In Piam Memoriam
- Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and his Work.Vol. I: 1861-1910 by Victor Lowe
Johns Hopkins, 351 pp, £26.40, April 1985, ISBN 0 8018 2488 5
Alfred North Whitehead, who lived from 1861 to 1947, is chiefly remembered in England as Bertrand Russell’s collaborator in the three volumes of Principia Mathematica. He was, however, not only a professional mathematician – which Russell ceased to be after coming out joint seventh Wrangler in the first part of the Cambridge Tripos in 1893 – but a philosopher in his own right. It was as a philosopher that he was invited to occupy a Chair at Harvard in 1924, after retiring from the Chair of Applied Mathematics at the Imperial College of Science in the University of London. He retained his professorship at Harvard until 1937 and continued to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts until his death. His association with the English Cambridge lasted from 1880, when he came up to Trinity as a mathematical scholar from Sherborne, until 1910, when he resigned the Fellowship at Trinity which he had held for 26 years.
Vol. 7 No. 18 · 17 October 1985
SIR: A.J. Ayer’s review of my Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and his Work, Vol. 1: 1861-1910 (LRB, 20 June) shows several signs of hasty reading. At the end of his first paragraph he says that in 1910 Whitehead resigned his Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. A main point in the last section of my last chapter was that Whitehead resigned his Lectureship and moved to London but did not resign his Fellowship, which he kept all his life. I wrote that Whitehead’s paternal grandfather took over Chatham House Academy in 1810 and ‘made it one of the best schools in England. Its enrolment was largely, though not entirely, local. The great public schools that drew pupils from all over England came later.’ Ayer comments: ‘I do not know what led Lowe to believe’ that they came later. When does he suppose Thomas Arnold made Rugby important? Whitehead’s own school, Sherborne, celebrated its 1200th anniversary in 1905, but it did not become ‘a great public school that drew pupils from all over England’ until after 1850.
‘Professor Lowe’s conception of the old-fashioned public school system is exceedingly idyllic.’ Ayer does not notice the qualifications I made; I wrote about prefectorial rule at its effective best. And I was not writing a history of ‘the old-fashioned public school system’: I was writing a part of the story of Whitehead’s life – namely, what he did as Head Boy at Sherborne, and what he learned from that. In describing rugby football in the 1870s I may have erred, but Ayer pays little attention to the differences between rugby then and rugby now.
I allow that for many readers – though not, I hope, for all – my treatment of Whitehead’s mathematical work is ‘too technical for the general reader and not critical enough for the expert’. ‘For instance, he avoids any assessment of Russell’s Theory of Types.’ I did not avoid that assessment: I never thought of trying to make it, for I would have been incompetent to do so. I said more than once that I was not a mathematician. I showed Russell’s purpose in his Theory of Types, and Whitehead’s reactions to the theory. And I noticed ‘the emergence of “modern” type theories in the work of Tarski, Carnap, Church and Gödel’. Assuming that Ayer does not want an assessment of today’s type theory, I suggest that he give us his present assessment of Russell’s theory, since Russell is his pet. I wrote about Whitehead because his quiet way of working and living has led to his comparative neglect.
John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
A.J. Ayer writes: I am sorry to have overlooked the fact that Whitehead retained his Fellowship at Trinity after he had forsaken Cambridge. Such major public schools as Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Westminster and Charterhouse were well-known before the 19th century. I was a personal friend and remain an admirer of Bertrand Russell’s, but I should not have the bad taste to describe him as my pet.