Alfred North Whitehead had a long and illustrious career spanning more than 60 years spread out over two centuries. Although Whitehead’s contributions to anthropology are indirect and came principally toward the end of his life, his observations on the connections between nature and the human spirit were informed by a long lifetime of varied pursuits in fields ranging from mathematics to a sort of prototheology. Whitehead’s life is frequently broken down into three periods: Cambridge, London, and Harvard. It was during the Harvard period that Whitehead made contributions closest to the field of anthropology.
An Englishman by birth, Whitehead distinguished himself early in life as a mathematician of the first order. From 1885 to 1910, he taught at Trinity College in Cambridge, where he was the professor of a young Bertrand Russell. Russell would later go on to collaborate with Whitehead—as a colleague—on the monumental Principia Mathematica. While teaching in London from 1910 to 1924, Whitehead shifted the focus of his efforts somewhat to the more practical concerns of education, especially as they related to the working class. Even while fully occupied with teaching as various administrative duties, Whitehead managed to continue his impressive scholarly output, publishing three major treatises during this period.
Whitehead’s Harvard period represented a sharp break from his past activities. Whitehead was 63 years old when, in 1924, he accepted a position as a professor of philosophy at Harvard University. In addition to leaving his native country for the United States, Whitehead was now entering into a field in which he had no formal training—philosophy. As one might expect, however, the general background that White-head had accumulated during what was already an extremely impressive academic and scholarly career, combined with his prodigious intellectual talents, made the transition a smooth one.
In 1925, Whitehead published Science and the Modern World, in which he advanced the thesis that philosophy was rightly regarded as “the critic of abstractions.” That is, philosophy should do more than merely remain comfortably ensconced in the realm of theory. As the critic of abstractions, philosophy must find a way to get beyond a worldview that assumes that the human mind cannot penetrate into the mysteries of nature as anything but an objective, dispassionate observer. While Science and the Modern World provides a schematic view of what such a philosophy might look like, it was in his magnum opus, Process and Reality, published in 1929, that Whitehead gave a full exposition of what would come to be called “process philosophy.” Whitehead himself referred to his system as the “philosophy of organism.”
Central to this system is Whitehead’s notion of actual occasion. Whitehead describes an actual occasion as a process of becoming, as the coming together of the totality of a person’s life experiences, particularly those in the recent past, which Whitehead refers to as concrescence. A human being is the totality of its experience, its concrescence. Whitehead’s view thus resembles Sartre’s concept of facticity (the sum total of a person’s experiences) and Heidegger’s notion of Dasein (literally “being there” or, less literally, “human existence”).
- Whitehead, A. N. (1929). Process and reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Whitehead, A. N. (1966). New York: The Free Press.
- Whitehead, A. N. (1995). In The Cambridge dictionary of philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.