by Paul Weiss
Paul Weiss is Heffer Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C..
The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 44-56, Vol. 10, Numbers 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1980. 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.
Dr. Weiss, a student of Dr. Whitehead, is interviewed by Lewis S. Ford, editor of Process Studies, about Weiss’ many of his impressions: It was not professor Whitehead’s inclination to discuss philosophic problems. When he went to class, he presented his views as a kind of likely story, the result of ruminations and reflections, and not as a kind of doctrine that he wanted people to accept — though what he did teach was his own view.
Ford: Professor Weiss, I understand you undertook graduate study at Harvard in order to study with Whitehead in the late twenties.
Weiss: Yes, I did. I had just read Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, which I found very exciting. I was struggling with the ideas of extensive abstraction, which I couldn’t understand, and there was no one who could explain it to me there.
Ford: What was it like to hear Whitehead in the flesh?
Weiss: I sat right in the front row and couldn’t understand a single word. Years later I spoke to Whitehead and told him this. He laughed and said, "I couldn’t understand a single word you said when you spoke." Our syllabifications or emphases were so radically distinct that we couldn’t understand one another. Later on, of course, when I understood just how he was speaking, I found him remarkably lucid and his expressions very clear and could understand every single word.
At that time Harvard had the system of having graduates and undergraduates together. The graduate students sat in the first two or three rows, and back of us were the undergraduates. Whitehead more or less lectured, not in a coherent fashion, sometimes losing his place. After many hesitations, all would suddenly come together. He would often say exceptionally brilliant things -- very exciting to me, anyway -- so that I would think about them all day and even far into the night. I don’t think the undergraduates understood him, but they were aware that they were confronting a distinguished man. Among the graduate students, I remember George Burch, who used to make very critical remarks occasionally. Whitehead would say ". . . uh . . . uh and look at the board and say, "Quite right, Mr. Burch, quite right." It was all beyond me. I couldn’t see the point, but he would happily acknowledge criticisms. For the most part, he did not know who the students were. He taught a class of about twenty graduate students at the most and about thirty, forty undergraduates (but that could be checked). At the graduate level, there were smaller classes. When I began teaching Whitehead at Bryn Mawr toward the end of my time there, I think I had more students in my course than Whitehead had in his own.
At Harvard some of the students spoke of Whitehead to his colleagues. They, however, would not face the criticisms or answer our questions. Apparently they treated him or thought of him more like old Mr. Pickwick -- which in some ways he did resemble.
Ford: Is this true of all his colleagues?
Weiss: Yes. I think they hired him originally with the idea that he would give them logic.
Ford: And philosophy of science?
Weiss: And philosophy of science. But primarily the logic. Don’t forget that Lewis and Sheffer were outstanding logicians. They were then very influential. Whitehead, though, decided to go off completely on his own tangent into new territory. He wasn’t altogether familiar with the history of thought the way they were, he wasn’t an expert on any historic figure, and was certainly not a teacher. The man he admired was Woods, who was a Platonic scholar. But I don’t think he had much contact with, and certainly no philosophical discussions with anybody else that I can think of.
Ford: I thought he had some joint seminars with Hocking.
Weiss: He may have done a seminar with Hocking before my time,2 but I know from the way he spoke that he didn’t get very much from him. You notice that there’s no reference to Hocking in Religion in the Making. I don’t think that he found very much in Hocking. He gave a course with Ralph Eaton. I don’t think he liked to work with others.
We have to remember that Whitehead had a remarkable manner in speaking about people. He never criticized them directly; always had kind things to say. It was easy to be lulled into thinking that he had said something praiseworthy when what he really was doing was saying something polite. You had to know him pretty well to know that he was exceptionally charming, and that he kept fundamental opinions to himself. He expressed exactly what he thought only, if at all, to his intimates.
Ford: Did he discuss other philosophers in his courses?
Ford: I mean contemporary philosophers.
Weiss: No, except in his very pleasant way, Whitehead would say, "John Dewey is one of America’s greatest philosophers" or he would make a number of incisive remarks, such as "if you believed in C. E. Moore’s philosophic outlook, philosophy would be at an end" -- that sort of thing. You would be led through no detailed, careful examinations of the views of other philosophers, but be given only summary attitudes and statements about what they were like.
Ford: What years were these exactly?
Weiss: I came in February, 1927, and got my Ph.D. in June, 1929. I went abroad fora year, came back and taught from 1930 to 1931. Then I taught at Bryn Mawr from 1931 until 1945. Every year I think I went to Cambridge, sometimes during term time. In the summers my family and I spent weeks with him and Evelyn (Mrs. Whitehead) at Billerica, with the Pickman’s where the Whitehead’s stayed. The Pickmans asked the Whiteheads whom they’d like to have come, and the Whiteheads said they’d like us with them. We’d see the Whiteheads in the afternoon, and we’d spend every evening talking in a quasiphilosophical, intelligent, civilized way. I think the Whitehead I know is probably better represented by Adventures of Ideas than by any other book. Process and Reality is not typical of the Whitehead -- the person of genius -- I knew then. Adventures of Ideas or Science and the Modern World were more like him.
Ford: Now Lucien Price recalls Whitehead as saying that Process and Reality is the book he most wanted to write.
Weiss: Lucien Price’s book came out when I was abroad; someone said that I was mentioned in it, or referred to. So I read the whole book through, though I was bored all the time! Finally I found somebody I could identify as me, but it wasn’t really me. When I came back to this country, I visited Evelyn Whitehead, to whom I dedicated my first book. I wondered what I was going to say to her; there she was, over 70 years of age. I didn’t know how I was going to deal with this book which I thought was so terrible. As I walked into the room, she said to me, "Paul, what do you think of that terrible book of Lucien Price?" I was able to express my views, and we agreed completely. Other friends who knew Whitehead well all had the same opinion.
How was it possible for Mr. Price to say that he had a very good memory and that as soon as he spoke to Whitehead he went back to his home and wrote down exactly what Whitehead had said? From my point of view and that of Whitehead’s other friends, Price’s Whitehead is not Whitehead. My conclusion is that Price was a stupid man. When he heard Whitehead speak about important things in a way more profound than any answer to the question you were asking could possibly be, Price said to himself: "The old man is off his rocker; he’s getting senile. I’ll skip all that nonsense." As soon as Whitehead said, "Gee, I think it will rain," Price thought: "Ah, I’m hearing Whitehead, the profound thinker." He therefore set down all the dull observations, the stupidities, and things of no importance.
Yet I have a very perceptive friend at Yale, Richard Sewall, Professor of English. He said that when he read that biography, he had a feeling that Whitehead was a genius. But I never found anyone who knew Whitehead well who thought that was a good book or represented him anywhere fairly.
Ford: Getting back to Process and Reality, can you say anything about how he wrote the book? How he came to do it?
Weiss: I got the book when I was abroad and spent a lot of time going over the American edition. I found it filled with typographical errors and with all kinds of awkwardness. I wrote a six or seven page letter which I sent to the Whiteheads; I’m sorry to say that they did not take it in good spirit. I think Evelyn told me she destroyed it. Don’t forget that Whitehead was a Victorian in his attitude towards the young, women, blacks, Indians -- quite conservative. I don’t think that he understood this way of criticizing, which I was just doing, I thought, to be helpful and friendly. The book seemed to me a book written in a great hurry.
Ford: Why do you suppose he wrote Process and Reality in such a hurry? Was he afraid that he wouldn’t be able to finish it?
Weiss: Yes, I think he had a feeling that now was the time to harvest the thoughts he had for all those years. Don’t forget that he and his wife read theology; there was a time they were thinking of becoming Roman Catholics, and a time that he was reading Buddhism. I think he said to himself on the occasion of giving the Gifford lectures: "It’s about time I brought it all together in a basic, systematic way." Though we know that he had a gift of style, he didn’t give himself time to write with style. I think he would have been astonished to know that it is that book of his which is the book that people study today and that they neglect the others.
Ford: Do you think he was most satisfied with Adventures of Ideas?
Weiss: It wasn’t like Whitehead to be satisfied with what he had done. But the title of that book expresses his spirit: he was adventuring with ideas. I remember writing a paper criticizing the theory of types in Principia Mathematica and showing it to him. I was a graduate student; he was the author of Principia Mathematica. He looked at it, began to laugh, and said, "I always thought there was something wrong with the theory of types." This is more typical of Whitehead than almost anything else. He did not urge his views; but they were more openings up, adventures in imagination, insights into the nature of things. And if criticisms came, he was just as ready to take them as anybody -- unless perhaps if they were by letter from a student.
Ford: His books Science and the Modern World and Religion in the Making show a transition from the position that he held in the earlier works, such as The Concept of Nature, and the position that comes to be his in Process and Reality. I wonder if you have a feeling of how the ideas developed from his classes? Did he discuss his own ideas in the course of his lectures? Or were they more like the material in Science and the Modern World?
Weiss: His classes were rather strange. If you had a book of pedagogy before you and checked off all the things that such a book would say a man should do: know names of the students, tell some jokes, talk relevantly to the text, answer questions fully and well -- he would fail miserably on every single count. Nevertheless, I think he was great and exciting. He would be set off by your questions in a direction which was not very clear, but eventually by a process of trial and error would come to answers that were, I thought, exceptionally profound and revealing and would throw the whole discussion in a new light. I took a course called Logic -- I still have the notes on it. There is nothing in it that had anything to do with the logic even of Principia Mathematica or the logic of C. I. Lewis or Sheffer or Langford or Wittgenstein or Russell. It is close to what’s in Process and Reality under the heading "Proposition." He gave you no way of moving from one position to another. He would just say, "This is a course in logic," and then talk about "propositions." There would be no discussion, no orientation, no way of tying in, even with the Principia. You would never know from being in his class that he was an author of Principia Mathematica. He never referred to it.
Ford: Did you take work in cosmology or the philosophy of religion with Whitehead?
Weiss: I’ve forgotten the names of the courses. But it didn’t really make much difference. They were roughly the same. The graduate/ undergraduate course was a little more popular to begin with. He started off when talking about extensive abstraction by referring us to C. D. Broad’s -- what he called "simple-minded" -- exposition of it and then went on. He would assign papers on special topics. I wrote a paper, I think, on the nature of space, a topic which had not been assigned. It didn’t make much difference to him. No matter what his topic, you could write on almost anything you wanted, and he would mark it very generously. I think the lowest mark I’ve heard him give was somewhere around B or B --. His marks usually ran B +, A, A+, A+ +. The highest I know of was A+ + +, given not to me, but to Everett Nelson.
I may have been the first, and certainly one of the very few, who wrote their doctoral dissertations with him. He was not a good dissertation director. My conferences with him had a single same pattern. I would come in with the dissertation, and he would make some general remarks. He was quite amiable and friendly, but he never gave me any really sharp criticisms. When I presented my thesis, I thought I had his approval. The department turned it down. I hadn’t realized that he hadn’t altogether thought it was a good thing. Anyway, after it was turned down, he picked up a bit and said: "Well, I think we can fix it up all right. Include your paper on the theory of types (which I had already published) and rearrange this and that." I had no further problem. I submitted it, and it went by. He could show one how to drop a chapter here, expand there, with more or less pleasant comments, but with no discussion of the ideas.
When I began teaching some of his works, I’d come up to Cam bridge to discuss the crucial issues with him. He used to put aside a couple of hours and talk to me. I would have questions right before me -- questions 1, 2, 3, and 4. At the end of two hours or so, although I know he was trying, I don’t think I got a clear answer to any of them. He wasn’t a direct, confrontational person, but someone whom you would prompt to think according to his own leanings.
Ford: Do you have any indication of places where he changed his mind, in the course of the years? Where he was groping through ideas -- ?
Weiss: I would say he was always groping through ideas and always changing his mind. I don’t think that there was a definite doctrine that he was maintaining. Everytime he thought, he thought afresh.
Ford: I take it he wasn’t interested in defending a doctrine.
Weiss: That’s right. And I would notice that when students would say to him, "But Mr. Whitehead, on page 47 you say this, and on page 96 you say that," he would manage to turn the conversation off in another direction, usually toward politics. You could not get him to answer, not because he couldn’t reconcile such difficulties, I suppose, but because he wasn’t interested in that way of thinking. He was already away from it.
Ford: Now Hartshorne was already there when you came?
Weiss: Hartshorne is about four years older than I. He already had his Ph.D. and was working on the Peirce papers. Whitehead had come, I think in 1924, and Hartshorne hadn’t really studied under him.
Ford: That is, he hadn’t really studied with him before you came in 1927?
Weiss: I think he was primarily a student of Hocking’s, not of Whitehead’s, although he appreciated Whitehead a great deal. But I don’t think that he was as close to the family as I became.
Ford: Was he much interested in Whitehead’s thought?
Weiss: Not at the time that I was there.
Ford: Was he working more with Peirce?
Weiss: He was working with Peirce, but Hartshorne, who in spirit is closer to Whitehead than any other person I know, was attracted to Whitehead’s way of thinking. He saw similarities in Peirce and Whitehead that I myself, also working on the Peirce papers, did not see. I think that Hartshorne, at that time, was far in advance of me philosophically, in maturity of philosophical knowledge, and in appreciation of philosophic thought. I was very much excited, not by Whitehead’s views but by the series of asides that were provoked of him by questions and remarks of others.
Ford: One particular thing I’ve been pursuing in the development of Hartshorne’s thinking concerns the distinction between the abstract and concrete natures of God. As William Ladd Sessions shows, this distinction was not made in Hartshorne’s dissertation (TPP 10-34). Do you know when or how Hartshorne developed the notion of God’s having both an abstract nature and a concrete nature? Was this influenced by Whitehead’s shift to a primordial and consequent nature for God?
Weiss: I doubt whether Hartshorne shifted because of Whitehead’s distinction between the primordial and consequent nature. I think that Hartshorne started as an idealist. The more he became interested in cosmology, the more he became aware that that God has to be involved in the world. On the other hand, Hartshorne also was a panpsychist very early. Panpsychism requires some kind of mutual involvement. I remember Hartshorne speaking about God’s love and concern for suffering; this inevitably drove him to pay attention to God as concerned with the world in contradistinction with that eternal essence which he later thought could be reached by the ontological argument.
Ford: But his doctoral thesis actually argues for a concrete universal.
Weiss: Wouldn’t you say that perhaps analysis of the concrete universal would eventually dissolve it into two dimensions, the abstract universal and the particular? That’s what Hartshorne eventually ended with. I think he began with the concrete universal and found it dissolved before him. And I don’t think he got it out of Whitehead. On the other hand, I think Whitehead, though not very well read in philosophy, did discuss many things with McTaggart, and I would suppose there was a very strong idealistic influence on Whitehead that was perhaps partly inchoate. And you might say that the dissolution is also present in some way in Whitehead. But certainly he never held idealism in a doctrinal way, the way Hartshorne did.
Ford: It seems to me that the problem that has always faced idealists is the matter of internal relatedness. What Whitehead did and what Hartshorne saw in Whitehead was the idea that a relation could be internal to one pole and external to the other. This is the character of a prehension.
Weiss: Well, I think that Hartshorne got that idea more from an examination of what he thought was a logical situation. And if you look at Hartshorne’s early references to this, you’ll see it’s done in logical terms. I don’t think it was done in concrete metaphysical terms.
Ford: What would be the earliest reference?
Weiss: Exactly where it would be I don’t know. But quite early, Hartshorne was arguing in logical terms. He was much taken by logic. Not being a logician, he was more impressed with it than Whitehead was. No one who’s worked hard in logic takes logical conclusions with the kind of earnestness I think that Charles does. And so he built a lot on that.
Ford: Who were some of the people who knew Whitehead well?
Weiss: Some were young men, such as George Morgan, who wrote a book on Dilthey and Nietzsche. Edward and Hester Pickman used to have the Whiteheads every summer at their place in Billerica, outside Lexington, Massachusetts. Mrs. Pickman is the daughter of a very distinguished convert to Catholicism who wrote a book called Roman Spring. She is a very devout Catholic, although her husband did not convert. They had a very spacious, gracious home in Billerica to which people from Harvard used to come.
Ralph Eaton was an instructor in the Harvard philosophy department. Whitehead gave a joint course in philosophy with him, I think, the year before I arrived in 1926. Eaton lived on the floor below the Whiteheads on Memorial Drive, and they saw one another quite frequently. Eaton committed suicide a year or two after I left Harvard, somewhere in the early 30’s.
Raphael Demos also knew Whitehead quite well. Professor and Mrs. Henry Osbourn Taylor, Professor and Mrs. James Woods, and Felix Frankfurter were frequently at his house, and he would talk over the whole range of subjects with them. Philosophically, there was nobody with whom he discussed. To be sure, when he had his Sunday evenings, if a number of his young people were about, he might. Or if there were a little philosophical group, he would talk about various thinkers. But there would never be any concerted, technical discussion of their views. He would cover the whole range of topics from poetry to politics to the philosophic outlook, the academic world, business, and so on.
Bernard Bandler knew Whitehead right from the start, as did Scott Buchanan. Bandler was a Harvard undergraduate who went on to do some graduate work with Whitehead and used to go to the Whiteheads’ Sunday evening gatherings quite frequently. He was a wealthy young man, with wide cultural interests, who used to ask the Whiteheads about their acquaintances with such figures as Yeats and others who used to visit them in Cambridge, England. Bandler became a psychiatrist, in Cambridge, Mass. Perhaps he hasn’t thought about philosophy for years, but I think he would be a fine source of information about the Whiteheads in England, since he would know, or at least have second hand knowledge from what Mrs. Whitehead said.
Ford: How did you find Mrs. Whitehead?
Weiss: She was more concerned with people, and particularly young people, than he was. The Whiteheads had lost one of their sons in the war, and I think she was -- partly for that reason, but partly natively -- very much interested in young men. She went out of her way to help them. I, particularly. I was poor and had no connections of any kind. She took me under her wing and helped me in all sorts of ways both personal and spiritual.
Ford: What were her interests?
Weiss: She was primarily interested in human beings, aesthetic matters, literature. She was a good conversationalist, somewhat on the sprightly side. Brought up in a French convent, she spoke French fluently; when Gilson came, she would talk to him in French. She had no particular philosophical knowledge, though I think she did go over many of her husband’s books and make comments on them, particularly those in connection with religion, or which were quasiliterary. I never discussed philosophical issues with her except so far as they come into a general conversation. I remember vividly a conversation that my wife, Evelyn, Altie (as she used to call Whitehead), and myself had about a tree. Altie insisted that a tree was a democracy [MT 33, 38], while all three of us objected very much, saying that a tree had an organic nature and a kind of distinctive individuality. That’s the only philosophical conversation I remember, where we were all involved. Most conversations were personal, on persons, or on political matters, or on the general issues of the day.
Ford: On history?
Weiss: On history, too. That reminds me of an anecdote. The Whiteheads used to put themselves to sleep by reading detective stories. They used to read the end of the detective story first because that allowed them to sleep at any time that they felt they were tired, after having read a certain amount in the story. They would not discuss the detective story, but they would discuss historical questions. Mrs. Whitehead, by the way, read quite widely, largely in literary and historical subjects. Whitehead, of course, was very much interested in history and would often make historical allusions.
Ford: I remember a friend of mine saying that he was quite impressed that Whitehead was using a history of the Council of Trent as his bed book, until he realized he had insomnia.
Weiss: He would read that. There was a period, you know, when the Whiteheads thought seriously of converting to Catholicism. This is what Evelyn told me. She said that it was only the question of the infallibility of the Pope that stood most in their way.
Ford: How early in their married life was this?
Weiss: I cannot tell you that. But there was a time she said they were seriously thinking of it. I would have a hunch, without any knowledge, that this may have occurred after the death of their son.
Ford: My guess would be that it is more likely the decade from 1890 to about 1900
Weiss: You may be right.
Ford: Because during that time Whitehead did a lot of reading in theology.
Weiss: I see.
Ford: And Russell reports that he was quite emphatically agnostic when they collaborated on the Principia Mathematica.
Weiss: I’ve never inquired further into it.
Ford: Russell says that Whitehead had a shrewd element to his character and would make a good administrator.
Weiss: I think this is very unlikely. Whitehead, at least at the time I knew him, was not a well-organized person; he showed no executive abilities, in any way that I could see. Of course, Russell is talking about a number of decades earlier.
Ford: But he had been Dean of Science.
Weiss: Yes. But if you were to look it up, I don’t think you would find that he was very effective. That was really more or less a made job.
Ford: Russell said that Whitehead had one major defect as administrator, and that was an inability to answer letters.
Weiss: I have some letters from Whitehead, which I gave to Victor Lowe. I think he wrote in longhand. I suppose that meant a limited amount of letter writing.
Ford: Can you remember any of these aphoristic comments that Whitehead made. Some that would be perhaps better than those we have from Lucien Price?
Weiss: That’s very hard -- sometimes they occur to me. I couldn’t think of them off hand, though. Occasionally I think of an aside of Whitehead’s, but as an aphorism. His remarks were for me essentially stimulants, provoking me to thought; I didn’t pay particular attention exactly to what the words were or how he put it. I was merely just prompted by what he said to excite thoughts in areas I had not expected to go.
Ford: What would be some that provoked your thinking?
Weiss: Well, it could be of any kind. He might say, "The music is a kind of veil, or decoration, over the entire room." That would make me begin to think about nature, music, how it related to the room in fact -- that sort of thing. His whole approach was not academic in a traditional sense. He didn’t approach philosophical questions or illustrations within the same rubrics that his colleagues did. He would come at them indirectly. You might even say, if I can use that kind of language, with a sophisticated innocence. There was a freshness to his illustrations that threw the issues in a new light.
Ford: I’ve heard some of the asides that Whitehead made.
Weiss: Such as?
Ford: Well, one was when he was introducing Russell to his colleagues; he said, "Bertie thinks I’m muddleheaded, but then I think he’s simple-minded."
Weiss: He said at the end of Russell’s series of addresses at Harvard, somewhere in the 30’s, that it was interesting to learn from Russell how ethical principles are reducible to the way in which a dog salivates. He wanted to thank Bertrand Russell for having made the darkness clearer. Now that’s more a typical remark of Whitehead -- having a subtle possible double meaning, the full intent of which you weren’t altogether sure.
Whitehead had the most wicked wink I’ve ever seen in any man. You had to watch him closely, and even then you weren’t altogether sure whether the wink occurred or not. In the middle of some conversation when he was talking to somebody, he’d look at you, and the eyelid would go down the tiniest fraction; if you weren’t alert to it, you would miss it; if you were alert to it, you weren’t altogether confident that it had occurred. I think that he then also revealed another side of himself -- letting you in on something but not in an obtrusive way, and even in such a way that perhaps it wasn’t important to bring you all the way in. I thought of Whitehead as having a kind of public naivete, and a very strong, tough, steel-like interior. If you ever broke through the upper crust, which I did occasionally by some sharp criticism, you could elicit very sharp answers from him. But this happened rarely. Usually he had marvelous control, and you could never discover what he really thought.
Ford: Before, you mentioned that Process and Reality was written in a great hurry.
Weiss: So it seemed to me.
Ford: Now, I just want to be clear on the reason. Do you think that he was afraid that his health or his vitality of thought might give out?
Weiss: That was the impression that I got from it. Don’t forget that Whitehead was then, sixty-eight?
Weiss: He was not a vigorous-looking man, despite the fact that he had played cricket as a boy and despite the fact that he lived on into his eighties. He was hunched over and walked like an elderly man. The image I always had of him was a man of considerable age. Though his cheeks were red, his eyes clear, and his mind vigorous, the way he carried himself gave you the impression of an elderly man. I know that he did suffer from insomnia and sometimes seemed to have bouts of illness, and it’s quite possible that in order to present this result of long years of reflection, he thought he had to do it quite rapidly, to get it all down. On the other hand, I would say anybody writing a systematic book tries to get it all down quickly and then spends much time in revision. The major defect would be not the fact that he wrote it in a hurry, if he did, but that he didn’t have, or didn’t take time to revise it, improve it, and work on it more than he did.
Ford: Why do you suppose that was so?
Weiss: It may have been his desire to get it out of the way; it may have been his inability to spend much time at it. I just don’t know. I know that he didn’t like to discuss the book.
Ford: Now one thing he mentions in the preface is: "In these lectures I have endeavored to compress the material derived from years of meditation.
Ford: So it was a book that was the harvest of his ideas. But it’s also my contention that the book needed a catalyst, something which would focus the ideas together. I think this was found in the epochal theory of becoming. As a result of this, he shifted from extensive relations, as in The Concept of Nature, to prehensive relations; he became concerned with the intrinsic reality of an event, and therefore the whole thesis of feelings and of subjectivity arises, which are dimensions absent from the earlier books.
Weiss: Yes, I think that if one wanted to understand Process and Reality and see where its basic ideas came from, the wise move would be to see the gradual changes that his philosophical books underwent prior to Process and Reality. He was struggling, obviously, in his earlier books, The Concept of Nature and the like, to get a series of fundamental notions -- and he gradually expanded and subtilized them as time went on. This book is a result. I don’t know of any particular individual or point of view, though, that made a difference to him. I would guess that most of the changes are a result of his own reflections and self-criticisms rather than anybody else’s. He was more or less working alone. I mean, he had a few students, but that is about all.
He was aware of Bergson, Santayana, and Dewey, of course -- these contemporaries he knew. He had conversations with McTaggart, Moore, and he belonged to the Aristotelian Society. He often spoke well of Wildon Carr, but I think that was because Wildon Carr gave so much of his time and perhaps money to the development of the Society, rather than because of the ideas he had. On the whole, if you’re looking for a clue to the development of Whitehead’s ideas, your suggestion is a good one, of going through the books in order and seeing how the ideas that they had might have been modified.
By the way, you know that Whitehead read the Timaeus with great care? It was one of the books he studied thoroughly. I think a good deal of his philosophical grasp and interest and ideas can be traced back to his reflections on the fundamental issues stated by Plato in the Timaeus.
Ford: If I’m not mistaken, the Timaeus speaks of time as "perpetual perishing." It is surprising that Whitehead attributes this to Locke. I find Locke’s remarks on time very prosiac.
Weiss: He often said that Locke is the English Platonist, or the English Plato, though I would say that most of those ideas go back to the Timaeus. Don’t forget, as I said earlier, Whitehead was very generous in his attributions and not necessarily accurate.
Ford: Could we not say that your Modes of Being in some sense is a return to a more full-fledged Whiteheadian position with all four dimensions rather than just one dimension of actuality? That is, I would correlate your actuality with actual occasions, ideality with eternal objects, and existence with creativity.
Weiss: I cannot honestly say that it is a return to a Whiteheadian position. The fact that I never gave up the idea that actualities were substantial entities prevented me from ever going back to a view with an exaggerated (to my way of thinking) emphasis on becoming. The recognition of possibility came about not by thinking of Whitehead’s eternal objects, but by reflecting on the problems of ethics and the nature of obligation. The acknowledgement of existence came about because of the necessity of trying to deal with the common space and time of all the different actualities. This was partly for me a reflection on the difficulties of Leibniz’s Monadology and his need to invoke the doctrine of preestablished harmony.
My view of God, I think, could be said to be influenced by Whitehead. First of all, he made me see clearly that God was not only a special object of religious men, but had a metaphysical import. That view I could adjust to Aristotle’s, who also had a God which did not necessarily have religious import. I think I also benefited from Hartshorne’s views about God. So if there were any way of my going back to Whitehead, I would say it would have to be via the doctrine of God rather than any other way. But I cannot say that I have a good, clear, masterly understanding of what influenced me. I never resisted any influence in the sense that if I thought that someone said it, I’d want to say the negative. Whitehead was my teacher, and I admired him. I thought he stood far out, far above all his colleagues, a fact which would have shocked his colleagues if they heard me say this.
Ford: What was his opinion of your first book, Reality?
Weiss: He was not very favorable. He thought it was obscure and thought that perhaps I ought not to publish it. Then, of course, I did revise it, and he was happy that I dedicated it to Evelyn. But he himself found very little to commend in the book itself. As I look back, I think it’s a stronger book than he allowed it to be. I grant that it is quite obscure.
Ford: He did not give you any response on the issue of the substantiality of actualities?
Weiss: No. As I said earlier, it was not his inclination to discuss philosophic problems. When he went to class, he presented his views as a kind of likely story, the result of ruminations and reflections, and not as a kind of doctrine that he wanted people to accept -- though what he did teach was his own view.
Ford: I take it this would be a reason why the book tends to have so little argument in it.
Weiss: Right, right! He was not a dialectical person. He was trying to present a point of view. You must not forget that he was brought up in an England which philosophically was quite arid. He was trying to get a point of view. I was certainly influenced by him in recognizing that full-fledged systematic thinking is really what should be done. One knew that, of course, from Aristotle and Hegel, but to have a living person whom one admired holding such a view was certainly what encouraged me to continue, particularly when in this country we had the same kind of atmosphere -- perhaps even worse with the positivists -- than he encountered in England.
As you know, his book Process and Reality did not get good reviews in England. Susan Stebbing’s review in Mind is a disgraceful piece of work for somebody who thought of herself as having been his student. It was quite negative. I remember being shocked at its incompetence.
I remember as a graduate student looking in indices of books and being dumbfounded and annoyed that there were so many references to Russell and none to Whitehead. I thought Whitehead as being far superior as a philosopher to Russell. That’s an opinion I still hold.
TPP -- Lewis S. Ford, ed. Two Process Philosophers (American Academy of Religion: Studies in Religion, No. 5) for William Lad Sessions, "Hartshorne’s Early Philosophy."
1I wish to thank Professor Weiss for suggesting and cooperating in these two interviews (January 30 and February 18, 1974) while he was Guest Professor at Pennsylvania State University during the winter quarter; Professor Donald W. Sherburne for arranging for the transcription of our taped interviews; and especially Professor Mark Coppenger, now of Wheaton College. Wheaton. Illinois. who did the primary work of transcription.
2Actually the joint seminar with Hocking came much later, in the spring of 1934 and again in the spring of 1935.