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Whitehead, Alfred North (1861 - 1947)
"Religion is the last refuge of human savagery."

Alfred North Whitehead


Alfred North Whitehead, OM was a British mathematician who became a philosopher. He was born in Ramsgate, Kent, UK, and died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. He wrote on algebra, logic, foundations of mathematics, philosophy of science, physics, metaphysics, and education. He is the coauthor, along with Bertrand Russell, of the epochal Principia Mathematica.

Life
Whitehead's career is conventionally divided into three phases:

1880–1910. He studied, taught, and wrote mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, spending the 1890s writing his (1898) and working on the Principia, 1900-1913. On Whitehead the mathematician and logician, see Grattan-Guinness (2000, 2002), and Quine's chapter in Schilpp (1941), reprinted in Quine (1995). Whitehead left Cambridge just as the first volume of the Principia appeared, to protest the dismissal, because of an adulterous affair, of a Trinity College colleague.

1910–24. This period was mostly spent at University College London and Imperial College London, where he taught and wrote on physics, the philosophy of science, and the theory and practice of education. In physics, Whitehead is best known for a theory of gravity that differed from Einstein's general relativity. From the outset, Whitehead's theory received less attention than Einstein's, and was generally discredited by 1972, by a comparison of experimental and predicted variability of the gravitational constant G.

In 1924, he accepted an offer of a Harvard University professorship in philosophy, a subject he had not previously taught. The offer had been instigated by a Boston businessman who partly endowed the position. Whitehead was asked to give the 1927 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, which resulted in his (1929), Process and Reality, the book that founded process philosophy and is a major contribution to modern metaphysics.

A signal feature of Process and Reality is its philosophical use of mereological and topological notions. Bowman Clarke argued in the 1980s that this part of Whitehead's thinking was seriously flawed, and showed how it could be repaired. Simons (1987) contains an accessible review of Clarke's work.

Another feature of Process and Reality is its argument in favor of theism, although Whitehead's God is understood differently from the revealed God of Abrahamic religion. Process philosophy gave rise to process theology, thanks to the theologian/philosophers Charles Hartshorne, John B. Cobb, Jr, and David Ray Griffin. Some Christians and Jews find process theology a fruitful way of understanding God and the universe. Just as the entire universe is in constant flow and change, God, as source of the universe, is viewed as growing and changing. Whitehead's rejection of mind-body dualism is similar to elements in faith traditions such as Buddhism.

Whitehead's political views were similar to libertarianism without the label. He wrote: "Now the intercourse between individuals and between social groups takes one of two forms, force or persuasion. Commerce is the great example of intercourse by way of persuasion. War, slavery, and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force."

Whitehead married Evelyn Wade, with whom he had a daughter and two sons. One son died in action while serving in the Royal Air Force during World War I.

Biographies of Whitehead were produced by his former Harvard student, Victor Lowe (1985) and Lowe and Schneewind (1990). A comprehensive appraisal of his work is difficult because unlike Bertrand Russell, Whitehead left no Nachlass; his family carried out his instructions that all of his papers be destroyed after his death.

Quotations

"Religion is the last refuge of human savagery."

"I consider Christianity to be one of the great disasters of the human race.... It would be impossible to imagine anything more un-Christianlike than theology."

"As society is now constituted, a literal adherence to the moral precepts scattered throughout the Gospels would mean sudden death."

"The total absence of humour in the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature."

 
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