Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Alfred North Whitehead was born February 15, 1861, on the Isle of Thanet, Kent. His family was actively engaged in the local church, politics and education. His grandfather, Thomas, served as headmaster at Ramsgate, a local private school, and his father, Alfred, succeeded him in that position. Alfred was ordained in 1860 as an Anglican priest, and quickly rose to prominence in the local church. In his autobiographical reminiscences, Alfred North Whitehead writes affectionately of his father and the prominent Anglican figures with whom he was acquainted, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, the presence of powerful and personable figures, and the domestic, political and ecclesial workings of provincial life were to profoundly impress the young man's mind.

Alfred North spent his youth being schooled at home and roaming the countryside. His parents, and his mother in particular, felt that their son was too frail to withstand the rough-housing that went on at grammar school, and therefore educated him at home. The young lad spent his free time exploring the natural and archaeological wonders which abounded in and around Ramsgate. Whitehead remembers fondly his youthful visits to the spot where Beckett fell in 1170 C.E., to Roman and Norman ruins, and the spot where both the Saxons and Augustine landed on the English shore (Whitehead 1947, 4-5). His early development was thus greatly influenced by a sense of the abiding presence and weight of the past.

At fourteen, Whitehead was enrolled at Sherborne, a public school in Dorsetshire. The school, founded in 721 C.E., was steeped in history, and claimed Alfred the Great among its alumni (Whitehead 1947, 5). His education centered on the study of the Classics, history and mathematics. Contrary to parental expectations as to his frailty, young Alfred North thrived in school. He was appointed as Head of School, the student body representative in charge of discipline, and Captain of the Games, heading up the rugby, cricket and football programs. At this time, Whitehead also cultivated an interest in poetry, primarily that of the English Romantics. His true talent, however, lay in mathematics, and his success in that field earned him a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1880.

At Cambridge, Whitehead's formal studies were quite focused. He writes that "during my whole undergraduate period at Trinity, all my lectures were on mathematics, pure and applied. I never went inside another lecture room. But the lectures were only one side of the education" (Whitehead 1947, 7). Whitehead cultivated a coterie of close friends in a variety of disciplines, and they would spend their nights in lively discussion of a wide range of topics. Whitehead became particularly enamored of philosophy, claiming to have committed sections of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason to memory, and writing that "I have never been able to read Hegel: I initiated my attempt by studying some remarks of his on mathematics which struck me as complete nonsense" (ibid.).

Whitehead was awarded a fellowship at Trinity and began to teach there in 1885. He would continue to teach there, eventually rising to the position of Senior Lecturer, until 1910. During his tenure, Whitehead would make two acquaintances which would greatly influence his personal and intellectual development. First, in 1890, Whitehead married Evelyn Willoughby. The impact of Evelyn's presence in his life has often been cited by admirers and biographers, although it is perhaps best to let Whitehead speak for himself on the subject.

Her vivid life has taught me that beauty, moral and aesthetic, is the aim of existence; and that kindness, and love, and artistic satisfaction are among its modes of attainment. Logic and science are the disclosure of relevant patterns, and also procure the avoidance of irrelevancies. (9)

Evelyn brought a vitality to their relationship which complimented Whitehead's own rigorous and academic nature. Together, they had three children, two sons, one of whom died in World War One, and a daughter.

It was during this period at Cambridge that Whitehead became acquainted with Bertrand Russell. Russell matriculated at Trinity College in the early 1890s, and Whitehead first encountered the brilliant young mathematician as a student. As time passed, they became colleagues and collaborators. In 1891, Whitehead began work on his first major book, Treatise on Universal Algebra, which would be published in 1898. This was to be the first of a multi-volume work in which Whitehead sought to derive mathematical principles and premises from formal logic. At the same time, Russell was working on The Principles of Mathematics (1903), the aim of which was similar to that of Whitehead's treatise. The two began to collaborate on the Principia Mathematica, the three volumes of which were published between 1910 and 1913. The relationship between Whitehead and Russell was not purely academic. Their families became quite close. Indeed, Russell gave Whitehead and his wife financial assistance during their tenure at Cambridge. Yet, over time, their interests and opinions, both academic, sociological and philosophical, began to diverge, and their collaboration ended (11).

In 1910, Whitehead resigned his position at Cambridge and moved to London. There he published his Introduction to Mathematics (1910), and in 1911 took a position at the University College of London. He moved to a position at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1914. While there, in addition to teaching applied mathematics and being quite involved in educational administration, Whitehead began to think and write more seriously on philosophy of science. The titles of the works stemming from this period reflect the change in focus of his thought: The Organization of Thought (1917), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), The Concept of Nature (1920), The Principle of Relativity (a response and criticism of Einstein's own theory, 1922), Science and the Modern World (1925).

In 1924, Whitehead left London for Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a chair in the Philosophy department at Harvard, which he occupied until 1937, and then stayed of as professor emeritus. While in America, Whitehead began to focus explicitly upon metaphysics. The shift towards constructive metaphysical work should not be understood as a break from either his work in mathematics (although some mathematicians of the period clearly saw it as such) nor his philosophy of science. Rather, Whitehead's metaphysics should be seen as the flourishing of ideas, the seeds of which can be seen early in his mathematical work. The writings of this period mark an attempt to surmise a "theory of everything," in which both mathematics and the hard sciences, the social sciences and the humanities may be rooted. Whitehead's stay in America was prolific. During this period he produced many of the texts which have proved most influential upon theological reflection, including: Religion in the Making (1926), Symbolism: It's Meaning and Effect (1927), Process and Reality (the dense but reasonably systematic presentation of his metaphysical system, 1929), Adventures of Ideas (1933), Nature and Life (1934), Modes of Thought (1938), and Essays in Science and Philosophy (1947).

On Christmas Day, 1947, Whitehead experienced what is thought to have been a stroke while his wife decorated the house. He lingered for a few days, then finally died December 30, 1947.

[Note: Those seeking a far more detailed biography of Whitehead should see Victor Lowe, Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).]

2. Works (Selected List)

The Organisation of Thought (1917); An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919); The Concept of Nature (1920); The Principle of Relativity (1922); Science and the Modern World (1925); Religion in the Making (1926); Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (1927); The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929); The Function of Reason (1929); Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929); Adventures of Ideas (1933); Modes of Thought (1938); Essays in Science and Philosophy (1947); The Interpretation of Science: Selected Essays (1961)

3. Themes

Whitehead's Process Metaphysics

Whitehead's metaphysical vision is grounded in the primacy of experience of the world. It thus seeks to unify in one conceptual scheme the perennial problems of the One and the Many, subjective and objective reality, and dynamic and substantive understandings of entities. The experience to which Whitehead looks is not merely the sensory experience of self-conscious organisms. Rather, such experience is seen as a rather complex and high-order manifestation of an even more fundamental form of experience. This primordial experience is the experience of becoming and of creativity, the experience of the world as a process in which each individual participates. It is an experience of both profound relationship, of contingency, of the dependence of the self upon the cast history of our cosmic epoch. Yet it is an experience which is subjective. While conditioned by the past, the individual experiences freedom in self-determination. Subjectivity and creativity are the fundamental characteristics of reality.

The fundamental constituent of reality for Whitehead is the actual occasion, sometimes termed the actual entity or occasion of experience. "'Actual entities' - also termed 'actual occasions' - are the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real" (PR, 18). Actual occasions constitute the basic fabric of our reality. The laws which govern our reality, indeed time and space itself, are the products of the history of actual occasions in our cosmic epoch. Each occasion is an atomic and concrete entity. A useful analogy for the actual occasion is the pixel on a computer screen. The broader patterns are made up of individual points. Each point has an existence, a facticity of its own, but each also contributes to the elaboration of more complex structures. Reality is the coming into existence of such occasions. The world thus envisioned is dynamic, bubbling over everywhere with outbursts of creativity. Hand in hand with this vision of a dynamic reality grounded in actual occasions is the ontological principle. Whitehead states this principle in a variety of ways: "All real togetherness is togetherness in the formal constitution of an actuality" (PR, 32); "It is the principle that everything is positively somewhere in actuality, and in potency everywhere" (PR, 40). Perhaps the clearest explanation is Whitehead's simple assertion that, "The ontological principle can be summarized as: no actual entity, then no reason" (PR, 19). That is, to be real and to exert influence is to exist in an actual entity. As we shall see, the ontological principle is fundamental to the necessity of God in Whitehead's system.

Each actual occasion marks the completion of a subjective process. In the process of becoming, the occasion feels the influence of the past, of occasions which have already completed their process of concrescence, of coming to be. Thus, each actual occasion is a distillation of the totality of the past. All concrete actual occasions are present in the process of concrescence of each new occasion of experience. They are present either immediately, as a specific datum of experience, or mediately, and an element synthesized in a previous instance of concrescence. That is to say, in the actual occasion X, the past occasions A, B and C are present as data of experience. Occasion A may be experienced directly, as may B and C, or that B and C may be experienced as a constituent of the occasion A. This applies to what are termed both positive and negative prehensions. Actual entities may be felt and actively incorporated into the becoming of new entities of experience. Such a prehension is a positive prehension, for the influence of the occasion is registered in the emergent novel unity. The influence of past occasions may also be rejected in the course of the synthetic process. This latter type of prehension (and rejection) is negative. In either case, past occasions do bear upon the emergence of novel entities.

The most basic processes of concrescence can be divided into three stages, organized around two poles: the physical and the mental. [Note: Whitehead does not intend to imply consciousness proper to each actual occasion. Rather, the mental pole is descriptive of the more complex and subject process of valuation which involves not concrete data, but rather eternal objects or potentials.] Hosinski, drawing on Whitehead, elaborates 4 steps in the first two phases (cf. Hosinski, 90-91). In the first phase, which involves the physical pole, there are (1) the data of the actual occasions which are received, (2) the act of reception (inheritance/physical prehension), (3) the "how" of the reception, or "subjective feeling" (which involves a basic evaluation of data, and (4) the conformation of feelings (the correlation of the subjective feeling of the prehension with the objects of experience themselves).

The second phase involves the mental pole. It's four steps involve not actual occasions, but the prehension or feeling of possibilities, potentials, enduring patterns and eternal objects which appear in the prehension of the actual occasions. Conceptual prehension deals with eternal objects, which are "the pure potentials of the universe; and the actual entities differ from each other in the realization of potentials" (PR, 149). As Hosinski suggests, these eternal objects fall into two groups: "those forms or potentials exhibited in the given actual situation (or, more technically, those forms or potentials ingredient in the objective content or datum for experience); and those which might be or are not exhibited in the given actual situation (or those not ingredient in the objective datum)" (Hosinski, 86). Although the data of the conceptual phase differ from those of the physical, the steps are similar. Again, there are (1) the things to be received, (2) the act of reception, (3) the manner of reception. The fourth step differs in so far as there is a mental weighing of the potentials given, an evaluation of a variety of possibilities not only in their own right, but also with regards to developing a subjective aim for the actual entity itself. The occasion develops a subjective aim for its satisfaction, in light of the conditions of the past.

The mental and physical poles of concrescence deal with both the conditioned aspect of existence, while admitting the possibility of independent action and decision. The process is neither deterministic, nor merely free. Indeed, the third phase, that of integration, unites the conceptual feelings (phase two) with the physical prehensions (phase one). It is the phase of decision, wherein the entity unites its subjective aim with the reality of its past and becomes concrete. The process for that occasion ends. The many become the one: the totality of the past is made concrete again in actual occasions. Actuality means the end of this instantiation of the process. Actual occasions are brute facts; they are complete and unalterable. No longer subjects, they become “superjects.” That is, as objects available to the prehension of occasions in the process of emerging into actuality, they continue to affect the future. Whitehead describes reality as a state of perpetual perishing, the accumulation of "dead" occasions which influence the future. In becoming actual, occasions achieve "objective immortality:" their influence is carried over indefinitely into the future. The process of becoming actual is also termed "enjoyment" by Whitehead, stressing the aesthetic nature of the process of feeling/prehending the past and developing a subjective aim, an aim which is reached in the occasion's "satisfaction."

Thus far we have been speaking at the microscopic level. Actual entities are the minute fabric of reality. The normal objects of our perception (chair, self, government) are themselves composed of nexus of actual entities which embody a social order. The world in which we live is composed of societies of actual occasions which demonstrate continuity and definiteness over time. Within such a society of occasions, there are established orders of "conduct" which govern their development and the interrelation of included entities. The level of complexity in societies vary. For example, one can have a rather simple society, such as a rock, or indeed a more complex society (or society of societies) such as a human being. Societies are thus distinct from other things, but nevertheless form a unity with the whole of reality, as do their constituent occasions, for in each society (and occasion) the entirety of the world is registered in its development and satisfaction Individuality and relatedness are bound up in the process of being. We therefore can begin to understand Whitehead's notion of his system as a "philosophy of organism." Each entity, though independent, forms itself in relation to the totality of the past. Each actual occasion is related to every other. Within the universe, there may be specialized organizations/societies of occasions, but all participate in the becoming/coming together of the future in new occasions. By analogy, we may look to the human organism. It forms a unity, within which there are a diversity of specialized organs (heart, liver, eyes). These organs, or societies, are interrelated, though distinct, and cooperate together in the life of the organism. Whitehead's vision of the universe is decidedly not mechanistic. In a mechanistic worldview, the functioning parts are independent of another. They may work together, but the parts remain distinct. One can take the machine apart, examine its bits in isolation, then put it back together again. In the organism, however, each part can be understood only in relation to the whole. To separate a component from the organism is to, in a sense, destroy it, for it loses its relation, and therefore the foundation of its being (see Hosinski, 25-26).

The Necessity of God and the Divine Natures

The system thus far described is incomplete in that it cannot adequately explain the foundations of the creative advance into novelty which characterizes the universe. As Hosinski points out, there are three questions which remain unresolved (see Hosinski, 156-163). The first relates to potentiality. If actual occasions merely prehend the objective forms of the past, the world would be a very dull place. It would consist only in the repetition of eternal patterns. But new things do happen, and possibilities which have yet to be realized enter into reality. Yet for these "unseen" possibilities to be real potentials, for the eternal objects to affect the decisions of occasions, they must be grounded in an actual entity, according to the dictate of the ontological principle. We must ask the related questions of the ground of the general potentiality of the universe, and the question of how these not-yet actual potentials are communicated to concrescing entities (Hosinski, 157-158).

The second as-of-yet unanswered question regards the origin of subjectivity. One can explain the steps involved in the development of a subjective aim in the process of concrescence, but one still needs to locate the origin of the initial subjective aim. Again, this initial aim must be derived from an actual entity, yet subjectivity ceases with satisfaction. Whither, then, the initial aim? (Hosinski, 158-159). The final question which remains unanswered is as to the order and value evident in creation. Whitehead asserts that there must be certain categorial conditions which undergird the unfolding of the creative process. There must be both limits and values placed upon the free flow of creativity; otherwise all that would ensue would be discontinuous chaos (Hosinski, 159-162).

The answer to these questions as to the origins of potential, the initial subjective aim, and order and value is God. God is the atemporal actual occasion which provides the world with its aims and with the eternal objects which guide creation. God must be an actual occasion, for according to the ontological principle, the reality of the initial aim, general potential and order and value must issue forth from an object of experience. God is not an afterthought to the system, but rather an integral part to its operation and description of both process and reality. God is the reason (and therefore the entity) which makes the existence of other actual entities possible. God "provides the limitation for which no reason can be given: for all reason flows from it. God is the ultimate limitation, and His existence is the ultimate irrationality" (SMW, 257). This is not to suggest that God is truly irrational, but God is the precondition for the existence of rationality.

While God is indeed an actual entity, the divine entity is of a unique type. God is the non-temporal actual entity. Although related to the world, God is not within the time of the world. Rather, God is conceived of as the actual entity which is eternally prehending and concrescing. There is no completion in this vision of God. God is eternal and therefore unfinished, open-ended, relating and responding to the unfolding world.

God is described as having two natures: primordial and consequent. That is to say, "analogously to all actual entities, the nature of God is dipolar [i.e., God has both a mental and a physical pole]. He has both a primordial nature and a consequent nature (PR, 345). The primordial nature is an infinite envisioning of all potentialities. It is the sum total of the eternal objects existing in an ideal harmony. In a sense, the primordial nature of God is akin to the Platonic realm of the forms, infused with a greater sense of relationality. In the divine vision, the multiplicity of possibilities exist harmoniously in their ideal form as eternal objects. It is from the primordial nature that the initial aims of actual occasions are derived. God provides the occasion with a harmonious vision of the potentials, both seen and unseen, in a given situation.

Were God merely this vision of the ideal harmonization of eternal objects, God would not be truly subjective nor actual. For God to matter in the system, God must be both. The primordial nature is but half of the divine equation.

This side of his nature is free, complete, primordial, eternal, actually deficient, and unconscious. The other side originates with physical experience derived from the temporal world, and then acquires integration with the primordial side. It is determined, incomplete, consequent, 'everlasting,' fully actual, and conscious. His necessary goodness expresses the determination of his consequent nature (PR, 345).

The consequent nature of God is that aspect of the divine which prehends the world. It draws up the experience of the world into the divine life, and incorporates it into its own eternal process of concrescence. In so doing, God orders the plurality of experience into the divine unity, bringing about the best possible harmony of events.

Thus the actuality of God must also be understood as a multiplicity of actual components in process of creation. This is God in his function of the kingdom of heaven….Each actuality in the temporal world has its reception into God's nature. The corresponding element in God's nature is not temporal actuality, but the transmutation of that temporal actuality into an ever-present fact. An enduring personality in the temporal world is a route of occasions in which the successors with some peculiar completeness sum up their predecessors. The correlate fact in God's nature is an even more complete unity of life in a chain of elements for which succession does not mean a loss of immediate unison (PR, 350).

In God, the world achieves its perfection, it ultimate unity and harmonization. Their immortality is assured in the eternity of the divine process of concrescence and creativity.

By prehending the world as it is, God also responds to the world, guiding each occasion to its most perfect satisfaction. God does so by coordinating the present state of the world with the ideal vision held in the primordial nature. God then issues the initial aim to those actual occasions about to become. This initial aim does not determine the satisfaction of the occasion. Whitehead stresses the fundamental freedom of each entity to decide on its final aim and satisfaction (albeit a freedom conditioned by the weight of an inherited past). God does however graciously guide occasions toward their fullest flourishing into harmony and value. Thus God and world are knit intimately together; the one depends upon the other, and both are the concrete manifestation of the creative process.

Theological Implications

Alfred North Whitehead was not a theologian; however his philosophy of organism has had profound influences on theological and metaphysical thought, principally in the United States. His emphasis on process, creativity, harmony and the interrelation of the divine and human open a variety of avenues for theological construction. Whitehead's metaphysics may build bridges between the theological, social and physical sciences by providing a common conceptual framework. With regards to the philosophy of religion, it suggests that each tradition serves to embody certain eternal truths within an appropriate socio-historical context. With regards to ethics, it promotes ideas of individual freedom and mutual responsibility and dependence, while also giving basis for normative decisions and also the means by which to develop situational ethics.

One may maintain certain traditional Christian theological symbols are indeed maintained. God is indeed the judge of the world, discriminating in the prehensions of its actualities into the divine life. God also remains the ultimate source and locus of the true, the good and the beautiful. We can speak meaningfully of God's omniscience, although with certain limitations. As the divine nature prehends perfectly the world as it is, and in its ideal although does not yet grasp the non-actual future, we may say that God knows all there is to know, and holds in the primordial nature the picture of any future possibility. In his conception of the divine origin of the initial subjective aim, we can find the grounds for theologies of grace and revelation, while the freedom granted subjects in this system also leaves the door open for an explanation of sin (the failure to follow the divine suggestion, or the failure to realize ever more aesthetically pleasing and harmonious potentials).

At the same time, Whitehead's system seems to reject significant traditional Christian theological symbols. First and foremost, it rejects trinitarian thought, positing the oneness of God. One also needs to do a great deal of work to discuss the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Further, while admitting that God is unique, God is not, in a sense, the ultimate principal. God itself is an instantiation of the created process, not the Creator. While the world depends upon God for its order and meaning, God depends upon the world for the divine enjoyment and satisfaction. God's nature is therefore in a sense contingent upon the reality of the world (and vice versa). God is also clearly not omnipotent. The divine merely guides the unfolding process of creation.

Whitehead's system nevertheless proves attractive to contemporary Christian theologians. I would argue this attraction derives from the compelling portrait it paints of both the complexity of a highly relational universe, and the aesthetic and moral hope it offers. It is a vision well suited to those religious thinkers concerned with issues relating to the just distribution of power, the impact of human action upon the environment, and those who struggle with issues of theodicy. It accurately portrays the world and humanity as stumbling along, occasionally finding and nurturing true greatness and beauty, and realizing goodness in life. It also gives a strong foundation for a panentheistic vision of God as co-creator, co-sufferer in our perils, striving along with us to realize our mutual potential.

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Cobb, John B., Jr., and Griffin, David Ray. 1976. Process Theology: an Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Hartshorne, Charles and Peden, Creighton. 1981. Whitehead's View of Reality. New York: The Pilgrim Press.

Hosinski, Thomas E. 1993. Stubborn Fact and Creative Advance: An Introduction to the Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1917. The Organisation of Thought, Educational and Scientific. London: Williams and Norgate.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1919. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reprint. New York: Dover Publications, 1982.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1920. The Concept of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reprint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1922. The Principle of Relativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1925. Science and the Modern World. New York: Macmillan. (Abbreviated here as SMW)

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1926. Religion in the Making. New York: Macmillan. Reprint. New York: New American Library, 1974. Reissued with introduction by Judith A. Jones and glossary by Randall E. Auxier. New York: Fordham University Press, 1996. (Abbreviated here as RM)

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1927. Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. New York: Macmillan. Reprint. New York: Capricorn Books, 1959.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1929. The Aims of Education and Other Essays. New York: Macmillan. Reprint. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1929. The Function of Reason. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Reprint. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1929. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Macmillan. Corrected edition, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The Free Press, 1978. (Abbreviated here as PR)

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1933. Adventures of Ideas. New York: Macmillan. Reprint. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1938. Modes of Thought. New York: Macmillan. Reprint. New York: The Free Press, 1968.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1947. Essays in Science and Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1961. The Interpretation of Science: Selected Essays. Edited by A. H. Johnson. Indianapolis: Bobbs- Merrill.

7. Internet Resources


8. Related Topics

Process Theology

John B Cobb, Jr. (1925- )

Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000)

Schubert Ogden


Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by David L. McMahon (1999).


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