ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD: The Man and His Work, Vol. I: 1861-1910 by Victor Lowe

ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD: The Man and His Work, Vol. I: 1861-1910

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There has been no full-fledged biography of Whitehead (1861-1947) before this ambling, affectionate, agreeable study by his former student and friend--and it's easy to see why. The great philosopher-mathematician led a retired, bookish life; an intensely private person, he wrote few letters and in his will he ordered his papers and correspondence to be destroyed (they were). Whitehead had many friends in both England and America but, except for his wife Evelyn Wade, no intimates. So we are left with his brilliant public career (the first part of which, covered here, was spent almost entirely at Trinity College, Cambridge) and the recollections of Whitehead by his family and associates, notably Bertrand Russell. The picture that emerges is attractive but vague. Whitehead had a quietly happy childhood in Ramsgate, Kent. The son of an Anglican vicar, he was educated at home (thereby escaping some of the miseries of the English public school system) until he went to Sherborne at 15, where he captained the Rugby team, edited the school magazine, and was chosen Head Boy. Always superior in math, he snapped up all the prizes and sailed on to Cambridge, where he became Fourth Wrangler and a Fellow of Trinity. He was invited to join the illustrious group called the Apostles, but none of his essays read at their meetings has survived. He made a happy marriage in 1890 to the vivacious, possessive, ill-educated Miss Wade, who promptly took charge of his life. Lowe's story breaks off when Whitehead resigned his lectureship (partly in protest over the shabby treatment of an adulterous professor) and moved to London. Lowe, who is not a trained mathematician, bravely summarizes White-head's early technical work, including the Principia Mathematica (1910-13), which did more for Russell's reputation than his and had little lasting effect on mathematicians, despite its status of an instant classic. Whitehead at this point was still an agnostic (his loss of faith in 1897 or 1898 was characteristically painless), with his seminal writings in process theology still to come. Yet if there is no high drama or even stirring intellectual history in this first volume, it does place Whitehead in a detailed flesh-and-blood environment. As a resource: so far, so good.

Pub Date: April 15th, 1985
Publisher: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press