gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Barzun on Whitehead

Jacques Barzun refers to conversations he had with the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in A Stroll with William James (1983).  Ten years after that masterpiece was published I finally found the courage to send a letter to the great man.  I was amazed that Barzun replied, and even answered several questions.  He described his first encounters with works by William James, and then added something unexpected:  “At the same time I ran into Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World by doing some hackwork for Keller’s Digest of Books.  The two great men together effected my immunization against the chief errors of our time.”

The single paragraph format of The Reader’s Digest of Books allows precious little room for more than a synopsis, but Barzun stretches his paragraph on Whitehead’s 1927 work to a page-and-a-half.  Whitehead and James had launched Barzun’s lifelong campaign against mechanistic materialism.  His knowledge of Whitehead’s work must have brightened the conversation when they met less than a decade later in the home of Isabel Shaw Lowell, the widowed mother of Jacques’ wife Mariana.

Fortunately, we need not rely on Keller’s Digest for Barzun’s view of Whitehead.  The University of Chicago Press published a small booklet in 1980 “as a keepsake for friends of the Press” that begins with Barzun’s foreword, “Whitehead on ‘Life’,” and reprints Whitehead’s 1934 essay “Nature and Life.”  Barzun’s familiarity with the man as well as his philosophy allowed a recollection from their talks in the Lowell family’s Nine Acre Corner home in Concord:  “As Whitehead once remarked in my presence, the spectacle of scientists going every morning to their laboratories for the purpose of demonstrating the purposelessness of the universe is a piece of high comedy.”

Barzun sets the stage for Whitehead’s philosophical entrance by briskly marking the outlines of science and philosophy’s progress up to Science and the Modern World.  Barzun describes the philosopher’s concept of “mutual immanence” and then takes stock again:  “How does Whitehead’s act of fusion between Life and Nature leave science?  Just as powerful and admirable as before, but possibly less imperialistic.”  Barzun notes the influence that James had on Whitehead and provides an example of their way of thinking:  “Consciousness is not a thing like a photographic plate; it is a function like walking, in which the muscles, the ground, friction, fatigue, gravity, forward motion (and much else) form one whole.”

Barzun accomplishes much in less than eight pages, and his deft touches along the way are a pity to overlook.  The concluding paragraph, however, may entice others to seek out his witty supporting arguments before the pages fade to illegibility (like the Cheshire Cat “Publisher’s Note” vanishing in my copy):

“Actually, Whitehead’s metaphysics is no farther from the experience we all live out than science is from common sense.  For when we scan that experience rigorously we see how far common sense departs from it.  Once again, go back to James’s Psychology and discover the ways in which our familiar ideas distort sensation and go beyond the data—for good reasons, like those of science.  All thought is purposive in that same way and is justified so long as we do not confuse different purposes or mistake as if for as is.  When we do, it is the duty of philosophy, incarnated in James, in Whitehead, to make us face again the living experience we deny at our peril.”

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4 thoughts on “Barzun on Whitehead

  1. Would you happen to know where Prof. Barzun’s papers are kept? Has he donated them to Columbia or some other university library?

    I continue to be astonished at your catalog of his writings–this is rapidly turning into one of my favorite websites.

    • Thank you, Superfluous Man. I hope to pick up the pace before long. At the present rate of postings, I’ll need to live till 104 to reach my goals!

      The lion’s share of Barzun’s papers are at Columbia … sort of. They are warehoused in Brewster, New York, with boxes brought down to Morningside Heights upon request. My first visit there was in 2004 and requests placed by Friday (or any other day of the week) would then see the boxes delivered the following Monday. I visited again in 2010 and found the Rare Book and Manuscript Library service considerably improved under the supervision of the stalwart (and beautiful) Tara Craig. Access to Barzun’s papers is currently restricted to those who have his permission.

      Having arrived in NYC on a Friday in 2004, I could only submit requests for materials in the Barzun Papers. Luckily, I thought to improvise and made use of Lionel Trilling’s smaller collection which contains many Barzun letters. It will probably be quite some time before a volume of selected letters gets published, but there is a touching JB letter from the Trilling collection which has partially seen print – look to p. 89 of Michael Murray’s portrait of Barzun.

      There are other caches of Barzuniana around the country. The largest may be at the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus where one can browse through the Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor Collection of Crime and Detection in the Wilson Library. Papers related to their preparation and publication of A Catalogue of Crime and the two 50 Classics of Crime series are now part of UNC’s Southern Historical Collection. The librarians and archivists there are as helpful as they are friendly.

      Barzun’s outpouring of letters may be guessed from the long (but still partial) list of his correspondents in the finding aid Columbia has made available online: (summary) (finding aid pdf file)

      As discussed in the “Ping-Pong with Mortimer Adler” post, Barzun’s correspondence regarding the Great Books project and the Encyclopaedia Britannica can be found in Chicago. The Harry Ransom Center (formerly the Humanities Research Center) at the University of Texas Austin campus holds more Barzun letters.

      And some day I hope to hear – or read transcripts of – his series of three Una’s Lectures (1974) delivered at the University of California Berkeley under the collective title “Ethics and Politics”: “Manners and the Moral Self”, “The Citizen and the Politician” and “The Political State and the Arts.”

      The best collection of Barzuniana is readily available: Michael Murray’s brilliantly edited Jacques Barzun Reader. (The superlative is warranted; compare his three-and-a-half paragraph measure of “Why Opera?” with the twenty-paragraph original in Opera News, 28 January 1967, for one proof.) Gems from the Barzun Papers are handsomely set there, including JB essays that had not been previously published.

      Sometimes I think Jacques Barzun is inexhaustible.

  2. cosmopolite on said:

    Alfred North Whitehead, trained as a mathematician and renowned for his massive Principia Mathematica (whose details are a pedantic horror and, with hindsight, often philosophically mistaken and mathematically clumsy) became, between 1920 and 1940, the finest British pure philosopher since Francis Bacon, and a shrewd commentator on the history of ideas, not unlike Barzun himself.

    The marriage of mathematical capability and metaphysical speculation in Whitehead’s philosophy is without parallel. Whitehead’s process philosophy has admirers all around the world, especially in the USA. The most prolific living American philosopher, Nicholas Rescher, is very warm to process thinking. But very curiously, Whitehead is little appreciated in the land of his birth.

    • I agree, and look forward to learning what Rescher has to say about Whitehead.

      The same truthfully can be said about certain critics, like John Jay Chapman and Albert Jay Nock. Barzun has written about many such worthies in a valiant effort to more widely distribute their benefits.

      The higher learning in America is just as expensive as in any other country, and the tuition can only be paid in sweat … whether at a community college like Briarcliffe, a liberal arts campus (with emphasis on the arts) such as Bennington, or the formerly single sex institutions of Sarah Lawrence and Columbia – all seats of learning where Jacques Barzun taught. Scott Stossel’s Atlantic Unbound review title sums up JB’s goal nicely: “Elitism for Everyone”

      This is just the sort of conversation that I hoped this site would inspire. Thanks for taking part!

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