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Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North WhiteheadBorn: 15-Feb-1861
Birthplace: Ramsgate, Isle of Thanet, Kent, England
Died: 30-Dec-1947
Location of death: Cambridge, MA
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Agnostic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Mathematician, Philosopher

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Metaphysical mathematician

Mathematician, philosopher, and metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead is chiefly remembered for his three volume Principia Mathematica (co-authored with Bertrand Russell), and for his development of process philosophy Process philosophy essentially states that: "Mathematical physics presumes in the first place an electromagnetic field of activity pervading space and time. The laws which condition this field are nothing else than the conditions observed by the general activity of the flux of the world, as it individualises itself in the events." Thus "nature is a structure of evolving processes. The reality is the process." Or to put it another way: process, rather than substance, should be taken as the fundamental metaphysical constituent of the world.

Born in Ramsgate, England in 1861, the youngest of four children, Alfred Whitehead was homeschooled by his father (an Anglican minister) until he was 14 years old. In 1875 he left home to attend Sherbourne Independent School where he showed a talent for mathematics. And in 1880 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1880 on a mathematics scholarship. Five years later he was a teacher at Trinity College and five years later still Bertrand Russell arrived as a student. Russell, who later asserted that "Whitehead was extraordinarily perfect as a teacher" adopted Whitehead as his mentor. Although the two had each already churned out their own separate and significant work (Whitehead was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1903 as for his work on universal algebra), they were together drawn by their overlapping areas of interest and research to jointly produce the groundbreaking work on the foundations of mathematics the now famous Principia Mathematica.

In 1910 the two published the first volume of the Principia. Whitehead moved to University College London, where he served as Dean of the Faculty of Science and held several other senior administrative posts. And in 1914 he and Russell completed their work on the final volume of Principia (the nearly decade long project was originally to have taken only a year to complete), Whitehead was appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, and for reasons not wholly clear, the two began to go drift in different directions.

Then, in 1924, Whitehead was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University and moved to the U.S. It was here that he began work on the metaphysical ideas that would give rise to process philosophy -- first expressed in Science and the Modern World (1925). Finally, in Process and Reality (1929, in which he presented an alternative to Einstein's views), he presented a more fully articulated philosophy, one that proclaimed that process, rather than substance, was the fundamental metaphysical constituent of the world.

Whitehead taught at Harvard until his retirement in 1937 and died in 1947. In the course of his lifetime Whitehead published roughly two dozen books including those mentioned above as well as The Principle of Relativity (1922), and The Function of Reason (1929). Honors accorded him include his election to the Royal Society in 1903, the James Scott Prize in 1922, the Royal Society's Sylvester Medal (1925), election as Fellow of the British Academy in 1931, and the Order of Merit, awarded him in 1945. His process philosophy was later developed into process theology by Charles Hartshorne et al. Whitehead was married once, to Evelyn Wade in 1891. They had three children, two sons and a daughter

As an interesting side note, although raised an Anglican, Whitehead considered for a time (in the 1880s) converting to the Roman Catholic religion. But ultimately he became an agnostic in response to new developments in science and his growing certainty that Newtonian physics was incorrect.

Wife: Evelyn Wade (two sons and a daughter)
Son: Eric Alfred Whitehead (d. WWI)

    High School: Sherbourne Independent School
    University: Trinity College, Cambridge University
    Professor: Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University (1924-37)

    Order of Merit
    British Academy 1931
    Royal Society 1903

Author of books:
Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898)
Mathematical Concepts of the Material World (1905)
An Introduction to Mathematics (1911)
Principia Mathematica (1913, with Bertrand Russell)
Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919)
Concept of Nature (1920)
Science and the Modern World (1925)
Religion in the Making (1926)
Process and Reality (1929)


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