Whitehead lectured on Science and the Modern World and on Cosmologies Ancient and Modern. I responded little, even after accustoming myself to his accent. What he said had little evident bearing on the problems that I recognized. His lecture hours were mercifully short and his speech exasperatingly slow. My notes were crowded with doodles…But I retained a vivid sense of being in the presence of the great.--Quine, The Philosophy of W.V. Quine, Volume 18 van Library of living philosophers, Hahn/Schilpp).
In Quine's memory Whitehead is a stereotypical Continental philosopher, somebody that affects greatness but is not relevant to our problem-solving. In his intellectual autobiography, Davidson comes close to adding that the "unreadable" Whitehead was basically a fraud as a teacher and philosopher: "Truth, or even serious argument was basically irrelevant." (Davidson, Volume 27 van The library of living philosophers, p. 13-14) [I thank Stefan Koller for calling my attention to these passages in Davidson.] So, some will find it, thus, fitting that bona fide Continental philosophers -- Deleuze, Stengers -- have adopted Whitehead as one of their own. Our very own Jeff Bell is part of this story and hopefully will share insights on its nature and causes.
Now, undoubtedly with the (once very influential) leaders of our tribe discouraging, even ridiculing interest in Whitehead it's no surprise that Whitehead is whitewashed (sorry, couldn't resist) out of the collective memory of analytical philosophy. I have already mentioned that this was not inevitable; in 1930 Ernest Nagel acknowledged that Whitehead's work on the "nature of existence" is "a notable addition" to a revival of interest in metaphysics among scientific philosophers. As regular readers know, I claim that Ernest Nagel is a privileged observer; he played the crucial role in coining and articulating the concept, "analytical philosophy" in 1936 (without including Whitehead, who was in the wrong Cambridge). Granting that historical accuracy need not be the most important philosophical virtue Whitehead's migration out of analytical philosophy obscures proper philosophical self-understanding, at least if we think that Quine's moves matter to us.
Analysis of the logical structure of natural science had been occupying Whitehead as early as 1906, when he published a paper “to initiate the mathematical investigation of various possible ways of conceiving the nature of the material world.” The constructions in that paper are couched in the regular Principia notation, and foreshadow to some degree the projected volume on geometry; and a continuation is outlined in Whitehead’s later writings under the head of “extensive abstraction.” Other constructions in the 1906 paper go far outside geometry; this was the beginning of a quest for the broadest, most basic concepts and principles of nature, and in the decades since Principia the quest has issued in a metaphysics. "Whitehead and the Rise of Modern Logic"
I am quoting from Quine's contribution to the Library of Living philosophers (vol 3.) What's notable about Quine's perspective here is that he contextualizes Principia such that it forms an integral part of Whitehead's later metaphysics. This angle is important if we wish to understand the Hyperborean origins of analytical metaphysics in Upstate New York. Leaving that aside, even those that insist on Frege-as-Father as the foundain of our projects have to grant that without Principia no analytical philosophy; that is to say, Whitehead's metaphysics always remains present to be articulated within analytical philosophy.
Of course, without denying that Carnap or C.I. Lewis are Quine's privileged interlocutors, one might see features of Quine's project as indebted to Whitehead (even if we ignore the fact that "Truth by Convention" appeared in a Festshrift devoted to Whitehead). In particular, "On What There Is," shows unmistakable traces of Whitehead: “Physical objects are postulated entities which round out and simplify our account of the flux of experience, just as the introduction of irrational numbers simplifies laws of arithmetic.” (Recall my post.) It is, thus, no small irony that we understand "On What There Is" as re-opening the door to metaphysics within analytical philosophy (e.g., Price's hostile account drawing on Putnam's favorable narrative.).
In Davidson's memory, Whitehead stands for bad poetry; there is no need to debate Davidson's taste, while not being blind to the fact that some of Whitehead's poetry seeped into Quine's writing. This matters to our evaluation of Quine because, as I learned, according to even the mature Quine, poetry is a source of wisdom (Theories and Things, p. 193).