Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Sixteen

Alfred North Whitehead,” pages 99-104

Russell knew Whitehead’s father, a cleric, when Russell was very young. He encountered Whitehead fils (ANW) when Russell matriculated at Cambridge; Whitehead was impressed with the quality of Russell’s entrance examination, and Russell was honored that Whitehead remembered a particular of the exam many months later. Whitehead’s rather harsh criticism of Russell’s dissertation aimed at procuring a Cambridge Fellowship was later explained by it being the last opportunity for ANW to address BR in a teacher-to-pupil manner: Russell was awarded the Fellowship.

Russell and Whitehead collaborated for a decade on mathematics, but their lack of intellectual concord prevented any collaboration on matters philosophical. They disagreed about World War I, and Russell allowed that disagreement to diminish their friendship. Whitehead’s younger son was killed in the fighting towards the end of WWI. Whitehead was devastated and turned more to philosophy, with Kant and Bergson as guides. (Bergson, incidentally, preceded Russell as a Nobel Laureate in Literature.) Whitehead possessed a great breadth of knowledge, encompassing much historical arcana.

Whitehead was so gentle that he was nicknamed “the Cherub” in Russell’s early days at Cambridge. The fact that Whitehead’s Dad was a cleric was not accidental: Whitehead descended from a long line of clerics. Young ANW's upbringing on the Isle of Thanet left a profound influence. “Whitehead’s theological opinions were not orthodox, but something of the vicarage atmosphere remained in his ways of feeling and came out in his later philosophical writings [p. 102].” He was modest as well as gentle.

Whitehead’s powers of concentration were extraordinary, as Russell and Crompton Davies (who appeared in "Chapter" 11) witnessed when ANW was so wrapped up in mathematics that he failed to notice the two of them, standing but a yard away. Whitehead presented a kind and imperturbable face to the world, but he could, indeed, be perturbed. “His devotion to his wife and his children was profound and passionate [p. 103].” He was very hard on himself for his imagined faults.

Whitehead had an agility at inducing committees to see things his way. His administrative acumen was missing one important element, the ability to reliably respond to letters. Russell endorses Whitehead’s explanation for this defect, that answering letters would take him away from producing original work.

Whitehead earns from his pupil Russell the ultimate encomium: “Whitehead was extraordinarily perfect as a teacher….I think that in all the abler young men with whom he came in contact he inspired, as he did in me, a very real and lasting affection [p. 104]."

1 comment:

Tor Hershman said...

"Whitehead descended from a long line of clerics."

Well, duh!
Does the ruling class EVER give-up the family lemonade stand?

I bet-cha Whitehead would've had a fit over this wee doc., "The Origin of Jesus Christ."