British mathematician, logician, and metaphysician.
The son of a clergyman, Whitehead was born in Ramsgate, Kent, and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained as student, lecturer, and fellow until 1910, when he took up an appointment at Imperial College, London, as professor of applied mathematics. In 1924, at an age when most people are contemplating retirement, Whitehead resigned his chair and moved to the USA to begin a new career as professor of philosophy at Harvard.
Whitehead's reputation was initially established by his work in mathematical logic. In 1898 he published his Universal Algebra and shortly afterwards began, in collaboration with his most famous pupil, Bertrand Russell, an ambitious project to demonstrate that the whole of mathematics was derivable from purely logical assumptions. A decade of intense labour finally saw the results of their collaboration in the publication of Principia Mathematica (3 vols, 1910–13), the most important logical work since the days of Aristotle. A fourth volume, on geometry, by Whitehead alone, was planned but never completed.
For the next decade Whitehead wrote on problems concerning the nature and development of science. In the 1920s, however, he turned his attention to the construction of a metaphysical system, the details of which he published in his Process and Reality (1929). Whitehead rejected traditional attempts to identify the ultimate constituents of reality with atoms or points of space, proposing instead that events are the ultimate stuff of nature. In developing his philosophy of organism Whitehead thus had to show how a world of apparently permanent objects could be represented by transitory events. He sought to describe such a world rather than to deduce its features or to argue for its properties. The result is a work of considerable difficulty, replete with neologisms and obscurities.