The Permanence of Change: 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, the world still wore a path to his door, and one of his frequent visitors was LUCIEN PRICE.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.



SATURDAY, August 30, 1941. —A golden summer morning. By previous appointment, as always with the Whiteheads, my arrival was timed for 11.30. By now Professor Whitehead was well recovered from a bout with pneumonia, and he looked uncommonly well. I said so.

“People tell me that I do,” said he, “but the effects of the illness still linger.”

“That should teach you not to have pneumonia.” “Yes,” he assented to the chaffing, “there must be a lesson to everything.”

“Nietzsche, who specialized in disagreeable remarks, has an observation that suffering may deepen a man but doesn’t make him better.”

“ Anxiety,” said Whitehead, “may give one an aspect of brightness, purely because it sharpens all the faculties. It makes all one’s impressions more intense . . . I have been thinking, of late, about custom; how it varies with time and place, but comes, in the end, to much the same thing. Now in England if something goes wrong — say, if one finds a skunk in the garden — he writes to the family solicitor, who proceeds to take the proper measures; whereas in America, you telephone the fire department. Each satisfies a characteristic need; in the English, love of order and legalistic procedure; and here in America, what you tike is something vivid, and red, and swift . . .”

“And noisy! One day in State Street I watched the fire apparatus pass; about six pieces. The streets cleared, the traffic policeman flexed his knees with the tension; the crowds stopped to watch; the speed and din were terrific, — everybody was quite happy — and, after all, there wasn’t any fire.”

“That is my point,” Whitehead took it up. “One method works just as well as the other, and the reason is that ninety per cent of the difficulty is psychological. As soon as we are assured that the properly constituted agents are taking the necessary measures about skunks in gardens, we go along contentedly about our business.”

“Since 1910,” I said, “in this country at least, we would have to admit a new agent, called psychiatrist. But how much of the psychiatrists’ knowledge is actually new?”

“Some of it the Catholics have had all along in their confessional,” said Whitehead. “I have been reading, or rereading, E. Boyd Barrett’s The Jesuit Enigma. He criticized the Order for what he calls their ‘false psychiatry.’ I looked him up in Who’s Who, and find he has some achievement to his record. but he concedes very little good to the Jesuit Order. My opinion is that it must have more in it than he concedes, to have flourished as it has.”

“Wouldn’t that be an instance of the two-sidedness of nearly everything, from a truth to an institution? Phrased one way, it is intolerable; phrased another, it could be accepted gladly.”

“It is the rigid dogma that destroys truth; and, please notice, my emphasis is not on the dogma but on the rigidity. When men say of any question, ‘This is all there is to be known or said of the subject; investigation ends here,’ that is death. It may be that the mischief comes not from the thinker himself but from the use made of his thinking by later-comers. Aristotle, for example, gave us our scientific technique (he also did some useful work in ethics); but in the main, it was he who devised our methods of scientific investigation (and of observation, too); yet his logical propositions, his instruction in sound reasoning which was bequeathed to Europe, are valid only within the limited framework of formal logic, and, as used in Europe, they stultified the minds of whole generations ot mediaeval schoolmen. Aristotle invented science, but destroyed philosophy.”

“Would you say that Plato’s distinctive contribution to the technique of thought is the willingness, as he makes Socrates call it, ‘to follow the argument where it leads’? This sounds so simple, yet how few people understand how to play the game. In his Dialogues, for example, a question is beaten flat and round, several people have a go at it.”

“The German scholars who worked on Plato in the early part of the nineteenth century, to my mind, missed the point,”said Whitehead. “Their view seems to have been that a lot of rather foolish people put forward somewhat nonsensical opinions until finally Socrates steps in and sets everything right. I do not believe that is it at all. When you get a group of diverse professional people in a discussion, their experience is so varied that you are sure to got novel contributions to the idea. None of them may be final, some of them may not be valid, but all of them will make some contribution to the subject, and while perhaps they cannot be accepted, they will bear study. I venture to suppose that in a newspaper office like yours there are a good many such discussions.”

“That is what our daily editorial conferences are; and, over a period of years, the give-and-take grows uncommonly like a Platonic dialogue. I think perhaps that is where I first began to comprehend the Platonic method of dialectic.”

“By that method the subject is explored, various opinions are given their weight, and the participants feel that they have spent their energies to good purpose, even though no definite conclusion emerges.

“ Do you suppose that method existed in Athens before Plato?” I asked.

“I should think it likely. The prime of Athens came a little before Plato, in the period of the three great tragic dramatists — yes, and I include Aristophanes’ comedies too. I think a culture is in its finest flower before it begins to analyze itself; and the Periclean Age and the dramatists were spontancous, unsell-conscious.”

“The analytical spirit gets going in Euripides, the last of the three; and also rather more of the discussion method, the dramatist putting forth this or that point of view, not as anything final, but only so that it may ‘have its say.”

“How many people saw those plays?”

“In Athens about 20,000, though the citizenry itself was much more, probably 150,000. imagine them sitting there from dawn to dark on a March day of the Greater Dionysia watching three tragedies followed by a farcical satyr play, by each of three competing poets, and one of those trilogies would have been the Oresteia of Aeschylus. Where in our modern world is an audience that could take such a ‘helping’?”

“Print has had a damaging effect, said Whitehead. “Before the mind had the assistance of the page it was given much harder work to do. When you remember that Athenian prisoners of the Syracusan expedition were given their liberty because they could recite cboric odes from Euripides, obviously it was not mere snippets of the text which they had memorized.”

“Do you ever find the sight of library stacks disconcerting? What if one knew everything in those volumes: would he be any better off - or worse off? Or the question comes, Can excessive reading actually enfeeble one’s thinking apparatus? ”

“I read very slowly,” said Whitehead. “Sometimes I see myself referred to as ‘a well-read man.”As a matter of fact, I have not read a great quantity of books; but I think about what I read, and it sticks.”

(Remembering the size of his library in the house at Canton, still in the apartment at Radnor Hall, and even here in the Hotel Ambassador, books overflowing from study to dining room, to limit the case even to those present-and-voting, his remark about not having read a great quantity of books was to be taken relatively.)

“What do you think of this modern emphasis on speed of reading?”

“Speed is not for me. On the other hand, some of my reading is ‘skippy. ‘ Last night, for example, I was rereading that book in your lap on the Jesuits, but finding, at the beginnings of successive chapters, that he was still on the same aspect of a subject whose point I had already grasped, I did not hesitate to skip.”


WE WERE next discussing the kind of book about which one must do something, if there is to be any benefit from the reading. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius can be read through in a matter of hours, but to incorporate those precepts into thought and action may be a life’s work. Then I asked, “Living and working as you have and do in academic communities, does it ever strike you that acquisitive scholarship can be overdone?”

“The universities,”said he, “are like any other necessary implement,—like a gun. We must have them, the work of civilization could scarcely be carried on without them; but while they are very valuable, they can also be very dangerous. The reason Harvard has kept its place at the top as a capital of thought is ihe Graduate Schools, where knowledge is wedded to action.”

“An idea which has been occupying me of late I would like to put up for criticism. It is that in nineteenth-century America the influence of religious thinking was still very powerful; that at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth, the rise of science and then the first world war so impaired that influence that leadership passed to the educationists, say after 1920; but that now numerous signs seem to indicate that in another generation or so, the germinating power in American civilization may be the artists, - using that term in its broadest sense — the creators.”

“Your dates confuse me a little,”said he. “I would have said that you have already had two very happy periods of flourishing in this country; one in New England timing the first half of the nineteenth century when you really enjoyed one of the world’s great ages, though it is not yet as famous as it deserves to be; and the other in the late eighteenth century with the framing of your American Constitution. I am not suggesting that these framers were acting entirely on original initiative; some of their ideas were a hundred years old, - going back to Locke, for example,— or much older; but they were unique in laying down not details of procedure but general principles for the conduct of a great democratic State. I know of only two instances when a work of such magnitude was accomplished consciously. The other was done according to principles which would not haye satisfied either your or my ideals of liberty, and yet it certainly saved civilization and bequeathed a point of view overt to the Middle Ages which enabled the monastic foundations to transmit the ancient heritage; I mean when Augustus Caesar appealed from the narrow patricians and the unreliable plebs to the solid middle class, first of Rome and Italy and later of the Empire. Nobody could admire the English governmental system more heartily than I do; but equally nobody could say at exactly what point the idea of a limited monarchy came in. The growth was unconscious. It was not an idea which originated with any person or at any specific time. But the Augustan Principate and your Federal Constitution were the results of conscious effort. The English system, too, is very difficult to copy, and it has been copied successfully only by people of English stocks setting up colonial societies, in places like Australia, Africa, or North America.”

“You are evidently using ‘artist’ in the sense of creators of great States.”

“And you are using the word ‘creative’ in a sense which I give to the word ‘novelty,’” resumed Whitehead. “A hundred thousand years ago, — or sometime—nobody knows when, — there came a turn in the development of man which brought about a very rapid advance. It was man’s capacity for origination, his capacity for novelty, his curiosity, his liking for investigation. My fear for humanity is that we may lose it. One of the few places where it is still free is here in the United States. I don’t say there aren’t ways in which you could improve. I think there are regions where you would do well to reduce your rate of murders, — but even allowing for Chicago at its worst, in the 1920’s, before your authorities stepped in and put a stop to it, life in general, your life, my life, is less subject to interference and less in danger here than any place else on earth. It is only in certain happy ages and lands that conditions are favorable to the development of talent - Grecce in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. was one; Rome in the first century A.D. was another; and even then the range of talent elicited by the temporarily favorable conditions is a limited one; not nearly the whole range of potential talents or of gifted individuals receives the needed encouragement. And when those fortunate times do come, we don’t know how to keep them going.”

“How short-lived the Elizabethan drama was,” I remarked, “in full bloom between 1590 and 1612, then by the 1620’s it had begun to thin out.”

“I was thinking of that very period,”said he. “Art flourishes when there is a sense of adventure, a sense of nothing having been done before, of complete freedom to experiment; but when caution comes in you get repetition, and repetition is the death of art. Here in America you had a good period up to about 1860; then the idea came in that nothing was any good unless it came from Europe.”

“Yes, men like Emerson and Thoreau can be seen pushing it away from them; but after the middle of the century it does descend like a blight.”

“The two world wars,”said he, “have destroyed Europe and liberated America.”

“Unless we are thwarted by our loss of racial homogeneity?”

“On the contrary, you have gained by that loss. I know of no other situation in history similar to yours, in having assembled the vivid and adventurous spirits of numerous races in an environment favorable to the creation of a great culture, except in the Mediterranean Basin of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. (its most brilliant period), when Greeks and Phoenicians and Italians and heaven knows who else were bobbing about in rowboats, mixing races and founding new societies. It will be strange if you don’t profit by your situation.”

“I am not quite sure I understand what you mean by ‘repetition is the death of art.’ ”

“Then take architecture. I was brought up in a part of England where everybody landed that did land, from Caesar on through the missionaries, the Danes, the Normans, and the rest. My father’s church was one example, and Canterbury Cathedral was another. (I can see it now, the spot where Thomas a Becket was murdered, and the armor of the Black Prince in the south aisle of the chancel.) -I have read and don’t hold at all with T. S. Eliot in his view of what went on in Canterbury Cathedral. Mind you, I don’t protend to know a great deal about it, but I feel sure it wasn’t like that. — All the successive ages are embedded in those buildings; walls of the early churches, then the heavy Norman arches, then the lighter and more fanciful Gothic of the Middle period, and finally the too fanciful late Gothic; but no repetition; only the very slightest reliance on what went before, always some novel departure.”


A WHILE back,” I said, “you were speaking of the death of truth which results when men attempt to codify it into some dogma or institution which they hope will conserve it for posterity. Even Plato, in his old age at least, seems unwilling to let his ideal society take its chances (possibly, it is true, because he had seen the disaster to Athens); but isn’t the difficulty with all such attempts that the sum of existence is larger than any system, however large?”

“The desire for a pattern of existence,” said Whitehead, “is a natural and very common wish that our experience should have some meaning, some order, that it should make sense. The hypotheses of science are the same. The pattern may not represent anything more than our conception of our lives as we would like to believe them to be, or our hypothesis of a scientific process, but it steadies us. If we are speaking of naivete, it is the scientists who are naive. For years they have been welcoming hypotheses which destroy their previous assumptions, and welcoming them as a condition of advance; whereas the theologians,— and I consider Christian theology to be one of the great disasters of the human race, — if they admitted that their assumptions had been upset, would consider it a major defeat for themselves (when all the while their position has been shaken and so altered that ihe tenets of today would, in certain intellectual levels, be hardly recognizable as that of the same or similar people seventy years ago). But much the same is true in science, and whether the scientists realize it or not, their ‘advance’ has been upset.”

“ kirsopp Lake once remarked in my presence that his father, a physician, being asked late in life what had done the most in his lifetime to relieve human suffering, answered, ‘Anaesthesia and the decay of Christian theology.’ Thai was in 1922. Both you and he put the accent on ‘theology.’”

“We needn’t go into the question of whether Christ was entirely an authentic historic personage, or one of those figures on whom are laid the needs and sayings and aspirations of a period,”answered Whitehead. “We begin rather, I think, with an agricultural middle class in Palestine, very sound, remarkably well educated for its time and place (from the reading of the scriptures in the synagogues like our King James Bible in the churches) and with a remarkably high standard of morality; and then you have the other set, in Jerusalem, what I may call ‘the Faculty.’ Two powerful popular preachers arose at about the same time, John the Baptist and Jesus. Both were intensely disliked by the Faculty in Jerusalem because their preaching spread and popularized a new and purer morality. So one was executed by Herod, a native ruler, and the other by a Roman procurator; he didn’t, it is true, do it himself, but he allowed it to be done. Now there was nothing really new in this popular preaching, most of the ideas were already present in the older prophets of the nobler strain, —Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, — but it was put with a new force and immediacy.

“I have said before, probably to you, that the trouble starts with the interpreters of Christianity. The disciples were admirably solid people. And there was at first a hope that the powerful Greek notions which were abroad in the world at that time, — ideas of liberty, democracy, the horror of brutality, and so on, — would be blended with the best of Jewish thought — not all of which, of course, was equally good; but the gracious and merciful insights were there by flashes. But then the disaster starts. You get it in all of the following interpreters of Christianity from Augustine, even in Francis of Assisi; the gentleness and mercy of one side of Christianity, but based logically on the most appalling system of concepts. The old ferocious god is back, the Oriental despot, the Pharaoh, the Hitler; with everything to enforce obedience from infant damnation to eternal punishment. In Augustine you get admirable ideas, he is full of light; then you inquire into the ultimate bases of the doctrines and you find this abyss of horror. Their hearts were right but their heads were wrong. And there was no appeal from their heads. In Saint Francis, for example, it is hardly credible that the two worlds, that of grace and mercy, and that of eternal damnation, could exist in one and the same breast. This theological disaster is what I mean when I speak of the mischief which follows from banishing novelty, from trying to formularize your truth, from setting up to declare; ‘This is all there is to be known on the subject, and discussion is closed.’

“I may have spoken to you before about the static civilization of China. A time came when things ceased to change. If you want to know why, read Confucius. And if you want to understand Confucius, read John Dewey. And if you want to understand John Dewey, read Confucius. Confucius wanted to get rid of the silly ideas. The simple facts ought to suffice for you; don’t waste time asking questions about the ultimacies under those facts. (Mind you, I greatly admire what John Dewey has made possible in the development of your western universities; I am speaking here about the consequences of the doctrines of pragmatism.) Thus, the Chinese discovered the magnetic needle. Iron placed in certain positions would cause a pointer to aim north. ‘Now that,’ Confucius would say, ‘ought to be enough for you. The fact suffices.’ But when the magnetic compass is brought westward into Europe, what happens? Immediately the silly questions begin to be asked: ‘Why? What makes the needle point north?' And straightway all sorts of fruitful consequences ensue; as that, mathematics, which had been well-nigh useless for two thousand years, is pressed into the service . . . and so on. Now these are just the ‘superfluous’ questions which pragmatism would ignore. Of course,” he smiled as he said it, “if you say in print that the individual should be listened to and that these ‘silly questions’ ought to be asked, you will instantly be pestered with letters from three thousand idiots whose questions are silly!”

“That is true,” said I, “for I have said it in print and have been pestered with letters from three thousand idiots.”

“But the point is,” he resumed, “that the ‘silly question’ is the first intimation of some totally novel development. Suppose we admitted this principle in the sphere of morals. What is morality in any given time or place? It is what the majority then and there happen to like, and immorality is what they dislike. But the ‘silly question’ as applied to morals would open the way to a discovery of the few ultimacies behind all systems of morals, a region in which very little has as yet been done.”