Alfred North Whitehead’s Awe-Inspiring Focus

Alfred North Whitehead was an early 20th-century mathematician and philosopher. He’s known, among many contributions, for his magisterial three-volume treatise, Principia Mathematica, which was written with Bertrand Russell and attempted to reduce all of mathematics to implications of a master set of logical axioms (Kurt Gödel, of course, had other ideas about this particular endeavor).

Whitehead later turned his attention from mathematics toward the philosophy of science, and then on to metaphysics. In total, he published 23 books between 1898 and 1948.

What does it take to produce cognitive output at such a high level? Bertrand Russell gives us a hint in the following scene from his autobiography:

“[Whitehead’s] capacity for concentration on work was quite extraordinary. One hot summer’s day, when I was staying with him at Grantchester, our friend Crompton Davies arrived and I took him into the garden to say how-do-you-do to his host. Whitehead was sitting writing mathematics. Davies and I stood in front of him at a distance of no more than a yard and watched him covering page after page with symbols. He never saw us, and after a time we went away with a feeling of awe.”

One of the things that worries me about the shoulder-shrugging manner in which our current culture is diminishing uninterrupted thinking is that I can’t help but wonder how many potential modern Whiteheads, growing up in a world of fragmentation and connectivity-primacy, will never make it to writing their own masterpieces.

11 thoughts on “Alfred North Whitehead’s Awe-Inspiring Focus”

  1. Concentration and depth seem to be the antidotes to the prevalent modern malaise. I can say that it can be truly euphoric (incidentally of course; the euphoria is an effect, not the cause) to be drawn out of one’s psyche and into something creative.

  2. Interesting take. I never knew about this (personal) side of Alfred North Whitehead, him of the memorable utterance that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.” Automaticity writ large.

  3. Cal – I am reading Jean Twenge’s books. What’s your opinion on narcissism and lack of focus ? (Obviously I ask because of social media). Do you think that easing the narcissism epidemic will help people to join the deep life?

  4. Yet another reminder that focus is a key element of the kind of knowledge work that produces things of value. I am trying to launch a consulting engineering business, and part of the process has consisted of looking for cheap rental space. A number of business “incubators” offer such space, but some of them seem to emphasize the ways in which their spaces foster “collaboration” instead of providing a place to focus. (Unless you are willing to pay a premium for private office space, of course!)

    • I wonder if I even have any friends, family, and acquaintances who would wait nearby without interrupting me if I didn’t look up. I live in a world where focused work takes back seat to interruptions. I have been in numerous one-to-one meetings in someone’s office, working together on something, and the other person almost always answers the phone when it rings, disrupting our work, and making me wait will the call is over. It disrupts our momentum, forcing the other person to say after hanging up, “Now where were we?”


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