Biography and Becoming

As a preliminary reading for my dissertation, I am in the process of tackling Lowe’s two volume biography of Whitehead. In the back of my mind, I hear Jean D’Amato recommending that I “become Nietzsche” for my senior thesis. At that time she was rightly insistent on the necessity of tracing the life of a thinker to properly capture the flow of his thought.

The early sections of Lowe’s history of Whitehead already see him very deliberately beginning to connect the philosopher’s life experiences and influences with his ideas. This move appears particularly appropriate given the nature and principles of Whitehead’s thought. More interesting for me is the balancing act between tracing Whitehead’s thought and lineage with the philosopher’s insistence on privacy. We lack key evidence about his past due to his wish that many of his letters and all of his unpublished work be destroyed. As an educator, Whitehead preferred his students develop their own ideas rather than find themselves occupied with piecing together his work.

This tension is personally significant in that it magnifies the difference between my previous project and my current occupation. Where I was once expected to produce a document demonstrating mastery over material, in this case the goal is establishing the foundations of my own thought. Thus, my encounter with Whitehead differs in tone from the Nietzsche project.

My attraction to Whitehead’s work springs from a perceived similarity in interest and way of thought about reality. I discovered his work in a period of dissatisfaction with the polarized nature of my study at the time. Whitehead stood as a compatriot in the struggle for a more synthetic mode of thought outside of present conflicts. It appears that a similar interest appears in other readers of Whitehead, giving this encounter a sense of being an initiation into a community of thinkers. The unity is found in a commitment to novelty arising from the encounter of past knowledge and future goals in a present moment.

Thus, the becoming that accompanies an exploration of Whitehead’s life appears faithful to process thought only if the goal is not confirmation of a way of thinking but the production of a novel moment in thought. Lowe seems to capture the desire to avoid sitting at the feet of the master and, instead, to engage in a dialog that should help one discover the influence of his own past on his emerging thought. We should begin with Whitehead as a launch pad to a new plateau of discovery opened with a moment of self reflection on what has given birth to the moment at hand.


~ by Michael L. Thomas on October 4, 2010.

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