Alfred North Whitehead

"Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and human feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it..." - A. N. Whitehead


Many of us wonder who Alfred North Whitehead was. They say he was a Mathematician; for others, he was a philosopher. But who was he really?

Alfred North Whitehead was born in Feb. 15, 1861 at Ramsgate, Isle of Thanet, England. The youngest son of Alfred Whitehead and Maria Sarah Buckmaster. His father was a clergyman later becoming vicar of St. Peter’s in Thanet. His mother was the daughter of a prosperous military tailor. Because Whitehead’s parents consider him too frail for school or active sports, his father taught him at home until he was 14 years old and sent him to Sherborne School, Dorset, one of the best schools in England and received a classical education showing a special gift for Mathematics.

In 1880, Whitehead entered Trinity College, Cambridge and attended Mathematical lectures only. However, his interest in literature, religion, philosophy and politics were nourished solely by conversation. He did well in Mathematical Tripos (honors examination) of 1883-84, by this he won a Trinity fellowship and was appointed to the Mathematical staff of the college. He envisage a detailed comparative study of system of symbolic reasoning allied to ordinary algebra. After some time, he married Evelyn Willoughby Wade, a child of the impoverished Irish landed gentry and educated in France. She enriched Whitehead’s life immensely.

In 1898 to 1903, Whitehead continued to work on the second volume of his Universal Algebra but because he became preoccupied on a related, large investigation with Bertrand Russell, who was one of his students, he abandoned his work and centered more on his investigation. Whitehead first saw Russell’s brilliance when he examined him for an entrance scholarship at Trinity College. Gradually the two men became close friends. In fact, they went to the First International Congress of Philosophy in Paris where they became impressed by the precision of the Mathematician Giuseppe Peano who used symbolic logic to clarify the foundation of arithmetic. However, Russell mastered Peano’s notation and extended his method and by the end of 1900, he had written the first draft of his brilliant Principles of Mathematics. Whitehead agreed with its main thesis, i.e., all pure mathematics follows from a reformed formal logic that out of the two, logic is the fundamental discipline.

Whitehead contributed important writings like Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898); Principles of Mathematics (1903) which was written together with Russell; An Introduction to Mathematics (1911) which was the first book he wrote for a wider audience; Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Natural Knowledge (1919); The Concept of Nature (1920); Religion in the Making (1926) where he interpreted religion as reaching its deepest level in humanity’s solitude; Process and Reality (1929) which was considered one of the greatest books in Western metaphysics; Adventure of Ideas (1933) was Whitehead’s biggest philosophical book and the most rewarding one for the general reader.

Whitehead has not had a disciple, though his admirers have included leaders of every field of thought. His books have been translated into many languages and his metaphysics has been keenly studied in the United States. Whitehead’s "Process Theology" is easily the most influential part of his system; partly due to the influence of Charles Hartshorne, an American philosopher. Because of Whitehead’s habit of helpfulness, it made him universally beloved. Though his courtesy was perfect, there was nothing soft about him; never contentious. He was astute, charitable and quietly stubborn. He died on December 30, 1947 at Cambridge Mass. U.S.A.

- Nicandro Lim Jr.


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