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Alfred North Whitehead by Norman Pittenger


Dr. Pittenger, philosopher and theologian, was a senior member of King’s College, Cambridge for many years, then Professor of Christian Apologetics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, before retiring in 1966. Published by John Knox Press, Richmond, Virginia, 1996. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 1: Life


Early Years Alfred North Whitehead was born in Ramsgate on February 6, 1861. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States, on December 30, 1947, at the ripe age of eighty-six. Between those two dates he had been for many years on the faculty of the University of Cambridge in England, resigning his position as Senior Lecturer in Mathematics in 1910; he had been both a teacher and an administrator at the University of London; and for thirteen years he had been Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University in the United States. The last ten years he had been retired, living in a comfortable flat in Cambridge in the United States and lecturing in many American universities, as well as working on several books which summed up his mature thinking about the world, God, man -- and, as a sort of sideline -- about 'the aims of education', to use the title of one of his last books. Despite his long residence in the United States and his (and his wife's) decision to remain there after retirement from Harvard, Whitehead to the end of his days was an Englishman, in accent, in manner, and in attitude. The writer has already mentioned seeing Whitehead at Princeton in the late twenties; on that occasion there could be no doubt of his entirely English personality. Yet he found in the country where he now lived a certain freshness and resiliency which he said he felt was lacking in his own land. However this may be, the fact is that Whitehead's greatest influence as a philosopher was first exerted in the New World; it is only fairly recently that he is being read and his importance as a philosopher recognized in the country of his birth. Whitehead's father was a clergyman of the Church of England; his own brother became a famous bishop in the Anglican Church in India. There was a clerical quality in the philosopher which was sometimes amusingly at odds with his incisive and critical remarks about traditional Christian theology. His father had been a schoolmaster in Ramsgate for a number of years before he decided on ordination in 1860. He retained his post as schoolmaster until 1867, when he was made vicar of St Peter's, on the outskirts of Ramsgate. The boy remained at home until he was fourteen. He was taught by his father, learning from him both Latin and Greek. He imbibed the atmosphere of a clerical home ; and in later years he was accustomed to speak affectionately of his life there. He would mention the way in which he accompanied his father on his parochial visits; the great influence his father's preaching exerted on him as the older man ('an Old Testament man', he called him) with his great voice, which echoed through the old Norman church which he served, spoke fervently and forcefully to his congregation; and the delight he felt in knowing one of his father's closest friends, Archbishop Tait. Tait used to drive over to Ramsgate frequently to spend the day; the young boy even then regarded him as a very great man and once said that 'to have seen Tait was worth shelves of medieval history'. One of Whitehead's dearest memories was his regular trips to Canterbury itself, only sixteen miles away. He also recalled visits to Richborough Castle, an old Roman fortress in ruins; and he knew well the place nearby where St. Augustine of Canterbury had landed in England in 597, sent by Pope Gregory. He often visited the abbey church at Minster near Ramsgate, the spot where St Augustine first preached the Christian gospel to King Ethelbert of Kent. All this contributed to the development in the boy of the keen historical sense which never left him. It was also during his boyhood that he began that reading of books -- books of all kinds, but at this period writers like Dickens, whom he first knew when his grandmother's housemaid read him Pickwick Papers -- which became his great recreation. As a small child he spent several weeks each spring in London with his grandmother, whose house looked across Green Park. The boy used to see Queen Victoria driving past in her carriage; he described her as 'a little figure in black, belonging to the unquestioned order of the universe'. All these quotations and recollections of Whitehead come from his charming autobiographical notes in Essays in Science and Philosophy. When he was fourteen he was sent to Sherborne, the ancient school which he recalled was originally founded by St Aldhelm in Dorset in 741. Whitehead had fond memories of that school, where he was not only a prefect (he recalled caning a disorderly boy, guilty of stealing something or other) but a brilliant student. He continued his Greek and Latin, also doing work in history with a careful study of the Roman and Greek historians. There too he acquired his interest in mathematics, to which he decided to give his life. At the same time he did not neglect reading other books; at Sherborne he began to love the poets, at that time especially Wordsworth and Shelley, much of whose poetry he knew by heart. In 1880 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. Here he was entirely concerned with mathematics. Yet he said later that thanks to conversations with fellow-undergraduates as well as senior members of the college, above all thanks to his membership in 'The Apostles' (the small and always 'anonymous' group who met each Saturday night for free discussion), he became keenly aware of 'politics, religion, philosophy, literature -- with a bias toward literature'. Incidentally, he often remarked that it was this 'civilizing self-education' of undergraduates through informal conversation and discussion which was one of the best aspects of the university life in England and he wished there were more of this sort of thing in American education. Marriage The year 1885 marked Whitehead's admission as a Fellow of Trinity. Soon he married Evelyn Wade, an Irish girl who had been educated in France and had only come to live in England when she was seventeen. They were a devoted couple, with several children. One son was tragically killed in World War I, a crippling blow for the parents. Their home was at Grantchester, near Cambridge. Whitehead loved the Old Mill House, where they lived, and he spoke frequently of his happiness there -- a happiness which was all the greater because from his wife he learned 'that beauty, moral and aesthetic, is the aim of existence'. He confessed that through sharing what he called his wife's 'vivid life' he had experienced an extraordinary deepening and strengthening of his own sensitivity to those areas which mathematics, his own vocation, did not quite provide for. Writing and Teaching In 1910 the Whiteheads left Cambridge and moved to London. During his first year in the city, he was engaged in writing ; then, in 1911, he began teaching at University College. Three years later he became a professor at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, also serving the University of London in administrative offices, and towards the end of his time there becoming president of the Senate of the University. Whitehead was preparing for retirement from active teaching when the invitation came from Harvard University to join its faculty as Professor of Philosophy. This was a great surprise to him. He had already published a number of books; but they were highly technical, including a Treatise of Universal Algebra (1898) ; with Bertrand Russell, the Principia Mathematica (1910-13, in three volumes); two volumes on Axioms of Geometry (1906 and 1907); and an Introduction to Mathematics (1910). He bad also written several books on the philosophy of science, particularly The Concept of Nature (1920) which had been delivered as Tamer Lectures at Cambridge. But he had never done anything professionally in general philosophy. The invitation to Harvard had been managed by some American friends, especially Henry Osborn Taylor, the noted medievalist, who highly respected Whitehead's quality of mind, and thought that he would be an admirable addition to the faculty of the great American university. In the U.S.A. Whitehead accepted the invitation. In 1924 he and his wife crossed the Atlantic and took up residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before leaving London he had begun to read deeply in the great philosophical works of the past; his industry and his natural interest in the questions which these works posed made it easy for him to acquire, in a short time, the requisite technical knowledge. He began his Harvard lectures and seminars not (as was usual) by offering general survey courses or by introductory lecturing, but by presenting his own developing ideas. Those who studied under him tell of his charm of manner, his sly humour, his profound knowledge, his ability to illuminate difficult points with telling illustrations of a homely sort; but above all they speak of the fascination they felt as their lecturer or their seminar leader did his own thinking aloud in their presence and with their help. Whitehead was no dogmatic lecturer, laying down the law; he was an inquirer, trying to discover in company with his students those truths 'of widest generality' which would provide some understanding of the world and some answers to the problem about human life in that world which thoughtful men must inevitably face. Nothing was cut-and-dried; all was alive and vital. One of the points which he made, over and over again, was that (as he writes in Adventures of Ideas, p. 237) 'any doctrine which refuses to place human experience outside nature, must find in descriptions of human experience factors which also enter into the description of less specialized occurrences'. He was convinced that 'if there be no such factors, then the doctrine of human experience as a fact within nature is mere bluff, founded upon vague phrases whose sole merit is a comforting familiarity' (ibid.). Here we have already the basic assertion of his fully developed philosophy -- that there can be no 'bifurcation' between the scientifically observable and the aesthetically experienced and deeply felt aspects of life. His lectures, so those who heard them tell us, were beautiful examples of this driving desire to find a way of seeing the whole world in its unity, by observation and experiment and by feeling and appreciation. And his humility before facts, as well as his compassionate concern for his fellows, could not fail to make its impression on his students. Lectures and Writings The year after his arrival in the United States, Whitehead was invited to deliver the Lowell Lectures. He chose for his subject 'Science and the Modern World'; the lectures were published under that title in 1925. Here he presented his considered opinion that the materialistic interpretation given by strictly scientific methodology and experiment is not adequate to the richness of the world as we experience it. There is room for our valuational response and for the religious mode of understanding. The following year, in four lectures at King's Chapel, Boston, he pursued this last theme. In those lectures, published as Religion in the Making (1926), he argued that the fact of religion -- arising from man's primitive sense of unfilled void, moving through his feeling of threatening 'enemy' powers on to God known as 'companion' -- must find its place in any adequate reading of the way things go. In his own words, 'the present type of order in the world has arisen from an unimaginable past, and it will find its grave in an unimaginable future', but meanwhile 'there remain the inexhaustible realm of abstract forms, and creativity, with its shifting character ever determined afresh by its own creatures, and God, upon whose wisdom all forms of order depend'.(Religion in the Making, 1926, p. 154.) He interpreted religion as man's deepest vision of reality; and he contrasted Buddhism, which he described as 'a metaphysic generating a religion', with Christianity which is 'a religion seeking a metaphysic'.(Ibid., p. 50.) What 'is primary' in Christianity is 'the religious fact'. 'The Buddha gave his doctrine to enlighten the world', he said. 'Christ gave his life. It is for Christians to discern the doctrine'.(Ibid., p. 55) Lectures delivered at the University of Virginia dealt with man's symbolizing powers and their significance; these were published in 1927 as Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. The lectures were remarkable for their grasp, long before our own day, of the problems raised by man's linguistic efforts to express meaning. The final words are very telling, with their theological overtones: The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code; and secondly in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason. Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.(Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 1927, p. 88.) The amount of work which Whitehead did in those years is remarkable. In 1928 he collected lectures and papers on education which he published under the title The Aims of Education. The following year, 1929, his greatest book made its appearance: the Gifford lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh during a return visit to Britain in 1927-28. Entitled Process and Reality, this is an extremely tightly packed and very difficult volume. To understand it requires not only historical awareness and scientific knowledge but the closest attention to its terminology, since Whitehead felt obliged to create a new language in order to express his deep sense of the processive nature of reality, including deity. What is more, the book contains in its first edition and in all subsequent ones a multitude of typographical errors, while it is also rather disorderly in its development of his 'doctrine'. Happily, Professor Donald Sherburne of Vanderbilt University in the United States has produced a carefully arranged 'Key to Whitehead's Process and Reality' (published under that title in 1966) which provides for the careful reader an orderly statement of Whitehead's ideas, with notes that explain new terms and with an excellent summary of each of the main points. The Vanuxem Lectures at Princeton, The Function of Reason, to which I referred in the first chapter, also appeared in 1929. Their title indicates the topic discussed. Four years later, in 1933, Adventures of Ideas was published. This volume is in four parts : the first deals with sociological matters, approached from a 'process' position; the second is cosmological, discussing the world and its regularities as well as the novelties which appear within it, and including a chapter (to which we shall later make special reference) on 'The New Reformation', in which the author discusses Christian faith and theology; the third is philosophical, devoted to a further discussion of ideas found in Process and Reality; and the fourth, a remarkably beautiful section, has to do with 'civilization', the societal pattern of man's life in an evolutionary cosmos, with chapters on truth, beauty, the relation of these two, adventure or zest as characteristic of man as he shares in the onward thrust of the creative process, and peace or the establishment of enduring harmony in which 'the dreams of youth and the harvest of tragedy' bring forth 'the union of Zest with Peace -- that the suffering attains its end in a Harmony of Harmonies' -- God himself (pp. 294-5). A small volume called Nature and Life includes lectures given at the University of Chicago in 1933-34; it was published in the latter year. These lectures were later included in a larger book entitled Modes of Thought, which also contains lectures given at Wellesley College in 1937 -- 38, after Whitehead's retirement from Harvard, and an address to students at Harvard and Radcliffe (the women's college associated with Harvard). In many ways this is Whitehead's simplest and most attractive publication; it appeared in 1938. Finally, as he entered the last year of his life, nearly ten years later, he authorized a collection of his essays and lectures during the intervening period which was published in 1947; the title is Essays in Science and Philosophy. Process-Thought 'Nature and Life' and the other lectures in Modes of Thought perhaps provide as good an introduction to his final and settled views as any of his books. These Chicago lectures might well be read first by any who wish to understand 'process-thought'; then one could read the opening sections of Science and the Modern World, followed by Adventures of Ideas, Religion in the Making, and Symbolism, coming at last to the Gifford Lectures. In 1954, Lucien Price gave the world his records of White-head's conversations over many years. Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead is a charming book; to read it is to get the 'flavour' of the man who is talking informally and 'off the cuff', telling his memories of days long past, giving his opinion on current affairs, intimately portraying his own inner life. But it is a dangerous book, since readers may feel that in it they are getting 'Whitehead's considered views, whereas in fact they are hearing only his occasional conversation when he was in a relaxed mood. It is especially dangerous when it is taken as providing the context for the ideas advanced in his carefully written books. Dialogues should be read the other way on; it is only when one has mastered the Whiteheadian philosophy in its broad outlines that one can see how, and why, the incidental comments reported by Price were made -- and could be made. None the less, all lovers of Whitehead and all who respect him as a philosopher must be grateful to Price for keeping the records and for letting us have them in all their spontaneity and freshness. Final Years Whitehead's last years were spent in something of the peace of which he spoke in the final section of Adventures. The 'zest' was there, but so also was the 'tragic beauty'. He was saddened by the Second World War, he suffered with his beloved native land in its ordeal, he missed old friends who had died before him. Yet there was 'harmony', for he remained serene in the midst of the world's turmoil, not by denying or minimizing the conflict but by seeing through it and in it the working out of the purposes of good which (as he was deeply convinced) are basic to the creative process. One could say that he did himself 'partake of this creative process' (as he put it) and thus found 'his dignity and grandeur'. He died full of years and much beloved by all who knew him; only now is his influence beginning to be felt to the degree which some of us think it merits. Note on Charles Hartshorne We have said earlier that Professor Hartshorne is the outstanding living exponent of Whitehead's vision, although he has developed his philosophy on his own lines. His writing is clear, eminently readable, and deeply Christian. A note about this American philosopher is appropriate in concluding this chapter about Whitehead's life and writings. Like Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne is the son of an Anglican divine ; his father was for many years rector of a parish of the Episcopal Church near the city of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. Hartshorne was born in 1897. He attended Haverford College, but with the outbreak of World War I he went to France to serve as an orderly in an army hospital. He completed his university work at Harvard, where he also received his doctorate in philosophy. From 1923 to 1925 he studied in Germany at Marburg and Freiburg, returning to Harvard as an instructor in philosophy and as an assistant to Whitehead. As a research fellow at Harvard, he began (with Paul Weiss) the editing and publication of the collected papers of the little-known philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, a task that continued for many years afterward. In 1928, Hartshorne was called to the University of Chicago where he spent twenty-seven years, not only teaching philosophy in the University itself but also assisting in teaching in the Divinity School attached to the University. During those years he lectured extensively, visiting among other places the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and Melbourne University in Australia. He joined the philosophy faculty of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1955 ; three years later he lectured at Kyoto University in Japan as a visiting professor, also serving for a time as a visiting professor at the University of Washington in the Far West of the United States. Finally in 1962 he went to teach at the University of Texas, in Austin; the following year he was appointed to the Ashbel Smith Professorship of Philosophy there. Since then he has again visited several Asian countries to lecture on philosophy. In 1967 he lectured at universities in Great Britain, including London, Cambridge, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. In the books which have come from his pen he has untiringly expounded and defended what he calls 'neo-classical theism'. The first of these works, apart from a study of 'sensation' considered psychologically and philosophically, was entitled Beyond Humanism (1937). With its successor, Man's Vision of God (1941), it argued that there is a third possibility between the view which sees God as wholly absolute (hence entirely unrelated) and that which sees in the world nothing but contingency (hence the denial of any theism). This third possibility is a conception of God as in certain 'abstract' respects absolute (eternally faithful, always loving, unfailingly related to his creatures) and in certain and more 'concrete' respects relative or relational (in the actuality of his loving, caring, creative action, etc.). Following these early works, Hartshorne has developed along Whiteheadian lines a view of the world as 'social process', in which God is the supremely relative (related) creative and dynamic principle, personal in nature, necessary -- hence Hartshorne's great interest in Anselm's ontological argument, about which he has written two large books -- and inescapable, even if not always recognized as God. He has differed from Whitehead in respect to the necessity for 'eternal objects', in his more 'psychic' portrayal of the telos in each level of integrated creation, and in his insistence that God must be conceived as a 'process' of such a sort that his genuine personality is asserted. Into his thought have entered ideas derived from his Harvard teacher, William Ernest Hocking, as well as from Peirce's argument for 'chance', albeit a 'controlled chance' (since the universal movement cannot get out of hand, thanks to the persuasive governance of God as Love), which characterizes creation. He has emphasized his conviction, present also in Whitehead, that radical freedom is found in the created order. Finally, Hartshorne is interested in the religious implications of 'process-philosophy'. His most recent book, A Natural Theology for our Times (1967), spells this out; and in lectures and essays which will be collected and published within the next year or so, it is made even clearer. His specifically Christian use of the 'neo-classical' position, coupled with his keen awareness of the presence of religion among all kinds of men, has made his development of 'process-thought' singularly attractive to such theologians as Schubert Ogden and L. C. Birch, who have employed it to good effect in their thinking about God's mode of relationship to the world, his 'act' in history, and the nature of the person of Christ. Hartshorne feels that 'classical theism', especially as represented in the scholastic tradition in Catholicism (he often mentions the name of Thomas Aquinas), has consistently emphasized only one possible interpretation of 'perfection' as applied to God. This is the notion that to be 'perfect' must mean to be absolute, self-contained, self-sufficient, un-affected. But that is to take as our model for God a 'perfection' which we find reprehensible when we observe it in one of our fellow-men. There is another notion of 'perfection', one which we admire when we see it embodied in another man: to be perfect can mean to he 'unsurpassable by any other, yet to be surpassable by oneself', to be open and loving with all others (not just with a few), to be entirely consistent and faithful in all one's relationships so that one can always be counted on, trusted, and loved by others. It is Hartshorne's conviction that only this latter notion of 'perfect' may properly he used in speaking of God. He is perfect in love, in goodness, and in knowledge of the past and present and of all relevant possibilities in the future, but without dictating or controlling the creatures or 'knowing' the creature's choice before they are made, since theirs is genuine freedom. Yet because he is 'perfect' in love and inexhaustible in his goodness, he may be trusted completely ; he will always bring the best out of any and every circumstance, although that victory must for him (as for us) be at the cost of pain. Hence, the compassionate love and self-identification of God with men shown in Jesus Christ is the best symbol for deity, as the Cross (where triumph was achieved through suffering) symbolizes God's manner of working in his world. In Wesley's phrase, God is 'pure unbounded love'. In these and other ways, Hartshorne suggests re-interpreting the basic affirmations of Christian faith. One point is of special interest: God in his consequent nature' (Whitehead's language is used here) unfailingly 'remembers' all that has taken place in the actual occasions in the creation; nothing which is of real value is ever lost. All that can be 'saved' is saved and used by God on future occasions to bring about, through his persuasive action, widely-shared good. This is true even if, as Hartshorne thinks, we need not posit our own continued conscious existence after death. God knows the good and he uses it for greater good, as he uses also evil, once overcome, for greater good. So in the last resort, for Hartshorne, Mother Julian's vision is sheer truth: 'All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well'. God is Love and his glory is precisely his activity in loving.

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