Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Wisdom of Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead, the English-born mathematician and philosopher, was the teacher and mentor of my teacher and mentor, the Rev. Dr. Allen O. Miller. Dr. Miller studied with Dr. Whitehead at Harvard University; I studied with Dr. Miller at Eden Theological Seminary.

Dr. Miller often quoted Dr. Whitehead. Although he didn’t directly teach Whitehead’s most significant theological contribution, Process Philosophy, I learned much about the concept from Dr. Miller. I have found myself quoting Alfred North Whitehead often during my post-seminary life, although I have not always realized that my words were based on the words of Whitehead that I received via Dr. Miller.

The other day I came across a list of quotations attributed to Alfred North Whitehead and was amazed at how many ideas and concepts that I recognized from my own use. Below are some of Whitehead’s words that I have incorporated into my own life and philosophy:

  • A clash of doctrines is not a disaster—it is an opportunity.
  • Everything of importance has been said before by somebody who did not discover it.
  • It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.
  • Art flourishes where there is a sense of adventure.
  • Seek simplicity, and distrust it.
  • The deepest definition of youth is life as yet untouched by tragedy.
  • The poet, the artist, the sleuth - whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial... he cannot go along with currents and trends.
  • The vitality of thought is in adventure. Ideas won't keep. Something must be done about them.
  • The absolute pacifist is a bad citizen; times come when force must be used to uphold right, justice and ideals.
  • There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.
  • Civilizations can only be understood by those who are civilized.
  • Man can acquire accomplishments or he can become an animal, whichever he wants. God makes the animals, man makes himself.
  • Speak out in acts; the time for words has passed, and only deeds will suffice.
  • What is morality in any given time or place? It is what the majority then and there happen to like and immorality is what they dislike.

And, finally, there is this gem of wisdom from Alfred North Whitehead that until just a few years ago, when I became the property of Alex, I did not understand:

If a dog jumps in your lap, it is because he is fond of you; but if a cat does the same thing, it is because your lap is warmer. ~ Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)


  1. I am not a philosopher, but I know the truth of that last one!

  2. Wonderful words, indeed. I'm going to have to contemplate a few of those farther to fully absorb the thoughts.

    As to the final one, so true! However, never think for a moment that if a cat finds a person disagreeable, he will be fooled by the warmth of a lap. Never.

  3. I was interested to see that Alfred Whitehead attended Sherborne School as did Christ Martin, lead singer of Coldplay!

  4. Bit of a slip there ... Chris Martin is GOOD but ....

  5. Smart man. I can see how you've benefited from his wisdom.

  6. Love the wisdom, love the pic. Looks like one big warm belly you got there, friend . . . :)

    Peace . . .

  7. lol.. there in that last ponderance is the truest of wisdoms he ever spoke.. lol...

  8. I know that Alex goes for the warmth, but I bet he also likes being with you - at least some of the time. ;-)

  9. Abby: I agree: it doesn’t take a philosopher to know that cats love warmth.

    Lynilu : I have noticed that Alex not only will not leap on the laps of disagreeable humans, he actually hides from them.

  10. dancingonabladeofgrass : Ah! You followed the link to his bio! I think that’s grand; so few people seem to take advantage of the links.

    Squirl: Yes, I have benefited from Whitehead’s wisdom, even though it came to me second hand through Allen Miller.

  11. Oceanshaman : Thank you; I’m so glad you liked this post. And, yes, Alex spends a lot of quality time on my Santa Claus belly!

    Xmichra : I don’t think that Alex would disagree. A few moments ago he jumped from the warmth of my arms to the greater warm of curling up beneath the high intensity lamp on my desk.

    Carol: Yes, I believe you are right. Today, for example, Alex has spent quite a bit of time in my arms and on my chest and belly being stroked, cuddled, petted and even tickled. He purred a lot during all of that.

  12. There is wisdom in the philosophy of Whitehead. And, as we both know, Rev Saint, the wise teaching of Allen Miller is unsurpassed.