The Right Stuff

Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work Volume I: 1861–1910

by Victor Lowe
Johns Hopkins University Press, 351 pp., $27.50

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…

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