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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index W > Alfred North Whitehead Quotes > Idea

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Alfred North Whitehead
(15 Feb 1861 - 30 Dec 1947)

English mathematician and philosopher who worked in logic, physics, and later in his life spent more time on the philosophy of science and metaphysics. He worked with Bertrand Russell on Principia Mathematica which shows that logic underlies all mathematics.



All science as it grows toward perfection becomes mathematical in its ideas.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In An Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 14. This is part of a longer quote that begins, “In modern times the belief that the ultimate explanation…”, on the Alfred North Whitehead Quotes page of this website.
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Almost all really new ideas have a certain aspect of foolishness when they are first produced.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In Science and the Modern World (1926, 2011), 60.
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During the school period the student has been mentally bending over his desk; at the University he should stand up and look around. For this reason it is fatal if the first year at the University be frittered away in going over the old work in the old spirit. At school the boy painfully rises from the particular towards glimpses at general ideas; at the University he should start from general ideas and study their applications to concrete cases.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'The Rhythm of Education', The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929), 26.
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Every intellectual revolution which has ever stirred humanity into greatness has been a passionate protest against inert ideas. Then, alas, with pathetic ignorance of human psychology, it has proceeded by some educational scheme to, bind humanity afresh with inert ideas of its own fashioning.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'The Aims of Education', The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929), 14.
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Fundamental progress has to do with the reinterpretation of ideas.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In Science and Philosophy (1948), 228.
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I will not go so far as to say that to construct a history of thought without profound study of the mathematical ideas of successive epochs is like omitting Hamlet from the play which is named after him. That would be claiming too much. But it is certainly analogous to cutting out the part of Ophelia. This simile is singularly exact. For Ophelia is quite essential to the play, she is very charming-and a little mad. Let us grant that the pursuit of mathematics is a divine madness of the human spirit, a refuge from the goading urgency of contingent happenings.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In Science and the Modern World (1926), 31.
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In modern times the belief that the ultimate explanation of all things was to be found in Newtonian mechanics was an adumbration of the truth that all science, as it grows towards perfection, becomes mathematical in its ideas.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In An Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 13-14. [To suggest, disclose, or outline partially, produces an “adumbration”, which gives only the main facts and not the details. —Webmaster]
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In the study of ideas, it is necessary to remember that insistence on hard-headed clarity issues from sentimental feeling, as it were a mist, cloaking the perplexities of fact. Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode in which human intelligence functions. Our reasonings grasp at straws for premises and float on gossamers for deductions.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In Adventure of Ideas (1933), 91.
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It is a temptation for philosophers that they should weave a fairy tale of the adjustment of factors; and then as an appendix introduce the notion of frustration, as a secondary aspect. I suggest to you that this is the criticism to be made on the monistic idealisms of the nineteenth century, and even of the great Spinoza. It is quite incredible that the Absolute, as conceived in monistic philosophy, should evolve confusion about its own details.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In Modes of Thought (1938), 69-70.
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It is evident that scientists and philosophers can help each other. For the scientist sometimes wants a new idea, and the philosopher is enlightened as to meanings by the study of the scientific consequences.
— Alfred North Whitehead
From Epilogue to a collection of lectures, 'The Aim of Philosophy', Modes of Thought (1938), 235.
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Mathematics is often considered a difficult and mysterious science, because of the numerous symbols which it employs. Of course, nothing is more incomprehensible than a symbolism which we do not understand. … But this is not because they are difficult in themselves. On the contrary they have invariably been introduced to make things easy. … [T]he symbolism is invariably an immense simplification. It … represents an analysis of the ideas of the subject and an almost pictorial representation of their relations to each other.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 59-60.
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No part of Mathematics suffers more from the triviality of its initial presentation to beginners than the great subject of series. Two minor examples of series, namely arithmetic and geometric series, are considered; these examples are important because they are the simplest examples of an important general theory. But the general ideas are never disclosed; and thus the examples, which exemplify nothing, are reduced to silly trivialities.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In An Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 194.
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Nobody can be a good reasoner unless by constant practice he has realised the importance of getting hold of the big ideas and hanging on to them like grim death.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'Presidential Address to the London Branch of the Mathematical Association', Mathematical Gazette (Mar 1913), 7, No. 104, 92.
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The anxious precision of modern mathematics is necessary for accuracy, … it is necessary for research. It makes for clearness of thought and for fertility in trying new combinations of ideas. When the initial statements are vague and slipshod, at every subsequent stage of thought, common sense has to step in to limit applications and to explain meanings. Now in creative thought common sense is a bad master. Its sole criterion for judgment is that the new ideas shall look like the old ones, in other words it can only act by suppressing originality.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 157.
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The art of reasoning consists in getting hold of the subject at the right end, of seizing on the few general ideas that illuminate the whole, and of persistently organizing all subsidiary facts round them.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'Presidential Address to the London Branch of the Mathematical Association', Mathematical Gazette (Mar 1913), 7, No. 104, 92.
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The fading of ideals is sad evidence of the defeat of human endeavour. In the schools of antiquity philosophers aspired to impart wisdom, in modern colleges our humbler aim is to teach subjects
— Alfred North Whitehead
Opening lines of 'The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline', The Aims of Education: & Other Essays (1917), 45.
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The first acquaintance which most people have with mathematics is through arithmetic. That two and two make four is usually taken as the type of a simple mathematical proposition which everyone will have heard of. … The first noticeable fact about arithmetic is that it applies to everything, to tastes and to sounds, to apples and to angels, to the ideas of the mind and to the bones of the body.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In An Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 9.
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The ideal of mathematics should be to erect a calculus to facilitate reasoning in connection with every province of thought, or of external experience, in which the succession of thoughts, or of events can be definitely ascertained and precisely stated. So that all serious thought which is not philosophy, or inductive reasoning, or imaginative literature, shall be mathematics developed by means of a calculus.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In Universal Algebra (1898), Preface.
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The invention of the differential calculus marks a crisis in the history of mathematics. The progress of science is divided between periods characterized by a slow accumulation of ideas and periods, when, owing to the new material for thought thus patiently collected, some genius by the invention of a new method or a new point of view, suddenly transforms the whole subject on to a higher level.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In An Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 217. Whitehead continued by quoting the poet, Percy Shelley, who compared the slow accumulation of thoughts leading to an avalanche following the laying down of a great truth. See the poetic quote beginning, “The sun-awakened avalanche…” on the Percy Shelley Quotations page.
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The result of teaching small parts of a large number of subjects is the passive reception of disconnected ideas, not illuminated with any spark of vitality. Let the main ideas which are introduced into a child’s education be few and important, and let them be thrown into every combination possible.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In The Organisation of Thought: Educational and Scientific (1917), 5.
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The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In Process and Reality (1929), 39.
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The study of mathematics is apt to commence in disappointment. The important applications of the science, the theoretical interest of its ideas, and the logical rigour of its methods all generate the expectation of a speedy introduction to processes of interest. We are told that by its aid the stars are weighed and the billions of molecules in a drop of water are counted. Yet, like the ghost of Hamlet's father, this great science eludes the efforts of our mental weapons to grasp it.
— Alfred North Whitehead
Opening to An Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 7.
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The vitality of thought is in adventure. Idea's won't keep. Something must be done about them. When the idea is new, its custodians have fervour, live for it, and, if need be, die for it. Their inheritors receive the idea, perhaps now strong and successful, but without inheriting the fervour; so the idea settles down to a comfortable middle age, turns senile, and dies.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In Alfred North Whitehead and Lucien Price (ed.), Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (1954, 1977), 100.
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There is no royal road to learning. But it is equally an error to confine attention to technical processes, excluding consideration of general ideas. Here lies the road to pedantry.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In An Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 8.
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What is peculiar and new to the [19th] century, differentiating it from all its predecessors, is its technology. It was not merely the introduction of some great isolated inventions. It is impossible not to feel that something more than that was involved. … The process of change was slow, unconscious, and unexpected. In the nineteeth century, the process became quick, conscious, and expected. … The whole change has arisen from the new scientific information. Science, conceived not so much in its principles as in its results, is an obvious storehouse of ideas for utilisation. … Also, it is a great mistake to think that the bare scientific idea is the required invention, so that it has only to be picked up and used. An intense period of imaginative design lies between. One element in the new method is just the discovery of how to set about bridging the gap between the scientific ideas, and the ultimate product. It is a process of disciplined attack upon one difficulty after another This discipline of knowledge applies beyond technology to pure science, and beyond science to general scholarship. It represents the change from amateurs to professionals. … But the full self-conscious realisation of the power of professionalism in knowledge in all its departments, and of the way to produce the professionals, and of the importance of knowledge to the advance of technology, and of the methods by which abstract knowledge can be connected with technology, and of the boundless possibilities of technological advance,—the realisation of all these things was first completely attained in the nineteeth century.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In Science and the Modern World (1925, 1997), 96.
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When questioned by Stanislaw Ulam, “Which is more important, ideas or things?” Alfred North Whitehead instantly replied, “Ideas about things.”
— Alfred North Whitehead
As described by Martin Gardner in book review, 'Adventures Of a Mathematician: The Man Who Invented the H-Bomb', New York Times (9 May 1976), 201.
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You may not divide the seamless coat of learning. What education has to impart is an intimate sense for the power of ideas, for the beauty of ideas, and for the structure of ideas, together with a particular body of knowledge which has peculiar reference to the life of the being possessing it.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'The Aims of Education', The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929), 23.
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See also:

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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Sophie Germain
Gertrude Elion
Ernest Rutherford
James Chadwick
Marcel Proust
William Harvey
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John Keynes
Carl Gauss
Paul Feyerabend
- 90 -
Antoine Lavoisier
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Charles Babbage
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Winston Churchill
- 80 -
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Bible
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- 70 -
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- 60 -
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- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
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John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
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Archimedes
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- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
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- 20 -
Carl Sagan
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- 10 -
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Isaac Asimov
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