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Whitehead and Felix Frankfurter

Associate Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter (1882–1965)

Whitehead had a considerable number of famous friends and colleagues, but few were more notable than Felix Frankfurter (1882–1965), who would become a US Supreme Court Justice in 1939.

It is unclear exactly when and how the two men first met. Frankfurter had been given a chair at Harvard Law School in 1921, fresh off helping to found the ACLU a year earlier. Whitehead, of course, arrived at Harvard in August of 1924. The earliest concrete mention we can find of their acquaintance is in Whitehead’s 1925-26 pock engagement book, in an entry for February 2, 1926: “Dine at Frankfurters.”[1] The name appears a few more times in the same engagement book, for March 5 (“Evelyn to Frankfurter”) and April 3 (“Frankfurter dines 7pm, Mrs. F dines with Evelyn”).

It is just possible that the two men met at a meeting of the Foreign Policy Association at the Copley Plaza Hotel on October 31, 1925. We know from his engagement book that Whitehead attended this meeting with William McDougall of the Harvard Psychology Department, in whose apartment the Whiteheads had briefly stayed upon their arrival in America before renting an apartment in same complex. We do not know if Frankfurter was at this same meeting, but he was a member of the FPA: correspondence with the Association appears in his papers from 1920–1935,[2] and Frankfurter himself is listed as a member in a report on hearings held in Washington on the investigation of communist propaganda by the House Special Committee on Communist Activities[3] (Frankfurter’s involvement with the ACLU and his work in advocating for socialists and religious minorities had earned him some enemies in Washington, including J. Edgar Hoover). But probably they had met even earlier than this, as a letter from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Frankfurter suggests (see below).

Whatever the date of their first meeting, Whitehead and Frankfurter became friends shortly after the former’s arrival at Harvard, and remained close thereafter. Whitehead mentions Frankfurter in a March 1927 letter to his son, North, in discussing the Sacco-Vanzetti case, opining that “there seems very little doubt but that they were entirely innocent,” citing Frankfurter’s famous examination of the case in The Atlantic.[4] We also know that Frankfurter and his wife, Marion, would sometimes attend the famous Sunday evening gatherings at Whitehead’s home. Former Whitehead student Lewis Feuer gave an extended account of one such occasion:

One evening was transfused with energy by the sudden appearance of Felix Frankfurter and his wife, Marion. Dressed informally in a sweater, he brought flowers, in his words, as “a peace offering.” Mrs. Whitehead called him “Frankie,” and greeted him delightedly. Frankfurter sat down in the little circle with Whitehead, and talked effusively of a most interesting recent philosophic episode. Winston Churchill, then a member of Parliament with no ministerial post, had been visiting New York City and had been struck by a car while crossing Fifth Avenue.[5] He had been knocked unconscious and badly bruised, but, bouncing back with typical Churchillian humor, he had enjoyed a meeting with the driver of the car that had struck him. Churchill then wrote a delightful short account of his experience which Frankfurter characterized as “an astonishing document on the mind-body problem – which,” he added, turning to Whitehead for authority and approval, “still remains unsolved, I think.” Whitehead grunted noncommittally, for he did believe that he had solved the mind-body problem as far as the meager human intellect could, through his “doctrine” that every occasion of experience has both a mental and physical pole. But Felix Frankfurter was cheerfully uniformed concerning Whitehead’s ideas, for notwithstanding a short review he had written of one of Whitehead’s books, he regarded philosophic prose as having mainly a ceremonial value for quotation at banquets. Frankfurter knew, moreover, Justice Holmes, the man he most revered, regarded Whitehead as one of the unintelligibles of our time, and as such not worth one’s time.[6]

We might take issue with the accuracy of Feuer’s account, written some fifty-odd years later, not to mention his readings of Whitehead’s and Frankfurter’s opinions of one another. But there is at least this much truth to it: Frankfurter (and Holmes) did not understand Whitehead’s philosophy very well, or at any rate his most technical writing (they were hardly alone in this!).

Their struggles to understand Whitehead can be seen plainly enough in their correspondence.[7] Holmes wrote to Frankfurter on December 29, 1925 that he was in the middle of reading Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, which had been published about two months prior, then wrote on February 19, 1926 that he “did not get as much illumination as I should have from Whitehead’s Lowell Lectures. It takes so long to learn a new language, but I envy you your philosophic seances with your two—Cohen[8] and him.” This comment seems to suggest that Frankfurter had been friends with Whitehead for a while, long enough for Holmes to know about it, anyway.

As should be no surprise, Process and Reality proved to be an even harder challenge for both Holmes and Frankfurter. Holmes wrote on November 5, 1929 that Whitehead had sent him a copy, and that he was “keen” to read it, but then wrote on November 22 that “I don’t dare to write to him, but I may say to you that I believe him to be a great and good man who can speak and write clear and forcible English, but whether from his having the mathematician’s habit or from my unfamiliarity, his terminology puzzles me and I don’t understand one sentence in five.” This prompted Frankfurter to respond thusly on December 2:

Let’s form an offensive and defensive alliance of silence about Whitehead’s latest volume. For I do feel confident that he is “a great and good man,” and I know that his talk is wise and stimulating. But his book is for me more than obscure and, so far as I can gather his drift, I believe he is too driven by the necessity of filling in the gaps of the “unknowable,” or at least certainly the as yet unknown. But as a man he is thoroughly civilized and wholly lacking in the coercions and humorlessness of dogmatism.[9]

So it seems true that Frankfurter was a little dismissive of some of Whitehead’s philosophy, at least the more technical parts of it.

Frankfurter and Whitehead would start to see less of each other with the election of Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932. Frankfurter had chaired the War Labor Policies Board during World War I, where he met a young FDR, who was one of the board members. The two became friends, and Frankfurter advised Roosevelt on legal matters and judicial nominations during his governorship of New York from 1929–32. Following FDR’s election to the presidency, Frankfurter moved to Washington while commuting back to his Harvard classes, continuing to advise Roosevelt in an unofficial capacity (he declined the position of Solicitor General in 1933).

His 1938 nomination to the Supreme Court proved to be controversial and momentous. The outcry was great. He was the President’s own advisor; he was foreign-born (Austrian); he was considered highly radical. It was all made worse by the fact that Roosevelt had tried to introduce legislation to “pack” the court a little over a year earlier, as it had been striking down much of his New Deal legislation. As a result of the outcry, Frankfurter became the first Supreme Court nominee to appear in person before the Senate Judiciary Committee for questioning, a process that has since become routine.

We know of a number of letters between Whitehead and Frankfurter, mostly from after the latter’s appointment to the Supreme Court – probably because up to that time, they had seen each other enough in person. The letters are largely well-wishes, though the two would sometimes send each other books and articles. And then there is a February 20, 1940 letter[10] from Whitehead, in which he waxed poetic about the Supreme Court:

As for Felix’s work – The Supreme Court has a double job today – One side of its work is to preserve American Ideals for the U.S.A. But it now has a wider, symbolic function for the whole world. It is the one institution, with a voice heard throughout the world, which is consistently enunciating the ideals of civilized life for free men. The Catholic Church in the past played this part – and then failed. The newspapers fall into wild extremist statements. The Supreme Court sets the example of coordinating ideal with fact. And it is heard round the world.

It is a measure of their closeness that Evelyn sent Frankfurter a telegram on December 29, 1947, informing them of Whitehead’s stroke and imminent death (he died the next day). A week later, Frankfurter would write an obituary for Whitehead that appeared in the New York Times on January 8, 1948.[11] In it, he wrote:

From knowledge gained through the years of personalities who in our day have affected American university life, I have for some time been convinced that no single figure has had such a pervasive influence as the late Prof. Alfred North Whitehead… From the time that he came to Harvard in 1924 he infused an understanding of interdependence among the various disciplines, to use the current jargon. For all who came within the range of his infectious personality, arid professionalism was quickened into exhilarating meaning and the universe expanded. Such was the quiet, almost shy magic of his qualities that his influence imperceptibly but quickly permeated the whole university.

Later on in the piece, Frankfurter had this to say about Whitehead’s books:

People read his books who have no background for understanding them. This partly explains why he is said to be so hard to read. No one who is ready to read serious books can fail to find luminous charm in his non-technical writings, like his recently published Essays and his Adventures of Ideas.

(Notice the qualifier “non-technical.”)

A month later, a letter from Marion to Evelyn again speaks to their closeness:

At times like those [sic], one regrets poignantly the years – nine now – that have taken us away from the daily nearness – the fact of living in the same place. I have thought so often of the times I used to come ’round, in the morning, and talk and sit with you. And of all the other times, in Canton, in that place in New Hampshire whose name I can’t even remember, in Memorial Drive – the many times we were together which laid the foundation for a feeling of permanent possession. They rise up and call one blessed. We had them. We have them now. Alfred gave me so much affection – it always a little surprised me – I felt like such an empty vessel, and I was always shy but it didn’t matter. Those were the rich years of our lives. Washington life has its own compensations – it is exciting, it prods one out of ruts, but it does not enrich.[12]

Whitehead’s relatively scant correspondence once again leaves us with little hard evidence as to how exactly the two men influenced one another’s thinking. But that there was mutual influence is clear enough, despite some skepticism of Whitehead’s philosophy on Frankfurter’s part. There may be more to uncover about their relationship in Frankfurter’s papers and writings, were some researcher to take up the question.


[1] Alfred North Whitehead, “Pocket Engagement Book, 1925–26,” MS 282, Alfred North Whitehead Collection, Box 7, Folder 3, Special Collections, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, <https://catalyst.library.jhu.edu/catalog/bib_505857>.

[2] Felix Frankfurter Papers, Library of Congress, Finding Aid, <http://memory.loc.gov/service/mss/eadxmlmss/eadpdfmss/1999/ms999002.pdf>.

[3] See <https://books.google.com/books?id=cU6ImFMhb80C&pg=PA141#v=onepage&q&f=false>, bottom of page 141.

[4] Alfred North Whitehead, “Letter from Alfred North Whitehead to T. North Whitehead,” 25 March 1927, MS 282, Alfred North Whitehead Collection, Box 2, Folder 21, Special Collections, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, <https://catalyst.library.jhu.edu/catalog/bib_505857>

[5] See <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_F._Cantasano>.

[6] Lewis S. Feuer, “Recollections of Alfred North Whitehead in the Harvard Setting (1931–1937),” Yale Review, 76:4 (1987), 535–6.

[7] Robert M. Mennel and Christine L. Compston (eds), Holmes and Frankfurter: Their Correspondence, 1912-1934 (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996).

[8] Morris Raphael Cohen was an American Lawyer and long-time professor at the City College of New York, where he taught Paul Weiss, among others. He had been Frankfurter’s roommate at Harvard, and ended up naming his son “Felix.” Felix Cohen would be one of Whitehead’s pupils at Harvard in 1926–27, and Whitehead would write him a job recommendation in 1930 at his father’s request (Alfred North Whitehead, “Letter from Alfred North Whitehead to Morris Raphael Cohen,” 9 June 1930, Morris Raphael Cohen Papers 1898-1981, Box 13, Folder 1, <https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/scrc/findingaids/view.php?eadid=ICU.SPCL.MRCOHEN>; Alfred North Whitehead, “Letter from Alfred North Whitehead to Edward MacDowell,” 10 June 1930, Morris Raphael Cohen Papers 1898-1981, Box 13, Folder 1, <https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/scrc/findingaids/view.php?eadid=ICU.SPCL.MRCOHEN>).

[9] For whatever it’s worth, Holmes apparently made a second attempt at reading Process and Reality about six months later, and had better success with it, as he wrote to Frankfurter on July 12, 1930: “Now I am returning to Process and Reality, which I have begun over again and now think I understand so far.”

[10] The year may be an error on Whitehead’s part; he received many letters for his 80th birthday in 1941, including one from Felix, whereas we do not know of such a letter in 1940, though that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Alfred North Whitehead, “Letter from Alfred North Whitehead to Felix Frankfurter,” 20 February 1940, Felix Frankfurter Papers, Library of Congress, General Correspondence, 1878-1965, Box 111, Reel 67, Whitehead, Alfred North, 1927-56 & Undated.

[11] Felix Frankfurter, “Alfred North Whitehead: Evaluation of His Influence Presented By Supreme Court Justice,” New York Times, Letters to the Times, January 8, 1948.

[12] Marion Frankfurter, “Letter from Marion Frankfurter to Evelyn Whitehead,” 9 February 1948, Felix Frankfurter Papers, Library of Congress, General Correspondence, 1878-1965, Box 111, Reel 67, Whitehead, Alfred North, 1927-56 & Undated.

1 thought on “Whitehead and Felix Frankfurter

  1. Illuminating story of two brilliant minds inhabiting a mutual space. Food for the imagination as to the magic emanating into the universe from this friendship.

    Thanks for publishing…..

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