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Whitehead, Alfred North


Mathematician and philosopher; b. Ramsgate, the Isle of Thanet, Kent, Feb. 15, 1861; d. Cambridge, Mass., Dec. 30, 1947.

Life. In three successive periods of his life, he made major contributions to symbolic logic, the philosophy of science, and metaphysics. In the first period, at Trinity College, Cambridge, as student and lecturer in mathematics, he acquired extensive knowledge of literature and philosophy. This led him to explore the foundations of mathematics and to pioneer in the development of symbolic logic. As a result he and B. russell wrote the Principia Mathematica (3 v., Cambridge, Eng. 191013). Study of the principles of mathematics drew his attention, in turn, to problems in the philosophy of science. In 1910 he went to London, where he held various posts at University College and a professorship at the Imperial College of Science and Technology. In this, his middle period, he sought to formulate a philosophy of science that would replace scientific materialism, which he thought inadequate to the needs of science. He still avoided metaphysics, calling it dynamite that would blow up the entire arena. However, his attempt to give the widest possible generalization to the notions of science made him aware of the limitations of Hume's theory of knowledge.

In 1924, at the age of 63, he began his third period. As professor of philosophy at Harvard University, he had the opportunity to develop a metaphysics. Under the influence of Berkeley's "mind," Wordsworth's nature in solido, and progress within science, he had come to realize that scientific materialism involved "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness"; it had taken the abstractions of Newtonian physics to be concrete actuality. Whitehead felt that a metaphysics was needed to provide a critique of the cosmology of scientific materialism and to furnish an adequate and coherent grasp of the world of lived experience. With the use of abstractions he had no quarrel; he insisted only that they should not be mistaken for the real. Again, he agreed with Bergson's view that man in conceiving reality tends to spatialize. He denied, however, that such a tendency necessarily proceeds from the nature of the intellect, and held that it could be overcome in a metaphysics that took time seriously. Such a metaphysics was his philosophy of organism, formulated in Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (Cambridge, Mass. 1929).

Philosophy of Organism. Whitehead's philosophy belongs to the philosophical tradition stemming from plato and aristotle. In it he sought to provide a metaphysics of experience by stressing the interconnectedness and continuity of things. To accentuate his determination not to take abstractions for reality, he substituted the term "actual entity" for the traditional "being." Entity means potentiality for process; the word actual adds the meaning of "decision," in the root sense of "cutting off." In his metaphysical scheme, to encompass the universe, he included the actual entities of the temporal world and their formative elements: eternal objects, God, and creativity.

Knowledge. Whitehead's revision of the Cartesian heritage led to his own Copernican revolution in epistemology. In experience he made the primitive stage of discrimination not, "I see a red blur," but "This-My-Self, That Other, The Whole." Experience included the totality of the actual fact, which comprised its own internality and the externality of the many facts. Accordingly, the starting point for metaphysics was a vague sense of the self-creative moment of one's self as a decision for the future. In this experience, the many are one, and the one includes the many. Whitehead's theory of knowledge rested, not on Hume's clear-cut atoms of sense-data, but on man's vague experience of interaction with a world that is composed of intertwined individual entities.

From this experience Whitehead learned that inherent in actuality is value; that every aspect of experience must therefore be judged in terms of its place in, and contribution to, what is credible, reliable, and humanly important.

Process. Whitehead judged that Plato had formulated the general notions necessary for metaphysics: ideas, physical elements, psyche, eros, harmony, mathematical relations, and the receptacle. In adapting these Platonic notions, Whitehead transformed the receptacle into "creativity." Creativity is the ultimate principle by which the many (the universe disjunctively) become the one actual entity (the universe conjunctively). Creativity is Whitehead's matrix for all becoming, whose essence is process in which connectedness is retained. The actual world, which is relative to each actual entity, so conditions creativity that each actual entity is a unique synthesis of the world. By limiting creativity, the past provides an element of continuity for each actual occasion. Both creativity and past actual occasions are real, but are nonbeing. Together they constitute the real potentiality for the process of self-creation. The many self-creating entities proceeding from the past into the future make up the one world process.

Eternal Objects. Closely tied to Whitehead's theory of knowledge was his conception of metaphysics as the search for the forms within the facts. These forms are "eternal objects," similar to Plato's ideas. They explain how actual entities can be related to one another. Together with creativity they constitute the abstract possibility of the interrelationship of actual entities. The forms do not exist apart from actual entities because, according to Whitehead's "ontological principle," there is nothing, either in fact or efficacy, outside of them. The search for intelligibility is limited.

Within the temporal process, however, there is order and harmony, and so, eternal objects have for each actual occasion a relevance that is prior to time. To account, therefore, for the order experienced in the world, there must be a nontemporal actual entity.

God. The timeless source of order answers man's finest religious intuitions, and in this sense may be called "God." On one point Whitehead compared this source to Aristotle's First Mover, for, in one respect, God's immanence in the world is an urge toward the future based upon an appetite in the present. However, since Aristotle tended to fashion God in the image of a metaphysical principle, Whitehead found the Stagirite's notion of God to be inadequate. He was even more strongly opposed to joining Aristotle's image of God with the image of God as an imperial ruler, or as a personification of moral energy.

Whitehead's God, then, was not the exception to all metaphysical principles but rather their chief exemplification. Like all actual entities, God has two rationally distinct aspects, or poles: one, conceptual; the other, physical. The conceptual aspect accounts for order in the temporal process; the physical aspect is God's experience of the world, integrated into an aesthetic unity by His own decision. Accordingly, God is in process, acquiring new perfections in time. Whitehead believed that his notion of God, since it stressed the tender elements of God at work in the world in quietness and in love, was in accord with Christianity.

Critique. Whitehead resisted too ready a submission to Greek thought and consciously assimilated Christian perspectives. This was especially true in his conception of God. He thought that man must begin his approach to God with man's creating himself by appropriating the past and realizing his own unique value in his free decisions for the future. Whitehead was led to this position because he rejected the reduction of experience to abstract concepts. This, in turn, is why he opposed the notion of God as a remote and abstract Unmoved Mover. Instead, Whitehead held that God must be within the actuality of this world; and since all actual entitieseven Godare on the same level, God must be finite. God, for him, is no exception to metaphysical principles, but must be in an absolutely univocal way their chief exemplification. For Whitehead, therefore, man's experience becomes in effect the measure of reality. As opposed to this, however, theistic realism maintains that man's experience of cause enables him to reason to what transcends the bounds of his own finite nature and to know God as the Infinite. Also, in Whitehead's doctrine of process, man's experience of self as an enduring subject of change is almost obliterated.

Positively, philosophy is richer for Whitehead's awareness of the interrelatedness of things. His realization of God at work in the world in time can add dimensions to natural theology. And, in a world fascinated by positivism, he has helped restore interest in questions that are properly metaphysical.

See Also: panentheism; process philosophy.

Bibliography: v. lowe, Understanding Whitehead (Baltimore 1962). i. leclerc, Whitehead's Metaphysics (New York 1958). d. m. emmet, Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism (London 1932). p. a. schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (2d ed. New York 1951). w. e. stokes, "A Select and Annotated Bibliography of Alfred North Whitehead," the Modern Schoolman 39 (1962) 135151; "Recent Interpretations of Whitehead's Creativity," ibid. 303333. r. m. palter, Whitehead's Philosophy of Science (Chicago 1960). w. a. christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead's Metaphysics (New Haven 1959). j. d. collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago 1959).

[w. e. stokes]

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