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Brief Lives

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)

Alistair MacFarlane on the best-known advocate of Process Philosophy.

On June 1, 1928, an expectant audience filled Edinburgh University’s largest lecture theatre to hear the new Professor of Philosophy at Harvard, Alfred North Whitehead, begin a series of lectures on ‘Process and Reality’. This was a set of Gifford Lectures, free and open to the public. The previous set, by Sir Arthur Eddington, carefully explained Einstein’s new theory of General Relativity in simple, clear terms. It was a huge success. Eddington was a gifted lecturer who spoke with great authority. In 1919, he had led the expedition which provided the first experimental proof of Einstein’s theory. Invited to return the following year, he was unable to accept. Whitehead had collaborated with Bertrand Russell on the monumental Principia Mathematica (1910-13), a book whose contents were regarded as even more mysterious than General Relativity, so the organisers asked him instead. There was a mood of eager anticipation. The packed audience awaited enlightenment, but they were about to be severely disappointed.

For the second lecture the attendance dropped from six hundred to six, and one of Whitehead’s Harvard students said that only two people lasted for the full ten lectures. The reasons for the audience’s flight can be understood by looking at the book published after the lecture series. Process and Reality (1929) must be one of the most difficult books ever written. (Its inherent difficulty is compounded by the fact that Whitehead simply could not be bothered with proof-reading. Over two hundred errors have been identified in the original version, and it has been said that we possess a better text of Plato’s Republic than of Whitehead’s major work.) Bertrand Russell himself said that “it was very obscure, and there was much in it that I never succeeded in understanding.” In Process and Reality, Whitehead set out a new and highly original approach to metaphysics, based on a comprehensive set of categories. The first lecture mostly dealt with this long list of categories – read out in a high, uninflected monotone to an increasingly stupefied audience. The Chairman of the meeting wrote to his son afterwards that if he had not previously met Whitehead, he would have been convinced that the lecture was a hoax, given by an imposter. This spectacular anticlimax in many ways epitomised Whitehead’s philosophical life.

He was born on February 15, 1861, on the Isle of Thanet, Kent. The son of an Anglican clergyman, the first thirty-four years of his life were unremarkable. A gifted mathematician, elected to a Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, he had settled down to a comfortable life when lightning first struck.

Whitehead had been particularly kind to Bertrand Russell when Russell was an undergraduate pupil. When Russell returned to Trinity in 1895 as a new Fellow, looking for philosophical mountains to climb, he sought out the older man and enrolled him as a collaborator. Together this unlikely pair set out to provide mathematics with a foundation in logic – a project that was to eventually result in the Principia Mathematica, and change mathematical logic for ever. It was as though an inexperienced and ambitious young rock climber had asked a middle-aged Alpinist if he would like to have a go at an as-yet-unclimbed Everest.

Although having completely different temperaments, they proved an ideal combination. Russell led with flair and brilliant insight, and Whitehead followed, providing technique, stamina and dogged determination. The huge project occupied them, on and off, for the next ten years, and all went well at first. But in June 1901 they encountered a fundamental problem – Russell’s Set Paradox [Is the set of all sets which are not members of themselves a member of itself?] This difficulty arose from self-reference, and proved impossible to overcome fully. A solution was pursued for two years, and nearly drove Russell to despair. Eventually he found a way to patch things up, by defining sets in a way which excluded self-reference, but the damage was done to the ideal of providing mathematics with incontrovertible logical foundations. If mathematics could not be based wholly on logic then, for Whitehead, “the certitude was gone.” Plans to complete a four-volume treatise were abandoned, and only parts were finally published. Nevertheless Principia Mathematica was a historically important contribution to mathematical logic.

After Principia the collaborators went very different ways. Russell left Trinity and eventually became a philosophical rock star, while Whitehead abandoned research in mathematics and logic to become a senior administrator in the University of London. He may well have ended his career there, but for another life-changing event. Principia had attracted admiration as an epic undertaking. Just before his sixty-third birthday, a letter arrived from the President of Harvard University asking whether he would accept an appointment there as Professor of Philosophy. At an age when Whitehead would have been contemplating retirement from a burdensome job that he did not enjoy, one of the world’s greatest universities offered him the only post he ever held as a professional philosopher. Before the summons came from Harvard, he had regarded himself as a mathematician, referring to himself as an ‘amateur philosopher’, free from what he saw as academic philosophy’s ‘bookish tradition’. But he accepted the post, realising that he now had an opportunity to climb his own mountain. A deeply religious man, he set out to place metaphysics on a firm axiomatic basis, and started the work that ultimately led to Process and Reality.

Denied the absolute certainty that he had treasured in mathematics, he sought to find it in a new metaphysics. This was an undertaking of such heroic difficulty it seems barely rational. Yet the underlying ideas in Process and Reality have attracted a following among theologians. A form of Process Theology still flourishes, sustained by diligent scholarship reminiscent of the study of ancient hieroglyphics.

Whitehead remained in the United States until his death in 1947. His life shows the importance of contingency – how unexpected events impinge on individuals to totally change their fates. But for the arrival of Russell, he might have remained an obscure Cambridge don. After Russell left Cambridge, he might have finished his career as an academic administrator in London, with philosophy merely as a consoling hobby.

One of the last things he wrote was an essay on Immortality. The death of his younger son Eric, killed in action in France in 1918, left a wound that never healed. Having failed to establish an absolute certainty in Principia Mathematica for the mathematics he loved, he sought in Process and Reality a basis for belief in immortality. It is hard to imagine two more heroic undertakings in philosophy.

© Sir Alistair Macfarlane 2011

Sir Alistair MacFarlane is a former Vice-President of the Royal Society and a retired university Vice-Chancellor.

Process & Reality

In Process & Reality (1929), Whitehead proceeded like the mathematician he was by setting out all his undefined terms and axioms before developing his topic. He collected all this into a set of 45 of what he called ‘categories’, split into : Ultimate, Existence, Explanation, and Obligation. As examples, the First and Fourth categories of Explanation assert that:

• The actual world is a process and the process is the becoming of actual entities.

• It belongs to the nature of ‘being’ that it is a potential for every becoming.

In the book Whitehead proposes that occasions of experience, ‘actual occasions’, are the fundamental units of reality, as opposed to physical objects like atoms. Whitehead’s analysis of the Universe into units of experience has three important implications for philosophy of mind. Firstly, consciousness/the mind is a complex ‘grouping’ of experiences. Although not an idealist in the traditional sense, Whitehead rejects mind-body dualism by doing away with matter rather than mind. His metaphysics can be seen as a developed form of ‘panpsychism’ [everything has awareness]. The second consequence is to maintain the existence of free will. Thus, although each process is influenced by, and influences, all other past and future processes, this never occurs in a deterministic fashion. This leaves room for God to act, in a strict sense, in divine intervention as opposed to omnipotence. Thirdly, this offers us a way of looking at identity which avoids certain problems. According to his process philosophy, identity is determined by a constant flow of experience as opposed to a constant collection of matter: so Niagara Falls today is the same waterfall as Niagara Falls tomorrow.

Whitehead’s metaphysics clashes with ‘scientific materialism’, although Whitehead had great respect for the natural sciences, even formulating an alternative theory of gravity to Einstein’s. In his view, science’s penchant for a materialist outlook derives from its materialism’s utility. However, Whitehead’s process philosophy contains a teleological description of the Universe, explaining things in terms of (mental) intentions, which science necessary lacks.

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