Social Ethics Seminar

Download the PDF of Whitehead’s presentation in Richard Clarke Cabot’s Social Ethics Seminar here. This is an excerpt from The Harvard Lectures of Alfred North Whitehead, 1925–1927: General Metaphysical Problems of Science (HL2), provided courtesy of Edinburgh University Press.


Background on “Social Ethics Seminar”

Whitehead’s normal teaching load was one lecture course taught at Radcliffe from 9am-10am and at Harvard from Noon-1pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, plus a seminar held in his home on Fridays from 7:30-9:30pm. But he sometimes attended and even participated in other courses. These included, for instance, the occasional lecture in the undergraduate introductory philosophy course, Philosophy A, which was co-taught by various members of the department according to their areas of specialization. Whitehead was also known to attend some of the courses of James Haughton Woods and Étienne Gilson.

His participation in Richard Clarke Cabot’s Social Ethics seminar during the fall 1926 term is thus not especially unusual. The form of the record, however, is unique. It is not a manuscript of Whitehead’s, nor is it student notes of the kind we are used to seeing, but something that is arguably better than either of these: it is a professional stenographer’s recording of Whitehead’s presentation and the ensuing discussion. As to how this came to be, we believe that Cabot himself, being independently wealthy, must have hired someone to keep a record of the course’s proceedings.

The full course name as it appeared on Cabot’s syllabus was “Social Ethics 20a: Fundamentals Underlying the Social Sciences.” His stated objective was to “work out cooperatively the fundamentals of the social sciences.” By “cooperatively,” he meant with other departments in the university. And so we have here Whitehead’s contribution to the semester-long discussion of what constituted the social sciences and social ethics.