Gleanings from Wikipedia: In his "early" career, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was a well respected mathematician, known for the book "Principia Mathematica," co-written with his former student Bertrand Russell.

In the late 1910s, Whitehead turned his attention toward philosophy, and in 1924 at the age of 63, he was invited to join the faculty of Harvard University as a professor of philosophy. 

His notable "early" philosophical works include the following: 

The Concept of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920. Based on the November 1919 Tarner Lectures delivered at Trinity College. Available online at

Science and the Modern World. New York: Macmillan Company, 1925. Vol. 55 of the Great Books of the Western World series.

Religion in the Making. New York: Macmillan Company, 1926. Based on the 1926 Lowell Lectures. Available online at

Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975) graduated from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1910, and earned a PhD in philosophy at Harvard in 1917 (seven years before Whitehead began teaching there), studying under William Ernest Hocking and Ralph Barton Perry. 

The topic of Wieman's doctoral dissertation in 1917 (two years before Whitehead gave his lectures that became The Concept of Nature) was The Organization of Interests. Even before any influence from Whitehead, "Wieman was already dealing with an implicitly aesthetic approach to value in his dissertation" according to Robert Mesle.  

From the dissertation:

"Our problem will be to discover that organization of human interests which is most conducive to their maximum fulfillment. The object of our desire is the greatest good. The principle of organization, which we propose, we shall call creativity. Our thesis is that all interests should be so organized as to function as one; and that one should be a creative interest. Interest which is directed to developing a fuller consciousness of some object, and not for any ulterior end, is what we shall call creative interest. It is creative of integrated experience. We believe that the organization which causes all the processes constitutive of human life to function in satisfying creative interest, is the organization of life which yields the most complete and continuous satisfaction." (Organization of Interests, p.3)

I've not yet read the dissertation, but from various quotes it strikes me that Wieman was intuiting aspects later developed and confirmed by Prigogine, i.e. self-organization, but that is a side note we may come back to later.

What Mesle notes is "the centrality of creativity, the analysis of human life in terms of processes, and especially the beginnings of an aesthetic theory of value... [which] seems to adumbrate a vision of aesthetic organization of value experience."

Wieman Explains Whitehead to Other Philosophers and Theologians

By the mid 1920s, Whitehead was beginning to garner a lot of attention in philosophical circles, as indicated by his appointment at Harvard. Wieman noticed early on the resonance with his own thought, and quickly became "one of America's only Whitehead experts."

Here is an extended quote from the Wikipedia entry on Whitehead (referencing Gary Dorien), which details how Wieman became known for his ability to interpret and explain Whitehead, and how the University of Chicago became so closely associated with Whiteheadian thought:

"This is not to say that Whitehead's thought was widely accepted or even well-understood. His philosophical work is generally considered to be among the most difficult to understand in all of the western canon.[45] Even professional philosophers struggled to follow Whitehead's writings. One famous story illustrating the level of difficulty of Whitehead's philosophy centers around the delivery of Whitehead's Gifford lectures in 1927–28 – following Arthur Eddington's lectures of the year previous – which Whitehead would later publish as Process and Reality:

Eddington was a marvellous popular lecturer who had enthralled an audience of 600 for his entire course. The same audience turned up to Whitehead's first lecture but it was completely unintelligible, not merely to the world at large but to the elect. My father remarked to me afterwards that if he had not known Whitehead well he would have suspected that it was an imposter making it up as he went along ... The audience at subsequent lectures was only about half a dozen in all.[104]

Indeed, it may not be inappropriate to speculate that some fair portion of the respect generally shown to Whitehead by his philosophical peers at the time arose from their sheer bafflement. Distinguished University of Chicago Divinity School theologian Shailer Mathews once remarked of Whitehead's 1926 book Religion in the Making: "It is infuriating, and I must say embarrassing as well, to read page after page of relatively familiar words without understanding a single sentence."[105]

However, Mathews' frustration with Whitehead's books did not negatively affect his interest. In fact, there were numerous philosophers and theologians at Chicago's Divinity School that perceived the importance of what Whitehead was doing without fully grasping all of the details and implications. In 1927 they invited one of America's only Whitehead experts – Henry Nelson Wieman – to Chicago to give a lecture explaining Whitehead's thought.[105] Wieman's lecture was so brilliant that he was promptly hired to the faculty and taught there for twenty years, and for at least thirty years afterward Chicago's Divinity School was closely associated with Whitehead's thought.[103]

Shortly after Whitehead's book Process and Reality appeared in 1929, Wieman famously wrote in his 1930 review:

"Not many people will read Whitehead's recent book in this generation; not many will read it in any generation. But its influence will radiate through concentric circles of popularization until the common man will think and work in the light of it, not knowing whence the light came. After a few decades of discussion and analysis one will be able to understand it more readily than can now be done."[106]

Wieman's words proved prophetic. Though Process and Reality has been called "arguably the most impressive single metaphysical text of the twentieth century,"[107] it has been little-read and little-understood, partly because it demands – as Isabelle Stengers puts it – "that its readers accept the adventure of the questions that will separate them from every consensus."[38] Whitehead questioned western philosophy's most dearly held assumptions about how the universe works, but in doing so he managed to anticipate a number of 21st century scientific and philosophical problems and provide novel solutions."[108]

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Whitehead - a giant, a prodigy, a beacon. Maybe not in the exact geometry of radiating concentric circles through a reliable medium, but an unparalleled luminosity.

He, and Wieman, ought to be on my reading list.


"Ought to be on my reading list" perhaps, but everyone seems to agree that Whitehead is very difficult to read. I don't claim to have more than a slight understanding of Whitehead's thought, but I have been spending quite a bit of time with Wieman over the last two years. Wieman's writing on Whitehead seems like a good way to be introduced to Whitehead (esp. when knowing that it was Wieman who initially explained Whitehead to the Chicago school). 

That's what I'll be looking at in this thread, with the help of C. Robert Mesle's two essays tracing Wieman's thought about Whitehead chronologically. 

Why is it worth our while as Integralists? As Sean Esbjorn-Hargens has written, "I think it is important to show that Wilber sees himself as a Whiteheadian, insofar as Whitehead goes. By establishing this relationship (between Whitehead and Wilber) we are in a much better position to understand Wilber's contribution to Whitehead's system." [This from the essay I haven't finished reading yet: "Integrating Whitehead"]

I think some of these ideas from Whitehead were foundational to Wilber's understanding of the Eros drive that Wilber talks about in the first couple of chapters in SES.  Understanding Whitehead's foundational thought on these ideas, as well as Wiemans, as well as more current understanding from Prigogine, et al will, I intuit, be very fruitful in critiquing Wilber. This could in turn lead to a better understanding of how creative evolution actually works.  

In this next section, I'll be relying heavily on two essays by C. Robert Mesle (who is author of a couple of highly regarded books on process philosophy: Process Theology: A Basic Introduction, and Process-Relational Philosophy: An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead).

The first essay is entitled "Sharing a Vague Vision: Wieman's Early Critique of Whitehead," and the second essay is "Added on Like Dome and Spire - Wieman's Later Critique of Whitehead."  These essays examine Wieman's thoughts about Whitehead and how they changed and developed chronologically over time.  I found these very valuable, as Wieman helps in understanding Whitehead - mostly respectfully, sometimes sympathetically, but also critically, clarifying his own unique approach.  On top of this Mesle's 3rd person stance provides added perspective, is sometimes critical of Wieman, and is overall helpful in interpreting both of these two great thinkers.  Fortunately Mesle's essays are freely available online at

An advantage to Mesle was the opportunity to interview at length Bernard Meland, who was an early student and later colleague to Wieman. Meland characterized Wieman as a "maverick" whose thought was always in transition. Wieman was not one to rest on previously established ideas - those of others or his own.  This demonstrates his commitment to ongoing, ever changing creative process that retains an openness to new thought, new ideas, new information. 

At the same time, Wieman throughout his career remained committed to some specific themes that were very important to him.  Mesle outlines these 4 strands of thought " which can be traced and which can help to clarify his understanding of, attraction to, and eventual disenchantment with Whitehead."

"1. A theory of Supreme Value which, despite many changes in formulation, can always be understood (whether or not Wieman himself said so explicitly) in aesthetic terms;

2. Correlative to his value theory, a definition of God as that Something which is supremely important to the increase of quality or value in human existence (although he wavered in his use of the designation "God" for that Something);1

3. The conviction that this Something is subject to scientific examination in the broad sense of empirical observation and rational reflection, and that we must not go beyond the empirical evidence in describing its nature;

4. The determination that our concept of God be a "workable" one, which persons can "adjust to" and assist through practical, concrete activity."

Historical Context:

Max Planck publishes his work on quantum theory
Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim
Puccini: Tosca

William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience

Albert Einstein publishes his work on The Theory of Special Relativity
John Dewey: The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism
Debussy: La Mer

Stravinski: The Firebird Suite

Henry Bergson: Creative Evolution

William James: Essays in Radical Empiricism

Stravinski: The Rite of Spring

Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated at Sarajevo/outbreak of WWI
Thomas Hardy: Satires of Circumstance
Picasso: The Small Table
Charlie Chaplin: The Little Angel

Scott Joplin: The Maple Leaf Rag
James Joyce: The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

bread rationing introduced in Great Britain
American troops see action for the first time on the Western Front
The Balfour Declaration on Zionism promised a Jewish national home in Palestine
Carl Jung: The Psychology of the Unconscious
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (a white group) records the first jazz record
Henry Nelson Wieman: The Organization of Interests (doctoral dissertation)

Bertrand Russell: Mysticism and Logic
Oswald Spenger: The Decline of the West

The first meeting of the League of Nations took place.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: This Side of Paradise
A.N. Whitehead: The Concept of Nature

The Fascists became the only permitted political party in Italy
Adolf Hitler: Mein Kampf
F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
Gertrude Stein: The Making of Americans
Charlie Chaplin: The Gold Rush
A.N. Whitehead: Science and the Modern World

Ibn Saud was proclaimed King of the Hejaz, and the name of the kingdom was changed to Sudi Arabia
Television is invented and the first rocket powered guided missiles were built.
Franz Kafka: The Castle (posthumous)
Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises
Jelly Roll Morton: Dead Man Blues and Black Bottom Stomp
A.N. Whitehead: Religion in the Making 
H.N. Wieman: Religious Experience and the Scientific Method

Louis Armstrong: Potato Head Blues and S.O.L Blues
Duke Ellington: East St. Louis Toodle-oo, Black & Tan Fantasy, and Creole Love Call
H.N. Wieman: The Wrestle of Religion With Truth

In his essay "Sharing a Vague Vision," Mesle notes that in Wiemans' 1917 dissertation (The Organization of Interests), he demonstrates interest in ideas that will prove to be compatible with Whitehead: "the centrality of creativity, the analysis of human life in terms of processes, and especially the beginnings of an aesthetic theory of value."

Even in that first document, Wieman was intent on limiting his investigation to a "workable" arena - meaning  the sphere in which humans operate, and what is necessary for achieving human satisfaction:

"We cannot for several reasons make a distinct study of that natural environment which would be most favorable to satisfaction of human needs. Such a study would lead us too far afield. The significance of climate, rivers, soil, seaboard, mountains, etc., it [sic] is no doubt very great, as well as the wider cosmic processes. But every field of investigation must be more or less arbitrarily limited. So we shall restrict ourselves to activities most conducive to satisfaction." (OI, p. 5)

Mesle points out, "While Wieman was not always faithful to this resolve, it does foreshadow his eventual movement away from Whitehead, as well as the vision which originally attracted Wieman to him."

At this point Mesle shares a very insightful observation from Wieman's student and colleague Bernard Meland - the importance of this insight is reflected in the title of Mesle's essay:

"Bernard Meland, reflecting on Wieman’s period of enthusiasm for Whitehead, remarked that "It is often the very vagueness of an idea which makes it so attractive." And indeed, it was in the vague, groping efforts of Whitehead in Concept of Nature, Science and the Modern World, and Religion in the Making, that Wieman found such exciting prospects for a whole new way to get at the problem of God through the joint efforts of science and religion. "I remember his saying in class," Meland continued, "that there are possibilities in Whitehead’s early writings for a metaphysics that would be just right for us if he would just turn his attention to metaphysics." This interest in metaphysics points to another important aspect of this period. It is during this time that Wieman briefly departed from his resolve to limit his investigation. Only when struggling for a vision of the whole of reality -- of the "wider cosmic processes" -- did he share the special excitement of Whitehead’s endeavor."

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

This group is for anyone interested in exploring these questions and tracing out the horizons of an integral post-metaphysical spirituality.

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