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Whitehead and Raphael Demos

by Joseph Petek, Assistant Editor, Critical Edition of Whitehead

Shortly after posting last week’s blog about Whitehead’s influence on Martin Luther King Jr., we discovered another oblique connection between King and Whitehead that we had overlooked: the introductory course on Plato that King attended in 1952–53 was taught by none other than Raphael Demos, Whitehead’s first teaching assistant at Harvard.

This is confirmed by a letter that King wrote to Demos in July of 1963. The letter, like all of the materials at the King Center, is no longer available at the King Center website, but the first of two pages can still be viewed at the Internet Archive here.

It is interesting to note that King tells Demos that he had received an “A” for the course, when the official record reflects that he received a “B”.

Born Demetracopoulos, Raphael Demos was born and raised in Asia Minor. Having received his BA from Anatolia College in Marsovan,[1] he saved until he could afford passage to Boston in 1913, where he enrolled at Harvard, working as a waiter in a restaurant to pay the fees.[2] There he caught the attention of Bertrand Russell, who was at Harvard for the 1914 spring term to deliver the Lowell lectures and teach courses on “Logic” and “The Theory of Knowledge.”[3]

After receiving his PhD from Harvard and being taken on as an assistant in the philosophy department in 1916, Demos studied abroad in Cambridge (UK) for the 1918–1919 academic year, where he visited his former teacher Russell in prison,[4] and met Whitehead for the first time in London.[5] Upon Whitehead’s arrival at Harvard five years later, Demos—then the philosophy department’s most experienced untenured member—was assigned as Whitehead’s assistant. Victor Lowe’s biography paints an amusing picture of the conversation that followed:

Demos told me that he could not recall that first conversation [in London], but vividly remembered the one which occurred upon his being assigned to assist Whitehead. Whitehead took him by the arm, said “Let me explain my philosophy to you,” and walked him up and down in front of Emerson Hall for more than an hour, expounding his world-view. Demos did not tell him that he did not understand it at all.[6]

Thankfully for Demos, this somewhat harrowing start did not prove to be any kind of ill omen for the relationship that followed. He not only assisted Whitehead in grading papers, but also copy-edited and indexed Whitehead’s first book written in America, Science and the Modern World.[7] The final paragraph of Whitehead’s preface to the book reads: “My most grateful thanks are due to my colleague Mr. Raphael Demos for reading the proofs and for the suggestion of many improvements in expression.”[8]

That Whitehead was fond of Demos is reinforced by the fact that he was one of only two non-family members invited to an intimate celebration of the first anniversary of Whitehead’s departure from Liverpool on August 16, 1924, to travel to America:

A bonfire was lit beside Lake Seymour. House guests were Raphael Demos and a wealthy young friend interested in philosophy, Roger Pierce. Those two, along with Jessie and the faithful servant, Mary, then went for a row on the lake by starlight.[9]

Further, we know from editing the second volume of Whitehead’s Harvard lectures that Demos delivered a lecture on “contingency” to Whitehead’s Philosophy 3b students on 14 December 1926.[10] It is unclear if Demos was filling in for an absent Whitehead, or if Whitehead simply felt that Demos could provide a useful perspective on contingency in the context of his course.

Over the following decades, Demos would become well-known for his scholarship on Plato, and would eventually succeed Whitehead’s friend William Ernest Hocking as the Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity in 1945. Two years later, on 30 December 1947, Whitehead passed away. Demos wrote an obituary for the Harvard Alumni Bulletin,[11] part of which was later adapted for another obituary in the Philosophical Review co-written by Demos and several other colleagues and students.[12] It said, in part:

His noble phrase that “education consists in the habitual vision of greatness” conveys what he meant to his students. They were educated by him, not merely by the fact that they heard incisive and seminal ideas, but also because they found themselves in the presence of a great man—“a spectator of time and all existence”—one who was infinitely kind, without malice, wholly devoted to the good. Of a philosopher with whose attitude he disagreed, Mr. Whitehead once said, “He has a way of converting major satisfactions into trivial pleasures.” The precise opposite might be said of Mr. Whitehead, and especially in his relation to students: he had a way of taking an ordinary or even trivial idea and converting it into something significant. … A great tree has fallen in the forest.[13]

In searching for possible additional lecture notes taken during Whitehead’s classes, in 2016 I had occasion to contact Demos’ son, Dr. John Demos, who retired in December 2008 as the Samuel Knight Professor of American History Emeritus at Yale. Although Dr. Demos could provide us with no such notes, he did say that “I know my father held Mr. Whitehead in very high esteem, and thought of him as a mentor. I can dimly recall, from my earliest years, a small, slim figure who occasionally visited our home in Cambridge—and who was, I’m quite sure, Prof. Whitehead.”


[1] Shook, John R. (Ed.) (2016). The Bloomsbury encyclopedia of philosophers in America: From 1600 to the present. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 249.

[2] Monk, Ray (1996). Bertrand Russell: The spirit of solitude 1872–1921. New York: The Free Press. p. 349.

[3] Willis, Kirk (1989). “’This Place Is Hell’: Bertrand Russell at Harvard, 1914.” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 1, p. 9.

[4] Russell was sentenced to six months in prison for writing an anti-war editorial; see here. Cairns, Dorion (1973). “My Own Life.” In Dorion Cairns, Fred Kersten & Richard M. Zaner (eds.), Phenomenology: Continuation and Criticism. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, pp. 1–13.

[5] Lowe, Victor (1990). Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, vol. 2, 1910–1947. Edited by J. B. Schneewind. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. p. 139.

[6] Lowe, Victor (1990). Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, vol. 2, 1910–1947. Edited by J. B. Schneewind. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. p. 140

[7] PR, v.

[8] SMW, ix.

[9] Lowe, Victor (1990). Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, vol. 2, 1910–1947. Edited by J. B. Schneewind. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. p. 153.

[10] HL2, xxxi.

[11] Demos’ name is not attached to the obit, but he sent a copy of it to Winthrop Pickard Bell in 1948 and referred to it as “something I wrote about Mr. Whitehead when he died.” Winthrop Bell Fonds: Series 1: 8550-1-15 No. 15.

[12] Demos, Raphael, Thomas G. Henderson, Otis Lee, Victor Lowe, Arthur E. Murphy, F.S.C. Northrop, Paul Weiss, Ralph Barton Perry (1949). “Alfred North Whitehead.” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 58, No. 5, pp. 468–469.

[13] Demos, Raphael (1948). “Alfred North Whitehead, O.M.” Harvard Alumni Bulletin, Vol. 50, No. 8, p. 350.

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