Quantcast Donald W. Sherburne "Alfred North Whitehead, 1861-1947"


Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

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From A Companion to Metaphysics, edited by Jaegwon Kim and Ernest Sosa, Cambridge, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1995, 510-512.  “[F]or those who stick with him and learn his language, Whitehead offers a clear, exciting, modern vision of human nature and culture as they have their being as a part of the wider nature explored and described by scientists”;  “... Whitehead’s metaphysical challenge ... [is] to so describe the character of being (of actual entities) that one can understand how human being emerged gradually from a simpler form of the very same, essentially relational being.”


Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)

Donald W.  Sherburne


Beginning his career as a mathematician and logician (A Treatise on Universal Algebra [1898] and Principia Mathematica [1910-13] with Bertrand Russell), moving on into the domain of philosophy of science (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge [1919]; The Concept of Nature [1920]; The Principle of Relativity [1922]), Whitehead reached full stride in his illustrious career when in 1924, at age 63, he left his native England and accepted an appointment at Harvard as Professor of Philosophy.  From his new base, in the New World Cambridge, he produced a series of books that established him as one of the most distinguished metaphysicians of the twentieth century: Science and the Modern World (1925); Religion in the Making (1926); Process and Reality (1929); Adventures of Ideas (1933); and Modes of Thought (1938).

Sensitive as he was to the structures and meanings embedded in language, Whitehead realized the futility of attempting to construct a scheme of concepts with which to do metaphysics which simply employed the language of the philosophical perspectives which he wished to surpass—the linguistic distinctions upon which the old ways of thinking were based would surreptitiously import those traditional ways of thinking into the new philosophy if one used them.  Consequently, Whitehead invented a new lexicon of terms, seeking to escape outmoded ways of thinking by the introduction of neologisms capable of conveying his intent without carrying along ontological shadows of the metaphysical systems of the past.  This practice has fostered a widespread impression that Whitehead is a difficult, obscure thinker.  It is certainly true that he is not simple; indeed, he distrusts simplicity: “All simplifications of religious dogma are shipwrecked upon the rock of the problem of evil.  As a particular application, we may believe that the various doctrines about God have not suffered chiefly from their complexity.  They have represented extremes of simplicity” and these oversimplifications have caused great problems (1926, p. 65).  Nevertheless, for those who stick with him and learn his language, Whitehead offers a clear, exciting, modern vision of human nature and culture as they have their being as a part of the wider nature explored and described by scientists.  Well before C. P. Snow articulated his plea that we overcome the bifurcation between “the two cultures,” Whitehead had already rolled up his sleeves and thrown himself into the project.

Three of his books convey the bulk of Whitehead’s metaphysical contribution.  In Science and the Modern World he argues that a powerful set of philosophical presuppositions came into dominance with the development of Newtonian science, a set of philosophical presuppositions which had its roots in that Newtonian conceptuality.  In that book he delineates the relationship between the philosophical ideas and their supporting scientific context and then traces the disintegration, century by century, of the Newtonian achievement.  His point is that the philosophical presuppositions which have dominated philosophy for the last 300 years have been gradually undermined by the continuous erosion of the scientific conceptual-ity in which they are based.  The Einsteinian revolution in scientific thought at the turn of the century once and for all left the traditional modern philosophical assumptions blowing in the wind, cut off from any supporting ground.

In Science and the Modern World Whitehead loosely adumbrates his emerging sense of the nature of the philosophical presuppositions lurking in the new scientific developments of the twentieth century.  It was not until four years later, however, with the publication of his magnum opus, Process and Reality, that Whitehead both articulated in a full-blown manner the set of philosophical assumptions he found compatible with the new developments in science and drew forth the complex metaphysi-cal system which flows from these assumptions.

Finally, Adventures of Ideas, a more lyrical, less technical work, rounds out the metaphysical enterprise.  Whitehead sets up the challenge for Adventures of Ideas by suggesting that in every cultural epoch there are two types of forces driving the processes of social change:  brute, senseless agencies of compulsion on the one hand, and formulated aspirations, articulated beliefs on the other.  Whitehead’s symbols for these two types of forces in the classical world are Barbarians (brute compulsion) and Christianity (a system of beliefs and aspirations); in the Europe of two centuries ago, examples of these two types of forces would be, respectively, Steam and Democracy.  Whitehead’s interest in Adventures of Ideas is in those articulated aspirations of civilizations.  He believes that in their emergence they are shaped by the philosophical understandings available at the moment when they struggle for release and efficacy.  In the culminating section of this book, Whitehead elaborates his vision of the aspirations appropriate to our modern age, formulating them in the language provided by the new philosophical conceptuality presented in Process and Reality.

Like many thinkers in the recent past, Whitehead is convinced that Descartes, with his dualistic ontology, is responsible for shunting philosophy off on a 300-year-long wild-goose chase.  If the knower is indeed a Cartesian substance requiring nothing (except perhaps God) in order to exist, there is no coherent way for that knower to break out of its isolation and enter into relations with an external world—this is a conclusion established vividly, Whitehead notes, by both Hume and Santayana.  Some contemporary philosophers (e.g. Richard Rorty) have suggested that philosophy has been driven into a box that should be labelled “The End of Philosophy.”  Whitehead agrees that we are witnessing the end of something, but he labels that something a “phase of philosophic thought which began with Descartes and ended with Hume” (1929, corrected edn, p. xi).  In order to move ahead into a new phase, he believes, we must recognize that all epistemological difficulties are only disguised metaphysical difficulties (cf. ibid., p. 189); the problems about knowing which have bedevilled modern philosophy have their roots in misguided assumptions about the nature of knowers.

A comparison which gives an intuitive insight into Whitehead’s metaphysical move at this point is the suggestion that Whitehead’s metaphysics is something like what would result if one took the metaphysics of Aristotle and instead of making the category of substance primary, made the category of relation primary.  Unlike a Cartesian being, which requires nothing but itself in order to exist, a Whiteheadian being, termed an actual entity, in an important sense is its relations to other beings.  It has been said that a Whiteheadian actual entity is something like a Leibnizian monad except that instead of being “windowless,” it is “all window.”  The genius, and the complexity, of Whitehead’s metaphysics is that he grounds his relational notion of being in the developments undergirding modern science.  Descartes’s problem is not that he was a philosophical dummy; rather, he was stuck with a fundamental scientific vision that viewed matter as inert stuff and saw energy as something external to matter.  Whitehead has the great advantage of living at a time when the concept of matter has been profoundly transformed so that energy is not external to, but of the essence of matter.  When this development is joined with the rise to prominence of the theory of evolution, Whitehead’s metaphysical chal-lenge becomes clear:  to so describe the character of being (of actual entities) that one can understand how human being emerged gradually from a simpler form of the very same, essentially relational being.  Rather than giving us a Cartesian dualism, Whitehead argues for a neutral monism embracing relatedness at its very core.


  • Science and the Modern World, New York: Macmillan, 1925

  • Religion in the Making, New York: Macmillan, 1926

  • Process and Reality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929

  • Adventures of Ideas, New York: Macmillan, 1933

  • Modes of Thought, New York: Macmillan, 1938

Posted April 26, 2007


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