Who is Alfred North Whitehead?

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Scientists who like to work in different fields were quite common in the 20th century and before. People who can specialize in more than one field can be seen as quite remarkable people for the people of the 21st century and this century, where focusing has become a very difficult achievement. One of these scientists was Alfred North Whitehead.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was an important mathematician, logician, educator and philosopher. The astonishing complexity of Whitehead’s thought, combined with the extraordinary literary quality of his writing, made him one of the most quoted but least read philosophers. Although he is best known for his collaboration with Bertrand Russell on the “Principia Mathematica”, he also made highly innovative contributions to philosophy, especially in the field of process metaphysics.

Alfred Whitehead in Brief

Alfred North Whitehead was born in England on February 15, 1861. In 1879, he took the exam to attend Trinity College in Cambridge. With a high score and a scholarship, especially in mathematics, he began his studies at Trinity in 1880. This scholarship also qualified Whitehead for further rewards and prestige, and eventually led to his selection as a lecturer at Trinity.

Whitehead is known to have focused on teaching early in his career and taught at Trinity from 1884 to 1910. There are no published works from this period. In 1891, at the age of thirty, Whitehead married Evelyn Wade. In this way, he started a more productive period. During this period, Whitehead began to write his first major publication, “Treatise on Universal Algebra”. Although the book did not attract the expected interest in mathematics, it paved the way for his election as a “Fellow of the Royal Society” in 1903.

Alfred Whitehead and Principia Mathematica

After the publication of his first work, Whitehead began a long collaboration on what became known as the Principia Mathematica with his student Bertrand Russell, who would eventually become an academic at Trinity.

Although much of the Principia was written by Russell, the work was truly a collaborative effort, as the extant correspondence between the two shows. The aim of the Principia was to deduce all arithmetic from absolute logical principles. However, due to the book’s thickness, the fourth volume never appeared.

Who is Alfred North Whitehead? 1

Whitehead’s role in the project was to be the principal author of the fourth volume, which was to be the logical foundations of geometry, rather than working with Russell on the extensive details of the first three volumes. However, due to the thickness of the book, the fourth volume never appeared.

By 1900, Whitehead had been at Trinity College for thirty years and had reached a creative block. During this period, his friend and colleague Andrew Forsyth had to face the loss of his existing staff due to his affair with a married woman. Using this as a bit of an excuse, Whitehead also resigned his own professorship. At the age of 49, with no job security, he moved his family to London.

The Philosophical Works of Alfred North Whitehead

It was here that Whitehead’s philosophical creativity exploded. His decades-long exploration of logic and spatial thinking revealed itself in a series of three books on science, nature and Einstein’s theory of relativity. In 1914, the Royal College of Science and Technology in London appointed him professor of applied mathematics.

By 1921, Whitehead had reached the age of sixty, the mandatory retirement age within the British academic system. In 1924, he accepted an appointment as professor of philosophy at Harvard University. The Harvard period was to be his most productive. It was during this period that he wrote his publications “Science and the Modern World”, “Process and Reality” and “Adventures in Ideas”.

Whitehead continued to teach at Harvard until his retirement in 1937. He was elected to the British Academy in 1931 and received the Order of Merit in 1945. He died on December 30, 1947. In his will, he asked his wife to burn all his works after his death. Because he believed that the evaluation of his thoughts should be based only on his published works.

Ali Esen

Istanbul University, Department of Mathematics. Interested in science and technology.