return to religion-online

Whitehead and a Committee

by Robert S. Brumbaugh

Robert S. Brumbaugh is professor of philosophy at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 166-172, Vol.18, Number 3, Fall, 1989. 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.

In his study of three educational philosophers, Dewey, Russell, Whitehead, (Southern Illinois University Press, 1986) Brian Hendley pointed out that Whitehead’s approach to educational reform was different from that of the other two thinkers he treated. Where Russell aimed at an experimental school that would be a demonstration of his ideas, and Dewey set up a school that would be a laboratory for testing his, Whitehead went another way. He combined lectures to experts, directing their attention to the importance of education, and work on Committees, contributing to collective implementation of the expert ideas. His new insights apparently could be used to help adapt and redesign existing programs and institutions, and he put some trust in the collective experience and influence of his professional colleagues. His own individual commentaries could be presented as separate articles or lectures commenting on additions to or modifications of the programs and reports. Thus, after his textbook Introduction to Mathematics, illustrating his conviction that a few fundamental ideas should be made clear and looked at in every connection and application, his critical suggestions for the teaching of classics (growing out of committee work on the topic) were almost the only treatment of curriculum that he left to illustrate his general convictions.

Professor Hendley and I were curious about material that could illustrate Whitehead’s public presence, either as teacher or planner, and in that way add more examples to precepts that we wish had come with more illustration. It was with this in mind that I brought up the question of Whitehead’s educational work with his former colleague, Professor G. J. Whitrow.

In the course of correspondence I asked Professor Whitrow whether he knew of any material at the Imperial College that would bear on Whitehead’s educational theory. Professor Whitrow did not, but wrote:

He certainly had a lot to do with setting up the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at University College, and that might be a line to pursue. Material relating to that would probably be at University College, or University of London, Senate House ....

H. M. Young of the Palaeography Room of the University of London Library kindly sent me a copy of the 1924 Syllabus for the Master of Science degree (M. Sc.) in Principles, History, and Method of Science, for the University of London, Regulations and courses for internal students for the session 1924-25. It is reproduced here in part with my acknowledgement and thanks for the permission given by the University of London. This was part of the program Professor Whitrow had referred to.

When Whitehead later told Lucien Price that he had been able to write each Lowell Lecture (each of which was a chapter of Science and the Modern World) in a week, because "he had been thinking about it for forty years," he might have added that the 1924 syllabus was, in a way, the outcome of a very recent review of that thought.

If we cannot say what Whitehead himself put into this report, it is at least worth noting some topics that he was to recur to later which are not left out. Probably two items reflect his personal phrasing. First, "Non-confinable simple substances" (B. 1 .h) echoes a quotation from Shelley:

The vaporous exaltation not to be confined!

This quotation was also used in chapter V of Science and the Modern World. Second, looking simply at style and phrasing, "Conceptions of natural law" (D. IV) has as its single subhead (in the published version), "uniformity, causation, necessity and contingency." Whitehead had fairly recently given a lecture on "Uniformity and Contingency" to the Aristotelian Society (IS 108-24).

For the rest, parallels with Science and the Modern World suggest that its author and the present syllabus are thinking along many of the same lines, whether at his direction or with his participation. (Unlike his article on the classics in education, which was in part a strong dissent from the report of the Commission he had belonged to in 1921, the added philosophical material in Science and the Modern World seems to presuppose and supplement the Syllabus; the drastic changes that mark a departure by Whitehead from the basic outline of the enterprise don’t appear until 1929).

The main philosophic difficulty that the Syllabus faces comes out in "General scientific tendencies since the end of the Seventeenth Century. Interrelation of physical and biological sciences" (A. VI.) That topic will continue to occupy Whitehead; one of his latest lectures, reprinted in Modes of Thought gives his final resolution as an epigram: "what is energy in physics is life in biology."

For the immediate future, however, the Syllabus served well as the background for Whitehead’s own views on the history of science. In addition to the phrasing of B.I.h, with its echo of the Shelley quotation, B.I.e, "General dynamics and the principle of least action," reminds one, by anticipation, of the role Maupertius will play as hero of "victorious analysis" in Science and the Modern World.

Victor Lowe’s biographical scholarship reminds us that B.II.d, "Current electricity and electro-magnetism. Ampere, Oersted, Faraday, Clerk Maxwell," had been the theme of many courses both at Cambridge and in London, and again we find Clerk Maxwell a hero of Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World history. The notion that there are "Modem mathematical ideas" (Bill.) too specialized for the historian of biological sciences to be concerned with certainly reflects Whitehead’s continuing interest in mathematics; his fellows may well have been impressed by their colleague’s work on mathematical logic and the equations of relativity theory when they agreed to this subsection in addition to "Prolegomena to Mathematics" (D.VI), one of three options open to the degree candidate.

This subsection itself bears comparison with Chapter II of Science and the Modern World; again it is entirely congenial to Whitehead’s approach, if indeed it is not his own statement of it, that is reflected in the openings of subsections "(a) Nature of number," "(b) Fundamental concepts of geometry," and "(c) Nature of applied mathematics The theme of starting with clear principles in mathematics has run throughout Whitehead’s earlier work, particularly his lectures on the teaching of mathematics and his textbook. Again, the conclusion of part H, "The steam engine and other mechanical inventions. The rise of scientific technology" (B .II.m), parallels the concluding concern of Science and the Modern World with "Social Progress" in the face of a technology that has mastered the invention of inventions and accelerated the pace of occupational change well beyond any past rate, which was always less than one generation per major innovation. The section is also a reminder of Whitehead’s 1921 suggestion that the history of technology play a part in the teaching of classics (this is made anonymously toward the end of the Commission Report, and singled out for particular emphasis in Whitehead’s subsequent article on "‘The Classics in Education.")

The concerns relating to our knowledge of the physical world (D. VII) were philosophic themes that had already found repeated treatment in Whitehead’s writings; and they were standard topics at the time, on which any such Committee as the present one would agree. The case may not be quite so clear for D. VIII, though the nature of life and organism is a topic fundamental to biology.

Looked at retrospectively, the challenge of this Syllabus to Whitehead seems to look ahead toward Process and Reality. The crucial problem is reflected in the split of the historical material into physical and biological sciences; there is a common past reflected in part A and a prospective future synthesis foreshadowed in "general scientific tendencies since the end of the Seventeenth Century. Interrelation of physical and biological science" (A.VI). More strongly still, we find the ideal of a synthesis built into the structure of the Syllabus, in its requirement that all students have a common examination on Method and Principles of Science (sections I-V). And section V could almost be a prospectus for Process and Reality, I-IV: "Empirical characters of mental activity. Cognition, feeling, conation, language, symbolism, abstraction." The components are there for feelings and propositions in Whitehead’s later work, even if they appear in arbitrary order.

What strikes me as another salient detail is the final topic in the historical section of the biological sciences, "The physiology of the nervous system and its application to psychology" (C.II.m). This is a good transition from historical to philosophical sections. It was also, no doubt, a good topic for faculty conversations Whitehead’s knowledge of the biological sciences which occasionally occurs in Science and the Modern World makes one wonder whether he didn’t learn something from this topic. For example, his selection of smell as a primitive "feeling," connected with his observation that the dominance of the brain began with an enlarged development of the olfactory center, may well have been suggested by the present discussion. So may his stress on a background of "visceral feeling" of an external world of presences against which our sensations offer a fleeting conscious foreground. Somewhere here one suspects that he is aware and thinks of these feelings as a property of the sympathetic, not the autonomic nervous system.

At any rate, here we have a record of part of the context Whitehead was working in just before his invitation to come to Harvard, and his decision to come and write about education and philosophy. Some of the problems set up by this syllabus evidently continued to occupy his thought through Process and Reality to his two Chicago Lectures, "Nature and Life," in 1934, later incorporated in Modes of Thought.

My discussion here is not an attempt to anticipate Victor Lowe’s work on Whitehead’s biography, or Lewis S. Ford’s on the development of his thought. It is rather my own effort to see Whitehead at work as an educator whose audience, specified in the present case to specialized M. Sc. candidates, nevertheless can be envisaged as including his colleagues on the Faculty of Sciences in their interchange of ideas, his more general audience addressed in the Lowell Lectures, and any teachers or scholars interested in an outline of the history and philosophy of modern science that singles out the basic ideas of the past and raises the issues that present philosophy most urgently needs to resolve. If I am right, Whitehead does not divorce his role as educator from that of philosopher, even in his most austere later treatments of the problems he has helped formulate for the University of London special M. Sc.



University of London. Regulations and courses for internal students for the session 1924-25. London, 1924, 380-385.




The M.Sc. Examination in the Principles, History, and Method of Science will take place once in each year commencing on the last Monday in May, provided that if the last Monday in May be Whit Monday, the Examination will commence on the last Tuesday in May. Except as provided below, no person shall be admitted as a candidate for the Degree of M.Sc. in the Principles, History, and Method of Science as an Internal Student until after the expiration of one academic year from the time of his taking the B.Sc. Degree in this University as an Internal Student.


The examination will consist of four papers as follows:

(1) A paper on the General History of Science (A)

(2) A paper on either the History of the Physical and Mathematical Sciences in Modern Times (B), or the History of the Biological Sciences in Modern Times (C).

(3) A paper on the Principles and Method of Science (D), I-V Inclusive, together with one of the sections VI, VII, VIII, selected by him.

(4) A special paper on an approved subject or subjects selected by the candidate from any part or parts of the syllabus. The subject or subjects selected by the candidate must be submitted to the University for approval not later than the candidate proposes to enter.

The Examiners shall be at liberty to test any candidate by means of viva-voce questions.

Note on the Historical papers -- The student will be expected to appreciate both the character of the problems as in the minds of the thinkers of the time and the general nature of the solutions attempted, illustrated by the simplest details.


The mention of names in the syllabus is to be regarded merely as a guide to the meaning of terms. The list of names is not intended to be exhaustive, nor does the omission of any name imply that the work of its bearer is not of primary importance.


A. General History of Science.

I. The Beginning of Science in Early Civilizations.

II. The Greeks.

(a) The Pre-Socratics.

(b) Plato and Aristotle.

(c) Thinkers of later Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman Imperial times

III. The Middle Ages.

(a) Early Middle Ages. Scientific thought in Europe and the East. (b) Later Middle Ages. Scholasticism and Science.

IV The Renaissance.

(a) Naturalism and the rise of anatomy.

(b) Mathematics and the new astronomy before Galileo.

V. The Seventeenth Century.

(a) Philosophy and the experimental method: Bacon, Descartes.

(b) Mathematics and the new physical synthesis: Galileo, Kepler, Newton.

(c) Transition from alchemy to chemistry: Mayow, Boyle.

(d) Biological conceptions: Harvey, Malpighi, Ray.

(e) Foundation of the academies.

VI. General scientific tendencies since the end of the Seventeenth Century. Interrelation of physical and biological sciences.

B. History of Physical and Mathematical Sciences in Modern Times.

1. The Rise of the Academies. The Eighteenth Century.

(a) The new instruments and their influence on scientific ideas. Air pump’ thermometer, barometer and meteorological instruments, optical instruments, pendulum clock.

(b) Analytical and projective geometry. The infinitesimal calculus.

(c) Universal gravitation and the problem of celestial mechanics.

(d) Theories of light.

(e) General dynamics and principle of least action.

(f) Systematization of chemical knowledge.

(g) Discovery and manipulation of gases.

(h) Non-confinable simple substances; Electric and magnetic fluids, phlogiston, caloric, ether.

II. Since the end of the Eighteenth Century.

(a) Rise and development of atomic theory. The electrical theory of matter and the structure of the atom.

(b) The nature of heat and the conservation of energy.

(c) Wave theory of light and development of ether theories.

(d) Current electricity and electromagnetism. Ampere, Oersted, Faraday, Clerk Maxwell.

(e) Electro-magnetic theory of light and Hertzian waves.

(f) Chemistry of carbon compounds. Synthesis of organic substances.

(g) Theory of solution. Ionic theory and its implications.

(h) Spectroscopy and astrophysics.

(i) Refinements of celestial mechanics. Theories of the universe.

(j) Age of the earth and geological principles.

(k) Evolution of geophysical theory. Air, sea, earth.

(l) Modern mathematical ideas.

(m) The steam engine and other mechanical inventions. The rise of scientific technology.

C. History of Biological Science in Modern Times.

The rise of the Academies. The Eighteenth Century.

(a) Influence of invention of the microscope.

(b) Beginnings of systematic biology.

(c) Mechanics of the animal body.

(d) Respiration, circulation, and the entry of chemistry into biology.

(e) Theories of the nature of disease.

II. Since the end of the Eighteenth Century. Organic evolution.

(a) Theories of organic evolution. Buffon, Erasmus Darwin. Lamarck, Charles Darwin, De Vries.

(b) Cell theory and cell structure. Histology and histogenesis.

(c) Biogenesis and abiogenesis. Redi, Spallanzani, Pasteur. Origin of living things.

(d) Quantitative methods in physiology. Mechanism and vitalism.

(e) Enzymes. Hormones, nutrition, and growth. The beginnings of biochemistry.

(f) Germ theory of disease. Toxins and antitoxins. Immunity. The study of epidemics.

(g) Embryology and the theory of recapitulation. The application of experimental methods.

(h) Classification of animals and plants as influenced by evolutionary theory.

(i) Physiology of the plant. Ecology and the balance of life. Symbiosis, and parasitism.

(j) The animal in relation to its environment. Symbiosis, commensalism, and parasitism.

(k) The geological record. Succession of living forms. Antiquity and descent of man.

(l) Mendelian inheritance and statistical study of biological phenomena.

(m) The physiology of the nervous system and its application to psychology.

D. Method and Principles of Science.

I. Ideals of Science.

II. The problem of Knowledge.

The Empirical, critical, and chief current theories of knowledge.

III. Inductive and deductive methods.

Axioms, postulates, definition, hypothesis, probability, verification. Description and explanation. The special sciences; extent of their autonomy

IV. Conceptions of Natural Law.

Uniformity, causation, necessity, and contingency.

V.1 Empirical characters of mental activity.

Cognition, feeling, conation, language, symbolism, abstraction.

VI. Prolegomena to Mathematics.

(a) Nature of number. Theory of measurement. Mathematical continuity and its relation to perceptual experience.

(b) Fundamental concepts of geometry. Elementary treatment of spatio-temporal systems (theory of relativity, etc.). Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries; their relation to experience.

(c) Nature of applied mathematics, including the principles of probability.

VII. Prolegomena to the Physical Sciences.

The data of knowledge of the physical world. Sense-qualities and their relation (a) to perceptual objects, (b) to entities assumed in physical theories (molecules, atoms, electrons, ether, etc.).

VIII. Prolegomena to the Biological Sciences.

Empirical characters which distinguish living from non-living substance. The concept of organism. Problem of nature of life; biogenesis, heredity. Individual and racial development. Bearing of statistical methods on biology.



1. In the margin, just before V. is a caret, with the Archivist’s pencilled note in the margin: "Here Senate Minutes has Thought and its Instruments."

Viewed 6952 times.