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

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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.



Any ignorance is blank ignorance, because knowledge of any factor requires no ignorance.
— Alfred North Whitehead
'The Relatedness of Nature', The Principle of Relativity (1922, 2007), 22.
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Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction.
— Alfred North Whitehead
Opening sentences of Chapter 1,'The Aims of Education', in Aims of Education and Other Essays (1917), 1.
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I am sure that one secret of a successful teacher is that he has formulated quite clearly in his mind what the pupil has got to know in precise fashion. He will then cease from half-hearted attempts to worry his pupils with memorising a lot of irrelevant stuff of inferior importance.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline', The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929), 46.
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I do not share in this reverence for knowledge as such. It all depends on who has the knowledge and what he does with it. That knowledge which adds greatly to character is knowledge so handled as to transform every phase of immediate experience.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline', The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929), 32.
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In formal logic a contradiction is the signal of a defeat, but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress toward a victory. This is one great reason for the utmost toleration of variety of opinion. Once and forever, this duty of toleration has been summed up in the words, “Let both grow together until the harvest.”
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'Religion and Science', The Atlantic (Aug 1925).
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Knowledge does not keep any better than fish. You may be dealing with knowledge of the old species, with some old truth; but somehow or other it must come to the students, as it were, just drawn out of the sea and with the freshness of its immediate importance.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'Universities and Their Function', The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929), 98.
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No man of science wants merely to know. He acquires knowledge to appease his passion for discovery. He does not discover in order to know, he knows in order to discover.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'Technical Education and Its Relation to Science and Literature', The Aims of Education: & Other Essays (1917), 74.
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No more impressive warning can be given to those who would confine knowledge and research to what is apparently useful, than the reflection that conic sections were studied for eighteen hundred years merely as an abstract science, without regard to any utility other than to satisfy the craving for knowledge on the part of mathematicians, and that then at the end of this long period of abstract study, they were found to be the necessary key with which to attain the knowledge of the most important laws of nature.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 136-137.
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Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance is the death of knowledge. [Attributed]
— Alfred North Whitehead
As quoted in a number of sources, but usually without further citation, for example, in Wordsworth Dictionary of Quotations (1998), 459. Webmaster so far cannot confirm, so if you know the primary source, please make contact.
Science quotes on:  |  Death (391)  |  Ignorance (240)  |  Knowledge (1536)

The tragedy of the world is that those who are imaginative have but slight experience, and those who are experienced have feeble imaginations. Fools act on imagination without knowledge, pedants act on knowledge without imagination.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'Universities and Their Function', Aims of Education: & Other Essays (1917), 140.
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The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively. At least, this is the function which it should perform for society. A university which fails in this respect has no reason for existence. This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a bur. den on the memory: it is energising as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'Universities and Their Function', The Aims of Education: & Other Essays (1917), 139.
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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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Whatever be the detail with which you cram your student, the chance of his meeting in after life exactly that detail is almost infinitesimal; and if he does meet it, he will probably have forgotten what you taught him about it. The really useful training yields a comprehension of a few general principles with a thorough grounding in the way they apply to a variety of concrete details. In subsequent practice the men will have forgotten your particular details; but they will remember by an unconscious common sense how to apply principles to immediate circumstances. Your learning is useless to you till you have lost your textbooks, burnt your lecture notes, and forgotten the minutiae which you learned by heart for the examination. What, in the way of detail, you continually require will stick in your memory as obvious facts like the sun and the moon; and what you casually require can be looked up in any work of reference. The function of a University is to enable you to shed details in favor of principles. When I speak of principles I am hardly even thinking of verbal formulations. A principle which has thoroughly soaked into you is rather a mental habit than a formal statement. It becomes the way the mind reacts to the appropriate stimulus in the form of illustrative circumstances. Nobody goes about with his knowledge clearly and consciously before him. Mental cultivation is nothing else than the satisfactory way in which the mind will function when it is poked up into activity.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In 'The Rhythm of Education', The Aims of Education: & Other Essays (1917), 41.
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When the Romans besieged the town [Sicily] (in 212 to 210 B.C.), he [Archimedes] is said to have burned their ships by concentrating on them, by means of mirrors, the sun’s rays. The story is highly improbable, but is good evidence of the reputation which he had gained among his contemporaries for his knowledge of optics.
— Alfred North Whitehead
In An Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 37.
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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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- 90 -
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