Alfred North Whitehead - Biography
Alfred North Whitehead was born on the 15th of February 1861 in Ramsgate, England. Alfred North Whitehead followed his education first at the Sherborne School, famous for being the best public school in the country at the time, and later at the Trinity College, Cambridge. At Trinity college Whitehead earned his BA in 1884 and was at the same year elected a Trinity fellow. Following his studies, Whitehead continued his stay atTrinity until 1910 when he resigned in protest to the firing of a fellow teacher over a supposed adulterous affair. In his years at Trinity College, Whitehead released his Treatise on Universal Algebra (in 1898), supervised Bertrand Arthur William Russell's doctoral dissertation and later, in 1900, both men collaborated for almost a decade in the first edition of Principia Mathematica, one of his most important work. After leaving the Trinity college, Whitehead spent most of his time between 1910 and 1924 at the Imperial College London and the University College of London where he lectured and wrote most of his important works education, physics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of science. In 1924, already 3 years after the deadline retirement age of 60 years old in Britain, he was invited to teach philosophy at the Harvard University, a subject that Whitehead practiced but never formally studied or taught. It was an anecdote at the time that the first philosophy lecture that Whitehead ever attended was his own. He is known to have deeply influenced analytical philosophy. Apart from Bertrand Arthur William Russell, Whitehead had at least two other notorious students: B.F. Skinner, who claims that his work Verbal Behavior followed from a discussion with Whitehead, and Charles Malik who wrote his PhD dissertation about Alfred North Whitehead and later became one of the main names at the United Nations.
Alfred North Whitehead's personal life was without great notarity. He was know to be a son of over-protective parents and at school excelled in sports and mathematics. His interest in theology came from his family, who followed the Church of England. For most part Alfred North Whitehead considered himself to be an agnostic but turned to religion later in his life although he never joined any specific religious institution. In 1890 he married Evelyn Wade, an extremely bright woman even if not much of a conventional intellectual, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. One of his sons died serving the British army in World War I. His relationship with Bertrand Arthur William Russell, his pupil at first and collaborator later, started well but went astray when Bertrand Arthur William Russell was imprisoned for his pacifist activities, activities which Whitehead did not take seriously. Bertrand Arthur William Russell for his part, did not like Whitehead's later interest on panpsychism and speculative Platonism. Following their disagreement, Bertrand Arthur William Russell went on to work on the second edition of their Principia Mathematica alone. Alfred North Whitehead, after a life of teaching, retired in 1937 and died ten years later in Cambridge, United States at the age of 86. He did not have a funeral and his body was cremated. He was known to have been a popular and charismatic person. His unpublished works, as according to his will, were burned by his wife Evelyn, to the immense regret of his scholars.
In Principia Matemathica, Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Arthur William Russell worked on logicism which claims that mathematical truths can be translated into logical truths, a claim which remains controversial to this day. They attempted to derive all mathematical truths from a set of axioms and inference rules in symbolic logic. Principia Mathematica is considered by specialists as one of the most important books in mathematics and philosophy.
Alfred North Whitehead was also interested in physics and his works on mathematics and physics notably extended more on philosophical considerations then on purely scientific ones. Whitehead developed a theory of gravitation that rivaled Einstein's general relativity theory where he proposed that the gravitational constant G could vary. His gravitational theories are generally discredited in favour of Einstein’s. A more important work was Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge, published in 1919, which was one of the first attempts at synthesizing a philosophy of physics.
Alfred North Whitehead criticized what he saw as a formalistic approach by British teachers that, in his opinion, did not take into consideration the culture and potential for self-education of their students. In his words: "Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it." Most importantly, on education, Whitehead published in 1929 The Aims of Education and Other Essays. In those essays, apart from specifically criticizing the teaching of mathematics in Britain, Whitehead more widely stood for a liberal education which would enhance and facilitate the student's vocations. For him education was about the growth of the students as human beings rather than about the memorization of dates and facts. He also claimed that education cannot be separated from practice. He conceptualized education in three different successive stages: the stage of romance, where the student gets emotionally involved with the learning experience, the stage of precision, where ideas are sharpened through grammars, science and technical subjects, and the stage of generalization, which is the moment where the two previous stages are incorporated into a larger conceptualization of ideas and classifications, giving a feeling of completeness. The first stage is identified with the child, the second with adolescence, and the third with adulthood. Alfred North Whitehead never systematized his thoughts on education. He was an exceptional lecturer and was also know to take less popular teaching jobs such as teaching non-degree programs for women.
Alfred North Whitehead was a proponent of process philosophy, which identifies metaphysical reality with dynamism and change as opposed to Aristotelian views where reality is based on permanent, timeless substances. He rejected the idea that an object has a simple temporal or spatial location and instead claimed that objects should be understood as having spatial and temporal extensions, further arguing that processes (or “actual occasions” in his theoretical vocabulary), rather than substance, are the fundamental constituent of metaphysics. In his own words: "philosophy of organism is the inversion of Immanuel Kant's philosophy … For Immanuel Kant, the world emerges from the subject; for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from the world”. The collapse of Newtonian physics due to Einstein's work as well as Henri Bergson's philosophy of change, were probably what influenced Alfred North Whitehead's the most in his views that culminated in his process philosophy. It was Process and Reality, a development of an earlier work (Science and the Modern World from 1925), published in 1929 by Alfred North Whitehead, that founded process philosophy from which proponents included Charles Hartshorne and much later Gilles Deleuze and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In Process and Reality Whitehead defended theism which later gave birth to process theology, embraced by many Christians and Jews as an important addition to theological thinking. Whitehead also strongly rejected the separation mind-body in ways similar to the Buddhist tradition. Process and Reality is known as one of the most dense and difficult works of Western philosophy mainly due to the proliferation of technical terms of Whitehead's invention in his struggle to push beyond the possibilities of the existing concepts of his time.
In his Adventures of Ideas, from 1933, Alfred North Whitehead takes on his process metaphysics and applies it to what he sees as the "problem of history". In this work he surveys different cultural forms through relational perspectives, observing the ways in which such connections may contribute to the solidification of cultures as well as the potentials in the accumulation of new values and meanings, what he called "an adventure". The forces behind the adventures are at times without a sense of direction and Whitehead argued that it was imperative to become aware of those changes and actively take charge of such processes. In Adventures of Ideas, Alfred North Whitehead expressed that civilization is constituted by five ideals: peace, art, adventure, truth, and beauty.
Since the advent of quantum physics, there is a renewed interest in Alfred North Whitehead's work. His arguments regarding relativity have proven to be fruitful in relation to the later discoveries of science.