Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others



From Teaching Philosophy, Vol. 7, No. 2, April 1984, 143-145.  I highly recommend this survey to anyone ready to embark upon Whitehead studies.


A Guide to Whitehead 
Lewis S. Ford

Most philosophers neglect Whitehead, but those who know him well consider him to be the greatest metaphysician of this century, equal in stature to most of the greats in the history of philosophy.  He has not achieved the acclaim of those past philosophers, to be sure, largely because he got caught in the widespread reaction against metaphysics of the 1930’s which continues today.  His positions on metaphysics, theism, and panpsychism have been unpopular in this climate.  For a long time it was very difficult to obtain access to his thought because Whitehead chose to present very complex ideas in a problematic manner, but today we possess the tools for understanding him aright, and for teaching his philosophy to undergraduates.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1946) was a British mathematician called at age sixty-three to teach philosophy at Harvard.  His metaphysical books were written there, from 1925 to 1938.  I shall comment on these with respect to their suitability for the classroom.  This will be followed by a discussion of the most appropriate secondary literature.  First, however, I want to recommend three very short books for those who can only devote two or three class periods to Whitehead’s philosophy:

1)    For a gentle overview of his thought, giving some of its flavour without the technical complexities, I would recommend the three Vanuem lectures of 1929, The Function of Reason (Beacon paperback).  These lectures contain Whitehead’s only examination of evolution in terms of the place of reason in this process.

2)    For some very wise remarks about religion, see Religion in the Making (1926, Meridian Books), especially the first two chapters.  Whitehead’s remark that religion has to do with one’s own solitariness has been widely misunderstood.  For him a solitary decision would be what we now would call an existential decison.  Solitariness may be a better way of describing this, had not Kierkegaard’s term pre-emptied the field.  On this whole issue, see Donald A. Crosby’s helpful essay, “Religion and Solitariness.”1

3)    For a specialized discussion of perception in dialogue with Hume, the first two lectures of Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect (1927, Capricorn Books) make very good reading by themselves.

Whitehead’s last book, Modes of Thought (1938, Free Press, paperback) contains an excellent summary in the two Chicago lectures, “Nature Lifeless” (as depicted by scientific materialism) and “Nature Alive” (as seen in terms of his own vision).  Unfortunately the other lectures in Modes of Thought are so broadly phrased as to seem mere platitudes to those unfamiliar with his thought.  Those two lectures on Nature and Life, however, have been anthologized by Victor Lowe in Classic American Philosophers, ed. Max H. Fisch (1951), Appleton-Century-Crofts paperback).  Among other excerpts, that anthology also includes Whitehead’s classic introduction to “Speculative Philosophy,” the very accessible first chapter of Process and Reality.

For something more substantial, showing the range of Whitehead’s philosophical interests, there is Adventures of Ideas (1933, Free Press paperback).  Part IV has a marvellous discussion of the ideals of civilization (truth, beauty, art, adventure, peace).  Its exalted style and insight repays repeated rereadings, especially the final chapter on peace.  On the other hand, the first, sociological part is so thinly written that it is scarcely worth class discussion.  The second, cosmological section is fairly straightforward, while the third part explores various facets of his metaphysical scheme.  They are fairly well intelligible by themselves, while Chapter 11 on “Objects and Subjects” summarizes the highlights of his metaphysics in short compass.

Science and the Modern World (1925, Free Press paperback) joins three things together: one man’s guided tour through the history of science from the 17th to the early 20th century; a critique of the underlying assumptions of scientific materialism; and a sketch of Whitehead’s own opposing position.  The details of the history have since been updated, but the guide’s comments have not been superseded, while his criticisms of scientific materialism are as trenchant as ever.  Since the metaphysical sketch is gradually introduced throughout the book, some find this a convenient, painless introduction to Whitehead’s mature metaphysics, assuming that it is a first, rough sketch of the position fully worked out in Process and Reality.  This supposes that the shift from the earlier works in the philosophy of nature to the mature metaphysics takes place before Science and the Modern World (SMW), but the best evidence indicates this shift took place during the composition of the book.  Except for the two chapters on “Abstraction” and “God” and three short insertions,2 the metaphysics presented sketches a position far closer to the earlier philosophy of nature than to the later Process and Reality.In fact, a sensitive explication of this sketch would obviate any need to go back to those earlier books, such as The Concept of Nature and Principles of Natural Knowledge.  Those books are well-written and carefully organized presentations, largely overlapping in content, but they make difficult, technical, reading except for those particularly interested in the philosophy of science.

Before the shift, Whitehead is a naturalistic monist; later, he becomes a theistic pluralist.  Science and the Modern World is in between.  While he becomes a theist in the end, the chapter on “Religion and Science” is perhaps the most appreciative evaluation of religion that has been written from a non-theistic perspective.  The developing character of Whitehead’s thought in Science and the Modern World and Religion in the Making makes them difficult to teach if we insist on interpreting them in terms of his final system.  In the last two chapters of Religion in the Making Whitehead finally becomes explicitly pluralist, but other features of his position are not yet worked out.  Chapter 4 shows how religious reflection can supplement a general metaphysics, but Chapter 3 is very difficult to interpret accurately on its own terms.  I am currently trying to chart the changes in Whitehead’s thought from 1925 to 1929 in a work tentatively entitled The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics which I hope will increase our understanding of these changes.  In my estimation, Whitehead pushed himself into greatness by continually improving upon his earlier efforts.

Process and Reality (1929) is indispensable as the only full-scale presentation of the final metaphysical system Whitehead himself made.  But the original Macmillan 1929 edition had over 700 misprints, most simply reproduced in the Free Press 1969 reprint.  Now, however, we have an excellent, well-printed, inexpensive ($7.95, pbk.) corrected edition, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (Free Press, 1978).  The text has been cleaned up, the 1929 pagination indicated, and a fullsome 32-page analytical index has been supplied.

Again, there is a major shift in Process and Reality (PR).  It is possible to isolate 9 1/2 chapters which comprise the first draft of his Gifford lectures, composed during the summer of 1927.This draft, covering perhaps two hundred pages, appear to lack, at least in their original version, such key technical concepts as subjective form, subjective aim, and negative prehension, while God is thought of as a purely nontemporal actual entity.  More importantly, Whitehead then conceived of the emergence of each event or actual occasion as the joint effort of active efficient causation from prior occasions and subjective appropriation by the occasion itself.

During the fall and winter of 1927-28 he modified this view by attaching notes to what he had written and by composing the rest of part III, finally winning through to a conception of pure self-creation.  Before the Gifford lectures were delivered in June 1928, he found that his researches into the nature of consciousness showed that if God were to be conscious, he would need a second, temporal, consequent nature.  After the Giffords he worked out the elaborate theory of the “living person.”Process and Reality is a masterpiece, but masterpieces are often very difficult to read and to interpret.  The unacknowledged presence of different viewpoints within the same book makes it doubly so.  One book has given us access to the most useful portions of Whitehead’s text (about 2/5ths of the whole), while overcoming many of these problems: Donald W. Sherburne’s A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality, recently reissued by the University of Chicago Press.  Sherburne has excerpted passages from Process and Reality, and rearranged them in very orderly fashion.  This is a real scissors-and-paste job, but the end result is most remarkable, for it renders Process and Reality pedagogically accessible in its own words!  One would think that the text would be extremely choppy, since it quotes from so many places, but this is not the case.  It would take an expert to spot the seams, except occasionally when one is noticeable by the repetition of a half-sentence.  Process and Reality by itself takes the better part of a semester to teach, if not the whole, whereas one can cover its main ideas in 10-12 class periods by using the Key.

There is one major drawback to the Key, however.  There is too little introductory justification for either temporal atomism or for panpsychism.  Students quickly find themselves involved in the analysis of the psychic interiors of minute, momentary occasions without having first realized that these occasions could have such interiors, let alone why they should be interested in them.  Ivor Leclerc’s Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition (1958, Indiana University Press) does give just such reasons.  In 1975, I characterized this book as “. . . by far the best introduction of a systematic sort to Whitehead’s metaphysics . . . . Leclerc lays out the fundamental ideas in a thorough and orderly fashion, exhibiting the logic and systematic rigor of Whitehead’s position in a masterful manner, both philosophically and pedagogically.”  I see no reason to alter that judgment.  For courses having space for only one 225-page text, Leclerc’s could be used by itself: it’s self-contained, and quotes extensively from Whitehead to give some sense of his main terms.  Or its first two parts could give a suitable background introduction to the Key.  Another interesting feature of Leclerc’s book is its extensive dialogue with Aristotle, laying out very fundamental issues in metaphysics.

The best general study is An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics by William A. Christian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959).  Over twenty years old, it has withstood the test of time.  It has detailed, profound discussions of actual occasions, forms, and the interaction of God and the world.  Except for very advanced levels, however, the complexity and sophistication of the book render it less suitable as an introductory text.

For a less systematic introduction, some prefer Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead (1962, The Johns Hopkins Press paperback).  The introductory essay is first-rate and often anthologized, while the second chapter is perhaps the best brief description of Process and Reality available.  After two chapters on Whitehead’s philosophies of science and religion, Lowe gives an extensive commentary on the entire corpus, beginning with the Universal Algebra of 1898.  The book closes with four essays on various aspects of experience and metaphysics.

Elizabeth M. Kraus’ The Metaphysics of Experience: A Companion to Whitehead’s Process and Reality (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979) is noteworthy for its organization, for the book is designed to be read alongside of Science and the Modern World and each of the five parts of Process and Reality.  The commentary on part IV is exceptionally good.  Most philosophers do not appreciate the mathematical niceties of this theory of extension, but she does.

Charles Hartshorne’s Whitehead’s Philosophy: Selected Essays, 1935-1970 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972) is a superb introduction to Whitehead’s thought by the one independent thinker whose metaphysical vision is most closely attuned to his.  Unlike the other introductions we have mentioned, Hartshorne’s book is not a commentary on Whitehead’s text; it is more an independently reasoned defense of a broad range of characteristic Whiteheadian theses—those which Hartshorne finds most basic, most insightful, and most sound.  It does not introduce us to Whitehead’s specialized terms, not to the intricacies of his mature system, but we are most forcefully introduced to his ideas.  Because most of the essays do not presuppose a prior acquaintance with Whitehead on the reader’s part, it can be safely recommended to those seeking a painless but reliable avenue of access to Whitehead’s metaphysics, particularly his philosophical theology.

For an anthology containing selections from Whitehead with Bergson, Peirce, Morgan, Mead, etc., I had always wanted to use the Philosophers of Process edited by Douglas Browning (New York: Random House, 1965), but when I finally could, it was out of print.  But now there’s Process Philosophy: Basic Writings, edited by Jack R. Sibley and Pete A. Y. Gunter (Washington: University Press of America, 1978).  This anthology contains selections both from the formative thinkers such as Bergson, James, Whitehead, Morgan, Hartshorne, Wieman, and by the second (and third) generation of process thinkers: Capek, D. D. Williams, Loomer, Spencer.  Eventually, Fordham University Press will publish a collection of secondary essays entitled Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy, edited by George L. Kline and myself.  Among others it will contain the Crosby essay mentioned above, and an extremely perceptive essay by Richard M. Rorty, written before his “linguistic turn.”  Stephen T. Ely’s masterful exposition of Whitehead’s God is also represented, along with his critique which often seems to forget the very insights just expounded.  I close with an extensive bibliographical essay (some 80 items) orienting the reader to the Whiteheadian literature.

In the area of the philosophy of religion, David Ray Griffin’s God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976) deserves special mention.  Theodicy has been a staple in philosophy of religion, since the presence of superfluous evil is a most powerful argument against the existence of the traditional omnipotent God.  Griffin surveys the Biblical and Greek sources, and the traditional theodicies: Augustine, Aquinas, Spinoza, Luther, Calvin, Leibniz, Barth, John Hick, James Ross, Fackenheim, Brunner, and Personal Idealism, and shows that they all fail, often for the reasons adduced elsewhere.  But he argues that God’s nature can be reconceived along process lines by reinterpreting divine power in terms of persuasion.  This is a convincing theodicy which shares many of the concerns of recent philosophy of religion.  It can be profitably read by those with no prior background in Whitehead’s ideas.

The area of process theology is a burgeoning field, but I shall restrict my suggestions to five.  Aside from an idiosyncratic
second chapter, Process Theology: an Introductory Exposition, by John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976) is a very serviceable introduction, though perhaps better suited for the seminary rather than the college classroom.  If students have been schooled in traditional theism, then Charles Hartshorne’s The Divine Relativity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948) is a block-buster.  Other students won’t know what all the fuss is about, and will find John Cobb’s God and the World (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959) a more meaningful introduction to process theism.  There are two anthologies of readings worth noting.  Process Theology, edited by Ewert H. Cousins (New York: Newman Press, 1971) offers the basic readings, plus about a hundred pages concerning Teilhard de Chardin.  Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, edited by Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James, Jr., and Gene Reeves (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971) offers somewhat more advanced essays (none overlap), including a useful bibliographical survey.

We have some very helpful tools in Whitehead studies.  Barry A. Woodbridge has compiled Alfred North Whitehead: A Primary-Secondary Bibliography (Philosophy Documentation Center, Bowling Green, Ohio 43403) aims to be complete through 1976.  Most of its 1868 items are annotated, and all thoroughly indexed.  The quarterly journal Process Studies not only specializes in essays and reviews devoted to the thought of Whitehead and his intellectual associates, notably Hartshorne, but includes abstracts of essays appearing in other journals as well.  It aims to keep its readers fully informed about the field.6



1 Journal of the American Academy of Religion 40 (1972), 21-35.

2 These three insertions appear to be 3 paragraphs spanning SMW 105 (in the Free Press edition), 10 paragraphs at the end of chapter 7, and the last 4 or 5 paragraphs of chapter 8.

3 On these issues, see my essay on “Whitehead’s First Metaphysical Synthesis,” International Philosophical Quarterly 17/3 (September, 1977), 251-64.

4 These chapters appear to consist of the original drafts of PR I.1; II.1; II.2; II.5; II.6; II.3&4 (in part); II.9; II.10 (thought of as an half-chapter, but never completed as first intended); III:2&4 (in part); V.1-2 (in part).

5 PR II.3.4-11.

6 Process Studies (1325 N. College Avenue, Claremont, CA 91711) $12 per year for individual subscriptions; $16 for institutions.


Posted April 15, 2007

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