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Revisiting Lucien Price’s Dialogues

The status of Lucien Price’s Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead has been of interest to Whitehead scholars for some time. Research for the Critical Edition of Whitehead has revealed several accounts that invite a reassessment.

Junius Lucien Price (1883-1964) was born in Brimfield, Ohio. After graduating from Western Reserve Academy in Ohio, he moved to Boston where he became a well-regarded journalist, writing for the Boston Evening Transcript and the Boston Globe. He wrote several books about education and his early life, some under the pseudonym “Seymour Deming.” (For more on Price’s biography, consult the introduction to Dialogues or Wikipedia.)

Picture of a young Lucien Price

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Photograph of a young Price (date unknown)

But what are we to make of his Dialogues? On the one hand, it is not uncommon for scholars regularly to quote and attribute to Whitehead passages from Dialogues without qualification, often treating them no differently than texts published by Whitehead himself. On the other hand, it is of course the case that Dialogues is not one of Whitehead’s works. They were, as it says on the cover of the book, “recorded by Lucien Price.” Further, as Price himself admits, his record was not the result of careful notes taken in the moment, but recollections forty-eight hours or more after the event.[1] Let’s consider the evidence available in the case for and against Price’s work.

The case for the Dialogues

The strongest case for the value and accuracy of the Dialogues comes from Price himself. He anticipates that scholars will question his work and does what he can to defend both his methods and the content of the volume. Let us consider first how Price describes and defends his methods.

How authentic is this text? In the practice of writing down dialogue from memory as nearly verbatim as one can, the first thirty years are the hardest. My practice began as a schoolboy on January 2, 1901; it continued as a shorthand reporter of lectures, then as a newspaper reporter (who soon discovers that if he produces pencil and paper within view of a person unaccustomed to being interviewed, the unfortunate creature promptly congeals); and after that, years of saving the discourse of all sorts and conditions of men, eminent and obscure. Then by 1932, when this association with Whitehead began, the recording of conversation had become merely some more of the same thing, though it might be well to add that memory is likely to be more exact forty-eight hours later than it is after twenty-four hours—as though the longer interval gave the matter time to strike bottom and rise again to the level of consciousness.[2]

As a respected journalist, there is little reason to doubt that Price was accustomed to interviewing people in the manner that he describes. And it does seem possible that one could develop through practice the ability to recall in some detail conversations that had taken place a day or two before. On the other hand, it does not seem obvious that waiting two or more days after an event would be likely to make recollection more precise. Rather, it seems more likely that what would be recorded would be paraphrased recollections, not long verbatim quotations, as we have in the text. Still, it is possible that Price did indeed have impressive skills of memory that most do not.

Price would likely note that this question about his memory is moot in that he eventually gave an edited manuscript of his recorded conversations to Whitehead, who subsequently verified their accuracy. Thus, as Price claims in the heading to page 15, these “dialogues” are not just his recollections, but are “authorized” by Whitehead and, therefore, accurately reflect Whitehead’s views.

Whitehead, foreseeing that the accuracy of these records (which I do not guarantee to be one hundred per cent) might be questioned, said on one of the last evenings we were together: “You had better insert a remark to say that these have been read by us and that they correspond to what was said. Otherwise, people might not believe it. I wouldn’t have believed it myself.” Then just how accurate do I myself think they are? In the run of general conversation where it is merely an affair of picking up cues and following the train of thought, albeit with an ear for characteristic idiom, they are often verbatim; when it comes to Whitehead’s longer speeches, his use of language had such flavour of mathematical precision, his command of English was so masterly, and the thinking itself was so compact that moments would come when I listened with secret consternation: “How can I retain all that? How can I hope to get it written with anything like the distinction he is giving it in oral delivery?” The answer is that often I do not.[3]

Thus, we have a situation where Price is admitting that his accounts are not perfect, but that it doesn’t matter because they were all reviewed by Whitehead. As “authorized” by Whitehead himself, scholars are justified in quoting from the text and attributing them, without much or any qualification, to Whitehead. This is the primary evidence available for the accuracy and value of the Dialogues.

The case against the Dialogues

There are two sorts of “evidence” that might be cited in the case against the accuracy and value of the Dialogues. The first is of the inferential sort and the second is the views of contemporaries of Whitehead and Price who cast doubt on the accuracy and appropriateness of Price’s accounts.

First, a skeptic might note that, in the end, all we have is Price’s word that he gave these accounts to Whitehead who then “authorized” them. Why, if he was worried that his accounts would be challenged, did he not obtain a letter from Whitehead in his own hand certifying this fact? He could have included a facsimile of such a letter in the text, as he included the page of handwritten material by Whitehead related to his receiving the Order of Merit.[4]

Further, the skeptic might continue, if the Dialogues were largely finished and reviewed by Whitehead in the early 1940s, why were they not published until 1954, seven years after Whitehead’s death? It is possible that Price was just taking his time editing the manuscript, but is it also possible that Price was waiting until after Whitehead had passed so that he could not contradict anything Price attributed to him, including the quotation saying that he reviewed everything in the volume?

These suspicions are further fueled by rather damning comments of contemporaries. The first comes from George Conger (1884-1960), who earned his PhD in philosophy from Columbia in 1922 and was for his entire career a professor at University of Minnesota. In the academic year of 1926-1927, Conger took a sabbatical, which he spent, in his words, “nearly haunting” Whitehead,[5] auditing all of his classes. His course lecture notes from this time serve as the anchor for much of the second volume of the Harvard Lectures.  During this time he kept a diary, which will also be published as an appendix to volume 2. Conger took a dim view of Price’s work:

[Whitehead’s] Sunday evening “At Homes” were extraordinary. They have since been written up in Lucien Price’s Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead − a book which, while it brings back many things and much atmosphere to me, leaves me with mixed feelings as regards its taste, if not its sometimes its accuracy.    

Unfortunately, Conger does not elaborate regarding his concerns. Further, it should be noted that Price and Conger likely never met as Conger left Harvard in 1927, five years before Price entered Whitehead’s orbit in 1932. 

Two further comments about the accuracy and value of Price’s Dialogues both come via the founding editor of Process Studies, Lewis Ford. While Ford was working in the late 1970s on what would eventually be published as his Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, 1925-1929, he interviewed Hester Pickman (17 July 1979). Mrs. Pickman and her husband, a professor of medieval history at Harvard, were family friends of Evelyn and Alfred. In Ford’s fragmentary notes of the interview with Pickman, he records the following:

Lucien Price: that dreadful man. She found him ostentatious, sitting at the master’s feet. A cheapskate. Never invited him back. She didn’t like his book. I quizzed her about the event, for I’m sure it’s reported in Price.[6] She thinks it was during the war, perhaps 1944. But she had no memory of ever associating any one chapter of the Dialogues with that dinner party. … Those saying Price’s Dialogues is a dreadful book not only knew W, but had met Price, and hence could see the hand of Price at work in the book, and didn’t like it. Price tends to record his own dialogue with W, not that which W had with others.[7]

Finally, one last account is found in a separate interview that Ford conducted with Paul Weiss (1901-2002), who worked under Whitehead and earned his PhD from Harvard in 1929 and left Harvard in 1931, the year before Price entered the scene.

Ford: Now Lucien Price recalls Whitehead as saying that Process and Reality is the book he most wanted to write.

Weiss: Lucien Price’s book came out when I was abroad; someone said that I was mentioned in it, or referred to. So I read the whole book through, though I was bored all the time! Finally I found somebody I could identify as me, but it wasn’t really me. When I came back to this country, I visited Evelyn Whitehead, to whom I dedicated my first book. I wondered what I was going to say to her; there she was, over 70 years of age. I didn’t know how I was going to deal with this book which I thought was so terrible. As I walked into the room, she said to me, “Paul, what do you think of that terrible book of Lucien Price?” I was able to express my views, and we agreed completely. Other friends who knew Whitehead well all had the same opinion.

How was it possible for Mr. Price to say that he had a very good memory and that as soon as he spoke to Whitehead he went back to his home and wrote down exactly what Whitehead had said? From my point of view and that of Whitehead’s other friends, Price’s Whitehead is not Whitehead. My conclusion is that Price was a stupid man. When he heard Whitehead speak about important things in a way more profound than any answer to the question you were asking could possibly be, Price said to himself: “The old man is off his rocker; he’s getting senile. I’ll skip all that nonsense.” As soon as Whitehead said, “Gee, I think it will rain,” Price thought: “Ah, I’m hearing Whitehead, the profound thinker.” He therefore set down all the dull observations, the stupidities, and things of no importance.

Yet I have a very perceptive friend at Yale, Richard Sewall, Professor of English. He said that when he read that biography, he had a feeling that Whitehead was a genius. But I never found anyone who knew Whitehead well who thought that was a good book or represented him anywhere fairly.[8]

These two accounts, first by Pickman and then Weiss, bear some similar qualities. They both seem to question the propriety and the accuracy of the Dialogues. All three of these accounts seem to cast aspersions at Price’s character and the seemliness of what he did. Weiss’s recounting of his conversation with Evelyn is especially curious. If Whitehead had in fact “authorized” the dialogues, as Price claims, then why would Evelyn think it was “terrible”? This curiosity is compounded by the fact that the 1954 copyright for the Dialogues is not in Price’s name, but by “the Executors of the Estate of Alfred North Whitehead,” who at that time would have been Evelyn herself. Price would surely point to this as further evidence that the volume was in fact authorized and that Evelyn had full knowledge of it. Perhaps it was not the propriety to which Evelyn objected, but rather the way it portrayed her and Whitehead, of whom she was famously protective.

Closing arguments

Some might fairly wonder at the timing of this “trial” of Price and his Dialogues. It is no coincidence at all that my co-editors and I have just completed and submitted the manuscript for the second volume of Whitehead’s Harvard Lectures to Edinburgh University Press, a volume which itself is entirely constructed from the notes of Whitehead students, rather than written by Whitehead himself. Having just completed this project, I am more aware than I ever have been of the problems and inaccuracies which can creep into written accounts of oral presentations. People mishear things, paraphrase, or elide details. In the case of the Lectures, scholars must take care not to attribute them to Whitehead without qualification. The discovery and publishing of these new materials in the Critical Edition require Whitehead scholars to more commonly use qualifying phrases like “Winthrop Bell records Whitehead as saying.”

However, the Lectures have several things going for them that Price’s Dialogues do not. First, the Lectures were taken down by philosophers (Price was not a philosopher) while Whitehead spoke, not days later by memory. Second, often—though certainly not always—we have course notes from multiple authors, which makes it possible to regularly corroborate that Whitehead did indeed say something like X or draw Y on date Z. No such corroboration is possible for Price. These two factors make Price’s Dialogues inherently more suspect than the Lectures.

So, what is the final verdict? Unfortunately, the case for and against Price seems largely to be a matter of “He said. She said.” That is, most of it is circumstantial. The evidence in support of the Dialogues is entirely based on testimony from the “defendant” (Price) who refers to conversations he had with another witness (Whitehead) who was himself dead before the defendant committed the “crime” (Dialogues). Price can produce no actual evidence—such as a letter or something else from Alfred or Evelyn—confirming his claims that the Dialogues were carefully reviewed by Whitehead and should be seen as an authorized account. Further, we have a number of contemporaries who participated in conversations like those recounted by Price who cast doubts on both the propriety and the accuracy of the contents.

If this were a trial, I suspect it would likely result in a hung jury. There simply is not enough evidence available to prove anything “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Price should be freed on his own recognizance and scholars should continue to read and consider the content of Price’s Dialogues. However, there is also sufficient evidence casting doubt on the Dialogues that scholars should take care to quote passages only with appropriate qualification. Whether in text or accompanying notes, scholars should warn readers that what they are quoting is Price’s recording of what he recalls Whitehead having said. Perhaps we should call it “Price’s Whitehead” in the way we refer to “Plato’s Socrates”? The analogy is not perfect, but it is not wholly unapt.

*Thanks to Joseph Petek for his help editing and researching this blog.


[1] Lucien Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (New Hampshire: David R. Godine, 1954), 14.

[2] Price 14-15.

[3] Price 15

[4] Price 368.

[5] Conger, George P., ‘Notes on Whitehead’s class lectures at Harvard University, 1926–1927: Diary entry’, George Perrigo Conger autographs and papers, Mss020, Box 4, https://archives.lib.umn.edu/repositories/16/archival_objects/81029 .

[6] It is not entirely clear to what “event” Ford is here referring.

[7] Ford, Lewis, “Interview with Mrs. Hester Pickman,” DOC033, Whitehead Research Library, accessed December 17, 2019, http://wrl.whiteheadresearch.org/items/show/539.

[8] https://www.religion-online.org/article/recollections-of-alfred-north-whitehead/


How to cite this blog: Henning, Brian G. “Revisiting Lucien Price’s Dialogues.” whiteheadresearch.org. http://whiteheadresearch.org/2020/01/03/revisiting-lucien-prices-dialogues/

1 thought on “Revisiting Lucien Price’s Dialogues

  1. This is a great overview of this slice of history and also of the problem of recalled conversations.
    If I could say this about Price — he was a prolific annotator when reading books. He scribbled in margins a lot.
    How I know this:
    I was completely new to online auctions when I joined eBay in 2000. Soon after when I was searching for Whitehead books I saw that someone was selling Price’s own copy of PR (and maybe another). I think the eBay description warned that it wasn’t a clean copy as it had a lot of notes. Well, my bad luck, when I went to bid on it at the closing time, I was slow, I had dial-up, I fussed around, and of course, lost out.
    Later that year I was in NY and by chance found another book once owned by Price in the Strand. It was his copy of Galileo’s Dialogue. Well, I was really impressed by the amount of scribble there was in it, but then knowing this it only added to my disappointment in missing the Whitehead ones.
    So, Price’s annotated copies of Whitehead’s works are out there somewhere and maybe worthy of a look.

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