Frederic B. Fitch (1908–1987)

Is logic fundamental to philosophy? Frederic B. Fitch’s answer to this question was sweeping: “I believe that symbolic logic will eventually make possible new advances in value theory, epistemology, psychology and philosophy which will be comparable with the advances that traditional mathematics, especially after the advent of calculus, has made possible in the natural sciences” (1961, 94).[1]

Fitch’s belief in the fruitfulness of logic was realized in his own writings. Best known as a logician, he also wrote on value theory, epistemology, psychology, and philosophy. Although not a conventional process philosopher, he was a sort of Whiteheadian. As a logician, he was strongly influenced by Principia Mathematica; and as a philosopher, he was strongly influenced by Process and Reality. “Fitch’s more speculative philosophical writing has,” in the words of Ruth Barcan Marcus, “a Whiteheadian thrust” (1988, 552).

The influence of Whitehead on Fitch’s thought was deep and pervasive, as the following illustration amusingly suggests. In an article about natural deduction rules for an idealized form of English, an article that is not about Whitehead at all, Fitch provided an example that contains this sentence: “Jack has enjoyed reading Process and Reality” (1973, 96).

1. Fitch’s Basic Logic

Principia Mathematica is notoriously complicated—e.g., because of the theory of types. Various logicians have striven to devise alternative systems of logic that are less complicated—e.g., by omitting the theory of types. Fitch was one such logician, as the title of his doctoral dissertation attests: “A System of Symbolic Logic that Avoids the Paradoxes without a Theory of Types” (Yale University, 1934). This illustrates an important theme in his work as a logician, a theme that is clearly stated in the opening sentence of an early article, “A Basic Logic”: “This paper is concerned with finding a fairly simple system of logic which is ‘basic’ in the sense that every system of logic is definable in it” (1942, 105). This theme of simplicity is also present in his metaphysical writings.

In a series of papers (especially Fitch 1948 and Fitch 1950a), he developed his system of basic logic further. His textbook Symbolic Logic, which also was intended as “a treatise on the foundations of logic,” developed the system even further (1952, iii). “In comparing this system with some other well-known systems,” he asserted, “it can be said to appear to be superior to the Whitehead-Russell system [in Principia Mathematica], at least with respect to its demonstrable consistency and its freedom from a theory of types” (1952, vi). In developing his basic logic, he utilized ideas from a field of logic termed “combinatory logic.” He also made contributions to combinatory logic, and wrote a textbook about it (Fitch 1974). “Fitch’s basic logic and its extensions were,” according to Ruth Barcan Marcus, “originally viewed as somewhat idiosyncratic albeit a tour de force, but more recent research of others with similar motivations reveal that here as elsewhere he was in advance of his time” (1988, 552).

2. Fitch’s Whiteheadian Metaphysics

Fitch was a sort of Whiteheadian, but his metaphysical views considerably simplify the complexities of Whitehead’s metaphysics. Although he did not elaborate his metaphysical views in a book,[2] he did outline them in an article, “Sketch of a Philosophy” (Fitch 1961). This article outlines his metaphysics, in that it contains a “brief sketch of my view of the nature of the universe, depicting the world in its spatio-temporal, epistemological and evaluative aspects” (1961, 102). Appearing in a collection of essays by diverse philosophers entitled The Relevance of Whitehead, it manifests the relevance of Whitehead for Fitch’s own philosophy.[3]

According to Whitehead’s metaphysics, space-time is filled with actual occasions. “I follow Whitehead,” Fitch declared, “in regarding space-time as filled with small indivisible events which Whitehead would call actual occasions and which I shall call primary occasions” (1961, 95). Similarly to Whitehead’s notions of an actual occasion’s “causal past,” “causal future,” and “contemporaries” (PR 123), Fitch held that there is “a relation of immediate causation holding among primary occasions and ordering them into a space-time somewhat like that envisaged in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, so that we may speak of the total causal past of each primary occasion and also of its total causal future” (1961, 95). In terms of the Whiteheadian idea of primary occasions, Fitch sketched other ideas—”substance,” “the self or the soul,” “universals,” “perception,” “belief,” and so forth (1961, 96-103). All of these ideas are (to some extent) Whiteheadian.

How, then, did Fitch simplify Whitehead’s metaphysics? A partial answer to this question is as follows (for a fuller answer, see Lango 2002). He sketched Whiteheadian conceptions of prehension and ingression (1961, 99-100). However, he diverged from Whitehead, by construing prehension as a “mode of ingression” (1961, 100), and by explaining ingression through “the application of symbolic logic,” and, more specifically, combinatory logic (1961, 99). Moreover, “the notion of substance is granted a more central position than in Whitehead’s philosophy,” he explained, “and indeed the whole theory of space-time structure is made to depend on the notion of substantival chain, or substance” (1961, 103). Additionally, he abstracted from key fundamental concepts in Whitehead’s metaphysics—e.g., “becoming” and “subjective experiencing.”[4]

Unfortunately, Fitch’s metaphysical writings have been largely ignored by process philosophers, among whom there is a tendency to be wary of mathematical logic.[5] What might be especially objectionable is Fitch’s project of explaining prehension and ingression by means of combinatory logic.[6] But it is a mistake to suppose, Fitch remarked, “that all use of symbolic logic indicates a return to a hopeless materialism and skepticism” (1950b, 545). Moreover, it should be realized that the observation made in this article that Fitch’s metaphysical views considerably simplify Whitehead’s metaphysics is not meant as a criticism. Whitehead’s metaphysics might be unduly complicated, or so many philosophers today would contend. By illustrating how Whitehead’s metaphysics might be simplified, Fitch’s metaphysical writings might serve to generate more interest among philosophers in a broadly Whiteheadian approach to metaphysics.


[1] This article is mostly based on Lango 2002. The author wishes to thank Peter Hare, editor of Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, for permission to reprint about one seventh of Lango 2002. For a summary of Fitch’s life and work, see the obituary by Ruth Barcan Marcus (1988). Almost all of Fitch’s writings are listed in “Bibliography of the Works of Frederic B. Fitch” (Anderson et al., 1975). Fitch obtained his B.A. (1931) and Ph.D. (1934) at Yale, and was a philosophy faculty member at Yale for virtually his entire academic career. At Yale, he directed more than twenty doctoral dissertations, including the dissertation about Whitehead by the author of this article.

[2] Ruth Barcan Marcus reported that Fitch “had long range plans for a comprehensive metaphysical treatise which was never completed but was a source of fascination and revelation to those of us who had the opportunity to discuss with him those philosophical views” (Marcus 1988, 552).

[3] He wrote another article that contains a fuller account of some of his Whiteheadian metaphysical views (Fitch 1957). His other metaphysical writings are less evidently Whiteheadian (e.g., Fitch 1971).

[4] In a much a later article, Fitch argued “that all entities [including actual occasions] are reducible ultimately to propositions” (Fitch 1971, 99). In this way, he simplified the complexities of Whitehead’s metaphysics further.

[5] Note that Fitch’s writings are not mentioned in Lucas 1989.

[6] This project is discussed at length in Lango 2002.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Anderson, Alan Ross, Ruth Barcan Marcus, and R. M. Martin (eds.). 1975. “Bibliography of the Works of Frederic B. Fitch,” in The Logical Enterprise (New Haven, Yale University Press).

Fitch, Frederic B. 1942. “A Basic Logic,” Journal of Symbolic Logic 7, 3, 105-14.

_____ 1948. “An Extension of Basic Logic,” Journal of Symbolic Logic 13, 2, 95-106.

_____ 1950a. “A Further Consistent Extension of Basic Logic,” Journal of Symbolic Logic 14, 4, 209-218.

_____ 1950b. “Attribute and Class,” in Philosophic Thought in France and the United States, edited by M. Farber (Buffalo, University of Buffalo Publications in Philosophy).

_____ 1952. Symbolic Logic: An Introduction (New York, Ronald Press).

_____ 1957. “Combinatory Logic and Whitehead’s Theory of Prehensions,” Philosophy of Science 24, 331-35.

_____ 1961. “Sketch of a Philosophy,” in The Relevance of Whitehead, edited by Ivor LeClerc (London, George Allen & Unwin).

_____ 1971. “Propositions as the Only Realities,” American Philosophical Quarterly 8, 1, 99-103.

_____ 1973. “Natural Deduction Rules for English,” Philosophical Studies 24, 89-104.

_____ 1974. Elements of Combinatory Logic (New Haven, Yale University Press).

Lango, John W. 2002. “Fitch’s Method and Whitehead’s Metaphysics,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 38, 4, 581-603.

Lucas, Jr., George R. 1989. The Rehabilitation of Whitehead: An Analytic and Historical Assessment of Process Philosophy (Albany, SUNY Press).

Marcus, Ruth Barcan. 1988. “F.B. Fitch 1908-1987,” in “Memorial Minutes,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 61, 3, 551-53.

Author Information

John W. Lango
Philosophy Department
Hunter College of the City University of New York
695 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10065

How to Cite this Article

Lango, John W., “Frederic B. Fitch (1908–1987)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.