation with the note, "I want a sort of a something." He wanted immortality of some kind, not necessarily the specific kind in which his father and grandfather believed. At a meeting in 1887, McTaggart led a discussion of the idea of Nirvana. The final question then took the form, "Should we object to be annihilated?" "Yes," said Whitehead, dissenting from McTaggart.
Although his religious views would undergo radical changes, the positions which I have reported Whitehead took on other subjects should not surprise anyone familiar with the philosophy he wrote after he came to America in 1924.
Whitehead was brought up in the Church of England; his father, uncles, and oldest brother were in holy orders. As a young Fellow of Trinity College, he heard talk about the relative merits of Roman Catholicism. Perhaps the Anglican Church had everything except religion, with regard to which it offered only a socially useful simulacrum. One night in 1886, the Apostles divided on the question, "Should Churchmen go to Rome?" "Yes," declared Whitehead, "Or in the other direction." By "the other direction" he meant, I believe, toward dropping all Christian belief. Whitehead did so -- ten years later. That was the upshot of a long debate with himself about the claim of Rome to his allegiance. He was all but converted by reading Cardinal Newman. In him Whitehead found a keen thinker, a historian, and a saintly man who drew his sympathy. He finally went to the Oratory at Birmingham in the hope of talking with Newman. It is impossible to say when he did this. On the basis of what his children told me, the best guess I can make is, early in the summer of 1890. (Newman died on August 11.) There is no record of the visit: the Oratory did not keep a visitor’s book until after the turn of the century. But something came out one Sunday evening in the academic year 1932-33.6 It was near the close of an "at home" for his Harvard students; the circle that was talking to him and the circle talking to his wife had become one. She remarked on the unfairness of Lytton Strachey’s book, Eminent Victorians, and added that when "Altie" was young he had an interview with one of them, Cardinal Newman. Whitehead sat quietly and said nothing. The strange silence was broken by a student asking him what Newman was like. Whitehead was still silent, then suddenly said, "He was wonderful." "But," he added, "he was very old then." The same impression, of an event so significant and personal that Whitehead did not want to talk about it, comes from Lucien Price’s report of a conversation in September, 1945.7 Sir Richard Livingstone and Whitehead were talking about university education. When Livingstone brought up Newman, Whitehead said that he had once seen and spoken with him; but when he was asked if he could remember what Newman said, he answered, "It is too long ago," looked preoccupied for a moment, then abruptly changed the subject.
It is unlikely that Whitehead had more than a very few minutes with Newman, who since 1886 had been very frail, quite deaf and almost blind, not up to an interview with a stranger. Newman’s secretary would have intervened and led Whitehead away, to talk with someone else about joining the Catholic church. The result, to Whitehead’s mind, was inconclusive. But Newman stayed high in his esteem. In lectures at Harvard Whitehead frequently remarked that he was a thinker of great merit and recommended reading him.
This same summer, probably soon after the trip to Birmingham, Whitehead proposed marriage to a young woman he had fallen in love with, Evelyn Wade, and to his surprise was accepted. I have seen a fine leatherpocket edition of the Imitation of Christ, inscribed, "Evelyn from Alfred. Dec. 16th 1890 / Feb. 15th 1891." The first date is that of their marriage; the second, of his thirtieth birthday. He was giving her something he prized, with the hope that, as partners in a Christian life, they would often read it together. Perhaps the Christianity she had absorbed as a child of Protestant (Anglican) parents in a Catholic convent school (in Brittany) amounted merely to going through certain motions.
He was still consumed by the question that led him to visit Newman. This was a not a consuming question for his wife, but she was willing to follow his lead and embrace whatever conclusion he reached; she knew that he alone had the brains to carry out the intellectual and historical analyses which had to be made. For about seven years after his marriage he read a great deal in theology and its history, acquiring quite a library; she participated in this to some extent. A little searching by me has turned up no records of discussion of the question with anyone else. Whitehead looked upon it, I think, as a private question. Probably there were talks and exchanges of letters with his favorite brother, Henry, who was an Anglo-Catholic and a priest, later the Bishop of Madras. When Henry Whitehead was a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, he had seen Newman (an Honorary Fellow). But Henry Whitehead’s heirs have kept no pertinent material. In Cambridge there were few opportunities for discussion with Catholics until after 1895; because of a ban Cardinal Manning had got imposed, there were less than a dozen of them in the entire University. Of course a future researcher might find in the papers of some friend of Whitehead’s a reference to what he thought about the doctrine of papal infallibility, which Newman was reluctant to accept, and which Mrs. Whitehead later said was the great obstacle.
An Anglican who asks himself with the utmost sincerity whether he should go to Rome is assuming that authority is essential for religion, and is seeking that authority. When Whitehead first asked himself this question, the authority of Newtonian concepts in physics was absolute. As the 1890s advanced, it became clouded. Every year brought new discoveries which caused the Newtonian framework to become more strained. Whitehead has called this crumbling of the scientific rock one of the crucial experiences of his life.8 It cannot have strengthened his assumption that there was a true traditional authority in religion, however hard to identify. I suppose that this was one of the reasons for the decision he reached, probably in 1897. (I shall mention another possible reason later.) His decision was not to go to Rome but "in the other direction." He could find no clear authority in any church and no compelling reason for subscribing to any promulgated articles of Christian faith. Whitehead (joined by his wife) became an agnostic – "an outspoken and even militant" one, according to the article on him in the Dictionary of National Biography. As a good logician, he realized that it is not possible to prove the nonexistence of God; but the distinction between his agnosticism and atheism was purely theoretical. The children were told that they need no longer say prayers.
Whitehead’s position was by no means unique. The great division at Cambridge was no longer between the established church and dissent; it was between Christians and freethinkers. Whitehead’s son North, however, once said to me that there was something a little odd about his father’s agnosticism. The tone was a bit like that of a priest celebrating a Black Mass. It was as if he wanted to be religious, and was being defiantly atheistic. At least, though the conclusion of the long private debate was perfectly definite, it was not altogether welcome. The process had been agonizing, nothing one would go through again or like to see one’s children go through. Accordingly, most of the theological library was sold.
Whitehead’s agnostic period lasted about twenty years. A little parody of simple Christian theism which the family staged for house-guests one Sunday in March, 1913, has been reported to me.9 Mrs. Whitehead said, "The servants are all out for the afternoon, so Alfred, North, and Jessie are going to act a ‘mystery play’." North was then twenty-one years old, Jessie, nineteen. The play began with these three, as the three persons of the Trinity, entering the large living room arm in arm carrying a rugby football. Whitehead, a most benevolent God the Father, said, "I’ve had a wonderful idea. Let’s put something alive on this ball." Action of making and putting things on the ball was followed by watching it and tutt-tutting over the deplorable goings on there. North and Jessie appeared doubtful that the Creation was such a good idea. Whitehead then said, "I am sorry, Son, but you must really go down there and see if you can do something about it." After some argument, North gathered up a portmanteau and steamer rugs and reluctantly left the room. As the other two continued to observe the ball, they made witty comments on the Son’s earthly career. North returned, disheveled: "Oh I have had an awful time! I won’t ever go there again." More earth watching, until Whitehead shook his head sadly, "And it hasn’t done a bit of good. They are worse than ever! Oh, bother the thing!" and with a vigorous kick sent the ball across the room. Then the Trinity marched out arm in arm.
I have told this story to show the Whiteheads’ cheerful despair of the redeemability of mankind by Christianity, in 1913. At that time it was relatively easy for educated Englishmen of good will to pursue their goals without religious faith. Steady progress by reform, not by violence (except in Ireland) seemed to be the order of the day, and was what the Whiteheads believed in. For example, he was chairman of the Cambridge branch of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. 10
The Whiteheads moved to London in 1910. His mathematical publications had not received as much attention in England as they deserved, and he spent the first academic year without a job. Contrary to popular belief, Principia Mathematica did not make him famous. He had no chance of a professorship at Cambridge. Finally, when he was fifty-three, he gained one at the Imperial College of Science and Technology. It was the summer of 1914.
The guns of August blew up Whitehead’s world for good and all. They began a slaughter of young men the like of which England had never experienced. It was greatest among university men, who were generally given Army commissions as second lieutenants. Whitehead’s heart was desolated by the casualty lists. He was devoted to his pupils and knew them intimately. North Whitehead was luckier than most. The younger son, Eric, reached fighting age in the last year of the war, joined the Royal Flying Corps, and was shot down. Eric’s death was a terrible blow to his mother, for he was her special darling. Whitehead himself, with iron self-discipline, in the war years thought out and wrote his most important book in the philosophy of physics, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. He also wrote priceless essays on education and began to do important administrative work in the University of London. But the horror of the war was always at the bottom of his mind. It led him to abandon his agnosticism. I cannot set a year for this. But North and Jessie were of the opinion that Eric’s death was behind their father’s turn to theism. It is only fair to say that both North and Jessie remained agnostics.
Would Whitehead have remained one but for the war? Probably not. A thinking man who as a boy was brought up in a religion which did not repel him and who in his thirties became an unbeliever as likely, if he is at all religious by nature, to figure out his own theism eventually. That is what Whitehead the philosopher did.
Insights came as he developed his theism, but I should not assume that some intellectual perception caused him to question his agnosticism. Also, if Whitehead sometime had a decisive religious experience, I have found no record, or even the slightest reference, to it. I am content to say that the first year of the war started a change in feeling, a change which grew stronger as he meditated, and as the war went on. Nothing that he published while he was living in England suggests an abandonment of agnosticism, though I think that if, in his post-war years there, a suitable occasion had been provided for giving utterance to his meditations, he would have struck a religious note.
The theism Whitehead turned toward was a philosophical one. I described earlier the young mathematician’s interest in philosophy. Throughout the decades at Trinity College, Cambridge, there were almost daily talks with McTaggart, Russell, James Ward, and others; at London, he joined the Aristotelian Society in 1915. Thus it was likely that tinder sufficiently challenging circumstances his work would sometime turn toward general philosophy, instead of stopping with the philosophy of mathematics and physics. The war made this inevitable. In 1924 Harvard’s Department of Philosophy provided the opportunity that did not exist in Britain. Whitehead "blossomed out there.
I suppose that he had been pondering the incursion of value into the world for a long time before he publicly expressed his faith in a harmony at the base of existence. It is a twofold harmony, logical and aesthetic, he said at the end of the first chapter of Science and the Modern World: "While the harmony of logic lies upon the universe as an iron necessity, the aesthetic harmony stands before it as a living ideal molding the general flux in its broken progress towards finer, subtler issues." These are the words in which he first referred to what he very soon called "God."
Near the end of the chapter on Religion and Science in the same book, Whitehead made a beautiful statement of "the religious vision." I assume that you are familiar with it. Apart from the religious vision, he added, "human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience." That is how the war made human life look to him as an agnostic.
The unspeakable horrors of 1914 to 1918 not only edged Whitehead out of his agnosticism; they also help explain the fact that he did not rejoin the Church of England, or become a communicant of some other. The formulas of churches seemed less real than the anguish. Also, the assurance he wanted after the war was not of the kind that faith in omnipotence would provide. He sought a God of love who was not a personal Creator but a divine factor in the universe, a Harmony that is always present, not overruling but beckoning and preserving. I should doubt that in the field of theology any division runs deeper than that between defining God traditionally, as the omnipotent, sole cause of existence of a temporal world and defining Him as a factor in the universe. Whitehead must have accepted the traditional Christian notion in the years when he was uncertain whether he should be an Anglican or a Roman Catholic. In the scanty materials for his intellectual biography I have found no indication of when and how he was first repelled by the notion of Almighty Power. Revulsion is evident in everything he published about God; but such publication, we must remember, did not begin until 1925. It is a good guess, but only a guess, that the presence of this notion in both creeds was the main reason why, in the mid-nineties, he turned his back on both of them. I suspect that his wife had something to do with it. She took little interest in how the world came into being, but much in eliciting beauty from the world that is given. And I doubt that she thought churches as important as he then did. Incidentally, Whitehead’s ranking of beauty over goodness and truth (in Adventures of Ideas) is mainly due to his life with her.
In Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead,12 Lucien Price reported him as saying that if he were to choose among present-day Christians he would prefer the Unitarians. But he turned down a splendid opportunity to speak in a Unitarian church. This came in 1935, when a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School (where Whitehead had sometimes spoken), Leslie T. Pennington, was called to the First Parish Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That was where Emerson had given his Phi Beta Kappa address, "The American Scholar." It seemed to Dr. Pennington that Whitehead had been speaking more profoundly to the condition of our life than any other living philosopher. He knew of no one, he wrote me,13 "whose mind and spirit could express more perfectly the faith I wished to make the base of my ministry in that Church." Accordingly, he sent Whitehead the most persuasive invitation he could write to preach the sermon at his Installation Service. Whitehead, in a gracious reply, declined to do so. He had talked it over with his wife and agreed with her that acceptance would tend to identify him with Unitarianism and thereby impair the objectivity of his influence elsewhere. Mrs. Whitehead was the custodian of his image as a sage; but I think he himself wanted to keep his message independent of churches.
Protection of his image is not a factor in the answer Whitehead gave to an invitation to officiate in private religious ceremony. His young friends, Dr. and Mrs. John T. Edsall, were theists but not members of any church. They had read Religion in the Making and Process and Reality. In 1930 they asked him, by letter, whether he would christen their first-born, with these unexceptionable words: "In the love of God I name this child Lawrence, and require of his parents that they bring him up in the ways of beauty and truth," There was to be a little ceremony, a "dedication" to God. Whitehead sent a reply in which he apologetically but firmly declined to do this. The Edsalls did not keep the letter, but told mem4 that Whitehead said in it that he did not feel entirely sure of his own opinions and would not wish to make any statement in connection with belief. He was, however, present at the christening,
Today, Whitehead’s philosophical theism is taken to provide some of the basic premises of theologians who are Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and others. Mitch of this is due to the influence of another philosopher who admired Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne. My own wish is that thinkers in disciplines other than theology, who suspect that Whitehead had something to say to them too, do more to explore the use of his philosophy. Because of the industry of process theologians, his influence, in comparison with the width of his own interests, is now lopsided.
Whitehead the philosopher was both a powerful technical thinker and a very wise man. That is a rare combination. The first owes much to his experience as a mathematician concerned with axioms, with unnoticed assumptions, with what follows logically and what does not. It is hard to describe his wisdom. Instead of attempting to do so, I wish to conclude by saying what I think I have found out about his character.
It seemed sweet and simple. It was sweet, but not simple, except perhaps in the sense of being all of a piece. One uncommon feature of Whitehead’s character was the absence of egoism, of impulse to push himself forward. When he was not pursuing his work in mathematics or philosophy, he was helping other people, usually his pupils. These were his natural activities, and his wife made it possible for him to concentrate on them, by shouldering the practical problems of their life. (In America, she acted as his business manager with publishers.) Still, the absence of egoism was part of his character. Let me put this positively: he had genuine humility, and the invulnerability that goes with it.
Whitehead had good ability to size up the pupils who came to see him, and his help was appropriate to that pupil, but his manner was so uniformly benign that some -- Paul Weiss (the American pupil who saw him most often), my wife (Victoria Lincoln), and probably a few others -- detected a basic impersonality. His disposition was angelic, but angels aren’t human. When I said to Jessie Whitehead,15 "I don’t remember ever seeing your father laugh, or break into a grin -- only a smile," she answered, "It sounds a horrible thing to say, but it’s true." I think Whitehead’s sweetness came largely from detachment. He was a loner. Of course I do not mean this in the literal sense, of one who remains alone or avoids the company of others. Whitehead needed pupils to teach and friends to talk to. He had innumerable friends, and would talk amiably with them on almost any subject, but he did not give himself without reserve to anyone except his wife. A man who forms really close friendships will figure in his friends’ memoirs and biographies. There are many of these, but Whitehead is scarcely mentioned in any except Russell’s autobiography.
Whitehead at Harvard used to say that he was no good if he didn’t have two hours by himself each day. In his solitude he wrote what have become texts for the process theology movement. His first big book, the Universal Algebra, was something no one else would attempt. That is also true of his other major works, mathematical and philosophical. The concepts he worked with were more general than most of those in current use. His detachment enabled him to see what was being assumed on both sides of a disputed philosophical or political issue.
Whitehead’s talk was witty, but nothing was blurted out in disregard of consequences. In criticism he was truthful; a devastating comment was made with the utmost gentleness. He had delightful humor and a tendency to be ironic; but there was no malice in his irony. He was the most civilized person I have ever met.
Whitehead believed that the polemical activity of the intellectual world was largely waste motion, with much harmful simplification of ideas into targets. Advance called for the creation of new ideas and the exploration of their scope. He created some new ideas; the exploration of their scope is the most valuable task that the present generation of Whitehead scholars can undertake.
1"A. N. Whitehead on his Mathematical Goals: a Letter of 1912," Annuls of Science, 32 (1975), 85-101.
2Cambridge University Press, 1898.
3Philos. Transactions, Royal Society of London, Series A, 205 (1906), 465-525. The memoir was reprinted in F. S. C. Northrop and Mason W. Gross, eds., Alfred North Whitehead: Art Anthology, New York, 1953.
4Cambridge University Press, 1910-1913.
5Less than half of those voting were active members of the Society. Election was for life, and an unusually large number of formerly active members -- called "Angels" -- had come to this meeting in order to hear the scheduled speaker, Walter Raleigh (later Sir Walter Raleigh), whose wit and humor made him most admired of the active Apostles.
6Letter from Lewis S. Feuer to the author, June 5, 1970.
7Lucien Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (Boston and London, 1953), Dialogue XLII.
8In his lectures at Harvard, and in Price, op. cit., Dialogues XXVIII, XLII.
9On Sept. 8, 1968 by the Hon. Mrs. H. B. Pease, who was present, being then Miss Helen Wedgwood. aged eighteen.
10In 1907. This was a nonmilitant organization.
11Cambridge University Press, 1919; second edition, 1924.
13On May 26, 1967.
14In conversation. July 23, 1966.