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A Misplaced Tombstone

ISSUE:  Autumn 1942

The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp. Northwestern University, Evanston, III. $4.00.

One wonders how Plato would have felt if, instead of practicing the art of dialectic and engaging in the pursuit of truth, the members of the Academy had devoted themselves, during the later years of his life, to explaining and expounding the “Platonic point of view” to the rest of the world and to themselves. Plato was not easily stirred to wrath, but there can be little doubt that his sensitive intellect would have been deeply shocked. And it would have been his intellect, not his ego; Plato makes it abundantly clear that ideas are not the private possession of any man, and that the use of names in connection with a philosophical position is little more than a mnemonic. That Plato should literally serve as a subject for master’s theses and doctor’s dissertations in philosophy is strange indeed, for one must give up virtually all Platonic principles in constructing such an opus.

Here in America, our convictions as to the sanctity of private property have led us to extend the notion to regions where it is utterly inapplicable. If a man publishes a book, and if this book is duly registered under our copyright laws, then the philosophic doctrines, if any, therein expressed are assumed to be curiously “his”—that is, available for reference when acknowledgment is made, but for use only when stolen. A philosophical position, however, which cannot forget its ancestry is never, in the true sense, “philosophical,” and an idea which is not a public matter of fact cannot be truly called “idea.” Criticism, particularly when it is directed towards a deeper understanding of some worth-while document or set of documents, is one thing; but this American phenomenon of books of composite authorship expounding So-and-so’s “Theory of this” and “Theory of that” has very little to recommend it.

Now the learned gentlemen who contributed their articles to “The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead” assumedly did so in the sincere belief that the writings of Professor Whitehead were important. This may be asserted despite the fact that in many cases the belief appears to have been a pure act of faith, bolstered by a hasty first-reading of certain volumes long in their possession in mint condition. (It may be remarked in passing that some of the quotations employed in the various articles leave off at exactly the point where the Whiteheadean punch-line enters on the scene.) Now the doctrines contained in the writings of Professor Whitehead are either worth attending to, or they are not. If they are fallacious, misleading, inadequate, they may still be worthy of criticism. If they are enlightening, suggestive, significant, they are worth carrying on, for no one man can exhaust the relevance of a truly important idea. Unfortunately, there is singularly little genuine criticism or constructive extension of Whiteheadean doctrines in this book.

Turning now to the principles upon which the volume is organized, it may be observed that these are nebulous in the extreme. Apparently the general notion back of the whole work is that of treating as many different sides of Professor Whitehead’s thought as possible in 745 pages. Neither integration nor continuity are in evidence—possibly these principles were regarded as undemocratic by the editor. Thus the name of a lovable man and a great figure in modern thought—if this last statement is questioned, the justification for the volume vanishes—has been made the excuse for a kind of hodgepodge composite, endowed with little more than a nominal unity. The editor’s suggestion that one of the functions of volumes such as this is to ask questions of “living philosophers” is simply laughable. None of the contributors seriously attempt this; they are all too busy trying to tell what “Whitehead” means, and to expound sections of their own doctrines. And Professor Whitehead’s own statement (in the facsimile letter)—”In this enterprise, the function of the text is to produce a unity of thought in the authors of these chapters”—indicates an ideal which finds little realization.

In spite of what has been said above, a few of the articles do succeed in taking an idea or doctrine, discoverable in the works of Professor Whitehead, and in delivering a worthwhile criticism or in carrying it on to a new application or in raising a genuine problem. On the whole, though, this volume may be taken as an occasion for a protest—a protest against volumes of joint authorship, designed as memorials for philosophical figures who need and desire no memorial save their works.


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