Alfred Whitehead
Alfred Whitehead; drawing by David Levine

Alfred North Whitehead rumbles around in the intellectual history of the English-speaking world in the twentieth century like a loose bolt in a machine. He was made of the right stuff: a professional mathematician who turned into a professional philosopher who was also magnificently equipped with a general fund of humane learning in history (particularly church history) and in literature. He was in the right place: at Cambridge at the beginning of one of that great university’s greatest periods, which was to run on until about 1950. He had the right connections: most of all in the form of his collaboration with his pupil Bertrand Russell in the ten years during which they worked on Principia Mathematica (1910–1913), the most influential work on formal logic since Aristotle’s Organon. He was, particularly when he was between his late fifties and his mid-seventies, highly productive, publishing nine substantial books in that period.

Yet he remains an anomaly. On the one hand he is the object of a cult, whose members seem to devote themselves entirely to the interpretation of his ideas and are not in communication with the rest of the philosophical community, being known, if at all, entirely as Whiteheadians. Victor Lowe, the author of the biography under review, is, perhaps, the most distinguished of these votaries. In 1941 he wrote a long essay on Whitehead’s philosophy for a celebratory volume in the Library of Living Philosophers. Twenty-one years later he brought out his Understanding Whitehead, in effect an expansion of the earlier essay, which is, on the whole, the best thing of its kind. Now, a couple of decades later, has come the first volume of a biography, which takes Whitehead’s life to the year 1910, when he was forty-nine years old, was leaving Cambridge for London, and had as yet shown only the most minimal indication of his later concerns—first, with the philosophy of science, in three books written in his London period of 1919 to 1923, and, secondly, with metaphysics, in the famous works of his time at Harvard between 1925 and 1938.

Victor Lowe makes it clear that although Whitehead and Russell were in constant and fruitful touch during the composition of Principia Mathematica, a pronounced division of labor prevailed. Whitehead did the mathematics; Russell did the philosophy. Since the book excited philosophers but left mathematicians cold, it is not surprising that it has come to be thought of as primarily Russell’s work, for all his counter-alphabetic position on the title page.

Outside the sequestered province of the cult, Whitehead is regarded with a measure of baffled reverence, mingled with suspicion. He is to philosophy roughly what John Cowper Powys is to literature. There is a body of thought called “process theology” which acknowledges his inspiration, but otherwise he is ignored, apart from an occasional gesture of respect. There is one group of more or less Edwardian thinkers with whom he can be reasonably associated, all of whom were naturalistic and much influenced in their thought by recent scientific developments, but by no means narrowly materialistic, and were also the architects of comprehensive, if not very systematic, bodies of doctrine. Its members are Bergson, Santayana, Dewey, and Samuel Alexander. Unlike Whitehead all of these thinkers were intelligible, apparently and to a considerable extent in fact, even if only the first two were distinguished stylists. Whitehead’s own writing is enlivened with some admirable epigrammatic flashes of perceptiveness and is as forceful and lucid as Russell’s, but without the metallic superficiality that often characterizes Russell’s writing on the history of thought. But when he writes about philosophy itself, it is for the most part exceedingly turgid and obscure, a torrent of puzzlingly amorphous neologisms like “prehension” and “concrescence” and of ordinary words like “event,” “occasion,” and “object” used in some novel and greatly extended sense.

Lowe admits that Whitehead’s philosophy has been “pretty much left out in the cold.” Bergson and Santayana are still admired as writers and Santayana for the breadth and richness of his cultural interests as well. Dewey benefited from being part of a specific intellectual tradition, the pragmatism that began with Peirce and William James and flourished after him with C.I. Lewis and, more remotely, W.V. Quine. A further advantage was his very direct involvement with current social issues in education and politics.

Viewed from a considerable distance, at which confusing detail is obliterated and only its main lines are to be seen, Whitehead’s philosophy is a combination of two large principles: those of holism and objectivism. According to the first of these the world is unitary and continuous, not an array of sharply distinguished individual things, and events, falling into sharply demarcated kinds. This notion had hitherto been the characteristic feature of Hegelian idealism. The Absolute, as it called the unitary whole of reality, was conceived by that philosophy as essentially, mental in nature, often literally as a single, all-including mind; in other cases, that of F.H. Bradley, for instance, as a continuous tissue of experience, conceived in mentalistic terms. For the idealists matter and space, and, in extreme versions, time as well, are no more than appearances, useful fictions, no doubt, but, metaphysically speaking, illusions.


Whitehead’s originality consists in his detaching a holistic conception of the world as a continuous whole from the prejudice, as he sees it, that nature, the spatiotemporal order of things, is less real than mind. His metaphysics, as is made clear by the subtitle “An Essay in Cosmology” of his chief work, Process and Reality, is an account of nature, which is represented as everywhere permeated by mind, but never as reducible to it.

Bergson, rather than Hegel, seems to have influenced the working out of Whitehead’s holism. More important still was the effect of the resolution of matter into energy by the physics of Whitehead’s epoch. This is the basis of his attack on the conception of the world that was infused into common sense by Locke from the physics of the seventeenth century, with Locke working in his professed role of “underlabourer to the incomparable Mr. Newton.” In that conception the world consists of an array of precisely demarcated individual things or substances, which preserve their identity through time, occupy definite positions in space, have their own essential natures independently of their relations to anything else, and fall into clearly distinct natural kinds. Such a world resembles a warehouse of automobile parts. Each item is standard in character, independent of all the other items, in its own place, and ordinarily unchanging in its intrinsic nature.

For Whitehead the world is a continuous process of active change, in which there are temporary and localized manifestations of clusters of characteristics, like the waves of the sea, that are not sharply marked off from their environments, in some way creatively surmounting the constraints of the pasts they carry with them as they develop into the future. The human body is one such localized turmoil of activity, only vaguely distinguishable from its surroundings in one direction and involved inextricably with its directing mind in the other. Of particular importance to Whitehead’s line of thought is the view he takes about perception, which is sharply at variance with traditional ideas about it. Philosophers in the tradition of Descartes, in other words most of them since Descartes’s time, in effect identify sense perception with vision. But that encourages the illusion of the perceiving mind’s detachment from the world it perceives. The fundamental sense for Whitehead is touch, the indispensable confirmer of the reality of what is perceived, and in its case the fact that perception is a physical interaction between the perceiver’s body and his surroundings is inescapable.

Since perception is the most elemental of the mind’s activities, it follows for Whitehead that mind and body are not Cartesian opposites but indissolubly involved with each other. Furthermore, emancipation from the visual obsession of past philosophy undermines the principal foundation of subjectivism, the persisting philosophical conviction that what we really or directly perceive is nothing but private impressions, states of our own minds. Both holism and the objectivism that Whitehead innovatively combines with it, then, rest on the working out of the doctrine that perception is primarily tactile, a manipulative interaction with objective nature, not a detached contemplation of images conjured up in our private theaters of consciousness.

A final aspect or development of Whitehead’s holism should be mentioned. The essential relatedness of the mutable and unstable things of Whitehead’s world to their environments and their pasts is seen by him as making possible the rational explanation of what happens, in contrast with the view of Hume and many since him that all we can do is register the brute facts of coexistence and sequence. “A dead nature,” he says, “can give no reasons.” But few have been persuaded that his process of activities can do any better, particularly in view of his insistence on the creativeness of things, on change as advance into, presumably unpredictable, novelty.

What has been set out here is only a small part of Whitehead’s philosophy, although I believe it to be the crucial part of it. The critical support of holism and objectivism with genuine arguments against their contraries prepares the way for the freer speculations to which he proceeds and, incidentally, counts against the statistically reasonable objection that Whitehead is given more to assertion than to argument. What Whitehead needs, if he is to come in from the cold, in which, his biographer admits, he languishes, is someone to do for him what J.M.E. McTaggart did for Hegel—to precipitate some specifically discussable matter from the flux of enthusiastic meditation. Even if the world is a continuous process, the premises and conclusions of arguments about it need to be clearly identified and distinguished.


Victor Lowe’s biography is lucidly and pleasantly written. Confined as he is to the largely prephilosophical part of Whitehead’s career he can at best note occasional intimations of the philosophy that is to come. Confined to a wholly English part of Whitehead’s life and with “American readers primarily in mind” he has felt the need to explain numerous, sometimes now defunct, British institutions and does so accurately and unoppressively. The topic of the Apostles, for example, to which Whitehead was elected in his first year as a graduate student, and from which he gained a lot, is handled without any of the obfuscating emotion in favor of that society or opposed to it which it tends to generate in British writers. He has managed to write three hundred or so interesting pages about the first fifty years of Whitehead’s life despite a very marked deficiency of direct evidence. Whitehead kept no diary, instructed his wife to destroy any papers he left behind, wrote as few letters as he could possibly manage. Lowe points out that this is entirely in character. Whitehead was both modest and pacific, not interested in drawing attention to himself and keen to steer clear of controversy and the revealing theatrics of self-defense. In keeping with his mature theory of the nature of things he allowed his personality to flow dissolvingly into his activities and the environment in which they were conducted. There is only one example of biographer’s desperation that really seizes the reader’s attention. Writing about Whitehead’s first years at Cambridge Lowe says, “Some of the most athletic undergraduates defiantly took up the art of roof-climbing; but not Whitehead.”

Whitehead was born in 1861 at Ramsgate in Kent where his clergyman father was headmaster of a school founded by his father. His mother was the daughter of a London military tailor whose patrimony had to be spread rather thin since he had thirteen children. She was, Lowe judges, unimaginative and narrow-minded. At fourteen Whitehead went to Sherborne, a public school, in the English sense, of the second class, where he won all the mathematical prizes, was captain of the school’s rugby and cricket teams, but made no lasting friendships and seems to have laid up no store of sentimental recollections.

Having been such a big fish in the small and slightly stagnant pond of Sherborne he found Trinity College, Cambridge, to which he came with a mathematical scholarship in 1880, a somewhat lowering experience to start with. But he did well, in a quiet, non-self-advertising way. He graduated as “fourth Wrangler,” near the top of the first class, and secured a further first in the graduate third part of the mathematics course. He made some interesting friends: the philosopher W.R. Sorley (whose History of English Philosophy preserves him from the total oblivion to which Lowe consigns him), the biologists D’Arcy Thompson (of Growth and Form), and Henry Head (the great investigator of aphasia), McTaggart, Walter Raleigh (the witty first professor of English at Oxford), Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (liberal idealist and boot fetishist), Roger Fry (of Vision and Design).

He was elected to a research fellowship on the basis of a dissertation about Clerk Maxwell and soon afterward to a teaching post at Trinity. Then, for a while, he seems to have got stuck. Between his election to a fellowship and his large and fairly eccentric Treatise on Universal Algebra fourteen years later in 1898, he published only a couple of articles on the mathematics of viscous fluid motion. That is not what was, and is, expected of mathematicians, who typically have their best ideas when very young. Lowe reasonably says that he was already, although by no means a philosopher, preoccupied with doing mathemetics in the most general possible way. Something of the drift of his future doctrines is indicated by a vote recorded of him at a meeting of the Apostles in which he favored Heraclitus, for whom everything flows, rather than Democritus, for whom all is atoms and empty space.

Some of his energy during this apparently lean period was given to coping with the problem of his religious affiliation. He had been brought up as a low church Anglican. His very able elder brother Henry, later bishop of Calcutta, was an Anglo-Catholic, a former fellow of Newman’s old college in Oxford. At the time when Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere was at the head of the best-seller list and respectfully reviewed by Gladstone, it was not extraordinary for Whitehead to wonder whether there was any serious alternative, apart from becoming a Roman Catholic, to abandoning religious belief altogether. It seems clear that he actually took the step of calling on Newman at the Oratory in Birmingham in 1890, the year of Newman’s death.

In the same year he met and fell in love with Evelyn Wade, a handsome and exciting young Anglo-Irish woman, whose uncle was the first professor of Chinese at Cambridge, but whose parents, for all their pride of descent, were less satisfactory. Her father left the army in disgrace and died fighting in the Carlist wars in Spain. Evelyn hated her mother and kept well clear of her from the age of seventeen when she left home to support herself as a governess. Victor Lowe is inclined to be a bit sharp about Mrs. Whitehead. He argues that her chronic chest pains, which all were led to believe presaged imminent death, were merely hysterical, a strategy to secure attention and to avoid things she found unappealing. He allows her wit, vitality, and taste. But she was thinly educated and not, in his view, a really adequate help-meet for such a man as Whitehead. Still, for all her emotional and financial extravagances, she was always adored by her husband, managed and decorated a series of houses which were beautiful and in which he could work, and, surely a noble service, read a great deal of Church history with him in the first seven years of their marriage. By 1898 that could be given up. Whitehead abandoned religious belief and was to regain it much later on only in a highly diluted, attenuated, metaphysical form.

The chief intellectual interest of the early part of Whitehead’s life is his association with Bertrand Russell, which began in 1889, when Whitehead persuaded his fellow examiners to give Russell a better scholarship than they had intended to. He arranged for people to get to know Russell when he arrived as a student the following year and revived his interest in mathematics when he had turned from it to philosophy in disgust at its current Cambridge form as the acquisition of a capacity to perform high-speed deductive tricks. In 1900 they went to a conference in Paris together. In their joint excitement at meeting the Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano, the partnership was cemented that led thirteen years later to the last published of the volumes of Principia Mathematica. Peano, dissatisfied with the lack of rigor in much of mathematics, showed that its fundamental part, the arithmetic of natural numbers, could be set out as a rigorous axiomatic system, derivable from five axioms, and he devised a vastly more perspicuous notation than that of the still largely unknown Frege. This enchanted Whitehead, with his passion for generality, and Russell, with his passion for certainty.

The rest of this aspect of Whitehead’s career is familiar from Russell’s numerous autobiographical accounts of it. The first decade of the century was an unhappy one for Russell, even if that of his greatest intellectual achievements. The paradox in set theory which he discovered in the summer of 1901 led to a long struggle, which continued until 1907, and to a version of his theory of types which was incorporated in Principia Mathematica. This intellectual travail was carried on in circumstances of deep personal unhappiness. At the time of his discovery of the paradox he realized he could no longer stand his wife Alys, and soon fell deeply in love with Evelyn Whitehead. Lowe does not believe either that Evelyn led Russell on or that they became lovers. Certainly the matter never seems to have come out into the open for the four people involved. But it must be part of the explanation of the drifting apart of the two collaborators.

Throughout these years, Whitehead, true to form, was constantly praising and encouraging Russell, while with equal constancy adjuring him not to go too fast. Russell was certainly annoyed by Whitehead’s unwillingness to show him the preparatory work he had done on the projected fourth volume of Principia. Whitehead’s explanation of his secretiveness was that he did not want Russell to run off with his ideas and develop them in all sorts of half-baked and precipitate ways. That fear, which was not of theft but of misuse, was not unreasonable. Toward the principle of biding one’s time Whitehead and Russell took directly opposite attitudes. Lowe’s final comment on their collaboration is admirably just. “A wonderful thing about their collaboration,” he says, “is the perfect preservation of the individuality of each partner, made possible by their mutual respect and affection.”

Lowe’s first volume includes a chapter on a long paper of Whitehead’s, “On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World” (1905). This prefigures Whitehead’s account of how the precise, sharpedged concepts of physical science are to be derived from the amorphously continuous data of perception that is provided by the three books he wrote between 1919 and 1923. Lowe’s final chapter deals with Whitehead’s departure from Cambridge in 1910 for the University of London. The pretext was the easing out of a fellow mathematician at Trinity because of an adulterous escapade. But, more generally, Evelyn Whitehead was bored with a provincial and academic society which offered her little and which she did not fit into. Whitehead himself said he was “in a groove,” tired of the routine of teaching applied mathematics to which he was bound.

For all the deficiency of the evidence with which he has had to work, Victor Lowe has fully dealt with Whitehead’s early life as well as the more easily accessible work in this book. Whitehead’s goodness, which, he agrees, might diminish his biographical interest, is persuasively conveyed without any insipidness. The mathematical and philosophical technicalities are handled in a merciful spirit but in such a way as to inspire confidence. The following volume, with Whitehead in metaphysical full spate, will make even greater demands on Lowe’s expository powers, but it is something to look forward to with enthusiasm.

This Issue

December 5, 1985