From the Annals of Philosophy Department History: The Whitehead’s God Affair   

by James Messina
George C. Sellery
Dean of L&S  (1919-1942)
Max Otto
Philosophy Dept Chair (1936-1947)
Nearly three hundred years ago, King Frederick William I banished the philosopher Christian Wolff from Halle (where he held a professorship), on the basis of allegations that Wolff was espousing atheism and fatalism. The king worried that Wolff’s doctrines would encourage soldiers to desert their posts. It was just one episode in a long history of authorities attempting to proscribe, censor, and punish philosophers for defending doctrines construed as untoward. Socrates, Bruno, Galileo, Spinoza, Kant: the list goes on. While our philosophy department hasn’t (yet) seen anyone executed, excommunicated, imprisoned, or even banished, some eighty years ago some UW-Madison philosophers did find themselves at the center of a tempest involving God and academic freedom. What follows is the story of what has been called “The Whitehead’s God Affair,” an account of which can be found in Some Ferments at Wisconsin, the memoir of George C.  Sellery (of Sellery Hall fame), who was dean of the college of letters and sciences at the time. And what a ferment it was.

It all started at an otherwise normal meeting of the Board of Regents on December 6, 1941 (a day before that other date that would live in infamy). Among other matters, the board was supposed to approve a book contract. The book, which the Publishing Committee had recommended for publication with UW press, was entitled The Religious Availability of Whitehead’s God. Its author, Stephen Lee Ely, was an assistant professor in the UW-Madison philosophy department. While such approvals were routine, the book’s title caught the attention of Regent Kleczska of Milwaukee. He asked for time to read it, and the Board voted to defer the matter to their next meeting.

This postponement troubled some members of the university community, including the chair of the philosophy department at the time, Max Otto, who wrote to President Dykstra about his concerns. The Board of Regents was a new one; the deferral was an unusual action. Was this a sign that the Board intended to second-guess the decisions of the Publishing Committee? Did it think that it had the power of censorship? Anticipating trouble, Otto sought—and found—an ally in President Dykstra.

The Board of Regents met again on January 17th, 1942. Regent Kleczka reported back that the contents of the book were benign. It was a scholarly essay on the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysics and his account of God. Still, Klecszka found the title objectionable. It suggested Whitehead’s God was available for religious purposes, and thus could be construed as violating a statute against sectarian teaching and religious instruction at the university. (Sellery later snarked that President Dykstra seemed oblivious of this law.) Regent Ekern asked for another deferment to further consider the matter of the book contract. The President warned that this was a bad idea—think of the optics of deferring again; think how this would only encourage censorship worries! Regent Ekern insisted that the Board of Regent was doing no such thing— and then off-handedly remarked that philosophers could use their time better than arguing over God and religion.

Unfortunate words. It was fuel on the fire, just as the President predicted. Incensed, Max Otto published a fiery letter in the Daily Cardinal on January 20th. He made much of Ekern’s comments and the  Regents’ deferments, accusing the board of undermining academic freedom. Would they contravene the university’s mission—announced on the bronze plate at the front of Bascom Hall—to search for truth? If so, they might as well melt down the bronze plate and its empty words, so the metal could be used to make ammunition for the war.

In the next days, the matter was avidly discussed in the Daily Cardinal and other regional newspapers, with many sympathetic to Otto’s position. Now, it was a full-blown affair—an affair about, of all things, a philosophical essay on Whitehead’s God.  

On February 6th the Board of Regents met again. Displeased by the barrage of allegations and aspersions, it voted for yet another postponement. It needed time to put together a full report on the controversy around the contract.

The atmosphere remained charged; the ferment fermented further. More letters and editorials were published, though some now began to defend the Board of Regents. The public debate became two-sided. Around this time, Dean Sellery and Max Otto met for drinks in the Ratskeller. He gleefully predicted that Otto would “get a spanking” from the Board of Regents for fomenting tensions. 

Finally, on March 14th 1942 the Board met yet again. Finally, there was a decision and a full report that was published the next day in the Capital Times. Stephen Lee Ely’s book contract was approved! A Victory for Ely, for Whitehead scholarship, for philosophy, and for academic freedom, as headlines of the day jubilantly announced. But the Board of Regents defended its actions—insisting on its obligation to uphold the statute against sectarian teaching and religious instruction. It also rebuked those (read: Otto) who had raised “wholly unfounded and imagined” concerns about the Board’s integrity. As far as spankings of philosophers go, there have been worse.