Victor Augustus Lowe (1907–1988)

1. Brief Vita

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1907, Victor Lowe received his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering at the Case School of Applied Science in 1928. When his interests turned to philosophy, he went to Harvard University where he studied with Whitehead and C. I. Lewis earning his master of arts degree in 1931 and his doctorate in 1935. He married the novelist Victoria Lincoln in 1934 whom he met while a student at Harvard. Victor and Victoria had two children, Louise and Thomas. When Victoria Lincoln died in 1981, Lowe married Alice Gray in 1984. After teaching at Harvard as an instructor in philosophy, Lowe was then appointed to visiting positions at Syracuse University and Ohio State University until he became associate and then professor of philosophy at the Johns Hopkins University. He was Honorary Research Fellow of University College London, Senior Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Visiting Professor at McGill University, George Santayana Fellow at Harvard University, and was active in the American Philosophical Association throughout his career. Lowe retired in 1972 and died in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1988.

In many respects Lowe was the doyen of the school of process philosophy that formed in the wake of Whitehead’s last period at Harvard. After writing his Ph.D. thesis on Alexander, Russell and Whitehead under Whitehead’s supervision, he produced numerous articles and chapters on Whitehead’s thought and his relation to the classic American philosophers. With Robert Baldwin he compiled the bibliography of Whitehead’s writings for the volume in The Library of Living Philosophers, wrote encyclopedia and dictionary entries on Whitehead, and concentrated on the development and comprehensive spectrum of Whitehead’s thought in Understanding Whitehead. Unlike other interpreters of Whitehead’s thought who focused on one part or another, Lowe’s background in mathematics, physics and philosophy gave him a basis for understanding every phase of Whitehead’s career, including applied mathematics, mathematical logic, educational theory, philosophy of physics, metaphysics and the later philosophy of civilization. In 1965, he began the project of Whitehead’s biography which remained unfinished at his death in 1988.

Aside from his work on Whitehead, William James, and C. I. Lewis, Lowe is well known for his battle with Arthur O. Lovejoy and Sidney Hook over matters of academic freedom and communism in the 1950s. At the peak of McCarthyism, Lovejoy and Hook argued for the exclusion of Communists from the faculties of American universities because they surrendered to the Communist Party the objectivity that they saw as essential to the role of the university. Advocates of freedom, they held, should not tolerate those who sought to end such freedom. Lowe fiercely disagreed. In his essay, “In Defense of Individualistic Empiricism: A Reply to Messrs. Lovejoy and Hooke,” he charged Lovejoy and Hook with “vicious intellectualism,” a term taken from William James which Lowe interpreted in this context as a fallacy based on the erroneous inference “that every Communist will conform in his teaching and research to our definitive conception of the Communist” and cannot therefore be trusted as a teacher and scholar (1952, 102). He defended Communist professors on the principle that they should be judged as individuals and not as instances of abstract essences.

2. Whitehead’s Place in American philosophy

Lowe was convinced that Whitehead’s philosophy after he left London for Harvard belonged squarely within the tradition of American Philosophy, particularly within what he called “the second golden age” that ended in 1936-1937 and included C. I. Lewis, John Dewey, Ralph Perry, William Ernest Hocking and Whitehead. The first golden age that emerged as a result of Harvard’s place in graduate education included Charles S. Peirce, William James, Josiah Royce and George Santayana. Lowe argued that even if Whitehead remained a British subject throughout his life, the philosophical synthesis he produced in the United States had a close affinity with Peirce, James and Dewey. Moreover, it was Harvard that gave Whitehead the opportunity to develop his ideas as a metaphysician even though the seeds for his system had been germinating for many years. One of the characteristic marks of the philosophy department at Harvard was the idea that the study of philosophy meant the achievement and defense of some philosophical system of one’s own. Lowe argued Whitehead was the greatest systematic thinker since Hegel.

Lowe saw that Whitehead shared with James a radical conception of experience that was ontological rather than epistemological. The new concept of phenomenologically-dense throbs of experience replaced the British Empiricists’ focus on sense data. Like James, Whitehead began with an analysis of consciousness to find clues as to the more basic features of reality. The psychological notion of the stream of consciousness is generalized to a metaphysical level: the world is conceived as a plurality of streams of experience. But Whitehead took this process a step further than James when he produced a system of metaphysics and a cosmology. While Lowe appreciated the rough kinship between the Harvard philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century, he was more careful about generalizations that claim they were moving to a new philosophic outlook that culminated in Whitehead’s system.

3. The Biography of Whitehead

The idea of writing a Whitehead biography gained final approval when Whitehead’s son, Thomas North, authorized the project that Lowe would work on for the last twenty three years of his life. Given the paucity of material on Whitehead’s life, Lowe wrote at the opening of his Volume I that “no professional biographer in his right mind would touch him” (1985, 2). Since Whitehead directed that his manuscripts and letters were to be destroyed by his wife after his death, there was very little from which to construct his life. Nonetheless, Lowe believed that Whitehead deserved a biography and he did as much as the unvoluminous extant materials allowed.

Lowe traveled all over England and Scotland collecting personal recollections. In the United States he conducted numerous interviews with family, students and colleagues of Whitehead, and he wrote countless letters of inquiry; a few documents and letters turned up, but for the most part, Lowe was mainly left with personal accounts. Whitehead’s family and Bertrand Russell were the greatest help to Lowe.

When the first volume of Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work appeared in 1985, it was well received in Britain and in the United States. But this volume only took Whitehead up to the end of his days at Trinity College, Cambridge when he and Russell collaborated on the Principia Mathematica. There remained the period in which Whitehead produced his educational theory and philosophy of physics at London, the story of his accepting the offer from Harvard, and the productive years that followed from 1924 and beyond his retirement in 1937. Since, however, twenty years had passed since Lowe began the biography and his health was in decline, he doubted that he would have enough years to finish the second volume. He appointed a literary executor, Professor J. B. Schneewind, to see Volume II through the press and engaged the present author to write two chapters on the philosophy of physics. At his death, Lowe finished eleven chapters, taking Whitehead through Process and Reality. He had also complied three appendices. Schneewind edited this material and added a final chapter, “Whitehead’s Philosophy as I See it,” that had been previously published by Lowe. He did not attempt to fill in the gaps. Nothing, he said at the end of Volume II, could replace Lowe’s narrative (1990, 261). Volume II was published unfinished in 1990. The planned chapters beyond Chapter XI “Gifford Lecturer” included a partially completed chapter on “Fame,” “Philosopher of History and of Civilization” covering Adventures of Ideas, and “Whitehead in Retirement.” The sub-sections Lowe had intended to write for this last chapter included “The Last Lecture,” “The Society of Fellows,” “North at Harvard,” “An Appeal to Sanity,” and Modes of Thought.

Lowe’s work on Whitehead was a lifetime labor of love. As a result of this labor, we know more about the life of the genius and the character of the man. Lowe wrote at the beginning of the biography: “Benign sages, especially if they are private rather than public figures, become lost in a gentle mist soon after their deaths. This one is worth recovering” (1985, 2). Lowe added great clarity to the breadth of Whitehead’s thought and did much to advance his place in the pantheon of the great philosophers.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Books by Victor Lowe

1950. (with Charles Hartshorne and A.H. Johnson). Whitehead and the Modern World (Boston, Beacon Press).

1962. Understanding Whitehead (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press).

1985. Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work. Volume I: 1861-1910 (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press).

1990. Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work. Volume II: 1910-1947, edited by J.B. Schneewind (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press).

Selected Articles and Chapters by Victor Lowe

1941. “The Development of Whitehead’s Philosophy,” in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, edited by P.A. Schilpp (Evanston, Northwestern University Press), 15-124.

1942. “William James’ Pluralistic Metaphysics of Experience,” in In Commemoration of William James: 1842-1942, edited by Horace Kallen (New York, Columbia University Press).

1941. “William James and Whitehead’s Doctrine of Prehensions,” Journal of Philosophy, XXXVIII, 5, 113-26.

1947a. “Whitehead, Alfred North,” in The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 19 (Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica), 816-18.

1947b. “Whitehead, Alfred North,” in Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 4, 1946-50 (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons), 878-84.

1949. “The Influence of Bergson, James and Alexander on Whitehead,” Journal of the History of Ideas, X, 2, 267-96.

1951a. “Alfred North Whitehead: Introduction,” in Classic American Philosophers: Peirce-James-Royce-Santayana-Dewey-Whitehead, edited by Max H. Fisch (New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc.), 395-417.

1951b. “A Resurgence of ‘Vicious Intellectualism,’” Journal of Philosophy, XLVIII, 14, 435-47.

1952. “In Defense of Individualistic Empiricism: A Reply to Messers. Lovejoy and Hook,” Journal of Philosophy, XLIX, 4, 100-111.

1953a. “Professor Goodman’s Concept of an Individual,” Philosophical Review, LXII, 1, 117-26.

1953b. “Belief in Unobserved Contemporary Reality: A Realistic Experiential Analysis,” Journal of Philosophy, L, 18, 541-56.

1958. “Categorial Analysis, Metaphysics and C. I. Lewis,” Journal of Philosophy, LV, 20, 862-71.

1963. “The Concept of Experience in Whitehead’s Metaphysics,” in Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, edited by George L. Kline (Englewood Cliffs NJ, Prentice-Hall), 124-33.

1964. “Peirce and Whitehead as Metaphysicians,” in Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, Second Series edited by Moore and Robin (Amherst MA, University of Massachusetts Press), 430-54.

1968. “Lewis’ Conception of Philosophy,” in The Philosophy of C. I. Lewis, edited by P. A. Schilpp (La Salle IL, Open Court), 23-59.

1969-1970. “Whitehead’s Gifford Lectures,” Southern Journal of Philosophy, VII, 4, 329-38.

1971. “Whitehead, Alfred North,” in Encyclopedia of Education, Vol. 9 (New York, Macmillan), 549-77.

1975. “A. N. Whitehead on his Mathematical Goals: A Letter of 1912,” Annals of Science, 32, 85-101.

1981. “Alfred North Whitehead: A Biographical Perspective,” in Whitehead und der Prozeßbegriff, edited by Harald Holz and Ernest Wolf-Gazo (Breiburg/München, Karl Alber Verlag), 21-33. Reprinted in 1982 in Process Studies, 12, 3, 137-47.

Papers of Victor Lowe

Victor Lowe’s papers are included among the Alfred North Whitehead Collection in the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins University. This includes the bulk of correspondence between Lowe and Whitehead’s contemporaries, Lowe’s student notes from Case and Harvard, his lecture notes from Johns Hopkins University, articles and reviews by Lowe, Whitehead’s annotated books and the surviving letters that Whitehead wrote to his son, T. North.

Articles on Victor Lowe

Hook, Sidney. 1952. “Not Mindful Enough,” Journal of Philosophy, XLIX, 4, 112-121.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. 1952. “Rejoinder to Mr. Lowe,” Journal of Philosophy, XLIX, 4, 111-12.

McHenry, Leemon. 1989. “The Philosophical Writings of Victor A. Lowe (1907–1988),” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, XXV, 3, 333-39.

Author Information

Leemon McHenry
Department of Philosophy
California State University, Northridge
18111, Nordhoff Street, California 91330 USA

How to Cite this Article

McHenry, Leemon, “Victor Augustus Lowe (1907–1988)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.