To Live Without Certitude: Dialogues of Whitehead

Philosopher, author, and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead was born in England in 1861, taught long, full years at Cambridge University and at the University of London, and brought his career to a golden sunset at Harvard. He was one of the most illuminating conversationalists of our time. After his retirement, his talk was confined to a few intimates, of whom LUCIEN PRICE was one. Mr. Price, the author of We Northmen and Winged Sandals, has recorded with the discipline and accuracy of a trained journalist the audacity and the probing of the philosopher’s mind in his new book, Dialogues of Whitehead, which is shortly to be published. His record of the conversations was read and authorized by Whitehead. The Atlantic is proud to present three characteristic excerpts from this book, which has been more than a decade in preparation.



WHITEHEAD’S sojourn at Harvard was a prism of varied lights. One of these was his intimate mingling with students—not only his own but anyone who eared to come to his Sunday evenings. Hundreds of them must remember his brilliancy and warmth.

In later years, guests were fewer and more likely to be personal friends. A lifelong practice of recording memorable conversations for my own benefit had prepared me unwittingly, and, well aware how remarkable his conversation was, I wrote it down nearly verbatim always within a day or two afterward. Nine years of this, 1932 to 1941; then the typescripts were shown to the philosopher. He read them and approved, as he also did those which followed from 1941 to 1947 — about forty-four Dialogues in all. Their immense range and depth can be no more than suggested in the three chosen for publication in the Atlantic.

December 15, 1939. — The second world war had begun. This was my first evening with the Whiteheads since that event in September. One still approached the subject cautiously with anybody, for feeling ran high and unpredictably. Not here, however. We came to it at once: —

“I doubt,” said he, “if the world has ever had suffering on such an enormous scale as this.”

“You surprise me. Not Rome under the bad emperors?”

“The suffering and anxiety there were largely confined 1o the upper classes; but—well, yes, I suppose the suffering of the immense slave population on which that society rested must have been enormous.”

“The historian Priscus tells of his visit to the camp of Attila’s Huns, passing through territories where whole communities had committed suicide at their approach; then arriving at their camp, he found those selfsame warriors full of enthusiasm and singing songs about their own virtues . . (I had intended to relate this to the quantitative aspect of human suffering, when my mind lost the thread..I said so, and said it had been happening to me frequently of late.)

“I am relieved to hear you say so,” said he, “for mine does the same and I was attributing it to my age.”

“It is fatigue, rather, I think. The consciousness of the war is always there; we are forced to rethink ordinary thoughts with reference to it; often we do this unconsciously, but the effort after a while is exhausting. It is a subconscious drag.”

“For a while after the war started,” said he, “I was able to do nothing; it was constantly in my thoughts, but now of late I have absorbed it into my mental processes, and I am beginning to work again.”

“Scott Nearing, who breakfasted with me this morning (he is one of the war horses of American liberalism), says the problem of our time is how to live well in a decaying society. I am not so sure. Certainly we do live in a contracting economy, but may not the impact of this scientific technology, and the violence and confusion engendered by it, bring about a reintegration of our society? Better not despair prematurely—not that I suggest that any of us are likely to do so. But every great age, — fifth-century Athens, Augustan Rome, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the French Revolution,— was preceded or accompanied by violence and upheaval; Persian war in Greece, Roman civil wars before Augustus, and so on. . . . Isn’t it too soon to judge? And can we be surprised at what has happened when we think of the mechanical and intellectual changes since the turn of the century?”

“I have lived three distinct lives in this single span,”said Whitehead; “one from childhood to the first world war; one from 1914 to my residence in America in 1924; and a third here since 1924. The first seems the most fantastic; in those years from the 1880’s to the first war, who ever dreamed that the ideas and institutions which then looked so stable would be impermanent?”

“Although I was a little boy when you were already a man grown, that world of the 1890’s seems to swim in a golden haze of mythological idyll.”

“Fifty-seven years ago it was,” said he, “when I was a young man in the University of Cambridge. I was taught science and mathematics by brilliant men and I did well in them; since the turn of the century I have lived to see every one of the basic assumptions of both set aside; not, indeed, discarded, but of use as qualifying clauses instead of as major propositions; and all this in one life-span, — the most fundamental assumptions of supposedly exact sciences set aside. And yet, in the face of that, the discoverers of the new hypotheses in science are declaring, Now at last, we have certitude'— when some of the assumptions which we have seen upset had endured for more than twenty centuries.”

“Is that a reason why you are at pains to use a new terminology for your own concepts?”

“ Volt have noticed that, then?”

“I have noticed that I can understand the first third and the last third of your Adventures of Ideas and of your essay on the Harvard Tercentenary, but that in the middle third I bog down. Is the middle third over the head of a layman who is willing to keep rereading it?”

“No. I don’t think so. I write for the layman, and in so doing I avoid the technical language usual among philosophers.”

“The philosophers don’t like him for it,” said his wife, “though they have been very sweet about it.”

“But I am convinced,” said he, resuming, “that what philosophers should do is relate their thoughts to the needs of common life. And there is another tiling they need to do. When you consider how at pains men of science are to base their hypotheses on carefully criticized assumptions, — how they set up tests to control experiments — then see how the fundamental concepts of even the greatest philosophers in the past must have been largely conditioned by the necessarily ephemeral environmental relationships in which they lived: My criticism is: how unhesitatingly later thinkers have accepted their conclusions without pausing to reexamine them in terms of changed social conditions.”

“A striking example of it,” said I, “is Aristotle’s Politics. They must have been based on the fundamental assumption that the City-State is (he regnant political form and that, too, in an age when it was already being outmoded and about to be supplanted by military monarchies on a model derived from the conquests of Alexander the Great, his own pupil.”

“ That is an excellent example of what I mean. There is an enormous need for philosophies to be rethought in the light of the changing conditions of mankind.”

“How much of this can be done by intellect alone?”

“I doubt if we get very far by the intellect alone. I doubt if intellect carries us very far. I have spoken of direct insights. The longer I live the more I am impressed by the enormous,” — he urged his voice into emphasis, and half closed his eyelids, — “the unparalleled genius of one philosopher, and that is Plato. There seems hardly an insight that he has not had or anticipated; and even after you have allowed, as I was saying a moment ago, for the modifications introduced by changed social conditions since he thought and wrote, and the consequent variations which must be made, still in essence the most of it stands. he came face-to-face with these realities, truths not directly apprehensible by the average man, then by a marvel of subtlety and dialectic, whittled them down to a form in which they could be grasped by the educated Athenian of his day.”


IT WAS by now about half after ten. The tray of hot chocolate was brought in. We got on the question whether English Methodism had had any economic determinant.

“Not a bit, I think.” said Whitehead. “In John Wesley you had that very unusual combination: a man of spiritual insight coupled with great organizing ability. He organized as naturally as he breathed. I owe lo my friend Élic Halévy one of the most penetrating observations on English history that I have ever heard; namely, that the French revolutionary ideas, especially Jacobinism, were prevented from crossing the English Channel by the religious idea of the Wcsleyans, who looked upon the Jacobins as godless. The revolutionaries were, as you remember, deists,— Robespierre, Saint-Just, and that lot, — but to a Methodist that was as good as nothing at all. Then when, nta the development of the industrial age, the rich middle-class families began to marry into the aristocracy, it did a singular thing—that mixture gave an aristocracy, almost for the first time in history, a religious tinge which colored the whole of English political life in the nineteenth century.” “America,” said he, “was founded by people of both these groups, with social responsibility and moral sense. It has often seemed to me that that was why the eighteenth century in England was so flat; the vivid people had come over here in the seventeenth. France did better in the eighteenth. And the principal result of the French Revolution was the American Revolution. It failed in France but in America it succeeded.”

“ Romain Holland in Jean Christophe makes someone say that what has made the English so formidable is that they have been for centuries a nation of Bible-readers.”

“That sounds more like a literary idea than an historical force,” he considered it doubtfully, then said, “The Bible excels in its suggestion of infinitude.” Suddenly he stood and spoke with passionate intensity, “Here we are with our finite beings anti physical senses in the presence of a universe whose possibilities are infinite, and even though tec may not apprehend them, those infinite possibilities are actualities.” He remained standing a moment, absorbed in his own thought, then reseating himself continued, “The trouble with the Bible has been its interpreters, who have scaled and whittled down that sense of infinitude into finite and limited concepts, and the first interpreter of the New Testament was the worst, Paul.

“Do you happen to have read Nietzsche’s AntiChrist?

“ No.”

“It sounds more violent than it is, though it is vigorous enough. To my astonishment, he is rather tender toward Jesus, says there was only one Christian and he died on the cross. But Saint Paul certainly does catch it.”

“One has to speak of the end of Christianity in terms of a thousand years,” he said, smiling, “but it has assumed so many forms in its history that I often speculate on its taking a new and perhaps final form here in America, coalescing with your democratic idea of life. M ith all its limitations, life in America is better and kinder than anywhere else on earth that I have ever heard of in history. But the clergy have lost their hold. In America a man in trouble now goes to his doctor, he would not think of telling his parson, saving here or there when his parson is an exceptional individual. In England the man people went to in trouble was the old family solicitor; you gel that in English fiction; he is a familiar figure there. The problem in religion is to link fmitude to infinitude. It is significant that people no longer believe in heaven.”

“What would you find to do in a Christian heaven?”

“I would far rather go to Limbo, where I could meet the Greek philosophers and Roman statesmen and exchange ideas.”

“How,” asked Mrs. Whitehead, “could a person beguile the mortal tedium of heaven? At least as it. is generally depicted, an oratorio in costumes.”

“Something needs to be found to take its place,” said he.

“Might not some form of creativity be what is wanted?”

We discussed that. He said, “Sir Richard Livingstone wrote me that to him the most significant sentence in my Aims of Education was the one that says the common man needs to be convinced of the importance of the work he is doing,”

“Of his function, not the importance of himself,” said Mrs. Whitehead.

“Similarly, the central problem in modern philosophy’ is how to relate the one and the many,” Whitehead resumed. “Plato talks about that. He was right about so many things and sometimes also dreadfully wrong. The modern tendency is to say, ‘I am happy now. The future does not matter! but the ‘now’ is meaningless without a significant future. What is wanted is to relate all the ‘nows with the future.”

“What,” asked Mrs. Whitehead, “is the distinction between intelligence and ability? I have the idea that we are all delighted to find intelligence in a child or in an adolescent but that if we are still admiring it in an adult there is something wrong.”

“Isn’t there a character in one of Dickens’s novels,” I asked, “who is always, to the end of his days, spoken of as ‘a promising young man’? I suggest that intelligence is quickness to apprehend as distinct from ability, which is capacity to act. wisely on the thing apprehended. But what I have been burning to ask is, What do we mean when we say that a person has depth? Wo know what we mean but can’t put it into words.”

“Precisely not,” said Whitehead, “for depth is the power to take into account all those factors in a situation which cannot be adequately verbalized.”

“When they are verbalized,” said she, “they flatten out. It is the ability to sec around things, and to see them in all their relationships.”

“Are we to suppose that it is inherited or acquired

“Acquired? No,” said she. “Inherited, yes; but developed.”

“You get the best ability,” said Whitehead, “from children reared in an economic status without luxury, which admits them at an early age to the society of people responsible for a community. ‘The community may be a big one but needn’t be; merely responsible persons doing public work. That is one. The other needn’t even be in a comfortable economic position, but the child must be born with or reared in ideas strongly moral or religious.”

“Your moral and religious sense are what have served you, Altie. You got them from your parson father.”

(Whitehead’s paradox sounds anachronistic. But he is thinking in terms of ideas rather than of their physical consequences. By “revolution” he means not the outbreaks of armed violence at Concord Bridge in 1775 and at the Bastille in 1789; he means that prolonged ferment of thought, mainly in France, which antedated them both.)

We were presently discussing the lack of enthusiasm in Harvard, as distinguished from the tone of the Midwest, and especially among Harvard undergraduates, where enthusiasm was socially bad form. Whitehead said it was lacking from the Boston and New York sons of prosperous families and in one third of the undergraduates; that another, the middle third, is neutral as always; but that the final third have it, boys largely from smaller towns and more remote places. As for the Faculty, he admitted that the tone of many of them was set by the upper-class boys. He thought they do not have voice enough in the government of American universities, but they never have had, in contradistinction to England, where they are the governing body. Here, it is every professor for his department; at Trinity you had some of that too, but at the bottom they were all one in wanting Trinity to be a place of lively educational value. When London University was being assembled from schools widely sundered, one of the stipulations was that the faculty have a voice in the management of the institution.

“England has evolved its university system; I often wonder how long it will take us to evolve one peculiarly adapted to our own needs.”

“The university system in England has changed momentously since 1900,” he said. “Before that, you had Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St. Andrews. Since then these others have sprung up.” He named half a dozen.

Into the discussion then came the question of how to keep thought from freezing into static ideas, and how easy it is for scholarship to wither into dead learning. When the Senior Fellows were last choosing from among the candidates for the Junior Fellowships, he said a young archaeologist had read a learned paper to the Committee on whether a certain excavated pillar was dated wrongly three years one way or the other!

(“And Ferguson sat chin-on-left-hand scowling concentration,

(and Chase sat chin-on-right-hand scowling concentration,

(and Lowes sat chin-on-both-hands scowling concentration,

(and all the while it didn’t matter one way or the other.) But a young fellow named Charles Moore presented a paper on Sophocles which was so good that if it wasn’t true of Sophocles, it ought to have been.”

“How old is he?”

“About twenty-two, I should say.”

“That seems young to understand so much about Sophocles.”

“ Perhaps he doesn’t; but two of us said he should get in if over our dead bodies.”


FROM here Whitehead turned the subject to Boston newspapers,

“The Herald,” said he, with a slightly heightened sparkle, “gives the point of view of the prosperous businessman admirably, perhaps too admirably, — but if you want to know what New England of all classes is thinking — and I do want to know — it is the Globe that you must read. We hazard a guess that a good many of the editorials on foreign relations, especially those about British foreign policy, are written by an irate Irishman.”

“They are.”

“He is quite within his rights; only he gives undue importance to a phase of Tory influence which annoys him.”

“His grandfather was knocked down and beaten bv British troops in Ireland. The memory was still vivid with his grandmother when she told him about it. He is a man of extraordinary ability with high principles which are kept in daily working-order.”

Without asking who had written it, they spoke of the editorial on music published November 24th. In it I had said that great music, even more than great literature, is intelligible to children, since it speaks directly to the emotions, the imagination, and the intuitions, faculties which in childhood are often more acute than they are when we have grown up, and that no blunder could be more stupid than to suppose children do not sense grandeur in the arts. While agreeing with it in the main, he said: —

“Not all children respond to music. About fifty per cent, I should say. It would have been better to qualify. Mind you, I agree with your main contention, that all children have a right to be presented to these major experiences, in literature, the arts, nature; they can then select those which will be fruitful to them. I was especially struck by your remark that the charm of good music is that it surprises the ear by the unexpected interval, and that that element of surprise is permanent, no matter how familiar the music may become. It is a principle which carries over into other affairs of life; what we crave is the element of freshness, and some of the most vivid experiences seem to have in them an element of freshness which is perpetual. This carries over, too, into related areas of experience so that when we are freshened in one area it freshens us for others.”

“My home environment,” l said, “a small town, was so aesthetically barren that we were forced upon books and music (apart from friends, and what beauty of nature there was) in order to keep our souls alive.”

“His, too,” said Mrs. Whitehead, “a country parsonage, was a milieu where the aesthetic was not only absent, but held in contempt.”

“Your saYing that this freshening of the whole nature by a novel experience, of which music is an example, carries over into other afairs of life reassures me after what Bliss Perry said about this same subject: ‘I don’t see how you can transform sound-patterns from music into moral concepts.

“But that is exactly what music does do,” said he, “revivifies the whole nature.'

“How can anybody be the same person after a close knowledge of Beethoven’s last quartets that he was before?”

This led Whitehead to speak of the striking difference between the seventeenth-century poets in England and those of the eighteenth. “With the eighteenth-century men you never find anything in their poetry that you don’t think you could have wrilten yourself; but the charm of the seventeenthcentury English poetry is that you come upon something totally unexpected and say, ‘ I here! It is inconceivable that I could ever have thought of this!’”

It was growing late, and for a little while by tacit consent we let the conversation drift.

Whitehead’s Aims of Education was out of print in America (it is now for sale as a paperback in corner drugstores), and 1 told him that people I know keep complaining to me that they cannot obtain it. He said it was not out of print in England, “But Macmillan burned the unsold copies without offering me an opportunity to take them off their hands, a performance which made me indignant.”

“For a distinguished firm,” I said, “ they certainly do some strange things, — the mud-colored binding, for example, of the Cambridge Ancient History, whose English edition is nobly bound. I bitterly regret not having bought mine in the English format.”

“ I am considering republishing my Aims of Education. Tell me what you think of omitting those Iasi two chapters.”

“Considering that I couldn’t understand them, I am a poor one to ask.”

“On the contrary, you are just the one.”

“The first eight chapters are electrifying. How many of my friends have told me so Livingstone, for one. Why not omit the last two and substitute your essay on the Harvard Tercentenary?”

“I had thought of that, too; but would the hook be long enough?”

“Haven’t you something else that would fit in?”

“I have a good deal of unpublished work . .

Mrs. Whitehead suggested various papers that might fit.

“I also have an idea of a volume of reminiscences,” said he.

Wo discussed formal, and that it might be wise to keep an eye on publishers about cover designs, in view of some dire experiences.

“When the cover Macmillan was going to put on his Adventures of Ideas arrived,” said Mrs. Whitehead, “I was aghast.”

“ What was if ?”

“A moon, and stars, and rays of light.”

“What was the notion?”

“‘Adventures,’ I suppose, and cosmic space.”

“Jazzing Whitehead!” said I. “Do you suppose the designer had read the book?”

“Probably no more than heard the title,” said she.

As the evening drew to a close he returned to the influence of the Bible, and to its interpreters: —

“Two strains seem to run through Hebrew thought; one, mild, gentle, gracious, sympathetic, and full of insight: Isaiah, Amos, Jesus; the other, harsh, vengeful, humorless: the very characteristics of the oriental despot. Both are in Paul, but the second comes out strongly. The Semites are harsh. I often wonder if there wasn’t an infiltration of Hellenic blood in the Galileans to account for the graciousness of those peasants and Jesus. For if you follow the interpretation of the Gospels in their first four or five centuries, you will find that the Christ ian thinkers on the African shore of the Mediterranean and on to Spain, who were mainly under Semitic influence, are gloomy’ and harsh; but that the Italian and Gallic interpreters, Gregory the Great and Martin of Tours, were remarkably tolerant. When the issue of persecution of their own sectaries was first raised, these men saw and said that persecution would do more harm than heresy. These two strains in the Hebrew are greed for material gain and gentleness of spirit; sometimes, in great Jews, you find both strains in one nature. It is the interpreters of Christianity that have been its misfortune.”