Saturday, November 5, 2011

Whitehead on Religion: Introduction (part 1)

[This is the first post in a series in which I blog through Whitehead's excellent little book, Religion in the Making.  The book is his theory of religion, tracing the evolution of religion in relation to his metaphysical system.  Keep in mind that this book was written in 1926 - there are traces of Eurocentrism and colonialism present here, but overall I think his ideas are nevertheless fascinating.]

We will begin with a brief biographical overview of Whitehead and summary of his historical significance before diving into the text for today. The British mathematician, logician, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was born in 1861 in the seaside town of Ramsgate, England. His family was rooted in the Church of England, although before WWI Whitehead generally considered himself agnostic. However, after WWI, he considered himself religious and a theist, but did not align himself with a particular tradition. He developed interests in physics as well as theology and read widely in these areas.

After graduating in 1884 at Trinity College, a constituent college of University of Cambridge, he became a fellow at the school, teaching and writing mathematics there until 1910. Although he wrote a number of significant books on math, his most important was the three-volume Principia Mathematica (1910, 1st edition), co-written with his former pupil Bertrand Russell. This work is widely read and considered to be the most important works of mathematical logic and philosophy since Aristotle’s Organon. It should also be mentioned that Whitehead’s other most famous student was the widely influential economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes and Whitehead mutually influenced each other’s work, with Keynes largely agreeing with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.

A second significant period of Whitehead’s life was from 1910-1924 at University College of London where he worked on physics, philosophy of science, and philosophy of education. His third major period was his time at Harvard University where he taught philosophy from 1924 until his retirement in1937. It was during this time that he fully developed his metaphysical system that he had been working on since 1920, which he called the “philosophy of organism” but which has become more widely known as “process philosophy.” His philosophy is heavily influenced by Plato, Henri Bergson, and William James. Especially through his assistant at Harvard, Charles Hartshorne, who taught at University of Chicago, process philosophy stimulated the development of process theology. This was particularly important amongst Christian liberal theologians in America like John Cobb, David Ray Griffin, and Marjorie Suchocki (all former professors at CST/CGU). But process philosophy has also attracted some Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu philosophers and theologians. Furthermore, process philosophy has also been increasingly influential in sections of the European scientific community and amongst Chinese philosophers.

Based on the Lowell Lectures in 1926, Religion in the Making was published between two of Whitehead’s more widely read texts, Science in the Modern World (1925), and his magnum opus based on the famous Gifford Lectures in 1929, Process and Reality. How consistent Whitehead’s thought is between these three texts, especially in the area metaphysics and his doctrine of God, is debated by Whiteheadian scholars to this day. Regardless of the perfect consistency between the three, my sense is that they are largely get at a very similar metaphysical vision, though elements may be lacking here and there. In the preface to RM, Whitehead links it closely to SMW in his general “train of thought.” In other words, he applies his same philosophical analysis first to the history of science in SMW and then to the history of religion in RM. He later did the same in 1933 with Adventures of Ideas for society, politics, economics, and culture. In the next post we will move on to discuss Whitehead’s RM.

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