Paul Weiss (1901–2002)

1. Brief Vita

The debt that Paul Weiss owed to Alfred North Whitehead had at least three major layers—personal, conceptual and paradigmatic. On a personal level, Whitehead nurtured Weiss’ already firm vocation to philosophy in ways that surpassed the encouragement he received from any other person. At the level of concepts, Weiss’ various revisions of the categories necessary for an understanding of reality were continually stimulated by the precision and comprehension of Whitehead’s inquiries. This debt to the categories of Whitehead remained true throughout Weiss’ inquiries, even though Weiss claimed that Whitehead’s explanatory categories were too restricted in scope and not fully adequate to the nature of personal identity, the continuity of ethical responsibility, and the character of works of art. At an even deeper level, as a person devoted to philosophy, Whitehead was an ethical paradigm for Weiss. The magnanimity and generosity of Whitehead toward those who offered alternative philosophical visions and the honesty and integrity of his own inquiries served throughout Weiss’ life as the ethical touchstone of how a human being should do philosophy, both within an academic environment and outside of it. If we fail to appreciate the multiple aspects of Weiss’ debt to Whitehead, we will misunderstand two important features of philosophy in America in the twentieth century: first, the real meaning of Weiss’ criticisms of Whitehead’s philosophical inquiries, and second, how much of Whitehead’s spirit there is in Weiss’ philosophical inquiries spanning three quarters of a century.

Paul Weiss was born on the lower East Side in New York City in 1901; he died in Washington, D.C. in 2002.[1] He attended the High school of Commerce, but left school before receiving a degree; afterwards he attended night classes at the College of the City of New York. After transferring to the day school at CCNY, he attended classes at Townsend Harris High School, so that he could matriculate at CCNY. At City College, he studied with Morris R. Cohen, who piqued his appetite for the works of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles S. Peirce. Having finished all of his course work at City College in the Fall semester of 1926, he left New York and entered the graduate school at Harvard in the Spring semester of 1927. Weiss says that he went to Harvard because while reading Science and the Modern World, he realized that he did not understand what Whitehead meant by extensive abstraction, and that no one at City College would explain it to him. During that Spring semester of 1927, when Weiss was twenty-six years old and Alfred North Whitehead was sixty-six years old, Weiss attended Whitehead’s seminar in logic. Whitehead served as Weiss’ advisor for his dissertation. Weiss has noted on numerous occasions in print that being in Whitehead’s classes and conversing with him was an opportunity to encounter greatness. With the help and encouragement of both Alfred and Evelyn Whitehead, Weiss obtained his first full-time teaching appointment at Bryn Mawr beginning in the Fall semester of 1931. The connection between Harvard and Bryn Mawr was the friendship of the Whiteheads with two philosophers at Bryn Mawr—Theodore de Laguna and Grace Andrus de Laguna.[2] While he was at Harvard, Weiss had met and had begun to work with Charles Hartshorne editing the Peirce manuscripts. After he had begun teaching at Bryn Mawr, Weiss co-edited six volumes of the Collected Papers of C. S. Peirce with Hartshorne. Weiss remained at Bryn Mawr until the Spring semester of 1946, when he left to teach at Yale University. While at Yale, where he taught for more than three decades, he founded The Review of Metaphysics and the Metaphysical Society of America, and he became Sterling Professor of Philosophy. After retiring from Yale in the Spring of 1969, he immediately went to the Catholic University of America as Heffer Professor of Philosophy, where he remained for another quarter century.

2. Weiss’ Conceptual Responses to Whitehead’s Categories

In reference to Weiss’ conceptual debt to Whitehead, Weiss admitted both in print and in person on many occasions that it was Whitehead who showed him that God had a specifically cosmological and not merely a religious function in the universe. In his earliest works, Reality, Nature and Man and Man’s Freedom, Weiss rejected Whitehead’s interpretation of divine cosmic influence. For Weiss there was no place for the notion of God in philosophy. Of the three works of his first period of speculation, Weiss’ first book, Reality contains the freshest, most detailed and sustained critical response to the cosmological and metaphysical speculations of Whitehead. Although Weiss would often refer to the ideas of Whitehead in each of his later works, Reality is still the best introduction to the detailed differences between Weiss’ view that actualities are substances and Whitehead’s view of actual occasions and nexus of such events. Yet for a brief middle period in his philosophical explorations, the period of Modes of Being, History: Written and Lived, and The God We Seek, Weiss attempted to incorporate and to test Whitehead’s insight in his own work, where God functions in the cosmos as the harmonizing, unifying and memorializing agency. But it is important to note that it was Weiss’s explorations of the nature of human selves that led him to begin to use the notion of divinity in his speculations. Weiss turned to the idea of God only after he had recognized that for there to be selves capable of accepting responsibility for all that they had failed to accomplish, and only after he recognized that if cosmic absurdity were to be avoided, there had to be some factor in the universe to balance the inequity that had been generated. The presence of such guilt is the key for Weiss that a self is a being that is unsurpassable in its kind. Weiss claimed that the kind of beings that selves were could not be surpassed by, nor could any one self evolve into a better kind of being. Human selves could become ethically better, but they could not become better than selves. By the time of Modes of Being, Weiss had believed that there was a cosmic requirement for a kind of being like divinity, but such a being was not a self. Unlike some other views of divinity and selfhood derived from Whitehead’s work, like Hartshorne’s view that God in its consequent nature is unsurpassable by any being other than itself, Weiss never imputed the characteristics of personhood or selfhood to divinity.

Weiss’ insight into the central character of failure in the formation of a human self allowed him to connect his earliest views of the functioning of feeling in perception with a full recognition of the cognitive functioning of emotions that are proper to a self—openness, reverence, awe, interest and humility. The self is a rich ambiguous center from which emotions flow outwardly, emotions that serve as the source of creative acts and distinctive projects that express that self. For a self to be unsurpassable by any kind of being other than itself, and to be adequately known as such, the existence of a transcendent must be recognized. What Weiss had called God is a unity against which a self can measure itself in its self-mastery and attempt to achieve perfection. This attempt is not simply an ethical issue, but the fundamental ontological clue to the nature of reality. The acceptance of cosmic guilt was the ontological condition that served as evidence of the existence of a fundamental cosmic other. In Modes of Being Weiss had recognized that the cosmos was a polyvalent community, but he had not yet realized that the communion of beings was a condition to be created with the help of the emotions. Emotions lead us to the fundamental realities, and those same emotions expressed in their differences from one another constitute the various strands of the expressive unity that is a self.

The achievement of such awareness becomes explicit in The God We Seek. There each inquiry is recognized as an education and a conversion. Fundamental inquiries are not simply an elicitation of insight, but a turning away from one’s own habits of reflection in order to uncover what one tends to overlook. In The God We Seek Weiss distinguishes four stages in the process of turning toward God—detachment, retreat, advance and acceptance. We must detach ourselves from the world of individuals that surround us and serve as the focus of our concerns; we must retreat into ourselves with an insistence, but not defensively; we must advance to what then presents itself to us; and we must accept the assessment of ourselves that the other makes. These stages are not simply Weiss’ summary of a path traversed by religious men and women; they are the way in which a self becomes aware of and gains control of itself as an emotional being. Each of these four stages is a moment in the self-disclosure of one’s emotional life. What had in Weiss’ earlier analyses seemed an unavoidable, obscuring factor in the knowledge of others, the emotions that bias us toward what is good for us that every other being possesses and which we must appropriate in order to complete ourselves, becomes the vehicle of a more deeply penetrating vision of reality. Where before we were to intellectually sift the being that others possess in order to derive sustenance from them, here Weiss recognizes that the emotions that attach us to specific features of the world can themselves become the vehicles of acts of detachment and retreat that allow us to penetrate other realities. Emotions are not simply a sign of what is lacking in each self. Each self’s emotions are opportunities to appreciate the many faces that the world has, and these are genuine faces, not simply masks. In spite of Weiss’ disclaimers, to those familiar with Whitehead’s work, this maturation of consciousness is conspicuous in its similarity to Whitehead’s own recognition at the end of Process and Reality that in its consequent nature, God’s judgment saves the world.

While teaching at the Catholic University of America, Weiss returned to his earlier view of the notion of God. He claimed that the divinity that functioned in the universe of the philosophers, no matter how creatively, sensitively and variously described, was never identifiable with the God of pious men and women. During the next thirty-two years until his death, he reflects upon God and the ways he had thought and written about divinity in his earlier works. He no longer identified any of the modes or finalities or ultimates with God. Instead he claimed that religious individuals and the various traditions and institutions in which these people have been affiliated, have each caught hold of some final (or ultimate) aspect of the universe and made it an intimate part of their lives and communities. Weiss himself saw no reason to suppose that all or some of even one of these ultimate aspects of the universe (whether modes or finalities or as in his last works, what he calls Being) is a person as conceived by religious individuals. He proposed the issue to himself on numerous occasions, but never found evidences for a personalized ultimate; although he did grant that as imagined and as sought by religious people, the notion of a personal God has much power. It serves to focus the hopes and expectations of people; it encourages and often obligates them to identify their failings, accept their guilt and endure life’s sorrows. This focusing, this identification, this acceptance and this endurance is encompassed in one simple affirmative gesture—prayer; and whether the prayer be one of petition or thanks, those who pray feel that they have encountered another person, a One to whom they believe each and every other one of us can turn. Again and again Weiss addresses the issue of such a personal divinity, but he is unable to find sufficient evidence to support the claims of religious people that divinity is as they hope and pray and say God is. At times he seems to say that religious concern is confused and misdirected. But instead of undervaluing the experiences of religious people, he decides that there is something not fully satisfactory or adequate in his own systematic reconstruction and explanation of the behavior of religious men and women toward their God. Given the world as he saw it, he could not affirm the existence of a personal finality or God that has not shown itself to him; but he did not disparage the prayers or the love of those men and women who do. At this point we can appreciate the full import of Weiss’s conceptual debt to Whitehead. In Emphatics, Weiss notes that he owes much of the depth of his own insight into the priority of Being to Whitehead’s recognition of the importance of Being. But Weiss believed that Whitehead’s fundamental insight had been disguised because Whitehead called Being “God.” In Weiss’ view, Whitehead’s inquiries were actually disclosing the reality of Being, because Whitehead did not view the God in his cosmological speculations as an object of worship, but instead proposed it as offering lures to entities (Weiss 2000, 42).

In every one of his books, Weiss claimed that although indebted to Whitehead, he was not himself a process philosopher. Yet in spite of strenuously and vigorously denying the adequacy of the label “process philosopher” to his own work, we should still ask whether or not Weiss’s work puts him into this camp. His own brief answer would be that doing philosophy is a process, but the vision of the world that is evidenced in his doing philosophy is not articulated in the categories of a process philosophy. When Weiss makes such a claim he is contrasting his own inquiries against his belief that a process philosophy must accept Whitehead’s ontological principle narrowly conceived, viz, this it is the becoming of unit events that generate atomic moments of time, and that these perishing entities are the fundamental entities in terms of which everything else can best be understood.[3] Yet even here, in the conception of time, Weiss eventually admits his indebtedness to Whitehead. In Emphatics Weiss states that his own view of time, as distinguished from his conception of incomplete individual substances, is similar to the atomic view proposed by Whitehead and process philosophers. Weiss recognizes that each present moment has determinate boundaries that distinguish it from both what has preceded it and what succeed it; but he continues to reject the view that these moments are constituted by entities that complete themselves and perish. He continues to believe that the process philosopher’s view of atomic entities generating such temporal spans cannot account for the careers, the generation and corruption, and the accountability of individual beings (Weiss 2000, 118-19).

3. Whitehead’s Vision of Philosophy in the Works of Paul Weiss

In the preface to Reality, we find a statement that encapsulates the paradigmatic quality of the relationship between Weiss and both Alfred and Evelyn Whitehead. For Weiss the weekly encounters with Alfred North Whitehead at Harvard were civilizing ones, and the opportunities to converse with him vitalizing. It was also Evelyn Whitehead’s faith in Weiss’ promise as a philosopher and her wisdom that persuaded Weiss to dedicate his first work to her, Reality (1938). It is in the light of that nurturing personal relationship, not of disciple to teacher, but of former student and then younger friend and colleague to the couple who had been his mentors both personally and professionally, that Weiss’ comments on Whitehead’s philosophy must be understood. Weiss’ debt to Whitehead, both personally and conceptually goes beyond any of the earlier or later teachers’ and philosophers’ influences in his life and thought. This is hidden by that fact that throughout his writings Weiss often uses the claims and approaches to problems of C. S. Peirce as foils to provide alternatives to the positions of Whitehead. In Emphatics, the second to last published work of Weiss, and the last published before his death, Weiss calls Peirce America’s greatest philosopher. Were we to wonder why Weiss did not mention Whitehead, the obvious answer is that in Weiss’ view, Whitehead always remained a British philosopher. But the full comment about Peirce is equally appropriate to Whitehead. Weiss claims that most of what Peirce had written would benefit from a critical rereading that would refine, expand and defend his work. What is more important for an understanding of Weiss’ debt to Whitehead is the fact that Weiss remarked immediately afterward that any criticism leveled against Peirce’s inquiries would honor his greatness (2000, 173). The same is true of Weiss’ view of Whitehead’s works. Weiss’ speculations are always guided by the spirit of the thinker that Whitehead was, however much he might have rejected the adequacy of the specific categories that Whitehead offers or the explanatory power of any of a number of the precise claims that Whitehead offered in his many works.

In reference to Weiss’ recognition of Whitehead’s paradigmatic status as a philosopher, there is no better account than Weiss’ tribute to Whitehead, published in December of 1947, the year in which Alfred North Whitehead died. In his essay, first published in the Harvard Crimson and reprinted in the Atlantic, Weiss offers an appreciation of Whitehead’s work and he provides a personal assessment of the man that is both honest and sensitive. From his tribute we learn much about the ideals which anchored the twenty year friendship of Weiss and Whitehead. According to Weiss, Whitehead was able to detach himself from his own writings. Consistent with his attitude of detachment, Whitehead viewed discipleship and hero worship as negative qualities in a philosopher. Whitehead was interested in appreciating alternative perspectives to his own approaches to philosophical problems. There was a flexibility and youth in Whitehead, evident in his personality, his conceptions and in his conversations and written work, because he recognized that an adequate intellectual grasp of the fundamental features of the world required the full employment of imagination in the face of the rich diversity of beings in the universe (Weiss 1948, 105).

Weiss comes the closest to formulating the point at which his own and Whitehead’s philosophies meet in Whitehead’s view of a universe civilized by ideals rather than in their respective evaluations of the adequacy of the intellectual presuppositions of past or present scientific researches. In the light of this common perspective, Weiss considered that Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas would eventually prove to be a more important and foundational work than Process and Reality, and he believed that Whitehead recognized that Adventures of Ideas was his best work. In its comprehensiveness and the precision in the range of issues that Whitehead presents, from cosmology to religion to ethics to art and to the history of civilization, Whitehead’s writing “gently but surely leads one to see that the history of civilization is but a special case of the history of a cosmos in which ideas can and sometimes do ‘persuade’ the brute facts of life and experience to be harmonized, muted, and ennobled. There is a faint but sure drive in things towards excellence which deserves to be encouraged, nursed, supported” (Weiss 1948, 106).

At the time of his death Weiss continued to recognize that Whitehead’s conversations and writing had nurtured the belief that there was no better way to live one’s life than in the pursuit of comprehensive truths about human dignity and worth that permeated and sustained human life in a universe that was characterized by necessity and novelty. Whitehead had encouraged Weiss in his belief that he could make a substantial contribution to the history of philosophy. Consequently, throughout his adult life Paul Weiss took every opportunity to show that philosophy was the most exciting and the most demanding intellectual pursuit to which a human being could devote himself or herself, that it was a dynamic, creative enterprise in which any of us can excel. Blended with that conviction there was an energy and an obsession with the promise of philosophy that had the mark of the athlete’s competitiveness, the willingness to focus all of his energies to the pursuit of one goal, and to test that achievement against the achievements of others. Weiss never forgot that without Whitehead’s direction, that focus might never have been achieved in his life.


[1] Weiss’ reflections on his relationship with Whitehead are found in a number of articles. Among the best of these reflections, are those contained in essays and selections from longer works, listed in the bibliography below. Some of these autobiographical entries are contained in “Paul Weiss, 1901—Autobiographical Comments,” selected and organized by Robert L. Castiglione, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 12.

[2] In Process and Reality, Whitehead discusses his use of Professor Theodore de Laguna’s notion of extensive connection as an improvement over his own earlier formulations that used the categories of extensive whole and part.

[3] The clearest and most insightful analysis of differences between a process philosophy like that proposed in Process and Reality and Weiss’ own developing view of individual substances is contained in two essays by the philosopher, Ellen Haring. See Haring’s “The Ontological Principle” in The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. XVI (September 1962) and her “Actualities as Private and Public” in that same journal, Vol. XXV, June 1972) Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Supplement.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Selection of Major Works by Paul Weiss

1938. Reality (Princeton, Princeton University Press).

1947. Nature and Man (New York, Henry Holt and Co.)

1950. Man’s Freedom (New Haven, Yale University Press).

1958. Modes of Being (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1959. Our Public Life (Bloomington, Indiana University Press).

1961. The World of Art (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1961. Nine Basic Arts (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1962. History: Written and Lived (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1964. The God We Seek (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1967. Right and Wrong: A Philosophic Dialogue between Father and Son (New York, Basic Books).

1967. The Making of Men (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1969. Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1974. Beyond All Appearances (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1975. Cinematics (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1977. First Considerations (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1980. You, I, and the Others (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1983. Privacy (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1986. Toward a Perfected State (Albany, SUNY Press).

1992. Creative Ventures (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press).

1995. Being and Other Realities (Chicago, Open Court).

2000. Emphatics (Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press).

2002. Surrogates (Bloomington, Indiana University Press).

Works Cited

1948. “Alfred North Whitehead: 1861–1947,” Atlantic, Volume 181, No. 5, May.

1952. “Persons, Places, and Things,” Moments of Personal Discovery, edited by R.M. Maciver (New York, The Institute for Religious and Social Studies/ Harper and Brothers).

1970. “Paul Weiss’s Recollections of Editing the Peirce Papers,” an interview by Richard Bernstein, Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 6, 3-4, Summer-Fall.

1978. Philosophy in Process, Paul Weiss, Volume 7: 1975-1976 (Southern Illinois University Press).

1980. “Recollections of Alfred North Whitehead,” an interview by Lewis S. Ford, Process Studies, Volume 10, Spring-Summer.

1985. Philosophy in Process, Volume 7, Part 2: 1977-1978 (Albany, SUNY Press).

1995. “Lost In Thought: Alone With Others,” in The Philosophy of Paul Weiss, edited by Lewis Edwin Hahn (Chicago and LaSalle, IL, Open Court).

Author Information

Robert Castiglione
Philosophy Department
Rhode Island College, Providence, RI 02908

How to Cite this Article

Castiglione, Robert, “Paul Weiss (1901–2002)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.