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The missing drafts of Whitehead’s books

In October of 1926, Whitehead gave a guest lecture in the social ethics seminar of Richard Clarke Cabot (pictured) that is his only known lecture on the topic of ethics. This lecture is included, along with all of Whitehead’s other lectures during his second and third years at Harvard, in the newly published 
The Harvard Lectures of Alfred North Whitehead, 1925-1927.

If Whitehead had taken care to preserve the drafts of his books and essays, his lecture notes, and his correspondence—in short, left behind the sort of Nachlass that important scholars often do—then a critical edition of his writings would no doubt have taken place long before now. As it stands, the idea of a Critical Edition of Whitehead was ignored for many years partly because it seemed so readily apparent that there was nothing substantive left to pick over. Stories that he had asked for his papers to be burned began to circulate shortly after his death, and this appeared to be confirmed in the first volume of Victor Lowe’s Whitehead biography in 1985.[1] And even though we now know that this story is not completely true, we nonetheless have never found an original manuscript for any of Whitehead’s books, only a few articles with emendations.

But what few people had suspected until recently is that the substance of the missing drafts for Whitehead’s books might still exist in the form of notes of his Harvard and Radcliffe lectures. In retrospect, such a possibility should have been obvious. For one, Whitehead comes right out and says in the preface to Process and Reality that “In the expansion of these lectures to dimensions of the present book, I have been greatly indebted to the critical difficulties suggested by the members of my Harvard classes.”[2] There does not appear to be much room for interpretation here: Whitehead is saying that he tested out his philosophical ideas in his Harvard classroom, and received feedback which he integrated into his published writings. Then there are the descriptions of his lecturing style, which suggest spontaneity and ‘thought in action’:

In the lecture room [Whitehead] gave the appearance of complete spontaneity. He did not deliver a set piece; his lecture was thought in action. Those who know him only from his books have missed something of his mind; for he was happier, easier, freer in speech than in writing. The listener had the experience of being taken behind the scenes and witnessing the very process of creative thinking, with its doubts and queries, its problems genuinely felt, in an unfinished but living form.[3]

Further, with the publication in 1990 of the second volume of Lowe’s biography, more evidence of what went on in Whitehead’s classroom was given in the form of a letter to Mark Barr, in which Whitehead wrote that ‘I do not feel inclined to undertake the systematic training of students in the critical study of other philosophers… [but] I should greatly value the opportunity of expressing in lectures and in less formal manner the philosophical ideas which have accumulated in my mind’.[4] And lastly, of course, in actually examining the notes themselves, we have Louise Heath’s observation at the top of her notes for fall 1925 that ‘Theoretically [this was the] same course as 1924, but I credited it because actually it was quite different’.[5]

All of these things provide evidence that Whitehead was lecturing his Harvard students on whatever philosophical ideas he was currently thinking about, rather than a static curriculum that remained the same from year to year. He was using his classroom as a forum to develop his ideas prior to formalizing them in his books. In this sense, Whitehead’s Harvard lectures can be seen as the ‘drafts’ of his books whose absence scholars have so long lamented.

With all this understood, I hope that readers can appreciate that I am not exaggerating when I say that the newly available second volume of Whitehead’s Harvard lectures is an invaluable resource to scholars which is likely to change our understanding of Whitehead’s philosophy forever. In painstakingly reconstructing his second and third year of lectures at Harvard based on the notes of his colleagues and students, it provides a unique window into the development of Whitehead’s philosophy from the period between the publication of Science and the Modern World and leading up to his Gifford lectures of June 1928, which would become Process and Reality. It will likely take years for all the implications of this volume to be fully teased out, but for the moment we can, at least, celebrate that there has never been a more exciting time to be studying Whitehead.

This blog is a modified version of the one that originally appeared on the Edinburgh University Press Blog.

[1] Victor Lowe, Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, Volume I: 1861–1910 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 7.

[2] Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), xiv–xv.

[3] Raphael Demos et al, ‘Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association 1948–1949’, The Philosophical Review 58(5), September 1949, p. 369.

[4] Victor Lowe, Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, Volume II: 1910–1947 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 134.

[5] Brian G. Henning, Joseph Petek, and George R. Lucas, Jr. (eds), The Harvard Lectures of Alfred North Whitehead, 1925–1927: General Metaphysical Problems of Science (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021), 3.

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