New Books

Unearthing the Unknown Whitehead

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Joseph Petek
Publication Date: November 2022

This coming February, I’ll celebrate ten years working on the Critical Edition of Whitehead. In that time we’ve published two volumes of Whitehead’s Harvard lectures and made a lot of previously unseen archival material available on the Whitehead Research Library. My aim with this book, broadly speaking, is to examine the significance of this material for Whitehead scholarship by taking a closer look at some of the most interesting portions of it, which my work with the project puts me in a uniquely advantageous position to do.

What exactly gets discussed? Allow me to dispel the mystery by summarizing the topic of each chapter.

Chapter 1 investigates how thorough and accurate the accounts of Whitehead’s Harvard lectures actually are. Inevitably, some people were better note-takers than others (e.g., the notes of Paul Weiss in HL2 are particularly poor, while the notes of Winthrop Bell in HL1 and George Conger in HL2 are particularly impressive), but the notes that make up HL1 and HL2 are largely accurate and reliable.

Chapter 2 asks the question: can the Harvard lectures be seen as drafts of Whitehead’s books? In other words, did he use his lecture notes to write Science and the Modern World, Religion in the Making, etc? The answer, with some notable exceptions, is mostly “no.” He was more likely to bring his finished books (or the lectures they were based on) back into his Harvard classroom than he was to turn his Harvard class material directly into books. That’s not to say there’s no relationship between the two, but it is more complicated than Whitehead simply publishing his Harvard lectures as books. This relationship is examined further in the final chapter (see below).

Chapter 3 concerns Whitehead and C. D. Broad. One of the major shocks—at least for me—in publishing the Harvard lectures was seeing how prominently Broad’s books featured in Whitehead’s classroom: he assigned Broad to his students for roughly the first half of his time at Harvard. This despite the fact that Whitehead only ever mentioned Broad a single time in his published writings, in a footnote in Principle of Relativity. It’s something we never could have known without HL1 and HL2. The chapter follows their mutual influence all the way from Trinity College through Whitehead’s Harvard years.

Chapter 4 looks at Whitehead’s lecture in Cabot’s “social ethics” seminar in HL2. It’s a notable lecture since ethics is the explicit focus, a topic which Whitehead seemed loathe to engage directly.

Chapter 5 examines Whitehead’s unpublished essay “Religious Psychology of the Western Peoples.” Whitehead was never more critical of religion generally, and Christianity specifically, than he was in this essay. How critical? Well, here’s one of my favorite lines: “In reading ecclesiastical history one longs for the Athenian pagans who removed their finest moralist by the kindly device of a cup of hemlock.” Consider that he said this to a room full of clergy! It’s a powerful piece that has intimate connections with the upheaval of the imminent WW2.

Chapter 6 investigates another unpublished Whitehead essay: “Freedom and Order.” That it is undated makes it harder to situate within Whitehead’s corpus, as it really could have been written at any time from his arrival in America in 1924 through the period of his last writings in the early 1940s. But I argue that it’s probably a transitional piece between SMW and PR, circa 1926, showing Whitehead experimenting with a dyad—”wit” and “humour”—that he would not repeat elsewhere.

Chapter 7 explores Whitehead’s early life, education, and correspondence in order to try to determine his earliest philosophical influences and development, and to try to identify the point at which he transitioned from mathematics to philosophy. My guiding star for the discussion was a series of letters Whitehead wrote to Bertrand Russell in 1911, just after he had departed from Trinity. They appear to be something of a germ for his later philosophical work.

Chapter 8 returns to Whitehead’s Harvard lectures and again asks their relation to his books. If the lectures are not, as chapter 2 showed, drafts of the books, then what are they? In essence, they are his philosophy in action. It is the Harvard lectures that actually contain the truest record of the development of Whitehead’s philosophy—including the false starts and dead ends that the published works obscure—a development which previously could only be inferred as taking place in the gaps between his books. This argument is brought home by the fact that it was not uncommon for Whitehead to bring his books back into his Harvard classroom, and then explicitly expound on how his thinking had since evolved.

My sincere hope is that this book will help to stir up interest and stimulate conversations about the material that the Critical Edition of Whitehead is putting out. Consider it a beginner’s guide on why the new materials being put out by the CEW matter. I have only scratched the surface; there is so much more to be written about HL1, HL2, and all the other material to come. I’m looking forward to it.

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