October 04, 2005

Whitehead and Alexander

by Dorothy Emmet

A. N. Whitehead and Samuel Alexander were two of the few British philosophers who produced comprehensive metaphysical systems in the early part of this century (others being Bradley and McTaggart). They always spoke of each other with great respect. Alexander indeed used to say in his last years that he considered that Whitehead had superseded him. He went so far as to say in a letter to the present writer, "I read Whitehead naturally not only to understand him but to save my own soul. I think of myself only as having done what Burke said he did for [Dr. Samuel] Johnson in conversation – ‘rung the bell for him.’ But though Whitehead disregards Leibniz and proclaims his affinity to Spinoza, he is, as you say, much more of a Leibnizian. And I believe I am much more of a Spinozist. And so there is a side to me which has to be either lost by obstinacy or saved by surrender to Whitehead (or of course the other way about)." I do not think it is true to say that Whitehead disregarded Leibniz’. It was however a just comment to say that Whitehead was more of a Leibnizian and Alexander more of a Spinozist.

I see the attitude to each other’s philosophy as one of mutual appreciation rather than of influence. Each has occasional comments suggesting analogies; neither however directly discusses the work of the other. In fact neither was interested in going in for dialectical argument with his contemporaries. Moreover. Alexander’s main work was done before Whitehead’s philosophical (as distinct from his mathematical) books had come out. Space, Time and Deity was published in 1920, but the Gifford Lectures on which it was based were given in 1916. Whitehead’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge came out in 1919, and The Concept of Nature in 1921. Alexander’s preface to the 1927 edition of Space, Time and Deity shows that he was then aware of some of Whitehead’s views in these two books. However, he was mainly concerned to reassert his own positions in answer to criticisms by C. D. Broad and G. E. Stout. […]

The cardinal difference between Whitehead’s view and Alexander’s is that the former’s view is an explicitly relational one, in which Space and Time are derived from relations between events, and the fundamental ontology is one of events. Alexander, on the other hand, absolutizes Space-Time, and even speaks of it as a "stuff’ of which things are made. At the same time he also says that Space-Time can be called Motions -- not "motion" in the singular, but complexes of motions with kaleidoscopic changes within a continuum. So one might say that for Alexander motion is primitive, and Space and Time are defined through relations between motions. This view is, however, combined with that of Space. Time as a kind of ghost of the Absolute, a stuff differentiated by motions (not, it should be noted, a view of motions as taking place within Space). There might be a remote analogy here with General Relativity where matter is defined by warps in the geometry of Space-Time. These warpings, however, I take to be due to gravitational forces, and "warping" is not a notion used by Alexander, though he refers to Einstein on this in a postscript to his preface to STD. Alexander’s references to the General Theory of Relativity are respectful, but diffident. return to religion-online 
Dorothy Emmet is Emeritus Professor of philosophy of the University of Manchester, now retired and living at 11 Millington Road, Cambridge, U.K. Her recent book, The Passage of Nature (London: Macmillan and Temple Press) is an analytic discussion of what it means for anything to be a process, with critical reference to some of Whitehead’s views. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 137-148, Vol. 21, Number 3, Fall, 1992. Whitehead's Philosophy of OrganismThe nature of metaphysical thinking, (Papermac)Function, purpose and powers: Some concepts in the study of individuals and societiesRules, roles, and relations (Beacon paperback, 506)Presuppositions and finite truths (Annual philosophical lecture, Henriette Hertz Trust)The moral prismProphets and their societies (The Henry Myers lecture)Ethics and the social workerEffectiveness of Causes. SUNY Series in Philosophy, edited by Robert Cummings NevilleJustice and the law, (The Essex hall lecture)Biography - Emmet, Dorothy Mary (1904-2000): An article from: Contemporary Authors

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