A N Whitehead: Autobiographical Notes

In 1941 A N Whitehead's Autobiographical Notes were published in Volume III of The Library of Living Philosophers edited by P A Schilpp:-

I was born in 1861, February 15, at Ramsgate in the Isle of Thanet, Kent. The family, grandfather, father, uncles, brothers engaged in activities concerned with education, religion and Local Administration: my grandfather, born of yeoman stock in Isle of Sheppey, was probably a descendant of the Quaker George Whitehead, whom George Fox in his journal mentions as living there in the year 1670. In the year 1815, my grandfather, Thomas Whitehead, at the age of twenty-one, became head of a private school in Ramsgate, Isle of Thanet, to which my father, Alfred Whitehead, succeeded at the correspondingly early age of twenty-five, in the year 1852. They were, both of them, most successful schoolmasters, though my grandfather was by far the more remarkable man.

About 1860 my father was ordained as a clergyman of the Anglican Church; and about 1866 or 1867 he gave up his school for clerical duty, first in Ramsgate, and later in 1871 he was appointed Vicar of St Peters Parish, a large district mostly rural, with its church about two or three miles from Ramsgate. The North Foreland belongs to the parish. He remained there till his death in 1898.

He became influential among the clergy of East Kent, occupying the offices of Rural Dean, Honorary Canon of Canterbury, and Proctor in Convocation for the Diocese. But the central fact of his influence was based on his popularity with the general mass of the population in the Island. He never lost his interest in education, and daily visited his three parochial schools, for infants, for girls, and for boys. As a small boy, before I left home for school in 1875, I often accompanied him. He was a man with local interests and influence; apart from an understanding of such provincial figures, the social and political history of England in the nineteenth century cannot be comprehended. England was governed by the influence of personality: this does not mean "intellect."

My father was not intellectual, but he possessed personality. Archbishop Tait had his summer residence in the parish, and he and his family were close friends of my parents. He and my father illustrated the survival of the better (and recessive) side of the eighteenth century throughout its successor. Thus, at the time unconsciously, I watched the history of England by my vision of grandfather, father, Archbishop Tait, Sir Moses Montefiore, the Pugin family, and others. When the Baptist minister in the parish was dying, it was my father who read the Bible to him. Such was England in those days, guided by local men with strong mutual antagonisms and intimate community of feeling. This vision was one source of my interest in history, and in education.

Another influence in the same direction was the mass of archaeological remains with their interest and beauty. Canterbury Cathedral with its splendour and its memories was sixteen miles distant. As I now write I can visualize the very spot where Becket fell A.D. 1170, and can recall my reconstruction of the incident in my young imagination. Also there is the tomb of Edward, The Black Prince (died A.D. 1376).

But closer to my home, within the Island or just beyond its borders, English history had left every type of relic. There stood the great walls of Richborough Castle built by the Romans, and the shores of Ebbes Fleet where the Saxons and Augustine landed. A mile or so inland was the village of Minster with its wonderful Abbey Church, retaining some touches of Roman stone-work, but dominated by its glorious Norman architecture. On this spot Augustine preached his first sermon. Indeed the Island was furnished with Norman, and other mediaeval churches, built by the Minster monks, and second only to their Abbey. My father's church was one of them, with a Norman nave.

Just beyond Richborough is the town of Sandwich. At that time it retained the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with its Flemish houses lining the streets. Its town-records state that in order to check the silting up of the harbour, the citizens invited skilful men from the Low Countries - "cunning in waterworks." Unfortunately they failed, so that the town remained static from that period. In the last half century, it has been revived by a golf course, one of the best in England. I feel a sense of profanation amidst the relics of the Romans, of the Saxons, of Augustine, the mediaeval monks, and the ships of the Tudors and the Stuarts. Golf seems rather a cheap ending to the story.

At the age of fourteen, in the year 1875, I was sent to school at Sherborne in Dorsetshire, at the opposite end of southern England. Here the relics of the past were even more obvious. In this year (1941) the school is to celebrate its twelve-hundredth anniversary. It dates from St Aldhelm, and claims Alfred the Great as a pupil. The school acquired the monastery buildings, and its grounds are bounded by one of the most magnificent Abbeys in existence, with tombs of Saxon princes. In my last two years there the Abbots' room (as we believed) was my private study; and we worked under the sound of the Abbey bells, brought from the Field of The Cloth of Gold by Henry VIII.

I have written thus far in order to show by example how the imaginative life of the southern English professional class during the last half of the nineteenth century was moulded. My own experience was not in the least bit exceptional. Of course details differ, but the type was fairly uniform for provincial people.

This tale has another reference to the purpose of this slight autobiography. It shows how historical tradition is handed down by the direct experience of physical surroundings.

On the intellectual side, my education also conformed to the normal standard of the time. Latin began at the age of ten years, and Greek at twelve. Holidays excepted, my recollection is that daily, up to the age of nineteen and a half years, some pages of Latin and Greek authors were construed, and their grammar examined. Before going to school pages of rules of Latin grammar could be repeated, all in Latin, and exemplified by quotations. The classical studies were interspersed with mathematics. Of course, such studies included history - namely, Herodotus, Xenophon, Thucydides, Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus. I can still feel the dullness of Xenophon, Sallust, and Livy. Of course we all know that they are great authors; but this is a candid autobiography.

The others were enjoyable. Indeed my recollection is that the classics were well taught, with an unconscious comparison of the older civilization with modern life. I was excused in the composition of Latin Verse and the reading of some Latin poetry, in order to give more time for mathematics. We read the Bible in Greek, namely, with the Septuagint for the Old Testament. Such Scripture lessons, on each Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, were popular, because the authors did not seem to know much more Greek than we did, and so kept their grammar simple.

We were not overworked; and in my final year my time was mostly occupied with duties as Head of the School with its responsibility for discipline outside the class-rooms, on the Rugby model derived from Thomas Arnold, and as Captain of the Games, chiefly cricket and football, very enjoyable but taking time. There was however spare time for private reading. Poetry, more especially Wordsworth and Shelley, became a major interest, and also history.

My university life at Trinity College, Cambridge, commenced in the autumn of 1880; and, so far as residence is concerned, continued without interruption until the summer of 1910. But my membership of the College, first as "scholar" and then as "fellow," continues unbroken. I cannot exaggerate my obligation to the University of Cambridge, and in particular to Trinity College, for social and intellectual training.

The education of a human being is a most complex topic, which we have hardly begun to understand. The only point on which I feel certain is that there is no widespread, simple solution. We have to consider the particular problem set to each institution by its type of students, and their future opportunities. Of course, for the moment and for a particular social system, some forms of the problem are more widespread than others - for instance, the problem now set to the majority of State Universities in the U.S.A. Throughout the nineteenth century, the University of Cambridge did a brilliant job. But its habits were adapted to very special circumstances.

The formal teaching at Cambridge was competently done, by interesting men of first-rate ability. But courses assigned to each undergraduate might cover a narrow range. For example, 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. The missing portions were supplied by incessant conversation, with our friends, undergraduates, or members of the staff. This started with dinner at about six or seven, and went on till about ten o'clock in the evening, stopping sometimes earlier and sometimes later. In my own case, there would then follow two or three hours' work at mathematics.

Groups of friends were not created by identity of subjects for study. We all came from the same sort of school, with the same sort of previous training. We discussed everything - politics, religion, philosophy, literature - with a bias toward literature. This experience led to a large amount of miscellaneous reading. For example, by the time that I gained my fellowship in 1885 I nearly knew by heart parts of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Now I have forgotten it, because I was early disenchanted. 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. It was foolish of me, but I am not writing to explain my good sense.

Looking backwards across more than half a century, the conversations have the appearance of a daily Platonic dialogue. Henry Head, D'Arcy Thompson, Jim Stephen, the Llewellen Davies brothers, Lowes Dickinson, Nat Wedd, Sorley, and many others - some of them subsequently famous, and others, equally able, attracting no subsequent public attention. That was the way by which Cambridge educated her sons. It was a replica of the Platonic method. The "Apostles" who met on Saturdays in each others' rooms, from 10 p.m. to any time next morning, were the concentration of this experience. The active members were eight or ten undergraduates or young B.A.'s, but older members who had "taken wings" often attended. There we discussed with Maitland, the historian, Verrall, Henry Jackson, Sidgwick, and casual judges, or scientists, or members of Parliament who had come up to Cambridge for the weekend. It was a wonderful influence. The club was started in the late 1820's by Tennyson and his friends. It is still flourishing.

My Cambridge education with its emphasis on mathematics and on free discussion among friends would have gained Plato's approval. As times changed, Cambridge University has reformed its methods. Its success in the nineteenth century was a happy accident dependent on social circumstances which have passed away - fortunately. The Platonic education was very limited in its application to life.

In the autumn of 1885, the fellowship at Trinity was acquired, and with additional luck a teaching job was added. The final position as a Senior Lecturer was resigned in the year 1910, when we removed to London.

In December, 1890 my marriage with Evelyn Willoughby Wade took place. The effect of my wife upon my outlook on the world has been so fundamental that it must be mentioned as an essential factor in my philosophic output. So far I have been describing the narrow English education for English professional life. The prevalence of this social grade, influencing the aristocrats above them, and leading the masses below them, is one of the reasons why the England of the nineteenth century exhibited its failures and successes. It is one of the recessive factors of national life which hardly ever enters into historical narrative.

My wife's background is completely different, namely military and diplomatic. 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.

This outlook somewhat shifts the ordinary philosophic emphasis upon the past. It directs attention to the periods of great art and literature, as best expressing the essential values of life. The summit of human attainment does not wait for the emergence of systematized doctrine, though system has its essential functions in the rise of civilization. It provides the gradual upgrowth of a stabilized social system.

Our three children were born between 1891 and 1898. They all served in the First World War: our eldest son throughout its whole extent, in France, in East Africa, and in England; our daughter in the Foreign Office in England and Paris; our youngest boy served in the Air Force: his plane was shot down in France with fatal results, in March, 1918.

For about eight years (1898-1906) we lived in the Old Mill House at Grantchester, about three miles from Cambridge. Our windows overlooked a mill pool, and at that time the mill was still working. It has all gone now. There are two mill pools there; the older one, about a couple of hundred yards higher up the river, was the one mentioned by Chaucer. Some parts of our house were very old, probably from the sixteenth century. The whole spot was intrinsically beautiful and was filled with reminiscences, from Chaucer to Byron and Wordsworth. Later on another poet, Rupert Brooke, lived in the neighbouring house, the Old Vicarage. But that was after our time and did not enter into our life. I must mention the Shuckburghs (translator of Cicero's letters) and the William Batesons (the geneticist) who also lived in the village and were dear friends of ours. We owed our happy life at Grantchester to the Shuckburghs, who found the house for us. It had a lovely garden, with flowering creepers over the house, and with a yew tree which Chaucer might have planted. In the spring nightingales kept us awake, and kingfishers haunted the river.

My first book, A Treatise on Universal Algebra, was published in February, 1898. It was commenced in January, 1891. The ideas in it were largely founded on Hermam Grassmann's two books, the Ausdehnungslehre of 1844, and the Ausdehnungslehre of 1862. The earlier of the two books is by far the most fundamental. Unfortunately when it was published no one understood it; he was a century ahead of his time. Also Sir William Rowan Hamilton's Quaternions of 1853, and a preliminary paper in 1844, and Boole's Symbolic Logic of 1859, were almost equally influential on my thoughts. My whole subsequent work on Mathematical Logic is derived from these sources. Grassmann was an original genius, never sufficiently recognized. Leibniz, Saccheri, and Grassmann wrote on these topics before people could understand them, or grasp their importance. Indeed poor Saccheri himself failed to grasp what he had achieved, and Leibniz did not publish his work on this subject.

My knowledge of Leibniz's investigations was entirely based on L Couturat's book, La Logique de Leibniz, published in 1901.

This mention of Couturat suggests the insertion of two other experiences connected with France. élie Halévy, the historian of England in the early nineteenth century, frequently visited Cambridge, and we greatly enjoyed our friendship with him and his wife.

The other experience is that of a Congress on Mathematical Logic held in Paris in March, 1914. Couturat was there, and Xavier Léon, and (I think) Halévy. It was crammed with Italians, Germans, and a few English including Bertrand Russell and ourselves. The Congress was lavishly entertained by various notables including a reception by the President of the Republic. At the end of the last session, the President of the Congress congratulated us warmly on its success and concluded with the hope that we should return to our homes carrying happy memories of "La Douce France." In less than five months the First World War broke out. It was the end of an epoch, but we did not know it.

The Treatise on Universal Algebra led to my election to the Royal Society in 1903. Nearly thirty years later (in 1931) came the fellowship of the British Academy as the result of work on philosophy, commencing about 1918. Meanwhile between 1898 and 1903, my second volume of Universal Algebra was in preparation. It was never published.

In 1903 Bertrand Russell published The Principles of Mathematics. This was also a "first volume." We then discovered that our projected second volumes were practically on identical topics, so we coalesced to produce a joint work. We hoped that a short period of one year or so would complete the job. Then our horizon extended and, in the course of eight or nine years, Principia Mathematica was produced. It lies outside the scope of this sketch to discuss this work. Russell had entered the University at the beginning of the eighteen nineties. Like the rest of the world, we enjoyed his brilliance, first as my pupil and then as a colleague and friend. He was a great factor in our lives, during our Cambridge period. But our fundamental points of view - philosophical and sociological - -diverged, and so with different interests our collaboration came to a natural end.

At the close of the University session, in the summer of 1910, we left Cambridge. During our residence in London, we lived in Chelsea, for most of the time in Carlyle Square. Wherever we went, my wife's aesthetic taste gave a wonderful charm to the houses, sometimes almost miraculously. The remark applies especially to some of our London residences, which seemed impervious to beauty. I remember the policeman who saw a beautiful girl let herself into our house in the early hours after midnight. She had been presented at Court and had then gone to a party. The policeman later enquired of our maid whether he had seen a real person or the Virgin Mary. He could hardly believe that a real person in a lovely dress would be living there. But inside there was beauty.

During my first academic session (1910-1911) in London I held no academic position. My Introduction to Mathematics dates from that period. During the sessions from 1911 to the summer Of 1914, I held various positions at University College, London, and from 1914 to the summer of 1924 a professorship at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in Kensington. During the later years of this period I was Dean of the Faculty of Science in the University, Chairman of the Academic Council which manages the internal affairs concerned with London education, and a member of the Senate. I was also Chairman of the Council which managed The Goldsmith's College, and a member of the Council of the Borough Polytechnic. There were endless other committees involved in these positions. In fact, participation in the supervision of London education, University and Technological, joined to the teaching duties of my professorship at the Imperial College constituted a busy life. It was made possible by the marvellous efficiency of the secretarial staff of the University.

This experience of the problems of London, extending for fourteen years, transformed my views as to the problem of higher education in a modern industrial civilization. It was then the fashion - not yet extinct to take a narrow view of the function of Universities. There were the Oxford and Cambridge type, and the German type. Any other type was viewed with ignorant contempt. The seething mass of artisans seeking intellectual enlightenment, of young people from every social grade craving for adequate knowledge, the variety of problems thus introduced - all this was a new factor in civilization. But the learned world is immersed in the past.

The University of London is a confederation of various institutions of different types for the purpose of meeting this novel problem of modern life. It had recently been remodelled under the influence of Lord Haldane, and was a marvellous success. The group of men and women - business men, lawyers, doctors, scientists, literary scholars, administrative heads of departments - who gave their time, wholly or in part, to this new problem of education were achieving a much needed transformation. They were not unique in this enterprise: in the U.S.A. under different circumstances analogous groups were solving analogous problems. It is not too much to say that this novel adaptation of education is one of the factors which may save civilization. The nearest analogy is that of the monasteries a thousand years earlier.

The point of these personal reminiscences is the way in which latent capabilities have been elicited by favourable circumstances of my life. It is impossible for me to judge of any permanent value in the output. But I am aware of the love, and kindness, and encouragement by which it was developed.

To turn now to another side of life, during my later years at Cambridge, there was considerable political and academic controversy in which I participated. The great question of the emancipation of women suddenly flared up, after simmering for half a century. I was a member of the University Syndicate which reported in favour of equality of status in the University. We were defeated, after stormy discussions and riotous behaviour on the part of students. If my memory is correct, the date was about 1898. But later on, until the war in 1914, there were stormy episodes in London and elsewhere. The division of opinion cut across party lines; for example, the Conservative Balfour was pro-woman, and the Liberal Asquith was against. The success of the movement came at the end of the war in 1918.

My political opinions were, and are, on the Liberal side, as against the Conservatives. I am now writing in terms of English party divisions. The Liberal Party has now (1941) practically vanished; and in England my vote would be given for the moderate side of the Labour Party. However at present there are no "parties" in England.

During our residence at Grantchester, I did a considerable amount of political speaking in Grantchester and in the country villages of the district. The meetings were in the parish schoolrooms, during the evening. It was exciting work, as the whole village attended and expressed itself vigorously. English villages have no use for regular party agents. They require local residents to address them. I always found that a party agent was a nuisance, Rotten eggs and oranges were effective party weapons, and I have often been covered by them. But they were indications of vigour, rather than of bad feeling. Our worst experience was at a meeting in the Guildhall at Cambridge, addressed by Keir Hardie who was then the leading member of the new Labour Party. My wife and I were on the platform, sitting behind him, and there was a riotous undergraduate audience. The result was that any rotten oranges that missed Keir Hardie had a good chance of hitting one of us. When we lived in London my activities were wholly educational.

My philosophic writings started in London, at the latter end of the war. The London Aristotelian Society was a pleasant centre of discussion, and close friendships were formed.

During the year 1924, at the age of sixty-three, I received the honour of an invitation to join the Faculty of Harvard University in the Philosophy, Department. I became Professor Emeritus at the close of the session 1936-1937. It is impossible to express too strongly the encouragement and help that has been rendered to me by the University authorities, my colleagues on the Faculty, students, and friends. My wife and I have been overwhelmed with kindness. The shortcomings of my published work, which of course are many, are due to myself alone. I venture upon one remark which applies to all philosophic work: - Philosophy is an attempt to express the infinity of the universe in terms of the limitations of language.

It is out of the question to deal with Harvard and its many influences at the end of a chapter. Nor is such a topic quite relevant to the purpose of this book. Today in America, there is a zeal for knowledge which is reminiscent of the great periods of Greece and the Renaissance. But above all, there is in all sections of the population a warm-hearted kindness which is unsurpassed in any large social system.

Last Updated March 2006