Alfred North Whitehead

Principia Mathematica to *56
Principia Mathematica to *56 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was a British philosopher, logician and Cambridge-trained mathematician who worked with Bertrand Russell. Their coauthored Principia Mathematica (1910-13) argued that mathematics is essentially logic, a view critiqued by Kurt Gödel.

Despite Gödel’s important critique, Principia Mathematica has been rated 23rd among the top 100 English-language nonfiction books of the twentieth century.¹

Whitehead saw the world as an organic, interactive whole. He rallied against the so-called “Newtonian” worldview where the universe ticks away like a clock or machine.

At least, this view of Newton is something taught by hack professors in undergraduate university courses. In reality, it’s a gross simplification. A purely mechanistic interpretation of Sir Isaac Newton‘s work is a common bias that has little bearing on the fullness of his oeuvre.²

Whitehead also did important work on perception, showing that at the extremes it is anything but ‘clear and distinct.’ A good example of this is peripheral vision.

William A. Beardslee sums up some of the philosophical implications of Whitehead’s view of perception and reality:

Whitehead showed that the error of Hume and Kant was to take clear and distinct ideas or percepts as the model for knowing. Instead, he held, our direct knowledge is indistinct, loaded with feeling, and imprecise, while our clear perceptions are indirect projections upon reality. Whitehead termed these two modes of perception causal efficacy and presentational immediacy respectively. The two modes of perception are connected by “symbolic reference”; that is, the basic perceptual symbols function in both modes of perception, so that our indistinct but direct knowledge by “causal efficacy” is connected (though not infallibly) with our clear perceptions in “presentational immediacy.” The net result of this theory is to affirm that we can and do know things about the world as it is, for all the contributions of our minds in shaping our perceptions.³

Whitehead’s influence on contemporary thought does not stop there. His Process and Reality (1929) is usually credited with laying the philosophical foundations for Process Theology.


² See

³ William A. Beardslee, “Whitehead and Hermeneutic,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 47, No. 1, (Mar., 1979: 31-37), p. 32.

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