Alix Parmentier (1933–2016)

1. Brief Vita

Born in 1933 into a Catholic family, Alix Parmentier studied philosophy for one year in college and by the end of her studies had developed a strong attraction to metaphysics. She hoped to pursue studies in philosophy despite the fact that her father—a good man but not at all intellectual—was opposed to it. Hence she studied at the Cambridge Institute of the University of Paris, to improve her English (1952–1953). In 1954, having been invited to attend some conferences given by a Dominican, Father Marie-Dominique Philippe, professor in philosophy and theology for the Convent of Studies of the Dominicans of the Province of Paris, as well as at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), she was very impressed by his metaphysical research. However, having felt a strong call to total consecration to God, she entered the Carmelite Order and lived there for five years, but her frail health did not allow her to make a definitive commitment and she was obliged to return to the world.

After a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne (1963–1964), she decided to pursue another Bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Fribourg, which at that time was a thriving and cosmopolitan intellectual center. This degree, completed in 1967, required the presentation of a dissertation. The lectures that she attended included (among others) those of Father Marie-Dominique Philippe and those of Father I. M. Bochenski, a Polish Dominican, logician and great admirer of Whitehead. It was through Bochenski that Parmentier first learned of Whitehead. She might have had a similar opportunity in the Sorbonne if she had attended the lectures of Jean Wahl, whose Vers le Concret contains a significant chapter on Whitehead and was (as she later claimed) the most serious study of Whitehead yet published in France. She thus began to read Whitehead at Fribourg, and concentrated mainly on Science and the Modern World, Adventures of Ideas and Religion in the Making. She was particularly impressed by Whitehead’s attempt to reconcile scientific thought with a metaphysics that drew widely on traditional sources, especially those of Plato and Aristotle. Parmentier was also struck by Whitehead’s dual concern with the theories of the external world and with “lived” experience, the personal and subjective. This complementarity between subjectivity and objective knowledge of the world would culminate ultimately in the theological part of Whitehead’s philosophy.

2. Speculative Matters

In fact, what most drew Parmentier to study Whitehead from 1965 to 1968 was his religious and theological thought, and his insistent demand for a realistic metaphysics, to replace all forms of positivism and idealism. This is what made her think that it would be good to make Whitehead better known in France. This, then, was the task that she gave herself in writing her doctorate, which she wrote under Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) and defended successfully in the University of Paris-Nanterre in June of 1968. True to her original intention, Parmentier never considered her thesis to be anything more than a work of transmission and promotion. It was not to be an original interpretation of Whitehead, nor a novel synthesis of her own. Nevertheless, in order to present Whitehead to a French audience, Parmentier recognized that it was necessary to understand his thought sympathetically, from “the inside,” as it were. Moreover, to make his work more comprehensible to others, she adopted a method of selection, reorganization, analysis and synthesis.

In particular, Parmentier wanted above all to avoid any apriori assumptions that might present Whitehead’s thought in a perspective different from his own. As a result, she chose a genetic and descriptive method. With regard to origins and “genesis,” Parmentier initially focused on the problem of God, and aimed at producing a specialized study. But Ricoeur explicitly encouraged her to tackle the whole of Whitehead’s philosophy, since a specialized doctorate was not what the Francophone world required, being almost wholly ignorant of Whitehead at the time. Yet Ricoeur had not himself studied Whitehead, and so Parmentier worked largely on her own in Switzerland—though with encouragement from Ricoeur in Paris, as well as helpful correspondence from Charles Hartshorne, Whitehead’s closest disciple, in the United States.

How did Parmentier order her work? In Chapter I, she began with a brief account of Whitehead’s mathematical-logical period, trying to place it within the evolution of Whitehead’s later thought, rather than entering into too much detail. In Chapter II, she turned to his philosophy of nature, where she presented a descriptive study of fundamental notions, without seeking to give an account of their origins. In Chapter III, Parmentier returned to the genetic point of view to explain the progressive formation of Whitehead’s metaphysics. Chapter IV dealt with metaphysical methods and such basic concepts as experience, the world, Being, and God. In this way, Parmentier sought to move from the simple to the complex, from the analytic to the synthetic, and to present a whole vision that is not always apparent in Whitehead’s difficult works. One may well question Parmentier’s approach. Yet, in her defense, she worked on her thesis almost alone, except for the Conclusion for which she received advice from Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe. Moreover, should one criticize an “actual entity” before having discovered and specified its final, determinate status?

Alix Parmentier once remarked that if ever she were asked to give an account of the modest enterprise she had tried to undertake, she would prefer to underline the questions she raises rather than the results to which she came. Certainly, in presenting this work she hoped to complement Jean Wahl’s study. But, to use an expression of Whitehead, she considered her work as a “stepping stone” to something higher and greater. When the French editor told her in 1986 that her book had sold very few copies, she considered it to be buried definitively. It was only in 2004 that she found out that there was still some interest in the book and that, thanks to the numerous references to other authors, it could be helpful as an instrument for other students. This is in fact precisely what she had wanted her book to be.

She is fully aware that a deeper analysis of Whitehead is necessary, and she hopes that other more penetrating and mature spirits, with a better knowledge of ancient and contemporary philosophers, will be able to cast more light on both the greatness and the limitations of Whitehead’s thought—in particular on his way of identifying limit and determination, and his way of seeing potentiality as prior to act, which is in the order of becoming, whereas in the order of intelligibility and perfection, act is prior to potentiality. It would be necessary to show how, despite his greatness, Whitehead identifies being and becoming.

Every philosopher has his limits but Parmentier finds greatness in Whitehead’s affirmation of man’s ability to discover, unaided by revelation, a principle that has traditionally been called “God.”[1] Religion, as Whitehead writes, “must have recourse to metaphysics” (RM 79)” and “the final principle of religion is that there is a wisdom in the nature of things” (RM 143). It is not, then, a question of proving the existence of God but of discovering it. Moreover, Parmentier was struck that the God of which Whitehead speaks is also spoken of as Love.[2] “The modern world,” he affirms, “has lost God and is seeking him” (RM 74). Here, once more, we touch the greatness of Whitehead: “Religion is the reaction of human nature to its search for God” (SMW 266) and “the immediate reaction of human nature to the religious vision is worship” (SMW 268). But it is not about a worship in fear of a terrible, all-powerful God, because “the power of God [discovered as Love] is the worship he inspires.” It is therefore a worship that “is not a rule of safety” but “an adventure of the spirit,” in love (SMW 266-68). Whitehead underlines that this is what the modern world has lost, and even the “Christian world” seems to have lost the Gospel of Love. How then will the modern world be able to find God? “Through love […] with the help of John.”[3]

In presenting her thesis in 1968 on Whitehead’s philosophy and the problem of God, Alix Parmentier had to present a “complementary thesis” as well. Since very little of Whitehead had been translated into French, it became obvious to her that she should present a translation as her complementary thesis. She therefore translated Parts I and III of Adventures of Ideas. Later, after Jean-Marie Breuvart (Catholic University of Lille) had translated parts II and IV, the completed book was published in 1993 in Paris by Cerf Editions.

Finally, let us note that in 1982 Parmentier, at the request of Father Marie-Dominique Philippe and of the Brothers of Saint John, accepted to start a community of contemplative sisters. These now number approximately 350 sisters from 31 nationalities, spread through Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia.[4]


[1] Whitehead, in his own way, echoes the cry of Plotinus: “Where does it come from, that souls have forgotten God their father, and, fragments coming from him and completely his, they ignore themselves and ignore him?” (Enneads V, 1, 1).

[2] Under this aspect, God is Wisdom, and Patience, tenderly salvific because He participates in the suffering of the world (see PR 525ff). However, these are but “images” (PR 525), suggested by “the confrontation of the theoretic system with a certain rendering of the facts” (PR 521). Only “religious and moral intuitions” can allow us to know something about God (cf. PR). Let us not forget that Whitehead had the tendency to seek the truth from the side of poetic intuition, which led him to affirm that “the teleology of the Universe is directed to the production of Beauty” (AI 341). But in fact, his quest went much further than that. As Michel Weber writes at the end of his article on L’Aventure cosmo-théologique selon Whitehead, “The God of the New Testament appears between the lines in Process and Reality: not only is God love, but God suffers because of us (consequent nature) and with us (superjective nature).”

[3] RM 74-76. In this passage, Whitehead implicitly sets Paul (fear, the law) in opposition to John (love).

[4] This is a revised version of an article originally published in the third Chromatikon: “Un Principe que les religions appellent Dieu”, Michel Weber et Pierfrancesco Basile (sous la direction de), Chromatikon III. Annuaire de la philosophie en procès — Yearbook of Philosophy in Process, Louvain-la-Neuve, Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2007, pp. 183-188.

Works Cited and Further Readings

1968. La philosophie de Whitehead et le problème de Dieu, B.A.P. (Bibliothèque des Archives de philosophie) (Paris, Beauchesne).

1968–1969. “A. N. Whitehead: Esquisse D’une Biographie,” Bulletin du Cercle Thomiste 45, 46, 23-32, 21-28.

1969a. “Actualité de Whitehead,” Revue de théologie et de philosophie IV, 225-34.

1969b. “Whitehead et la découverte de l’existence de Dieu,” Revue de théologie et de philosophie V, 307-317. Translated in 1968 by Raymond D. Boisvert in Whitehead’s Discovery of God’s Existence, Philosophy Today, Summer, 146-56.

1993. Aventures d’Idées [Translation of Adventures of Ideas, Parts I and III (Parts II and IV are translated by Jean-Marie Breuvart). Introduction by Parmentier, pp. 23-34] (Paris, du Cerf Editions).

2005. “Review of Charles Hartshorne’s Whitehead’s Philosophy: Selected Essays, 1935-70”(Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1972), in: Michel Weber (sous la direction de) et Diane d’Eprémesnil (avec la collaboration de), Chromatikon I. Annuaire de la philosophie en procès, Louvain-la-Neuve, Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2005.

Author Information

A Sister of Saint John
Congrégation des Sœurs de Saint-Jean
42590 Saint-Jodard, France

How to Cite this Article

Sister of St. Jean, A, “Alix Parmentier (1933–2016)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.