A review of The Harvard Lectures of Alfred North Whitehead, 1924–1925: Philosophical Presuppositions of Science, Edited by Paul A. Bogaard and Jason Bell. Edinburgh University Press, 2017.
One of the single greatest regrets of Whitehead scholars everywhere was Whitehead’s desire that all of his papers be burned after his death. His wife Evelyn dutifully fulfilled that wish, leaving the scholarly community with an enormous gap in its grasp of Whitehead’s thought, and the nature of its development over the years. Whitehead, for his part, wished for no such scholarly interpretations to be imposed upon his thought; his books, Whitehead believed, should be read and interpreted as they stood, with no “extraneous” materials being used to interpolate further ideas, “between the texts,” as it were, that were not already explicitly stated in those texts.
In one respect, Whitehead’s wish was not all that unreasonable: authors in general want their works to stand and be judged on their own, and not second guessed by readers using materials the author has specifically left out. There are, however, at least two problems with this desire. The first is that as soon as the work exceeds the complexity of a “Dick and Jane” story, the difficulties of interpretation amplify significantly. The second problem is that, regardless of the complexity of the work, the author’s wishes are always going to be ignored by scholars. And when the two problems are operating together, that scholarly interpolation will, unless it is anchored by some substantial body of secondary materials (such as that which Whitehead had burned), often enough run riot in untethered speculation. Continue reading