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.”