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Go to the Index of 120 Philosophers Squared

Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947) was an English-American who explored the interrelated change and flow of processes. There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.

Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead philosopher of progress

Quotations of Alfred North Whitehead from sources – BrainyQuote,  WikiQuote, GoodReads,

The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention.

Almost all new ideas have a certain aspect of foolishness when they are first produced.

The silly question is the first intimation of some totally new development.

Every really new idea looks crazy at first.

Error is the price we pay for progress.

There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.

The task of a university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought and civilized modes of appreciation can affect the issue.

The vitality of thought is in adventure. Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them. When the idea is new, its custodians have fervor, live for it, and if need be, die for it.

Fundamental progress has to do with the reinterpretation of basic ideas.

But you can catch yourself entertaining habitually certain ideas and setting others aside; and that, I think, is where our personal destinies are largely decided.

In the study of ideas, it is necessary to remember that insistence on hard-headed clarity issues from sentimental feeling, as if it were a mist, cloaking the perplexities of fact. Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode in which human intelligence functions. Our reasoning grasps at straws for premises and float on gossamer for deductions.

In formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of a defeat; but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress towards a victory.

No one who achieves success does so without acknowledging the help of others. The wise and confident acknowledge this help with gratitude.

From the very beginning of his education, the child should experience the joy of discovery.

Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge.
For successful education there must always be a certain freshness in the knowledge dealt with. It must be either new in itself or invested with some novelty of application to the new world of new times. Knowledge does not keep any better than fish. You may be dealing with knowledge of the old species, with some old truth; but somehow it must come to the students, as it were, just drawn out of the sea and with the freshness of its immediate importance.

In formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of defeat, but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress toward a victory.

Intolerance is the besetting sin of moral fervor.

Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge.

The essence of education is that it be religious. Pray, what is religious education? A religious education is an education which inculcates duty and reverence. Duty arises from our potential control over the course of events. Where attainable knowledge could have changed the issue, ignorance has the guilt of vice. And the foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity.The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning.

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

We think in generalities, but we live in detail. To make the past live, we must perceive it in detail in addition to thinking of it in generalities.

The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, “Seek simplicity and distrust it.”

Human life is driven forward by its dim apprehension of notions too general for its existing language.

By relieving the brain of all unnecessary work, a good notation sets it free to concentrate on more advanced problems, and in effect increases the mental power of the race.

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

Familiar things happen, and mankind does not bother about them. Simple solutions seldom are. It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.

…the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity to be found on the far side of complexity.

Periods of tranquility are seldom prolific of creative achievement. Mankind has to be stirred up.

Ninety percent of our lives is governed by emotion. Our brains merely register and act upon what is telegraphed to them by our bodily experience. Intellect is to emotion as our clothes are to our bodies; we could not very well have civilized life without clothes, but we would be in a poor way if we had only clothes without bodies.

Speak out in acts; the time for words has passed, and only deeds will suffice.

We cannot think first and act afterwards. From the moment of birth we are immersed in action and can only fitfully guide it by taking thought.
Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development.

Intelligence is quickness to apprehend as distinct from ability, which is capacity to act wisely on the thing apprehended.

It takes an extraordinary intelligence to contemplate the obvious.

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.

Art flourishes where there is a sense of adventure.

Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.

The art of progress is to reserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order.

It is the first step in sociological wisdom, to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur:—like unto an arrow in the hand of a child. The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code; and secondly in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason. Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.

The total absence of humor from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature.

I have suffered a great deal from writers who have quoted this or that sentence of mine either out of its context or in juxtaposition to some incongruous matter which quite distorted my meaning, or destroyed it altogether.

The mentality of mankind and the language of mankind created each other. If we like to assume the rise of language as a given fact, then it is not going too far to say that the souls of men are the gift from language to mankind. The account of the sixth day should be written: He gave them speech, and they became souls.

Philosophy is the product of wonder.

The chief error in philosophy is overstatement.
In all philosophic theory there is an ultimate which is actual in virtue of its accidents. It is only then capable of characterization through its accidental embodiments, and apart from these accidents is devoid of actuality. In the philosophy of organism this ultimate is termed creativity; and God is its primordial, non-temporal accident. In monistic philosophies, Spinoza’s or absolute idealism, this ultimate is God, who is also equivalently termed The Absolute. In such monistic schemes, the ultimate is illegitimately allowed a final, eminent reality, beyond that ascribed to any of its accidents. In this general position the philosophy of organism seems to approximate more to some strains of Indian, or Chinese, thought, than to western Asiatic, or European, thought. One side makes process ultimate; the other side makes fact ultimate.

Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity.

Philosophy finds religion, and modifies it; and conversely religion is among the data of experience which philosophy must weave into its own scheme.

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

The chief danger to philosophy is narrowness in the selection of evidence.

Some philosophers fail to distinguish propositions from judgments … But in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. The importance of truth is that it adds to interest.
Variant : It is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. This statement is almost a tautology. For the energy of operation of a proposition in an occasion of experience is its interest, and its importance. But of course a true proposition is more apt to be interesting than a false one.

Philosophy begins in wonder. And at the end when philosophic thought has done its best the wonder remains.

The misconception which has haunted philosophic literature throughout the centuries is the notion of ‘independent existence.’ There is no such mode of existence; every entity is to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.

Our minds are finite, and yet even in these circumstances of finitude we are surrounded by possibilities that are infinite, and the purpose of human life is to grasp as much as we can out of the infinitude.
A culture is in its finest flower before it begins to analyze itself.
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.

Systems, scientific and philosophic, come and go. Each method of limited understanding is at length exhausted. In its prime each system is a triumphant success: in its decay it is an obstructive nuisance.


Alfred North Whitehead wrote, Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge, which it appears most educators forget. I see and hear this often in the form of people saying how much they enjoy learning. When this happens I try to challenge them immediately as to what application they have for the knowledge they are attaining. Most people are shocked at that question and appear to believe that acquiring knowledge for its own sake is the end in itself. I try to convince them that the aim of learning something is to apply what they have learned to something to improve their lives via some action. The knowledge is of no value without some wisdom guiding the material to some positive conclusion. The goal is learning how to apply new material you may encounter into positive results; otherwise the learning is no more that superficial entertainment.

For a person facing really new problems, at least new problems to them, there will be a period of making mistakes, and there will be a period where questions must be asked. The silly question is the first intimation of some totally new development. These questions will result in errors, but these errors should quickly resolve themselves into better questions and better answers. It is this process which Whitehead is encouraging education to foster in its students – but that idea is anathema to the current trend of “teaching to the test.”

For fundamental questions there must be a deeper quest, and It takes an extraordinary intelligence to contemplate the obvious. It is from these types of inquiries that our most profound thinkers have claimed to gain their greatest discoveries. Learning isn’t for entertainment, although it may be entertaining, but to some extent it is for building a better life for yourself and your loved ones; at a higher level learning is the foundation of creating new and more useful things, and at its even higher level it’s for generating whatever is needed for more functional human societies.